As a native of Northern Maine, then a resident of the Chesapeake Bay area, I have seen a lot of bad weather in five decades. I’ve seen some of it from the deck of a sailboat. When a hurricane threatens to march through the Atlantic states and into the Maritimes, I pay attention.
Television has dulled our understanding of natural phenomena, despite all the news coverage and true adventure programmes. After Hurricane Irene hit the East Coast, people were, at times, misled by the fact that the winds dropped to tropical storm force; there weren’t pines and oaks toppling in the wind. Roofs weren’t peeling away from buildings. “It didn’t look so bad,” many people said, despite the heavy and at times near-apocalyptic rain.
So many people thought of hurricanes as something like Katrina, or the 1961 Carla, which hit Texas and Louisiana. Wind, lots of wind, winds over 100 mph; buildings blowing down, vehicles overturned, people knocked down as they fled for cover. But even in the big Gulf storms, the storm surges and flooding from heavy rain took the most lives and caused the most damage. East Coast storms lose speed quickly when they make landfall, almost always degrading quickly to tropical storms or post-tropical storms. Sometimes they have veered back over the Atlantic, gained energy, and made a second landfall.
East Coast storms don’t pick up as much energy because as they move north, the Atlantic cools quickly. This may change as Atlantic waters continue to increase in temperature. Bigger and stronger storms may be the result, so that when they do make landfall, they will be more destructive.
Modern people are disconnected from the experience of nature. People who go out on jetties and piers in storm surges are intrigued by the sensation of the storm. But their experience of water crashing around them is from water parks, or from watching fictionalized adventure on television. The aerated wave pools and splash experience at a water park is a relatively small mass of water. Real waves, with miles and miles of wind-driven force behind them, have the energy in a big storm equivalent to a falling building. The early reports of injuries during Storm Irene were of thrill seekers and gawkers getting in the direct path of surges and surf.
Later, other people, who had to abandon vehicles as water rose rapidly on flooded roads, said they had gone out because the wind wasn’t that strong, and they weren’t concerned about “just rain.” A very few lives were lost in unanticipated ways, such as trees falling on buildings, but many of those lost were in cars. There was at least one life lost to fire; others were homeless as a result of losing homes to fires started by improper use of candles.
Vermont was badly hit by the storm. The state seems to have been where the most rain was unleashed, and the rainfall in the mountains quickly ran down to roadways and rivers, causing flooding and undermining roadbed foundations, taking out bridges, washing away buildings. So many factors contribute to the nature of a storm and what will happen subsequently: Those in its path need to always be prepared for the worst. The disaster preparation agencies weren’t wrong, nor were they alarmist. Every major storm is a study in chaos theory.
And despite being a culture with incredible access to information, we still manage, on an individual basis, to ignore it. This had been my advice as people waited for Hurricane Irene.
1. Pay heed to weather warnings. Plan to be in a safe place in the window of time when the storm affected your area.
2. Have basic supplies on hand – water, nonperishable food that can be consumed without cooking, blankets, flashlights. Don’t be tempted to go out in the storm because you don’t have supplies.
3. Evacuate if you are advised to do so. Don’t risk the lives of rescue personnel by bravado, or for fear that vandals and looters will damage your property while you are gone.
4. Stay indoors during and immediately after the storm. Although it may not be raining hard anymore where you are, it is raining upstream. Water will continue to rise. Power lines are down. Electricity and water are a deadly combination.
5. Don’t use candles if you can help it. Flashlights are safer, of course. And don’t use an old fireplace that hasn’t been cleaned or repaired in years. Generally, unless you are well prepared, and use a woodstove or fireplace regularly, don’t expect that everything is in order.
6. Don’t use charcoal grills such as hibachis indoors, even in a fireplace. Don’t use gas grills indoors. The potential for carbon monoxide poisoning is very high.
7.A generator isn’t much use at the last minute if you have never used one before. Improperly connected, they can cause a lot of damage. Improperly installed or operated, there is a high risk of carbon monoxide poisoning and fire. A generator cannot be operated safely inside a building, even a garage. One case of carbon monoxide poisoning resulted when a generator was installed outside a building, but a window directly over it was left open. If you have medical equipment that requires a power supply, either buy one of the portable battery packs that can be charged beforehand on household current, or be in a hospital waiting room when the power goes out.
8.Don’t drink before or during the storm. This is not an occasion for a party. If something goes terribly wrong, you will need all your faculties.
9. Secure pets and farm animals inside. If you must evacuate, have a plan for them that will not put you back in danger.
10. Plan for the next weather phenomenon. The atmosphere is more volatile now, due to increasing global temperatures. The oceans are warming, sea levels are rising. Trim back trees around the house and buildings so they won’t come crashing through a roof or wall. Move valuable equipment to higher ground and keep it there. Keep a supply of drinking water and flashlight batteries in the house. Invest in culverts and ditches on farms where needed. Don’t buy property in a flood plain; look into flood insurance if it is recommended for your location.
I really need to add that if the local authorities and experts tell you to take in outdoor equipment, do so. You may be unconcerned about losing your patio table, but your neighbour will be very concerned if it comes crashing through his car window. Also, hurricanes will spawn tornadoes, so don’t turn off the weather channel just because the worst is over. There may be more to come.