Sunday, June 1, 2008

A Mighty Wind

Today is the start of the Atlantic/Caribbean hurricane season. Hurricanes are usually classified by their winds. The definition of a hurricane seems innocuous:

Main Entry: hur·ri·cane
Pronunciation: \ˈhər-ə-ˌkān, -i-kən, ˈhə-rə-, ˈhə-ri-\
Function: noun
Etymology: Spanish huracán, from Taino hurakán
Date: 1555
1 : a tropical cyclone with winds of 74 miles (119 kilometers) per hour or greater that occurs especially in the western Atlantic, that is usually accompanied by rain, thunder, and lightning, and that sometimes moves into temperate latitudes — see beaufort scale table
2 : something resembling a hurricane especially in its turmoil


The definition doesn't even include the fact that hurricanes produce storm surges. It is very inadequate to describe the destruction that can be generated by wind and storm surge.

In Mississippi, in cities such as Gulfport, Biloxi, Pascagoula, Bay St Louis, Lakeshore, and other coastal cities, time is demarcated by Before Hurricane Katrina and After Hurricane Katrina.

I'm so proud of the way we in Mississippi, looked at the miles upon miles of debris, the empty spaces where tens of thousands of homes once stood, the loss of businesses, and the loss of loved and resolved to rebuild better and stronger. That has been our slogan since August 29, 2005. I'm proud of the rebuilding that has been ongoing. From my eyes, great strides have been made in our rebuilding efforts. Therefore, I was slightly taken aback when a volunteer made the comment to the effect that it still looks like a bomb hit us. Where she saw the acres of empty spaces: I saw the debris gone. Where she saw sporadic rebuilding: I see how much has been rebuilt.

The news media has focused mainly on New Orleans. Even when the History Channel reports on Hurricane Katrina, it focuses on New Orleans while stating its documentary is about the Gulf Coast. Its documentary shows video footage from Biloxi and Bay St Louis while narrating about New Orleans. It briefly mentions Mississippi but doesn't have sub-titles when the footage is of Mississippi. Most documentaries about Hurricane Katrina are like that. The notable exception is the Weather Channel. Since Jim Cantore was in Gulfport Mississippi during Hurricane Katrina, he knows what we faced and narrates the documentary and tells our story very well.

As much as I like and admire Jim Cantore, I hope we are not visited by him this hurricane season when a mighty wind is looming in the Gulf of Mexico. His presence has come to mean we are going to be hit.

As destructive as Hurricane Katrina was, there was good that came out of her. I've seen first-hand the generosity of the people of the United States. It amazes and gladdens me that hundreds of thousands of people were and are still willing to give up so much of their time to volunteer and help us rebuild. In September 2005, I estimated it would take 10 or more years for us to replace the 65,000 Mississippi homes destroyed outright by Hurricane Katrina and to replace the 35,000 Mississippi homes which had to be demolished due to the damage by Hurricane Katrina.

It is a daunting task but our slogan still holds: "Rebuild better and stronger: Together". The news media may focus on New Orleans and it is their loss and ours. It leads to incidents when people are asked to share their Hurricane Katrina stories that someone from Gulfport will be told to sit-down and that nothing happened to Mississippi.

I want the Mississippi numbers to be seared into people's consciousness. Before Hurricane Katrina, the Mississippi Gulf Coast had a population of approximately 400,000. There were 238 people killed during Hurricane Katrina. There were 100,000 homes destroyed/demolished. Businesses such as the casinos, Chevron, Northrop Grumman, the Port of Gulfport(the third busiest in the Gulf of Mexico), and so many others that were heavily damaged or destroyed. There was loss of 20% of rental housing. Libraries, police stations, fire stations, city halls, court buildings, postal facilities, banks, power plants, water and sewage lines, and communication infrastructure that were destroyed.

Some police and fire stations still have trailers as their stations. Some court houses are still trailers. Libraries have yet to be rebuilt. Work is ongoing to repair water and sewage lines impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Work is still ongoing to repair power lines. Work is still ongoing to repair communication lines.

