Burned redwood trees at Big Basin Redwoods State Park in Northern California. Despite the intense devastation, scientists say the trees – some of the largest and oldest living things on Earth – will recover and begin turning green within months.
Tag Archives: natural disasters
“You don’t believe in climate change. You are excused from this conversation.”
– California Governor Gavin Newsome, in response to Donald Trump’s criticism of the state’s wildfire management
Yes, indeed, such matters as climate change and disaster response are intended only for adults – or at least adult-minded individuals – to discuss.
“We have to be very careful. Everybody needs totally proper documentation. Because, look, the Bahamas had some tremendous problems with people going to the Bahamas that weren’t supposed to be there. I don’t want to allow people that weren’t supposed to be in the Bahamas to come into the United States — including some very bad people and very bad gang members.”
– Faux President Donald Trump on the prospect of Bahamian citizens being evacuated to the U.S. after Hurricane Dorian.
The death toll following Dorian’s rampage continues to rise, as workers clear debris, and the number of missing remains around 2,500.
The animal rights movement in the United States is nothing new. But the “Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals” was something of an anomaly when the New York State Legislature granted Henry Bergh a charter for it in 1866. In the more than 150 years since, the ASPCA has been advocate for the netherworld of animal welfare. The Texas branch of the SPCA was incorporated on September 22, 1938 and works in conjunction with state and local leaders to oversee the well-being various non-human creatures (not including, of course, politicians and child molesters).
Currently, the ASPCA is monitoring the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, which hit the East Coast last week. After the debacle involving Hurricane Katrina – and the literally millions of animals forcibly left stranded to be killed or die in agony – people demanded better protections for human and animal survivors of natural or even human-made disasters.
But, just as importantly, we now understand that animal abuse is tied to more severe problems in society. Some of the world’s worst serial killers, for example, had a history of animal cruelty. While most people who do something mean to an animal won’t turn into a Hannibal Lecter-type monster, we take it seriously now and often involve law enforcement.
I implore everyone to help in any way possible. Besides, animals actually appreciate when you help them out.
People living along the U.S. Gulf Coast were accustomed to this. A massive hurricane was headed their way, and they had been warned to evacuate further inland. It’s the price one must pay for a home with a spectacular view. They didn’t need too much encouragement to flee from the chaotic beachfront. Barely a decade had passed since Hurricane Camille had plowed into the Alabama-Mississippi coastline with winds of roughly 190 mph (306 km/h). Camille was only the second documented Category 5 storm to hit the United States. It had set the standard by which all future tropical storm systems would be measured and – more importantly – by how coastal residents and government officials would respond.
It was September of 1979, and Hurricane Frederic loomed menacingly on the horizon. What had begun as a tropical wave off the west coast of Africa at the end of August metamorphosed into a Category 4 behemoth, with 135 mph (215 km/h) winds, upon entering the Gulf of México. The National Hurricane Center issued warnings for much of the U.S. Gulf Coast, and some 500,000 people – from East Texas to the Florida Keys – heeded that ominous call. Utilizing a new and innovative weather system called Doppler Weather Radar, the NHC had deemed the Florida Panhandle as the most likely strike point. Locals remembered Hurricane Eloise very well, so most took no chances.
Then, seemingly at the last moment (as hurricanes frequently do), Frederic shifted further westward and landed at Gulf Shores, Alabama. As they trekked back to their boarded-up homes and businesses, wondering if criminals had taken advantage of their absence, some Florida Panhandle residents were irritated that they were forced to flee a hurricane that didn’t hit. Wasn’t this new-fangled Doppler thing supposed to cure such uncertainty? Regardless, many vowed to stay put the next time.
Much of this same drama played out last week, as Hurricane Matthew terrorized the Caribbean and then teased the southeastern U.S. by remaining mostly offshore. At one point in its early life, Matthew reached the rare and dreaded Category 5 status; the first such tempest in the Caribbean since Felix in 2007. Matthew finally made official landfall in South Carolina October 8 as a Category 1 storm and is now – as of this writing – a post-tropical cyclone. With more than 1,000 fatalities directly attributed to it, Matthew’s financial damage will take a while to tally. And, as always happens with these things, a proverbial “lessons learned” compendium will develop.
One lesson is how best to warn people living in vulnerable areas that they must leave. As Matthew neared the U.S., literally millions of people, from Florida to North Carolina, were ordered to evacuate. I don’t like the idea of forcing people to flee a coming storm or any natural disaster. Hurricanes are one of the few calamities that can be tracked from far away. It’s only fair to warn people of some pending disaster and help them avoid it, if we can.
Yet, if somebody wants to remain in place, I believe we should just leave them alone. Governors and mayors should never issue a mandatory evacuation, but rather, a necessary one. Necessary in that it would be in the best interest of residents to flee. But people should be allowed to make decisions about their own welfare without harassment or input from others. I recommend a ‘No Rescue’ policy. If, for example, a hurricane is estimated to make landfall on a Friday, anyone still on the beachfront after midnight is on their own. First responders would not be required to respond to a frightened citizen whose million-dollar condo is starting to flood. Police officers, firefighters and military personnel shouldn’t risk their own lives to save just one dumbass (usually a man) who thought they were tough enough to handle 100 mph winds and 20-foot tidal surges. Advances in automobile technology have given people a false sense of personal security; therefore, they may not drive too carefully. Advances in meteorology have had the same deleterious effect.
In September of 1999, Hurricane Floyd headed straight for the Georgia-Florida area, prompting the governors of both states to issue that dreaded mandatory evacuation. Some 4 million people heeded the warning and fled westward. As usual, store shelves were emptied out, gas stations were drained, and highways became clogged with frightened coastal residents. But then Floyd suddenly turned north and plowed into North Carolina’s Outer Banks, before marching up the East Coast. It missed the Georgia-Florida line altogether, and many of those residents who had been ordered to leave got pissed. With all of the advances in weather forecasting, they declared, you’d think meteorologists would know exactly where a hurricane will strike. How pathetically arrogant.
