Monday, August 29, 2011

Who Sneers First Dies First

There are headlines in this morning's papers sneering at a storm that they claim was more hype than hurricane. Clearly the vultures who write such cant have never been through a major storm, and have little or no understanding of how capricious weather systems can be, even more so now that global warming is turning the weather chaotic and extreme. It is also clear that the people who write these headlines are reincarnations of those who used to attend spectacles in the Roman coliseum, hoping for a five-star bloodbath. Sorry to disappoint you, guys, this time around at any rate.

It is hard to see how a conservative estimate of three billion dollars worth of damage and 23 deaths [as of 10 PM GMT the count has risen to 35] is less than catastrophic for the people who have taken the full brunt of the storm. The enormous amount of rain that fell from this slow-moving weather system is still flowing into rivers vulnerable to flooding. One river in Pennsylvania has already reached levels not seen in 150 years.

It is hard to fault the Obama administration and the New York mayor for prudence, or FEMA for getting ready for an even worse event. As it is, this storm affected the largest number of people of any storm in history. New York had an extremely lucky break: if the winds had not diminished, there could have been far greater damage, not only to low-lying areas from flooding, but also to skyscrapers: wind speed increases geometrically with altitude. Not to mention the funnelling effect of New York's streets: anyone who has lived there, as I have, knows the danger of straight-line winds that can develop in its concrete canyons.

These headlines show the degrading of human mentality to a mechanized view of storms and tides. This alienation from nature is shocking and foolish. Anyone who has lived in an area where life depends on tides and respect for the weather knows how stupid it is to underestimate, to be ill-prepared. Many is the day when I was fishing in Alaska in perfect conditions only to have my interior alarm bells sound; I'd pull the gear and head in, feeling a bit of a fool. Nine times out of ten, however, the wind would start shrieking just as I entered the harbour, leaving my more macho colleagues to face seas that can grow from flat to 10 feet within a couple of minutes.

Tidal surges are also unpredictable, whether or not there is a storm. In Alaska one year, there was a spring tide that just kept coming: it was supposed to be 22 feet; it ended up being 24 or 25 feet. It is possible there had been an undersea landslip, but whatever the cause, it was frightening to stand in total helplessness as the small waves lapped higher and higher up the shingle.

Storms can arise seemingly from nowhere, especially at more northern latitudes. Ask the people of Boscastle or Cumbria. Ask the people who live along the Cornish and Welsh coasts, who live on the islands off of Scotland.

It is incredible that there are still those who doubt the human impact on the planet's weather and climate, who delude themselves about the fragility of ecosystems. Anyone who has lived close to nature knows how inconceivably fragile any ecosystem is. Only slight variations in such factors as temperature, animal birth rates, water availability can set major, often irreversible changes into motion. Anyone who lives in a place like Alaska sees the impact of global warming and the degrading of the environment on a daily basis. It is almost impossible to overestimate the damage already done, much less to anticipate the further damage to come, which in all likelihood will increase geometrically in terms of both acceleration and impact.

The excellent BBC programme on chaos/complexity theory was shown again only last week. The Secret Life of Chaos is still available on iPlayer. Watch it if you want to understand the forces at work over which we have absolutely no control, but which we can survive if we respect them and prepare.


Update: 3 PM GMT

The Wall Street Journal now reports 26 are dead in storm-related incidents.

CNN reports that the hurricane's damage extended far inland. Here is part of an account of the situation in Vermont, not a state usually associated with hurricanes:

Fueled by rain from Tropical Storm Irene, Vermont's normally tranquil streams turned into raging monsters Sunday night into early Monday, inundating towns, washing away four of the state's iconic covered bridges and killing at least one person.

The water was receding Monday morning, but not before inflicting some of the worst flooding the state has seen since 1927, according to state emergency officials.

Some towns were "entirely covered with water," said Mark Bosma, a spokesman for the state's emergency management division.
Virtually every waterway in the state flooded, and 260 roads were impacted in some way after as much as 6 inches of rain fell as Irene passed the state. ...

For instance, Otter Creek in Rutland, Vermont, went from a depth of less than 4 feet Sunday morning to more than 17 feet at 1:45 a.m. Monday -- nearly four feet higher than the record set in 1938, according to the National Weather Service. While it was falling Monday morning, it was still 8 feet above flood stage. ...

In Brattleboro, a city of 12,000 people on the New Hampshire border, Whetstone Brook flowed out of its banks and undermined a three-story building, threatening to bring it down.

"We've seen nothing like this," said Barbara Sondag, town manager for Brattleboro.

The rampaging waters also battered the state's iconic covered bridges.

Between four and six of the bridges were were lost, state emergency officials said.

Life-long resident Jesse Stone watched the White River rip away at the footings of the historic Quechee covered bridge as it washed through the heart of the town.

"It is just about impossible to imagine this bridge being taken out," Stone said in an iReport. "It's usually (way) above the water level."

In the ski resort town of Ludlow, near Okemo in south-central Vermont, town communications officer Dave Vanguilder said about three dozen roads in the area were closed. Three or four bridges were washed out.

For Chris Perkins of Washington, a weekend wedding turned into a longer commitment after rains cut off all routes out of Rochester.

"The bridges that connect the town to other areas have been washed out," according to iReporter Perkins. ...


Update 8 PM GMT

A friend who lives in the Northeast has sent a damage report:

Lost three trees. Ripped out of ground, roots and all. No power or water. Town has 100 percent without power or water. Trees and power lines down everywhere. Nearest prediction of when electric lines will be picked off road, trees removed off road and power and water back up is 7-10 days. I live in a beautiful shoreline community with state parks and beaches. They are all ruined. All sand off the beaches. Docks destroyed. Roads washed away.

. . . We won't be normal for weeks. My kids were supposed to start school today. Canceled until next week. This smart phone can charge in the car and connects me to the Internet and to texting and phonecalls.


Blogger Bo said...

Absolutely. Couldn't agree more.

1:16 pm, August 29, 2011  
Blogger Stella said...

An excellent article. Thank you.
When,oh when, will mankind wake up to what is happening to our beautiful planet?

6:25 pm, August 29, 2011  

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