There is a lot to be done and I want Mississippi's story to be told. I'm so tired of every time I see or read about Hurricane Katrina, the focus is on New Orleans with just a blip about the Gulf Coast. Hurricane Katrina is two stories. New Orleans suffered levee breaks because of the massive storm surge which impacted the levees from the south via the Mississippi River and from the north, when the winds swung around and pushed the storm surge towards New Orleans. The pictures of a flooded city cannot be forgotten. Mississippi's story is not so well known. The Mississippi Gulf Coast has no levee system to protect us from the ravages of a hurricanes storm surge. We are not under sea level like many places in New Orleans.

Our story is one of a brutal storm surge that official guestimates place at 28 feet. I say guestimate because many of the gauges used by NOAA to determine storm surge height were destroyed. I guestimate the storm surge to have been 30 feet in Pass Christian and 26 feet in Back Bay Biloxi. The storm surge came far inland when it followed the rivers and creeks. I live 12 miles inland. Two miles to my west, there was flooding from Katrina's storm surge. The power plant was flooded and it is ten miles inland.

The Mississippi Gulf Coast faced a very different hurricane than New Orleans. The flooded homes seen of New Orleans leave an impact. The 100,000 homes of Mississippi no longer exist and the empty spaces do not grab the eye as the flooded ones do. It is not until you are on the ground and look in every direction that you can see the terrible destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina when her storm surge swept away so much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

I want the remarkable story of quiet determination of people like Noah, Lionel, Ms. Shannon, and so many others of the Mississippi Gulf Coast to be known. They lost all and with the help of family, friends, and volunteers, they are rebuilding their lives. Whether it was receiving a Katrina Cottage or rebuilding a home: each story deserves to remembered.

At this start of the 2008 hurricane season, as in years past, it is always best to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. The Harrison County Civil Defense has a very comprehensive list on being prepared.
It is not just people along the Gulf Coast that need to be prepared. In 1938, a hurricane skirted the coast of New England and caused major damage and the loss of 500 lives. Hurricanes need to be taken seriously. 1900 Galveston hurricane took 6,000 lives. Hurricane Camille had winds of 200 mph. It took the Mississippi Gulf Coast over 20 years to rebuild after her. Hurricane Ivan had both a destructive storm surge and destructive winds. My cousins finally finished rebuilding their home last year. As bad as the hurricanes are in the United States, we are fortunate to have the technology and the resources necessary to evacuate well ahead of impact. Myanmar recently suffered a cyclone. The death toll is still climbing but it is not the worst to impact that region. The Weather Underground archives show the deadliest cyclones/hurricanes. None from the United States are on the list. The recent Myanmar is tied #10 with the Great Bombay cyclone of 1882.

People in the United States hate to see others suffering. The news images of people being plucked from rooftops led to and unprecedented outpouring of donations and volunteers. Many were outraged at the seemingly slow response of the federal government. We don't want to see U.S. citizens or anyone in distress. A massive rescue operation took place in New Orleans. That story is buried under the unrealistic outrage at the supposed slow response. Think about it. What other country has the resources necessary to rescue in 6 days 50,000 trapped people? Much has been said about the lack of FEMA bringing water, ice, and food into New Orleans. The city was under water and people were being evacuated. The National Guard was correctly rationing water and food. Would it had made sense to allow volunteers who had no rescue training into a city that was being evacuated? The news media focused on stories of rape and murder. Those stories proved to be false and actually hampered rescue operations.

As I've stated before, the Mississippi Gulf Coast Hurricane Katrina is very different from New Orleans. Base don the destruction of rail lines, downed power lines, downed trees, debris across roads, and the destruction of major bridges and highways: I was astounded that the FEMA trucks full of water and ice arrived on the Mississippi the Wednesday, three days after Hurricane Katrina struck. I wasn't expecting them until at least Friday.

Because of the uncertainties involved with hurricanes, people need to prepare well in advance. If you wait until that big bulls eye is targeting your area, it is already too late. Personally, I start preparing two months before the start of the hurricane season.

When a hurricane strikes, you are told by the emergency management officials to prepare to be on your own for 3-5 days. Each town, city, county and state prepares for disasters. Drills are held for the government to get help to you at the minimum of 3 days and the maximum for 5 days. When a disaster of Katrina's magnitude strikes, if you are not personally and adequately prepared, you will suffer the consequences.