But the public’s salacious desire to watch these disasters unfold is matched only by the media’s desire for high ratings. As Matthew approached Florida, news outlets planted their reporters on beach fronts and empty streets to help viewers vicariously live the power of the wind and rain. It’s almost comical watching someone holding onto a street sign or lamp post with one hand and a microphone in the other; adorned in the requisite rain coat and / or ball cap; describing how bad it is “out here” and stating the obvious: “conditions have deteriorated.”
Several years ago I watched the national news as a brutal series of wild fires ravaged Southern California. People were angry they had to leave their million-dollar homes. And, of course, media outlets dispatched their own people to show and maybe speak with locals packing up all they could and fleeing the area per the mandatory evacuation orders. I recall seeing one angry man being led away from his house by some police officers; he had been reluctant to leave. He looked into the camera and screamed about being forced to leave his home, while “the fucking media” were allowed to stay. I empathized with him. If he wanted to stay, he should have been allowed to do that.
After Hurricane Katrina tore into the Gulf Coast in August of 2005, thousands of people who didn’t evacuate subsequently refused to leave; despite the warning by then-New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin that the city “isn’t safe.” A large swath of the region, from Southeastern Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle was in chaos, and no, it wasn’t safe. But no area directly impacted by a natural disaster is safe in the aftermath. Still, if people want to stay and protect their property, the government shouldn’t force them to leave anyway.
Harry R. Truman refused to leave his home on Mount St. Helen’s, despite its pending eruption in May of 1980.
Natural disasters have a unique way of putting humanity back in its place and making us realize we’re not its master. On March 11, 1888, a massive blizzard rolled over the east coast of North America, killing more than 400 people and dropping as much as 55 inches of snow in some areas. The storm practically paralyzed major metropolitan areas, such as Boston and New York City. Most of the fatalities occurred among urbanites, while folks out in the country just considered it another really bad storm. Human vanity reached a new level with the R.M.S. Titanic in 1912. Branded as “unsinkable,” the massive vessel met its fate on its maiden voyage, courtesy of a wayward iceberg, taking more than 1,500 lives with it.
Saving people from themselves is not just virtually impossible; it’s impractical. It’s also a waste of time and energy. Give individuals the necessary information and a means to escape. After that, just leave them alone.
On this day twenty years ago, the department at the bank where I worked in downtown Dallas experienced a catastrophic system disruption. I was an associate in the funds transfer division’s customer service unit. I helped our clients with whatever problems arose regarding their domestic and international financial transfers. As a moderately large institution, the bank processed millions of dollars on a daily basis; sending money all over the country and all over the world. With a few exceptions, things operated relatively smoothly.
The 1993 bombing of New York’s World Trade Center had made bank officials realize the stark vulnerability of its various operations. A large New York-based financial institution housed its funds transfer division in that same tower. But they had a back-up outfit established in a location several miles away. Thus, when the truck bomb exploded, the company was able to switch operations to their satellite office and proceed normally – all other things considered.
Shortly thereafter, my employer rushed to create similar back-up protocols for every division. The wire transfer department established an office in suburban Dallas and assigned certain individuals to staff the location in the event of an emergency. I was one of those designated associates.
Then came April 2, 1996, and the most curious of incidents occurred; one for which the bank actually hadn’t planned. There was no bombing; no monster tornado; no building power outage; no gunman; not even the vending machines ceased operating, which would have certainly caused a riot among the employees. (I mean, if you can’t get a Coke or a Snickers after dealing with bitchy customers, how else can you get through the day?)
The event was just shy of a total system collapse. The company had two communication lines with the Federal Reserve Bank: one for transmitting outgoing payments and the other for incoming. Shortly after 10 a.m. local time, the outgoing line inexplicably short-circuited. The incoming line functioned properly throughout the entire day. Even more inexplicably is that company programmers – the people paid thousands of dollars to create and maintain these systems – couldn’t figure out what happened with that outgoing line. As we learned later, they didn’t take the problem too seriously at first. They apparently thought it would right itself without further delay and much intervention. This is akin to contemporary tech support people saying, “Just reboot,” when you experience a computer problem. It’s a step above the ‘Press any key’ command.
The programmers were wrong. By noon that day, panic had started to settle into everyone’s minds. Well… not us lowly non-managerial associates. We were not apprised of the seriousness of the matter – as usual – and instructed to tell customers – as usual – the bank was working on it and had everything under control. Those of us occupying the lower rungs of the corporate food chain (the folks who don’t own the dairy, but milk the cows) really had no idea of the situation’s gravity until late in the day.
By the time those highly-paid programmers finally rectified the crisis, it was too late. It was after 6 p.m., and the Federal Reserve had to stop processing wire transfers. Literally millions of dollars in customer funds – corporate and individual – had not left the bank. It was bad enough to affect interest rates on a national level for that day. Even the president of the United States was made aware of the crisis.
It didn’t help that the event occurred as the first anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing approached, and people were growing more concerned about the pending Y2K disaster. That following Friday morning the wire transfer division held its usual quarter end meeting. My unit manager addressed the crowd by saying, “You know we can’t get through today without discussing April 2.” Technically, the day fell at the start of the second business quarter. But, like an all-you-can-eat buffet after a week at a diet camp, it was too good a deal to pass up. They had to talk about it. This is where it went from bad to whimsical; the latter courtesy of yours truly.
One woman, some forgettable high-ranking bank official who I’d never seen before, instructed everyone on how to respond to customer inquiries about “The Event.” She tried to explain that we shouldn’t get too detailed about what happened and certainly not offer any specific compensation. That’s what she tried to say. But, you know, things always look so damn good on paper. As a writer, I would have been more than happy to help her compose her frazzled thoughts into a coherent, practical speech. But, as a lowly cow-milker, she didn’t seek my advice. Instead, the verbiage that tumbled from her perky lips sounded like we should just pretend nothing happened on April 2.
I immediately began chuckling, which drew the attention of those around me. Then I started laughing, which drew even more attention. And, in that gathering of some 200 business professionals, I leapt to my feet and loudly interpreted: “Okay, everybody, we impacted interest rates across the country for a day! The president of the United States knows what happened! But – sh-sh – don’t tell anyone about it!”
More laughter ensued from the crowd. The woman standing up front tried to interject, but it was futile.
“So, here’s how you handle the call,” I continued, holding a phantom phone receiver up to my ear. “‘April 2? What about April 2? I have no idea what you’re talking about. Get off the phone!’”
