Here in our cozy Transition Town, nestled in the Shenandoah Valley between the Blue Ridge and Alleghany mountains, both events were notable without being overly momentous. We were impacted enough by them to be aware, but not so much as to be alarmed. And that distance afforded some perspective in looking at just what might be unleashed in the event of a more formidable and more chaotic happening.
Why bother preparing?
Not everyone thinks coverage of disasters and storms is worth following.
In a Washington Post Op-Ed on disaster preparedness, Jeanne McManus draws on a childhood memory of weathering a hurricane unscathed as cause today to ignore the many warnings on natural disasters, whether from hyped-up 24-hour cable STORM WATCH! coverage to rational advice about how to keep your family safe.
The more I learn about trouble down the road, the more I know that I can’t possibly cover all of the bases…We are hammered with data and directives in advance of natural disasters, corporate collapse or economic downturns, and then we are scolded about our own ineptitude — personal, governmental and institutional — in the aftermath….in my own crazy head, the torrent of information — particularly the weather hype — sometimes comes close to paralyzing me. I leave the canvas chair to face the wind, and I revert to my primitive survival maneuver. I rely on the vagaries of dumb luck, which cannot be charted or plotted on a high-tech weather map or bar graph.
On one hand, I get McManus’s gripe. We are too overloaded with information.
But for me the issue is not that we’re overloaded with too much good and effective information. It’s that useful information exists alongside so much detritus. Separating the wheat from the chaff is what wears me out. Do we watch Jersey Shore, or flee from the the Jersey shore? The unending task of slogging through the noise leads us away from that which is meaningful, helpful and urgent, relegating it all to a field of seemingly irrelevant and unapproachable equivalences. Or even cataloging it all as fiction: “Reality” TV rarely ends in death.
On the other hand
But hurricanes are nothing to mess with. Nor are thunderstorms in general, which kill more people worldwide than all other kinds of natural disasters combined. People often have their homes ruined because of it. If you’ve been affected by hurricanes consider reading the Beginners Guide To Choosing A Roofing Contractor In Jacksonville, FL to understand the general process for restoring your home.
With global warming forecasts that suggest we ain’t seen nothing yet on the natural disaster front, my belief remains that we’re better safe than sorry.
Rather than bemoaning that preparedness is fatiguing, that warnings are only sometimes useful and that evacuations are just a plain old pain in the ass, we should be looking at these moments as opportunities to get it right.
If we dodge a bullet, more better. But if it’s not our lucky day, if the storm stays at hurricane force, if the tornadoes just keep coming, if the Richter scale is off the charts, better to have learned how to respond calmly, and with some semblance of order, than to have sat blithely by as Death came-a-callin’.
Millions were asked to evacuate in advance of Irene, a Greek Biblical name that means “peace.” Perhaps she was a rather wet dry run for areas otherwise indifferent to the power of Mother Nature.
Residents of places like New York and New Jersey that customarily sit back and watch hurricanes bear down on the likes of Florida, Mississippi and New Orleans this time had to get the hell out of Dodge. Inconvenience aside, within the last 100 years hurricanes have, in fact, rained down some whoop-ass on the Garden State and the Big Apple. Washington and Baltimore have seen their fair share of storm surge, too, even if most of it was from the comfort of a Lazy Boy.
Unlike Japan, the US doesn’t evacuate areas just for practice. We don’t drill on public safety en masse. There’s no more air raids. The best we’ve done in recent years is advise upping your home stock of duct tape.
We haven’t considered what it would be like for real evacuations to take place along an entire seaboard, or involving 50 million people, or lasting for more than a day or so. Katrina offered some insight, but it’s not exactly remembered as America’s shining moment.
When my husband and I were out dining and strolling in our mountain hamlet this past Friday, we met passersby on the street who divulged that they were in town as Irene’s East Coast evacuees. They certainly picked the best Transition Town to come to. But moreover, their presence made clear that when you have to abandon ship, you’ve got to go somewhere. But are the odds always great?
Hurricanes, tropical storms and thunderstorms, in addition to packing a punch of winds, can drop unusually high amounts of rain in very short periods of time. It happened during Hurricane Camille in 1969 in Virginia, killing 125 in a rural mountain county hundreds of miles from the storm’s arrival on the Mississippi coast. If someone chose Vermont to escape Irene’s landfall in Boston or the New Hampshire shoreline this year, they may have actually moved to a worse location, one like Nelson County in 1969.
So we need to think about how water behaves and learn from these storms.
If global warming delivers only a quarter of its promised hell, we can expect that eco-refugees and disaster evacuees will be leaving quarters hither and yon in the coming years, many to never return. Rising sea level assures that in many coastal areas permanent, not temporary, relocation will be the norm. And since more than half of Americans now live within 50 miles of either coast, retreating from these areas could become a national project over the coming decades.
Safely getting from point A to point B or Z will be critical not only for individuals and families, but to maintain public order, cultural continuity and government credibility. If we take action now as a precaution against the worst, evacuating and then finding that conditions weren’t so bad — as in some places with Irene — at least we drilled. For refugees and host towns alike, forming strategies and then appreciating an opportunity to try them should be the new normal, even if the cause is scary in its own right.
No, every storm won’t make us go running for the hills. But storms that look as big and bad as Irene did, should, so we need to choose the right hills. If she falls apart, let’s be grateful, not resentful for the efforts we took. Because there’s no guarantee that she will fall apart. Or that we chose the right place. Or that the next one will be so easy.
No longer running blind
For all of our predictive ability, for all of the charts and graphs that McManus loathes, at least we have more and better insight than in the past, when storms from the Keys to Galveston to inland Virginia’s Nelson County have left too many unprepared for the absolute worst, wiping out whole communities overnight.
FEMA showed us this past weekend that it is capable of taking an obvious risk seriously and coordinating with a fair degree of precision. Our government is actually pretty helpful quite often.
In Japan, long before Fukushima, drilling was the norm in anticipation of tsunamis, which helped make a phenomenally terrible “big one” that much less worse when it actually happened.
If what some 97-98% of climate scientists tell us is coming down the pike actually comes, practice now will have come in awfully handy in the future.
–Lindsay Curren, Transition Voice