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Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Mother of All Storms

By: UnrepentantNewDealer


I am, as I have confessed here before, a hurricane junkie. It is one of my little obsessions, probably owing to the fact that one of my earliest childhood memories is of Hurricane Hugo roaring through the Piedmont. Even when a hurricane makes landfall on the North Carolina coast typically the storm has to travel over more than 200 miles of steadily rising land to reach Greensboro, by which point it is a mere tropical storm, good for maybe a day out of school, but not much more. Hugo, by contrast, came in by way of South Carolina and snuck into the Triad from the south, along an easier road. Thus it still posessed hurricane force winds well into the Piedmont. I remember rain and wind, a tree branch banging on my window, glass shattering. It was so long ago that it almost seems a dream.

A few days later, visiting my aunt at her home in the still mostly-undeveloped Adams Farm area, I saw a hole in the ground where I remembered a tree had been. I found the tree in question, one so big an adult coudn't fit their arms around it, at least a quarter mile away. The winds had been so powerful that they had ripped the massive tree out of the ground and thrown it like a matchstick. That strange fascination with hurricanes has stayed with me in every hurricane season since.

Hugo was a Category 4 storm when it made landfall near Charleston. Last night, when I went to bed, Katrina was a mere Category 3 with winds of 115 mph. The forecasters explained that, as it moved over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, it would probably be a Cat 4 by landfall. Imagine my surprise this morning when I turned on the Weather Channel and heard that Katrina was a Category 5 storm with sustained winds of 175 mph. 175 mph! Category 5! Only three Cat 5s hit the U.S. in the 20th century, and none had winds that high. Though the winds have come down slightly since, to "only" 160 mph, this is still the most powerful hurricane ever to make landfall in the U.S. since we started keeping records. Naturally, it is headed for the worst-possible location (or rather the place where it could do the most damage), New Orleans, a city an average of 6 feet below sea level, surrounded on three sides by water.

The emergency mangagement official for the county New Orleans is in (I'm too lazy to look it up) said yesterday that if a Cat 4 made landfall in New Orleans, we could see up to 40,000 deaths. Even though I'm skeptical of that estimate, the fact remains that we have been exceptionally lucky in recent years. Last year's Hurricane Jeanne killed more than 1,500 people in Haiti. Hurricane Mitch, another Cat 5, killed more than 10,000 in Central America in 1998. The great Cat 4 Galveston hurricane that devastated that Texas city in 1900 killed more than 8,000 people. (Erik Larson's Isaac's Storm is an excellent account of the disaster that reads like first-class fiction, for those who are interested in learning more.)

We've been lucky recently. We've conditioned ourselves to believe that it can't happen here, that hurricanes are minor nuisances, more of an erosion hassle than anything else. As more and more people from other sections of the country move to the Southern coast, the odds that inexperiened people will decide to stick it out in a bad storm increase. If deaths have been relatively low during the last half-century or so, it would be unreasonable to expect that to continue for another half-century. If the most powerful storms on Earth have tended to steer clear of our major cities recently, only a fool would expect that state of affairs to continue. It is not a pleasant thought that Nature does not bend over backwards to accomodate us, that if we get in it's way, we will not get the upper hand. Catastrophes like Katrina are the price we pay for residing on this pale blue dot we call "Earth."

The mayor of New Orleans declared a mandatory evacuation of the city this morning. Yet, as I watch on TV, thousands of cars are still stuck in bumper to bumper traffic heading north. It seems impossible that everyone will be able to get out of harm's way; especially as harm's way has a tendency to move at speeds up to 25 miles an hour on a front more than 200 miles across. More than 10,000 people are said to be waiting out the storm at the Superdome, a designated "safe area." As if any area could be considered safe against winds of 160 mph! This has too much of a "Titanic" vibe. I have an awful sense of forboding about all this....

New Orleans is a city rich with culture and historical meaning. It would be a tragedy almost beyond reckoning if the New Orleans of riverboat gamblers, Mark Twain, and Louis Armstrong were to come to a crashing end tomorrow morning.

Watching the satellite footage of the monster approaching is truly disturbing. To be able to see a God's-eye view, in nice, crisp colors, of the buzz-saw of a hurricane heading for a major metropolitian area, to see disaster approaching and know that there is absolutely nothing you or anyone else can do to avert it: it almost makes one long for the days before satellites, where the first indication of a hurricane was when the winds started to blow. It gives you less time to prepare and evacuate, true (though this storm never gave New Orleans enough time to be fully evacuated, anyway). But to be cursed to be an impotent God strikes me as a worse fate. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.

2:23 AM Update: Brendan Loy is staying up all night hurricane-blogging. His site is worth reading for blow-by-blow coverage of the storm. I'm going to try to catch a couple of hours' sleep. I do have classes tomorrow, after all. May God protect the peoeple of the Gulf Coast.

8:50 AM Update: Katrina made landfall at the mouth of the Missisippi as a Cat 4 hurricane with winds of only 145 mph. CNN says at least one levy in New Orleans has failed and flooding is occuring in the city. Oh, and the Superdome is now leaking and the roof is peeling off it, according to CNN. I hate to say I told you so....

5:00 PM Update 8/30: Well, CNN and the BBC are reporting that 80% of New Orleans is under water, in some places up to the rooftops, because two dams have failed. There are at least 54 dead in one county in Mississippi and the toll is expected to raise, possibly into the hundreds. No word yet on casualities in New Orleans, though according to the BBC, "an unknown number of bodies were seen floating in the flood waters of New Orleans.... The American Red Cross has mobilised thousands of volunteers for its biggest-ever natural disaster effort and federal emergency teams are being dispatched to affected areas. Damage estimates of more than $25 billion suggest it could be the US insurance industry's most expensive natural disaster ever."

What bothers me most about all this is the cavalier attitude the media adopted as soon as it became apparent that Katrina was no longer a Cat 5 and that the strongest part of the storm would not hit New Orleans. They immediately started downplaying the danger the hurricane still posed, filling people in it's path along coastal Mississippi and Alabama with a false hope. "Well, it looks like a ray of sunshine for the Gulf." "Things could certainly have turned out a lot worse." I wonder if we'll ever know if their complacency caused anyone to let down their guard and take chances that got them killed.

A final thought: Last night driving home from work, I saw that the price of unleaded at the pump was holding steady at $2.49, as it had for almost a week. Today, the same stations have raised the price to $2.69. A one-day jump of 20 cents at the pump, up to a record high of more than $70 a barrel, due to all the oil production and refinement along the Gulf being shut down.... Sure, it could have been a lot worse. But also certainly could have been a lot better!

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