The room erupted. Even the cadre of executives lined up at the front like a WestPoint brigade – including that one woman – were laughing. They all got the message: there was no getting away from the severity of “The Event.” All the back-up protocols they’d set in place three years earlier had failed to consider this mess.
That day is lost in the annals of financial history and pales in comparison to the catastrophe of September 11, 2001. When the two largest buildings of the World Trade Center were attacked with – of all things – large jet liners and collapsed, survival was the immediate concern for anyone nearby. As the dust cleared and the tears fell, scores of businesses realized that, amidst the carnage, they had also lost real estate space, phone lines and reams of data.
But, just as the nation recovered from that horror, the Northeastern corridor experienced a massive blackout on August 11, 2003. It reached as far as west as Ohio. Some 50 million people were directly impacted in a disaster that lasted more than a day. It reminded many of the 1977 New York City Blackout, which was equally reminiscent of the 1965 “Great Northeast Blackout.”
How could any of these things happen to one of the largest, wealthiest and most powerful nations on Earth? It’s not enough to wonder if you’re going to have a rough commute home from work. A Category 5 hurricane poses a serious threat to any coastal community. But so does a long-lasting power outage from the failure of an overworked, under-maintained facility.
At the start of this blog four years ago, one of the features was the “Mayan Calendar Countdown,” my humorous homage to the impending apocalypse of December 21, 2012. It was all in good fun, but I included many authentic survivalist tips. Some were obvious: guns and power generators; others were practical: canned meat and knives; a few were almost laughable: chocolate and gold bullion. It really does make sense, however, to have your own power generator and a water treatment device. You don’t have to be part of a right-wing extremist group to understand the vulnerabilities inherent in computer systems and crumbling interstate highways. Donning military fatigues and playing war games in some wooded area isn’t required to be prepared for power failures that may last for weeks or even months.
Some people lose it if their Facebook page gets hacked. I’d love to see them react to reddish-brown water pouring from their faucets – which doesn’t stop. In developed nations, we expect such water to flow clearly and purely; air systems to pump out warm or cool breezes; microwave ovens to function on queue – all with little effort on our part. People who are mortified by a gluten-filled sandwich would probably die if they had to catch a fish in a stream, gut it and then cook it on a rock.
In March of 1888, a powerful blizzard slammed the Northeastern U.S.; a calamity that killed more than 400 people and dumped as much as 55 inches of snow in most areas. A blizzard is actually an arctic hurricane, which strikes with the same level of ferocity as their tropical counterparts. Canadian and European meteorologists name them, too. At the time of the “Great Blizzard of 1888,” roughly 1 in 4 Americans lived in the area between the state of Maine and Washington, D.C. Temperatures across the Northeast had been in the 50s on March 10, 1888. But, when the storm arrived the following day, wind gusts reached 85 miles per hour in some locations, and temperatures plummeted to below freezing within hours. The largest metropolitan areas in the region – New York, Washington, Boston – came to a virtual standstill amidst the whiteout conditions. Many residents tried to carry on as usual, but found mass transportation systems paralyzed by the heavy snow. Venturing outside became perilous. Wall Street had to shut down for 3 days. Mark Twain was in New York City at the time and became stranded at a hotel. P.T. Barnum also got stuck and – always the showman – took the opportunity to entertain fellow refugees at Madison Square Garden.
Near coastal areas, many ships and other vessels sunk in tumultuous waters the storm had generated. Thousands of farm and wild animals froze to death. Telecommunication lines collapsed from the heavy winds and / or weight of the snow. Gas and power lines malfunctioned. From this event and the catastrophic impact it had on train lines, the concept of the subway was born.
Strangely, though, people living in rural areas fared better than their urban counterparts. City folks had already come to rely (too much) upon electric lights and trains that ran on time. Yes, those rubes out in the sticks – living in wood frame abodes with kettle stoves – also suffered the storm’s wrath. But they were used to such treacherous weather. They prepared year-round for it. They never took for granted their ability to deal with the worst nature had to offer, or expected human-made objects and structures to protect them fully and completely. They just dealt with it as best they could. Most of the fatalities occurred within the confines of the mighty urban menageries. The places people deemed civilization couldn’t handle the wintry onslaught.
They often still can’t. Witness the horrors of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. The city of New Orleans, in particular, wasn’t as prepared for such a calamity as officials had proclaimed for years. It wasn’t so much due to poor infrastructure, but rather to poor social and political structures. Entrenched corruption and poverty had made the city as vulnerable as the fact most of its geography sat below sea level.
By contrast, Japan, as a whole, has prepared itself well for every imaginable disaster, from earthquakes to volcanic eruptions. But that degree of security and confidence was shattered on March 11, 2011, when a 9.0 earthquake rocked the northeastern part of the country. Residents in coastal communities knew the dangers inherent with aftershocks and accompanying tsunamis. Entire cities and towns had staged regular evacuation drills for years. (At that bank where I worked, fire drills involved people sauntering into the hallway for a few minutes. On more than a few occasions, some folks just didn’t make the time for it and remained at their desks.) In northeastern Japan, many towns had constructed walls up to 30 feet (9.144 m) high along their shorelines to ward off or at least circumvent tsunami waves. But, when the waves inundated coastal towns, reaching further inland than even the experts anticipated, authorities wondered where they’d gone wrong in the planning. They didn’t anticipate that subsidence would cause the ground beneath the tsunami-protection walls to drop; thus, abruptly shortening their height. The trauma continued when the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant malfunctioned, generating the worst nuclear power accident since Chernobyl. Much of the area hasn’t been repopulated. Sometimes, that’s actually a more practical, albeit psychologically painful, recourse; more sensible than trying to outwit nature’s more destructive elements. After a powerful tsunami ravaged Hilo, Hawaii in May of 1960, some sectors of the city closest to the shoreline remain abandoned and were subsequently reclaimed by nature.
