Monday, November 9, 2009

Too Much Water

Hurricane Ida is taking aim at the Gulf Coast as I write this. As hurricanes go, this one is not particularly strong, being ranked as a Category 1 and expected to dwindle to a mere tropical storm before making landfall. I say "mere" but there is nothing benign about tropical storms. They still pack powerful winds, but even worst than that is the rain.

The fact that Ida is forecast to weaken may actually result in unnecessary tragedy. When people get it in their heads that this storm isn't going to be much of anything, they are likely to sit on their complacency and wait to see what happens. I don't know how many different ways I can say this, but it isn't the weather or the earthquake or any other kind of "event" that causes a crisis — it's the people who get caught in the "event" that turns it into a crisis. If there were no people in the path, there would be no disaster.

One of the problems is that when most folks hear the word hurricane, they think wind. And, to be sure, there's plenty of wind. So folks think, "well, I'll just hunker down and stay out of the wind, and everything will be hunky dory." But statistically, it isn't the wind that creates most survival situations on land (at sea we can argue about the wind being a large component of the overall threat because of the wind-generated waves that wreak havoc against boats). It's the water. It's the rain — too much of it, falling too quickly.

Or, in low-lying coastal areas, it's the water in the form of storm surge that roars ashore almost like a liquid freight train, destroying everything for miles inland.

Sure, the wind will tear up some homes, push trees over on them, lift off roofs, blow away carports, knock down billboards, and break windows. And the wind sends debris flying like shrapnel, injuring those who get hit. But look at the numbers, and you'll see that it's the water that causes the lion's share of the death and destruction.

A recent example is this very hurricane that we're watching now. Ida swept El Salvador, killing (as of the latest count) 124 and displacing thousands. What caused these deaths? Too much water. Heavy rains in the wake of Ida triggered flooding and landslides. One mudslide wiped out the town of Verapaz in the pre-dawn hours on a Sunday morning, while many residents were still asleep.

And this morning, Ida is zeroing in on the U.S. Gulf Coast, and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials are warning residents in some areas to evacuate because of the impending threat of high winds, flooding and storm surge that could bring water ashore two to three feet deep.

Anybody with a memory of past storm disasters should already be loading their 72-hour kits in their car and heading away from the storm.

If you choose to ignore the warnings and evacuation orders, I don't want to hear any whining by those who stayed behind and got thumped.

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