Monday, August 29, 2005

Katrina: Mother of All Hurricanes

Hurricane Katrina caught our attention early in Central Florida, certainly before she blew her way into the rest of the nation's consciousness. Although even for us she was a bit of a Stealth Storm, seemingly nothing more than an atmospheric postnatal depression until she decided to go all threatening on us. Her approach was confusing for the 5- and 6-year old sons of my friend Katrena, who lives down the street. (She spells her name with an 'e' as distinct from the Hurricane Spelling.) Her sons kept saying, "Mom, how come everyone's talking about Katrena coming when you're right here?" So she had to explain they were all worried about a hurricane, not her. I was thinking maybe they should just start calling the storm Hurricane Mom. Well, little did we know this thing would explode into a Category 5 storm after it passed through South Florida last week. We watched its progress closely, even canceling a neighborhood party for Saturday evening in case Katrina made a Charley-like right hook, as that storm did last year, in a path across Central Florida. In fact, one of the TV forecasts showed us all the "projected paths" of Katrina. Well I have to point out that this forecast model looked like a gigantic tangled ball of string! HELLO. I can forecast "anytime, anywhere, any speed, any direction" quite capably on my own. Katrina was "only" a Category I as it swept over South Florida, hitting south of Fort Lauderdale with 80 mph winds, raking the Miami area and leaving up to 12 inches of rain. Nine people died, and at the height of the storm about 2.5 million were without power. Many are still living electricity-free lives, and may be for weeks. Damage estimates range from one to four billion. DOLLARS. So trying to extrapolate that information to a city the size of New Orleans (1.3 million in the immediate vicinity), and a storm with Category 5 winds (155+ mph) is almost impossible. All day Sunday I heard cable news anchors talk about "catastrophic" damage. It's probably appropriate that many of them seemed at a loss to calculate exactly what that might mean, in terms of lives, dollars or the future of a city that may never be the same. I feel confident no damage estimates were given because they have NO IDEA how expensive this thing can be. The mind starts shutting down after a figure like ten billion is reached. There are only so many zeroes I can contemplate in the face of a monster storm that threatens to take possibly more lives than were lost on 9/11. Is this looming event as big as that? Quite possibly. Economically the effect could very well be larger than the 9/11 terrorist strikes. I can imagine insurance companies going under. Who can afford to re-build a city like New Orleans if, as many fear, it is not only leveled, but then flooded with water that cannot get pumped out for weeks, if not months? What will happen to our oil drilling and shipping capacities in the region? Nobody knows. The coverage on Sunday was interesting, to say the least. One tourist from New York City was interviewed. He looked like he had stepped right off one of the subway trains after seeing a Yankee game in the Bronx. Cap on. New Yawk accent. Gold chain. Gold tooth. Eerily big smile. No one should be smiling from the French Quarter with a Category 5 hurricane scheduled to visit. Anyway, they asked this guy why he didn't leave downtown New Orleans. He said, "I just GOT here!" And anyway, he'd come by bus. He didn't have a ride back. But he seemed strangely cheerful in the face of possibilities including discomfort, injury, even death. They asked if he was afraid. "Naw," he said, still smiling. "They had the Titanic here in 1969. People survived that, so they can survive this!" Eh. Well I can appreciate the comparison with the Titanic. Probably they should have a really great jazz band playing some upbeat tunes as this thing roars into the French Quarter. But it was Hurricane Camille that grazed the area in 1969 with Category 5 winds. And don't forget that Bubonic Plague outbreak from 1985! Oh, that wasn't the U.S. Wrong century too. But people survived! Somehow I think this fellow was impervious to facts, so it's probably just as well that he seemed blissfully unaware of them. Another guy said he was not evacuating because it would be difficult to transport his ill mother-in-law, so he, his wife and his wife's mother were going to take shelter in a downtown hotel "at least three floors up." That was to avoid the flooding, but don't forget the higher you go, the windier it gets! Almost certainly everyone will be without power after the storm, so I can't imagine how comfortable it will be in that hotel with no electricity, water or food. And cable. You might not even know if help is coming or when it's expected. This fellow had left his house keys with a neighbor whose house is only one story, figuring if "for some reason there was flooding, she could go to our two-story house." For some reason? I think we've got a good handle on the reason. Then I saw THOUSANDS of people lined up to spend the night in the Superdome, home of the New Orleans Saints. I'm thinking boy, I REALLY wouldn't want to ride out a hurricane there. Are they sure the roof will hold up? Supposedly it's been tested in 130 mph winds, but Katrena's got a pair of scalpers tickets and will likely hit at windspeeds higher than that. What a way to test the roof. They're saying tens of thousands of people will take shelter there. And it was taking HOURS to process them because they had to go through every bag looking for contraband like weapons or alcohol, People were lugging coolers, suitcases, giant green trash bags, even dragging their stuff in laundry baskets. Many of the people were poor, and "for some reason didn't choose to evacuate," according to one anchor. Would that reason be lack of transportation, or a shortage of money for a hotel? I'm thinking YES! I feel sorry for everyone who could not evacuate. Particularly kids, who are going to be frightened when they hear this freight train-like storm rattling outside. I hope everyone is in a solid structure, because the wooden ones may not hold up. They're speculating it may take months, if not years, for life to get back to normal in New Orleans. No. Kidding. Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if they surveyed the devastation and decided to start over, rebuilding New Orleans on higher ground. The ultimate impact on the oil industry and economy is unknown. All I can tell you is we gassed up our cars this weekend. This can't be good for gas prices. The storm is only hours from hitting the Louisiana coast with Category 5 winds. As I've described these things in previous posts, "bearing down on the area like a fully-dilated pregnant woman." You know it's coming. You know it's going to be painful. You hope you're going to survive it. There's no way you're getting out of this experience. Truly, this is the Mother of All Hurricanes.

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