It would be impractical for residents of the Dallas / Fort Worth metropolitan area to move because of the constant threats of hail storms and tornadoes. Northeast Texas lies at the southern end of “Tornado Alley;” a dreaded meteorological vortex where the weather is reliably unpredictable. Just recently this region of some 10 million people learned of the fragility of the Lewisville Lake Dam; a massive, mostly earthen structure that sits north of Dallas. An increasing number of rock slides in recent years have eroded the dam’s integrity. There’s a very real threat of total collapse, which could kill thousands and inundate most areas up to 50 feet (15.24 m). At full capacity, the dam holds up to 2.5 billion tons (2.268 metric tons) of water. My parents and I live just a few miles south of it. It would be almost impossible for us to escape in a vehicle should a massive breach actually occur. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers claims it needs millions of dollars to repair the dam, which has now become one of the nation’s most dangerous. The U.S. government – which miraculously found billions of dollars to fund the Iraq War – can’t seem to locate any cash for the damn dam. So far, officials are making do with what they can: placing sandbags and tarps to thwart any further erosion. I wonder if there’s such a thing as industrial-strength duct tape.
Whenever a major disaster strikes – natural or human-made – people will get hurt and people will die. There’s no way to avoid it. It’s going to happen. It’s frustrating enough if you can’t get cash out of a local atm; it’s downright terrifying if you can’t get fresh water from your kitchen tap. More people reside in urban areas now than ever before in human history. And thereby, fewer people know how to catch and kill their own food or purify their own water. What happened to the bank where I worked on April 2, 1996 seemed emblematic – at the time – of the impending Y2K disaster. We got past that crisis and survived the non-existent 2000 implosion. It’s no laughing matter, though, when something even more cataclysmic jeopardizes tens of millions of people.
Tsunami waves inundated Sendai, Japan on March 11, 2011; reaching further inland than anyone expected.
Check out “The Survivalist Blog” for authentic tips on preparing for the worst.
I knew that storm was coming our way. The sky had begun to darken, a mix of gray and white, and the Gulf waters were encroaching further and further up the beachfront. I mentioned that to everyone, as we piled into the two vehicles and headed back west on I-10.
“It’s too far away,” one of my friends said dismissively.
“I don’t know,” I mumbled in response. “Those things are pretty powerful.”
We left Panama City, Florida that Saturday morning; the final weekend in September 1995. It had been a good, one-week vacation. It had been four years since I’d visited a beach. Panama City wasn’t Ixtapa, México, but it was still relatively small and quaint. I fell in love with the place the moment we pulled up to our condo rental. I was saddened when Hurricane Opal tore into the town the first week in October; just days after we left.
That year, 1995, was a busy hurricane season for the Atlantic / Caribbean region. With 19 tropical storms and hurricanes, it was second only to 1933, which produced 20. I’ve always been fascinated by the natural elements of our world. I keep track of various natural catastrophes, mainly to satisfy my desire to know more about them, but also as a display of my personal reverence. When nature goes on a rampage, it humbles the human spirit. People usually realize only then that we aren’t as significant as we like to think we are.
Today marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst natural calamities ever to strike the United States. It wasn’t the deadliest; that dubious distinction is still held by a hurricane that struck Galveston Island, Texas in 1900. It certainly wasn’t the deadliest to strike the Western Hemisphere. The “Great Hurricane of 1780” took 22,000 lives in the Caribbean. It wasn’t the deadliest in the world. The Great Bhola Cyclone ravaged Bangladesh in November of 1970 and killed an estimated 1 million people. Katrina wasn’t the most powerful storm to hit the U.S. in terms of wind speed. Camille retains that legacy. But, Katrina holds a cruel and bitter place in the American psyche. Its attack on the Gulf Coast almost destroyed a major city, killed more than 1,800 people and cost over $105 billion. Katrina’s onslaught is a perfect example of human vulnerability and government ineptitude. But it also showed the power human benevolence and of the will to live.
Scientists had warned the city of New Orleans for years that it was prone to massive flooding from even a modest tropical storm system. Essentially surrounded by water on three sides, some 80% of the city lies at or below sea level. It is the only major metropolitan area in the U.S. with such unfavorable characteristics. Yet its residents had always felt relatively safe with the multitude of dikes and levees. That faith melted violently on August 29, 2005. But such misguided sentiments have their base in reality; born of another catastrophic event nearly eight decades earlier.
Beginning in the summer of 1926, the mid-section of the U.S. received some of the heaviest rainfall it had ever experienced. By the following spring, the Mississippi River repeatedly overflowed its banks, inundating roughly 27,000 square miles of land (as much as 30 feet deep) from Illinois to southern Louisiana. In one 18-hour period, beginning on the night of April 15, New Orleans alone received 15 inches of rain. Up to 630,000 people in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi were directly impacted by the flooding. That so many of the displaced were poor African-Americans struggling to live in a staunchly segregated society didn’t go unnoticed.
The “Great Flood of 1927” sparked a massive migration northward towards cities such as Chicago and Detroit among disenfranchised Blacks. It also sparked the U.S. Congress to enact the Jadwin Plan, named for General Edwin Jadwin, then head of the U.S. Corps of Engineers, to set standards for levee construction and maintenance. The development of a stronger and more intricate levee system prompted New Orleans to expand northward towards Lake Pontchartrain, one of the largest lakes in the U.S., but one that is basically an extension of the Gulf of México. Engineers dredged out swampland to create open spaces for homes and other buildings; certain those levees would protect everyone from a repeat of the 1927 flood.
Much of that certainty was tested, when Hurricane Betsy rolled over southeastern Louisiana in 1965. Betsy cost $1.425 billion in damage – the first billion-dollar storm in the U.S. – but killed only 76 people.
When I started working for an engineering company in November of 2002, one of my constituents was a young woman from New Orleans. While she was too young to remember the storm, her parents and grandparents had vividly painful memories of it. They often spoke as if it was a person who had terrorized their lives. “Betsy took this and Betsy took that,” my colleague said, mimicking one of her grandmothers, explaining why they had so few family photos and other personal effects that people gather over the years.
It took a while for New Orleans to recover. Many of the levees had failed, and some residents – no longer assured of their safety – moved out. The city’s population continued dropping and stood at just under 800,000 when Katrina struck. More importantly, the bulk of New Orleans’ citizens lived on some type of government assistance. That fact alone put so many people in jeopardy. With so few financial resources, they couldn’t afford to own vehicles, much less rent one or buy a plane ticket to flee the city ahead of Katrina. Struggling to make it from one day to another occupies a person’s time and energy. They don’t often make room in their minds for levees.
