Until I was 22 years old, I spend my life dwelling in the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona. Hurricanes, and in fact, extreme weather of any kind, was something you watched on the news, but never experienced. I do remember a winter, ’77 or ’78 perhaps, when the Salt River Project was unable to deal with the water flowing into their lakes and they had to release massive amounts of water which wiped out all but one or two of the bridges across the normally dry channel through Phoenix, created traffic nightmares, and flooded some small towns up river. But for the most part, extreme weather was never a reality.
Two weeks after moving to the Texas coast, a category five storm named Allen pointed itself at Matagorda Bay, and caused half a million people, myself included, to scramble away from the coast. After we’d fled, the storm turned south and ravaged Mexico, but it didn’t take me long to learn to keep a watchful eye on the weather forecast from June to November. After experiencing three hurricanes–one of each category from one to three–while living there, and one very persistent tropical storm that probably did more damage than a major hurricane would have, I can tell you that there was no hype with regard to Irene. Unless you’ve experienced one, you can’t really know. And I’d say that there are a lot of people in Vermont and Connecticut today who are glad for all of the information that came from the attention.
The fearful night of September 13-14, 2008 when Hurricane Ike made landfall right on top of Galveston Island, and then buzzed right up I-45 through Houston is still very clear in my memory. Hunkered down in our house in the southwest suburbs of Houston, we endured hurricane force winds up to and in excess of 100 mph for eleven hours. The air was full of bits of debris, pieces of shingles, tree branches and limbs, and in our area, pine cones were turned into projectiles that made loud bangs and thumps as they smashed against the wall and the roof of the house. The power went out at a little after 11 p.m., the speed of the wind picked up, and rain poured, or rather, slashed across the area in heavy downpours. The greatest danger from Ike was the storm surge, which pushed over the seawall at Galveston, and backed up the bay, causing it to overflow all around its shores, including coming into Galveston from the back side. The high winds blew thousands of windows out of skyscrapers downtown, raining shards of glass down on the streets below. By midmorning, when the winds died down and the storm cleared the area, our neighborhood was a carpet of downed tree limbs, broken, battered fences, houses with swaths of shingles and tar paper missing, and overflowing storm drains and bayous.
The “wind tunnel” effect of 100 mph winds through the canyons of streets in downtown Houston was responsible for sucking out the skyscraper windows. For months afterward, Houston buildings had distinguishable yellow plywood patches covering places where the glass blew out. And I was amazed at the fact that, though this was only a “Cat 2” storm, there were many homes and buildings that experienced major destruction, in some cases, total destruction, as a result of the wind and rain combination. The insurance settlement at our church, which is located in the I-45 corridor, right along the path the eye wall of the storm took, was more than a quarter of a million dollars.
Irene was blocked by the geography of North Carolina, which sticks out into the Atlantic like a large elbow, and which toned down the wind and messed up the eye to the point of causing the storm to become downgraded by the time it hit New York. But the storm surge was still there, parts of New York and New Jersey did flood, along with rivers coming out of their banks in Philadelphia, and downed trees wrecked houses and knocked out power in Connecticut. In 2002, a tropical storm named Allison dropped 40 inches of rain on Houston in less than 24 hours, causing catastrophic flooding, major damage and loss of life. The potential for all of that came right up the coast with this storm, and the end result wasn’t pretty. Hurricanes are bad storms, even the lowest category storms are potential killers and cause major property damage.
The fact that this storm headed for the heavily populated lowlands along the Northeast coast warranted hype. From Maryland to New England, the I-95 corridor, from the coast inland, is home to a larger concentration of people than live anywhere else in the United States. And most of the land they live on in those areas is not very far above sea level. Think about it. New York City has a population of almost nine million people, with a metro area of 20 million, and it is a city built on islands in the delta of the Hudson River. The only part of New York City on the mainland is the Bronx. Texas officials learned in 2005 with the Rita evacuation that it is impossible to evacuate a metropolitan area of almost 5 million people just a few days ahead of a hurricane. From Washington to Boston, there are more than 50 million people. How do they evacuate?
Irene was a menace worthy of the coverage she got.