Any effective response begins with you. You are responsible for insuring that you, your family, and your pets have food, medicine, water, and the tools necessary to survive a disaster. When a Hurricane Katrina strikes, there will be no magic wands to replace destroyed infrastructure. There will be no instantaneous emergency response. There will be no magic to restore downed communication lines, power lines, or water and sewage lines.

The fire and police are no longer just a phone call away. If you even have a working land line, there may not even be a police or fire station left. The flick of a switch will not bring the safety and comfort of electricity.

You will not be able to pull up to a gas station with the expectation that there will be gas and the power to pump it if there is.

We are so used to having everything being at our fingertips. We tend to have unrealistic expectations as to how fast an emergency response should be. We criticize our government in order to improve that response. However, there are some disasters which have a such a wide range of destruction, that it just isn't possible to have that emergency response within a day. The swath of Hurricane Katrina's destruction was huge. An area almost the size of the country of England suffered catastrophic damage and destruction.

Much has been written about letting corporations such as Wal-Mart direct disaster response. Corporations do have the advantage of being vastly more flexible than government agencies. But even Wal-Mart doesn't have the rescue capabilities of the US Coast Guard, the National Guard, and individual states departments of wildlife and fisheries. Wal-Mart does have the logistical ability to provide water and ice faster but would that have worked in New Orleans? Again, the question arises as to how much should be attempted to be trucked in to a city that is being evacuated.

We don't like seeing US citizens being plucked from rooftops and then placed on highways. We want something to be done now. And it was being done. I think the focus was too much on FEMA trucks not rolling into New Orleans and too little on the rescue efforts of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the US Coast Guard, and the National Guard.

Too little focus was given to cities such as Houston Texas, Jackson Mississippi, Baton Rouge and so many others who opened centers to accommodate the evacuees. Too little focus was given to something truly remarkable: the doors individuals of those in Hattiesburg, Gulfport, Baton Rouge, and so many others were opened to provide shelter to those whose homes were destroyed or flooded.

The much greater story of hand reaching out to hand has been lost in the criticism. Far from being discouraged by the seeming lack of government: I'm grateful to live in such as country whose government(city, county, state, and federal), businesses, and citizens work together to provide what is needed to help others in distress.

Just look at Myanmar and you can see the difference of between an ineffective government and one that cares. There were mistakes made by FEMA and other agencies but given the scope of Hurricane Katrina's destruction, in reality it was an efficient disaster relief effort. It didn't happen overnight and nor should there have been expectation that all relief needs would be meet in that time.

That is why when a hurricane warning is given, all are told to prepare enough food and water to last 3-5 days. Based on the extent of the disaster, that is how long it may take for relief to start pouring in. It starts with you. You must take personal responsibility to be prepared to be on your own in the aftermath of a major disaster.

Things will be chaotic after a major disaster. I've related this before but feel it still needs to be said again. The police will not be a phone call away. I was fortunate my land line worked on and off. My cell phone would not work but my sister's in Biloxi worked. Two nights after Hurricane Katrina, my sister called me. She said there were strangers walking up and down her street. She could not call the Biloxi Police Department because of land line problems. I had to call the Biloxi Police Department for her. They did not think it strange that I, in Gulfport, were calling them for my sister in Biloxi. They took her address and my sister said it took 30 minutes for them to show up. But they did show up.

You begin to see the problems faced in the aftermath of a disaster. You have to be prepared. The government you are used to will not be there. The grocery stores will not have aisles of food ready for you to purchase. Gas stations will not gas. Home repair stores will run out of items very quickly. Flushing a toilet will not be a viable option each time you use it. The water will not pour forth from your faucets. A bath or shower will be a luxury. Food in your freezes and refrigerators will quickly spoil. Even if you have a gas-powered generator, you will have trouble finding gas to be able to run it.

You need to prepare and it needs to be done before a threat looms over the horizon. Yopu will be on your own. If you are prepared then you can share with your neighbors who may have lost everything.

2 comments:

Unknown said...

very informative.
I hope you don't mind I'm posting a link to this on discarded lies .

Anonymous said...

Thanks!