In 2003, the State of Louisiana launched a year-long endeavor to review the stability of those levees. Called the “Hurricane Pam” Southeast Louisiana Catastrophic Hurricane Planning Project, its goal was “to develop a functional, scenario-based exercise that would drive the writing of Incident Action Plans for catastrophic hurricane response.” The engineers convinced themselves, and subsequently New Orleans city officials, that the levee system would hold up from a Category 3 storm, “Pam.” But incident action plans were about the only solid results of the exercise. Things always look so good on paper anyway.
Then Katrina arrived. And everything changed.
Two of my acquaintances lived in New Orleans a decade ago and ended up in Dallas because of Katrina. One, James*, fled the city before the storm hit; the other, Max*, barely survived it. James took heed of the storm warnings. He got a sick feeling about it. On the evening of Sunday, August 28, he made the gut-wrenching decision to gather his two small dogs, pack what he could into his car and get the hell out of there. No one wants to leave their home, even in the face of a pending disaster. Home is where we’re supposed to feel safe. But James told me that nauseating sensation, deep in his gut, ordered him to leave. He felt somewhat vulnerable, in part because he was alone and had his dogs with him, but also because he suffers from night blindness. Heading west on I-10, he arrived in Calcasieu Parish later that evening and stopped for the night. He was physically tired, he told me, but also emotionally tired. He worried about family and friends and wondered if he’d be able to return to his house. The next morning, as Katrina made landfall, James took off for Houston, where friends said he could stay until the worst had passed. The worst took much longer to pass away than anyone expected. He later traveled to Dallas where he stayed with other friends. By the time he got back to New Orleans, he found a city in ruins and his house unlivable. It took a while to get things together, but James eventually made Dallas his home.
Max knew he should probably leave, as well. Like so many New Orleans residents, he waffled about his decision. He’d lived through storms of various magnitudes before. Yes, there was flooding and, yes, there was wind damage. But they always recovered. Some friends in Dallas had called and offered their place as a refuge. Late on August 28 he decided to take off. With only a half a tank of gas in his compact car, though, he didn’t know how far he could get; certainly all the way to Dallas. He drove around, looking for a gas station, but every one of them was closed. He returned to his one-bedroom, ground-level apartment and opted to wait it out. Early on Monday morning, though, he worried that he wasn’t safe there. So, with some important belongs and a few bottles of water stuffed into a duffel bag, he drove through torrential rains and bruising winds to the New Orleans Superdome; the place where Mayor Ray Nagin and others said people would be safe and secure. Built atop a series of old railroad tracks, the dome was also on stable ground. But, by the time Max got to the Superdome, police were turning people away; the dome had reached its capacity. Late arrivals were redirected to the city’s convention center. Max got as close as he could to the latter building and parked his car on a street that was already flooding. With his duffel bag in tow, he sloshed through the water and made it inside the convention center. He shoved himself into a corner and, along with thousands of others, waited as Katrina raged overhead.
“New Orleans is one of those cities you really have to love in order to live there,” Max told me. And, he really loved it. This quirky jewel of the Deep South is unlike any other place. It calls out to equally colorful characters like Max. Thus, lumbering around the convention center that Monday afternoon and in the following days, Max wondered how his cherished city would recuperate from this mess. Like everyone else trapped there, he didn’t realize just how bad Katrina had torn into the city, until days later.
Max managed to make it out of the building, determined to leave the area any way he could. He was certain his car was gone and his apartment was flooded. He also looked across the vast see of desperate people and realized that, if no one was going to save the children and the elderly from that mess, they certainly weren’t going to save him. Young and middle-aged men are expected to sacrifice their time and their lives for everyone else. But, should they need help, they are viewed instead as worthless moochers. So, Max turned westward and started walking. He visually took in the devastation with each step and, at one point, came across the body of a dead man. Recounting the story to me and several others at a Dallas bar one night several years ago generated the usual response of horror.
Then, one little gal asked, “Didn’t you do anything?!”
Max looked at her, surely wanting to smack her upside the head, and quietly replied, “Yea.”
That’s a hell of a think-on-your-feet question. Quick! You see a dead body on the street in a post-apocalyptic world. What do you do?
- Keep walking and pretend you didn’t see anything.
- Stop to say a prayer.
- Rifle through the person’s pockets.
- Look around for embalming fluid and some flowers.
- All of the above.
Max chose option a. He just walked. And walked. And walked. And walked…until he ended up outside the city and at a truck stop. He dragged his tired, sweat-soaked body into the diner; still dragging that duffel bag behind him. Sitting at the counter, he struck up a conversation with a truck driver who was headed to Houston. The trucker offered to take Max there where he could then rent a car and head to his friends’ place in Dallas. Max accepted and wondered for a moment, if he’d just entered the lair of a psycho-sexual serial killer. But the driver turned out to be friendly and, as promised, dropped Max off in Houston. By the time he was able to return to New Orleans, he knew his car was gone and his apartment was wrecked. He just had that duffel bag. Like James, he decided to make Dallas his new home.
The effects of Katrina aren’t short-lived. Asking people why they don’t just leave in the face of such pending disaster is easy. Look around your own home at the myriad items you’ve collected over the years. What would you take, if you had to leave? Imagine if you were elderly or infirm. How would you get away?
Social and political conservatives chided their liberal counterparts for denouncing the lackluster response of President George W. Bush; saying, for example, during the 2008 presidential race, that hopefully the next president would be able to stop a hurricane the way Bush couldn’t. Stopping Katrina was never a thought. I don’t know anyone who said that. Responding to the storm was the key issue. Liberals, however, seemed to think everything lay on the shoulders of the federal government.
FEMA was supposed to have all sorts of action plans in place ahead of such calamities. Created in 1979, by President Jimmy Carter specifically to respond to various types of emergencies, FEMA ended up under the Department of Homeland Security in 2003; a government agency created solely in response to the 09/11 terrorist attacks. Under the direction of Michael Brown – whose disaster management experience included heading an Arabian horse club in California – FEMA’s definition took on a new meaning: Fix Everything My Ass!
