Well, it's hurricane season, and we have a tropical storm and a tropical depression currently setting their sights on the Gulf of Mexico. Couple this with the fact that the surface water temperature in the Gulf -- the driver for storm size -- is in some places at a record high, over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The whole thing has me feeling distinctly twitchy.
a southern Louisianian born and bred. My father was from Lafayette, my
mother from Raceland. Despite spending the past thirty years in the frozen
North, a large part of my heart is still in the swamps where I was
raised. Southern Louisiana is a place of amazing natural beauty, and I
still miss the wonderful Cajun food and music on which I was raised.
hard to know what to say as I watch these storms bearing down on
the unprotected lowlands of the Gulf Coast. From 2000 miles away, I can
do little but check in on the NOAA's hurricane site
several times a day, and watch as the forecast track gets shorter and
shorter. For my family and friends who still live there, I can only
hope that as the storm progresses and its point of landfall becomes more
certain, that you will evacuate to safer places if you need to. After
that, all I can do is what I did with Katrina, Rita, and Wilma; sit and
wait. And watch.
This brings up, as reluctant as I am to say it,
the question of whether there are places in the world where people just
shouldn't live. New Orleans, much as I love the place (I have many
fond memories of strong coffee and beignets at the Café du Monde), tops
the list. Hit by another major hurricane, the levees will
eventually fail again. Half of the city is below sea level. How can
it be sensible to gamble with your life, family, and property in such a
The fault-zone area in Marin County, California. The Sea
Islands off the coast of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.
The foothills of Mount Rainier, Mount Shasta, Mount Hood, and Mount
Lassen, all of which are still active volcanoes. The canyon country of
south central California, with its wildfires and mudslides. Countless
volcanic islands in the Indonesian archipelago. The Stromboli region of
Italy, which is a ticking bomb for a Pompeii-style pyroclastic
eruption. All of these places are prone to natural disasters of
terrible magnitude. Ironically, all are places of incredible beauty.
Many are thickly populated; the volcanic ones are often important
farming regions because of the fertile soils.
I'm not foolish
enough to propose that all of these areas should be evacuated
permanently because of the risk. Besides the complete impracticality of
this, the sorry truth is that no place is truly safe. Even in the
geologically and meteorologically quiet area I currently live in -- the
Finger Lakes region of upstate New York -- we occasionally have major
storms. The first winter I lived here, 1992-1993, was the winter of the
never-to-be-forgotten "hundred-year storm," the Blizzard of '93, which
dropped 54 inches of snow on my little town in one weekend. (You can
imagine how traumatic that was for a transplanted Louisianian, for whom
"snow" was "that white stuff that's pictured on Christmas cards for some
Nowhere is safe, and everywhere you live is a
tradeoff. You simply pick what natural disasters you're most willing to
risk, and choose what benefits you want badly enough to risk them. And then, of course, there's the part about not blaming others for your choices, or expecting everyone to come rally around you when your house falls down due to a natural event you knew was likely to occur. Even given that, however, everyone has different standards for acceptable risk, and what they think would be worth the potential danger. I
would, for example, happily live in western California (if I could
afford it, which I can't) -- risking the earthquakes and wildfires to
have the wonderful climate, natural beauty, accessibility to the ocean,
and the ability to grow damn near anything in my garden. I would not
move to the Sea Islands -- beautiful as they are, one major hurricane
and the island in the bullseye could well simply cease to exist, along
with every structure and living thing on it.
I do, however,
wonder how much of that is because I've been through several hurricanes
(including Camille, the strongest hurricane ever to hit the Gulf Coast),
but I've never been in an earthquake. I know how completely terrifying
a hurricane is. I remember standing at night in my garage during
Hurricane Allen, which scored a direct hit on Lafayette, and watching
the strobe-light effect of the lightning strikes coming fifteen to
twenty seconds apart. The whole neighborhood would light up, and
there'd be a garbage can seemingly suspended in mid-air; then darkness.
Another flash, and you'd get a picture of a huge tree branch standing
on end in the middle of the street; then darkness. The roar is like
standing in front of a jet, and it doesn't let up for hours. With
Allen, we passed right through the eye -- all of a sudden, the wind
drops, and silence falls, and a spot of blue sky opens up; animals come
out, people come out, looking dazed. The air doesn't feel right; you're
at the point of lowest barometric pressure, and human senses have not
yet degenerated enough that we can't feel that something's wrong.
There's a breathlessness, a feeling that sound won't carry right. Then,
ten minutes later, maybe fifteen -- there's the first flutter of a
breeze, the leaves and branches stir. Everyone runs for cover. In
twenty minutes, the wind comes screaming back, from the other direction,
and it all starts again.
So I don't know how much of my
lighthearted willingness to live in an earthquake zone is simple
ignorance of what it's really like. They say (whoever "they" is),
"better the devil you know than the devil you don't know," but I've seen
the devil I know, and he's a mighty scary guy. I expect a sufficiently
long conversation with a Californian could well change my mind. After
all, my impressions of earthquakes come from my imagination; and in my
imagination I can say, "I could deal with that." It could well be that
the first little shake would leave me saying, "screw this, I'm outta
So here I sit, in my comfortable house in placid upstate
New York, watching the storms ramp up. I'm not a praying man, so to
say "I'm praying for the people along the Gulf Coast" would be an
outright lie, however noble the phrase sounds. All I have to fall back
on is the weakness of hope, and the breathless watching and waiting for
the inevitable to occur.