Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Pick Your (Weather) Poison

Every area has its natural hazard, whether it’s hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, blizzards, or earthquakes.
I write this with Hurricane Isaac having shed much rain and wind on Vero Beach on its way to New Orleans, seven years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. Considering that the path Isaac took was through the Gulf of Mexico, the amount of rain dumped on the Atlantic coast of Florida caused more flooding than Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004, and Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

New Orleans braced for Hurricane Isaac, confident that the levees would protect the city sheltered in their embrace. They didn’t order mandatory evacuations, but suggested that anyone outside of the levee system who felt uncomfortable staying should leave.
Today people who stayed were interviewed, and more than one expressed regret that they hadn’t left town. The levees held, but some were breached by overflowing waters. Ironically, areas flooded because the water was held captive within the levees.

I’ve lived in Florida for over 20 years. I lived in Fort Lauderdale when Hurricane Andrew hit; and I lived in Vero Beach when Hurricanes Frances, Jeanne and Wilma hit. The damage is incredible, and the aftermath is not pretty. Loss of power, downed trees and tree limbs and palm fronds, flooded streets, lack of services – no thank you, I’ll get out of town.
There is too much emphasis placed on the strength of the storm. “It’s only a Category 1, no need to worry,” is a common sentiment. To get a feeling for what a Category 1 storm feels like, drive your car 70 mph with the windows down during a driving rain storm. Then decide whether it’s nothing.

The trouble with Isaac, as it was with Jeanne in 2004, is that if even a Category 1 storm moves slowly it dumps huge amounts of rain on an area. The biggest problems aren’t necessarily from wind strength; flooding can cause more problems than wind damage.
Water saturates the ground, weakening the support system for tree roots, and making it easier for the wind to lift the trees out of the ground. Living on the Treasure Coast, I saw the damage to the citrus crop from Frances and Jeanne. The water sat and damaged the roots; the wind abraded the fruit and scarred it, which made it okay for canneries and cattle but less so for eating out of hand – pretty fruit makes it to market, ugly fruit goes for juice.

Hurricane reporting is so much better than it was 10 years ago, but people need to make their decision on worst case scenario. Rely on your desire, or lack thereof, to stay housebound for days on end without power if the storm is bad. If you choose to stay, be prepared; there is no obligation to find you and provide food and shelter – the city/county/state will be busy cleaning up and restoring power and other services.
Enjoy the benign embrace of Mother Nature, and be prepared for her wrath. Ignore her at your peril.


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