Katrina couldn’t have hit a city more vulnerable than New Orleans or occur under a presidential administration more incompetent than Bush. Plenty of folks condemned Bush’s response. He watched the storm’s aftermath from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, before heading to Las Vegas for a speech before the local Republican Party. He later claimed he wanted desperately to visit New Orleans immediately after the storm hit, but the Secret Service didn’t feel it was safe. Besides, there was no place to land Air Force One. Louis Armstrong Airport was flooded.
In reality, just about everyone in charge screwed up. Nagin, for one, didn’t issue a mandatory evacuation until Sunday, August 28. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco – who apparently was genuinely more concerned about Katrina than Nagin – still didn’t order National Guard troops into New Orleans until September 1. The only people who reacted timely and positively to the storm were the U.S. Coast Guard. They were in New Orleans, almost as soon as the storm passed, on tattered rooftops and in the filthy floodwaters; literally rescuing thousands of people. They just couldn’t reach them all.
Just as things started to develop some semblance of normalcy, another Category 5 hurricane, Rita, entered the Gulf and struck Louisiana; this time on the western edge, along the border with Texas. Often called the “Forgotten Storm,” Rita was actually the fourth most intense tropical storm in the recorded history of the Atlantic / Caribbean region. It made official landfall shortly before midnight on September 23 as a Category 3 storm. It triggered one of the largest coastal evacuations in U.S. history. It had set its sights on Texas, particularly the Galveston – Houston area. But, at the last minute, a massive air system swept down across Texas and shoved it back out into open water. Rita generated significant storm surges along the Gulf Coast, from Texas to Alabama. For the first time in anyone’s memory, one state was ravaged by two monster storms in the same season.
That year, 2005, turned out to be the single busiest hurricane season for the Atlantic / Caribbean basin, with a total of 27 hurricanes and tropical storm systems, plus one unnamed sub-tropical system. The list of names was exhausted for the first time since meteorologists began naming them in 1953 and had to continue with the Greek-letter system. The last official name on the list, Wilma, turned out to be another Category 5 hurricane and was actually the most powerful in terms of millibars, 882, ever recorded in the region. No one had ever seen anything like it before…or since.
As part of my job with the engineering firm and the contract with the government agency, I volunteered to work in New Orleans. Two of my colleagues had been in the area almost as soon as the storm passed, along with scores of other contractors and government employees. In fact, my constituents were desperately trying to make it back to Texas on the night of September 23, as Rita lurked offshore. Together Katrina and Rita created one of the worst ecological and environmental catastrophes the U.S. has ever endured. Aside from inundating a large city with toxic floodwaters, Katrina alone devastated the Mississippi River Delta, already made fragile by rapid development and oil and gas exploration. Much of the boggy coastal areas had been depleted; material that acts as a natural impediment to powerful storm surges, which is actually the deadliest feature of any tropical storm system. Katrina uprooted millions of trees and other forms of vegetation.
Because of the heavy flooding in New Orleans, sewage and water treatment plants stopped functioning; thus millions of gallons of lethal waste were released. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency quickly warned people in the city not to touch the floodwaters. The EPA had some of its people in the area the day after the storm hit, wrapped up in hazmat suits, gathering soil and water samples. They reported that, even with face masks, they could smell the toxins. Once the floodwaters receded, those elements didn’t just dissipate; they settled into the soil where even mild winds could hurtle them into people’s noses.
I arrived at Armstrong Airport on the Sunday night after Thanksgiving 2005. I had taken the place of one of my colleagues, David*, a native of north-central Louisiana. He and the onsite supervisor, Sarah*, had been holed up in a seedy motel in a small town on the northwestern rim of Lake Pontchartrain for a while. Sarah was able to move into a much nicer hotel in Metairie, where the airport is located. David had paid ahead for several days at the seedy joint, so that’s where I ended up initially. There were only 3 good things about the place: a waffle house, a steak restaurant and a drive-through daiquiri shack. After a couple of weeks, I was able to move into the same hotel as Sarah.
The environmental impact of Katrina – and, to a lesser extent, Rita – wasn’t lost on anyone. In advance of my trip, I underwent a series of shots, including for hepatitis B. At our work location in Metairie, an on-site health clinic was always busy. People complained constantly about sore throats and itchy eyes. Later, in cataloguing various health reports, I spotted some alarming conditions. At one point, even I developed something unexpected: gonorrhea-like symptoms. I wondered if I’d had another alcoholic blackout shortly before my trip, but that wasn’t the case. After arriving home for Christmas, I managed to make an appointment with a clinic that found…nothing. It may have been just a brief urinary tract infection; something I found out in the following months affected several people living and working in the area.
Our company’s liaison to the government agency, Doyle*, was New Orleans native. A hulkish figure of a man with a far-right political bent, he had willingly returned to the city of his birth to oversee the contractors. He took some time out to visit a local cemetery where some of his relatives were interred. Several years ago the city of New Orleans outlawed subterranean burials because of the swampy ground. All of Doyle’s deceased relatives, however, were buried in above-ground crypts. Arriving at the cemetery in hip-wader boots, he recounted one afternoon, he had to step over the remains of disinterred residents. It was only then, he said, the full horror of the storm became real to him. “Even the dead were trying to get the hell out of there!” he said.
I looked around at the various people I saw and encountered and wondered how they managed to survive Katrina. What stories did they have to tell? Doyle had his. So did James and Max. Millions of people were directly affected by Katrina, as any natural disaster tends to do. And there are millions of tales of heartbreak and survival to go along with every one of those individuals.
Someone told me a while back that we shouldn’t reflect too much on what went wrong with Katrina.
“But we need to remember those things,” I replied. “Otherwise, we’ll make the same mistakes again.”
New Orleans and much of the rest of the Gulf Coast has recovered from Katrina; recovered as best as possible. How are you supposed to move on from something like that? What incident action plan is there for such dramatic events in one’s life? There are no written guidelines. But there’s something called “a will to live.” Max demonstrated that by setting out on foot; determined to save himself – or die trying. People up and down the Gulf Coast have embodied that same spirit, as they rebuilt homes and jump-started their lives. That’s just what people do. It’s how we’re wired.
