Can you bear just one more hurricane post? This is not a "helpful tips" diary.I have now lived through at least five hurricanes at points quite close to landfall and I would like to share my accumulated impressions with you. This diary is also NOT snark, although some individual sentences may qualify for that title.
1. Basically, it’s a crap shoot. The experts have gotten much better at predicting general tracks the closer the hurricane gets to making landfall. Did you catch the qualifier? As it gets closer to land, they have a better idea where on land it will hit. If you followed Irene closely, as millions of people did, you know that the predicted track carried her from landfalls at Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. The only problem is that as the window of luck (both good and bad) shrinks, so does the opportunity for evacuation and preparation. We are all thrown into survival Schadenfreude, glad and thankful when it misses us - “Whew, glad I’m not them!” Unless, of course, you find out at the last minute that you are them - Shit!
2. Since we really don’t usually know until late in the game, it is pretty hard for the authorities to make evacuation decisions and they will not be able to win either way. Either they call an evacuation too early (when it will be effective and the most efficient in terms of cars vs roads) and the hurricane passes the area by, whereby they will be called wasteful martinets with God complexes OR they don’t call for the evacuation and they will be the subject of print , tv and documentaries for years to come where their catastrophic waffling or non-decision will have be subject to minute dissection and bear titles like “Bloomberg’s Bodies: How a Billionaire Mayor Sank the Bronx”.
Most civil authorities will default to the “recommended evacuation for low-lying areas” accompanied by advice to “take shelter in a sturdy building away from windows”. All TV conferences and statements by those in authority will also contain an admonishment to “take the storm seriously”. Am I criticizing them for saying this? No. What else can they possibly say? This is a time-honored script. Unfortunately they can’t advise us to avoid buildings with roofs, or to avoid trees, which have selfishly propagated themselves everywhere.
3. Now I will criticize. Although wind damage can be major and horrific, most really severe damage and fatalities arise from storm surge and flooding and the media and the authorities do a really crappy job of educating the public about this – the WHERE, WHEN and HOW MUCH? Telling people that there will be a 5-7 foot storm surge is meaningless when the vast majority don’t have any idea of how to extrapolate that information into how it will affect them. TELL THEM IN PLAIN ENGLISH – “this means water up to your thighs” “this means first floor flooding”, “this means sitting on your roof”, etc.
Also very poorly covered are INLAND impacts. We always just see the little whirling buzz saw of devastation moving up and down the coast and almost no discussion of what the storm surges mean to the rivers and the cities and towns on the rivers hundreds of miles from the shore.
While thousands of reporters are regularly deployed at the shore, pointing to waves and dissolving fishing piers, no reporters are ever sent to Small-ignored-upriver-ville and told to go into the attic with an axe and call when things get interesting.
Because I am an analytic, over preparing, pessimistic dystopian, I learned long ago to look at inundation maps of my own house and the houses of my closest relatives to determine if they or we were ever in any immediate danger of flooding from various storm surge levels. I found one really great map that allowed me to click on 1 meter, 2 meters, etc. all the way up to 12 meters where I could occupy myself for hours watching the surrounding neighborhood and streets submerge while we remained victoriously high and dry, our little castle surrounded by a veritable moat. Guess what? We still have flood insurance! Because the one thing those inundation maps don’t account for is rising water that comes from things like overwhelmed storm drains and the like. My house has personally withstood 12-15” of rainfall over the course of 24 hours, but there are crazy little micro cell/bursts out there that have drenched cities and towns with comparable amounts in a very few hours. The odds are against this happening, but I did describe myself accurately above as an over-preparer.
4. Speaking of over-preparing. When Hurricane Gloria (described as The Storm of the Century and earning a cover photo on Time Magazine) was bearing down on my house in RI, I did as the authorities always advise and I “took the threat seriously”.
We lived on high ground and my husband’s parents and some friends and their 3 cats joined us at our house to await the coming apocalypse. I actually received phone calls from friends and relatives before landfall that sounded very ominously like “just wanted to say goodbye” calls. Anyway, I prepared an outpost in our basement which could have launched the seeds of a new civilization – gallons of water, canned foods, nuts, dried fruit, blankets, pillows, sleeping bags, lanterns, flashlights, board games, radios, batteries, candles, etc. On seeing my set-up, my friend turned to me and said “Where’s the operating room?"
Gloria was a famous dud. Was I disappointed? No, I was not. I kissed the ground and my husband, and sent everyone home with a souvenir flashlight and bag of nuts.
Did I learn from that experience? No I did not. Not if you mean did I learn that the best course is to not prepare and hope for the best. I have taken every single hurricane threat seriously and have prepared my ass off and I have been LUCKY. Gloria, Bob, Floyd, Isabel, Irene and numerous smaller meteorological luminaries have all either passed by farther or weakened unexpectedly, sparing my modest abodes and the lives of my loved ones.
But, I am getting a somewhat ominous feeling that at some point, my luck has to run out and my energy for preparation is flagging. I am thinking that for the first time, on the next go-round, we may just pack the cars and take an unanticipated vacation and hope for the best someplace far away from the center of the action. But of course, I will make my husband pack an axe just in case.