It’s how humanity has survived for millennia. Plenty of people just gave up, but thousands more did everything within their power to survive and move forward. It’s just in most of us. Another monster storm will hit New Orleans in the future and do the same thing, if not worst. Tropical storm systems have been ravaging the coastlines of the world, long before humans thought of building summer beach homes and towering condominiums. They’re not going to stop because we want to windsurf or take pictures. We all just have to live with that, as we have to live with all of Earth’s natural forces. Somehow, somewhere, people will survive.
It’s been a little more than a week now since Typhoon Haiyan plowed into the Philippines. With maximum sustained winds of 195 mph, Haiyan – also known as Yolanda – is the most powerful tropical storm system in recorded meteorological history to make landfall anywhere in the world. The previous record had been held by Hurricane Camille, which packed 190 mph winds when it slammed into the U.S. Gulf Coast in 1969.
The Philippines are no stranger to typhoons. Strategically situated just north of Indonesia, between the South China Sea and the Philippine Sea, this country of 96.7 million has to brace itself every year for tropical events. But, this time things are much worst. As far as storms go, Haiyan couldn’t have hit a more vulnerable location.
Barely a quarter century removed from the brutal, 20-year dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippines still rank as a developing nation, even though it’s a relatively fully-functioning democracy. Geographically classified as an archipelago, the Philippines are comprised of 7,107 islands. But, it’s actually part of the overall Malay Archipelago, the world’s largest such area. Humans have occupied the Malay region for at least 30,000 years. For centuries, though, the Philippines often served as a crossing point between mainland Asia and the larger islands of Borneo and New Guinea. The arrival of Islam in the latter part of the 14th century changed much of the Philippines’ culture; a fact that remains even now, as the nation battles more radical Islamic elements. In 1521, Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan became the first documented European to arrive in the Philippines. He didn’t last long. Barely a month later, local warriors killed him and several others who were part of his expedition during an intense battle. But, the Spanish government, in its own bitter rivalry with Great Britain for world domination, persisted and launched more expeditions to the Malay area. More battles ensued and more blood was spilled, but in 1565, King Phillip II succeeded in making the islands a Spanish colony. It is him for whom the Philippines are named. The Philippines remained a Spanish outpost until the 1898 Spanish-American War. In 1935, the islands became a self-governing entity.
The “self-governing” part is always tricky for any nation that tries to set itself apart. It’s especially difficult for those where democracy is an alien concept – which is pretty much most of the developing world. After centuries of Spanish domination and Roman Catholic indoctrination, the Philippines weren’t a good candidate for automatic conversion to the democratic process. I recall how a contingency of average Filipinos known as EDSA 1 toppled the Marcos regime in 1986, sending him and his family fleeing for their lives. Even if his wife, Imelda, couldn’t haul her cache of designer shoes out of the imperial palace, the Marcos family had managed to siphon billions from national coffers before exiling themselves to Hawaii. As the haggard clan disembarked from a plane, one Marcos relative clutched a bag of diapers, as if it was her only possession. Then again, it’s quite possible fine jewelry and blocks of cash were hidden inside, so why wouldn’t she keep a tight grip on it? In an attempt to make peace with the Philippines, the U.S. government indicted Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos on a series of racketeering and money laundering charges. After Marcos died of cancer in 1989, the U.S. dropped all charges against Imelda. She may have never got her shoes back, but at least she’s living in paradise. Who says crime and corruption don’t pay?
When EDSA 1 finally rid the Philippines of Marcos, it installed Corazon Aquino as president. Her husband, Benigno, had been a vocal critic of Marcos and was exiled in 1980 for his views. When he dared to return to the land of his birth three years later, Marcos had him assassinated. Thus began the torturous battle for freedom and the long slog towards a democratic state. When international pressure compelled Marcos to call for elections in February 1986, Corazon Aquino was chosen as the opposition leader.
But, as foreign observers feared, everything that could have gone wrong with the Philippine election process did. Results eventually proved Aquino as the victor, but not before scores had died in rioting. When the Marcos family fled, Aquino took her rightful place as president of the burgeoning democracy and spent her single, six-year term fending criticisms of ineptness and coup attempts by Marcos supporters.
With a labor rate that is about 52% services and 32% agrarian, it’s no surprise the Philippines continues to struggle against the tide of wealth inequality. Roughly 26% of the population lives at or below the poverty line. Thus, Haiyan’s arrival added to the misery. But, that happens wherever communities subsist in states of financial insecurity. When Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005, President George W. Bush received staunch criticism for his inaction. True, as a lackluster president, Bush didn’t have the mindset to respond to a natural catastrophe. No one in his administration did. But, for years, scientists had been warning the state of Louisiana that its southern enclaves were vulnerable to devastation, notably low-lying New Orleans. But, the Crescent City itself was already in a state of decay. Most of its citizenry relied upon government assistance and menial cash jobs just to survive. The people were ill-equipped to help themselves get out of harm’s way; e.g. rent a car or buy a plane ticket. The endemic corruption in both the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana set everyone up for disaster.
As of now, the death toll in the Philippines from Haiyan stands at 3,631 – the “official” estimate. With so many rural areas still cut off due to lack of electricity and telecommunications, the number of victims may be higher. I see reports of how bodies were left to rot on city streets and I’m glad chances of that happening here in the U.S. are rare. People were upset that so many damaged vehicles were left on the streets of New Orleans almost a year after Katrina. But, human bodies and animal carcasses?
Every one of those bodies was once a person; an individual who had a family and friends; someone who had hopes for a better future. When death occurs on so massive a scale, it’s often difficult to think of the deceased as individuals. It personalizes the disaster for us, so it’s easier to think of the dead masses and just shake our heads at the horror of it all.
Governments can’t address each one of them, so it has to consider the entire calamity and do what it can. But, it’s really up to the survivors and their communities to cope with the aftermath. They have to deal with the destruction; they have to clean out their homes; they have to gather what food and water they can find; they have to tend to the injured; they have to defend what’s left of their world. In other words, they have to care for themselves. That sounds brutal, but in a brutal situation, who best to take care of you and your loved ones except you, if you’re able-bodied?
I do know this: despite the mess, people will survive. Someone will always get through such disasters and continue with their lives by rebuilding their neighborhoods and therefore, their countries. After the initial shock, they stand up and just keep going. It’s hard and it hurts; nothing like that is ever easy. They may never recover emotionally or even physically from the upheaval, but they go on for as long as they can. It’s just human nature.
This post from fellow blogger, Donna Amis Davis, a long-time resident of the Philippines, provides more personal insight into the disaster.
In his 1969 novel, “The Poseidon Adventure,” author Paul Gallico tells the harrowing tale of a luxury liner, the S.S. Poseidon, capsized by a rogue wave. The protagonist, Rev. Dr. Frank Scott, is a no-nonsense cleric; a former Princeton University football player who found a higher calling. Scott’s unorthodox views on religion and how it should function in the everyday lives of its believers had gotten him into trouble from his local bishop. In particular, Scott believes people shouldn’t just pray and hope for the best when they encounter problems or crises; instead, he declares, they should do what they can to resolve the dilemma. He proves true to his word when disaster strikes. Initially trapped in the first-class dining room, Scott convinces a handful of fellow passengers that they need to make a concerted effort to climb up towards the ship’s bottom; rather than just wait for someone to find and rescue them. The ship is sinking, after all, and it could be hours before any rescue personnel make their way to the overturned vessel. They have to try, he insists – even if they all die in the process. As the oxygen begins to run out, a few in the group perish amidst their struggles to survive. When yet another person dies, Scott becomes angry at the God he vowed to honor. “What is it you want – another sacrifice?!” he shouts. “More blood? Another life?” Then, just before he hurtles himself into a watery pit, he screams, “Spare them! Take me!”
Gene Hackman breathed life into Scott in the 1972 film version, which remains one of my favorite movies. But, while many people recollect actress Shelley Winters actually swimming underwater, I think more of the Scott character.
He came to mind after deadly tornadoes struck Granbury, Texas on May 15 and Moore, Oklahoma on May 20. In each instance, survivors often said they prayed as they sought shelter. That’s a common reaction; one that shouldn’t be faulted in the midst of a horrifying situation, when people suddenly realize how fragile life is. But, while thousands prayed along with them in the chaotic aftermaths, they also responded immediately. Many went so far as to make their way out to the afflicted areas to help survivors rebuild; others have been donating to the Red Cross. In each case, the Texas Baptist Men, founded in Lubbock, Texas in 1967, quickly began packing up food and medical supplies, water and generators – as they always do after such disasters. Even following the 2004 Indian Ocean seaquake and tsunami, the TBM gathered together cases of bottled water and water purification systems to ship out to the affected areas. They even engaged Muslim community leaders to emphasize that their mission was purely to help; not proselytize. They weren’t handing out packages of dried food with Christian bibles taped to them. But, they’re all doing something; they’re not just sitting down and praying – or telling people they prayed.
It’s easy to pray. It takes no real effort to sit down in the privacy of your home, or walk into a stall in the restroom at work, and offer up a quick prayer for someone. I understand that some people can do no more than that; they don’t have the means or the money to help out otherwise. And, no one should blame them for that. Others simply don’t care to anything else except pray. That’s fine, too; it’s their choice. But, prayer is cheap; they’re thoughts evolved from someone’s private cogitations. You may have no proof that someone prayed for you, but then, they have no way of disproving. It’s so easy, of course, to tell someone you prayed for them. How do they know?
In September of 1993, I contracted a vicious case of hepatitis. Because of my severe dehydration, my doctor decided to hospitalize me. I didn’t feel I was that sick at the time – and never have felt it – but I had no energy to fight it at the time. Besides, I’d just lost one of my best friends to AIDS the day before I went into the hospital. I was one of the few friends who hadn’t abandoned him and had promised to be a pall bearer at his funeral. But, on the day he was buried, I was in a hospital bed, hooked up to an IV. While hospitalized, only two people called me: my mother’s younger sister and a woman who worked with both of them; the latter who was also a neighbor and a close family friend. After returning home, I received one get-well card: from my assistant supervisor.
Later, as I discussed the illness with my parents, my mother told me, “A lot of prayers were said for you.” It had an almost admonishing tone, as if I should have known that folks in the family were praying for me and had better be thankful they did.
Instead, it made me angry. “I can’t hear a prayer!” I told them. “I can hear a phone call. I can read a get-well card. But, I can’t hear or read a prayer!”
My parents were shocked by my response. After all, they said, several members of my dad’s family had expressed concern for my well-being – and allegedly prayed.
Great, wonderful, I told them. But, no one except my aunt and a family friend called me, I emphasized. Not one other person in the family seemed to make an effort to contact me and ask if I was okay. Not even when we gathered at my grandmother’s house that Christmas Eve did anyone mention it. I left there that evening, seething with anger, and returned to my apartment alone. Prayers – shit! That’s easy.
What’s not easy is giving up money to somebody or a charity organization, especially when you have your own financial needs. It’s not easy – as I did one day in the summer of 1993 – to visit a sick friend and help him take a much-needed bath. It’s not easy to jump into your vehicle and drive to a storm-ravaged neighborhood to help people look for their missing pets.
Right now, I can’t donate much money to the victims of these recent tornadoes, or put my big truck to good use by helping them move junk. So, yes, I do pray for them. And, in a way, I feel bad that I can’t do more than just that. I’ve written before that, while I don’t adhere to any religion, I am very spiritual. I’m not certain there is a Great Creator; it’s merely a belief.
But, I do know thoughts – and sometimes words – are somewhat flippant in comparison to actually doing something. It’s up to each individual, though, to make that move; that’s their choice. You don’t volunteer other people’s time or money. Regardless, yes, it’s important to pray for the less fortunate, or at least think about their ordeal and wish the best for them. But, it’s even more important to work towards making their lives better.
“The sky the cloud brings,
In turn she sulks and sings,
Tear drops of her sorrow,
Drips from her tomorrow.
Her air she plenty knows,
Rides above winds she rose,
Lash the skies with ease,
Then dies down as she please.
Down field and pipe pours,
Draws her tears to yours,
Tries not release a drop of rain,
Slipping her cloud again.
Tearful cloud now free,
Them others cry unlike thee,
Now she will not sulk but sing,
Clearing skies will bring.”
“She Sulks and Sings” – Poetry’s Amateur