Thursday, September 7, 2017

Why Irma Scares the Hell Out of Me (...And Probably Should Scare You Too)

Until very recently I lived in Gainesville, Florida. For eighteen years, from the summer of 1999, I called that bucolic and indefatigably smarty-farty little burg my home, and the best part is that I'd had no particular exigency for moving there in the first place: I visited for a pair of (mercifully unsuccessful) job interviews in '97 and '98, liked the place, and ... well ... just moved there. It was home for me until the first of August when I relocated to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. None of which is the topic of today's column. The topic of today's column is that I want very, very much for my friends and loved ones still living in the Sunshine State to be very, very, very afraid of Hurricane Irma. Moreso than at least some of them are. This column is an open letter to them, crafted with love but backed with the deepest and most shamelessly melodramatic of concern. My case for worry has four basic points.

1. Irma is projected to remain uncharacteristically and improbably strong. I'm no meteorologist and I'm not even a particularly seasoned spectator of these things -- but from what little I've observed, the standard pattern of Atlantic hurricanes is that they rapidly lose power and impetus after their first landfall in the Continental US. Even Hurricane Harvey, which unleashed that positively gob-smacking rainfall total on Harris County Texas, was only so destructive because of its stalled track directly over the City of Houston. In terms of wind damage, Harvey was effectively over in the first hour or so after slamming into Galveston.

For whatever reason, Irma is *not* predicted to behave this way. Again, I'm no weatherman, but I can read an NHC Hurricane Prediction map, and there's something about this one that merits special attention as of this writing (which is 5:40PM September 7th, Cambodia time, or 6:40AM September 7th, Florida / East Coast time). Let's take a look at an un-annotated version of the map, first:

This is the map that has engendered such widespread "relief" among my Florida peeps--which may not even *ostensibly* make good sense if you don't live there, so let me explain their thinking, here. As recently as 36 hours ago, the cone for Irma was projected by the NHC to ride straight up the spine of the Florida peninsula, indeed in an almost eerily balletic concert with the two coastlines, and thus pass directly over the roofs of my mother and her husband in Lake Wales, and about 150 of my closest friends in Gainesville. People from both quarters were genuinely anguished and not afraid to say so on social media. Today the NHC's projection is instead for yet another hit along Florida's Atlantic Coast -- e.g. Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Jupiter, Vero Beach, St Augustine, Daytona, Jacksonville.

Hearing this, friends of mine are expressing a relief predicated on their experience of past events with similar trajectories. It happens that hurricanes have been doing this sort of thing rather a lot in the past few years, and while St Augustine is certainly none the better-off for it, the relatively sheltered inland locations of both Lake Wales and Gainesville have left them with little to show for all the excitement besides a free day of yard-debris pickups from their local waste collection agencies and the occasional all-clear on Facebook and Instagram for worried well-wishers from quarters too far away to appreciate the local geography. 

But here's the thing about that: It is a faulty basis for comparison, and therefore alarmingly -- perhaps even recklessly -- dangerous. To see why, note first of all that the NHC places a black circle at the location where it expects the eye of the hurricane at various key points in time (corresponding with each flight of their airborne reconnaissance teams, if it comes to that), and inside those black circles, it places white letters. These white letters are coded to correspond with their model's predictions for the storm's intensity: If the storm is projected to be a Tropical Depression (sustained winds less than 35mph), the letter in the black circle is a "D." If it's projected to be a Tropical Storm, the circle gets an "S." Hurricanes are designated with a letter "H." But if the models are projecting the storm to be a Major Hurricane (Category 3 or higher, with sustained winds in excess of 110 MPH), the white letter in the black circle is designated as an "M."

Okay, now let me show you that cone-map again:

With this map, the NHC is saying as of this hour that it expects Irma to remain a MAJOR HURRICANE as it skirts the Florida coastline, at least as far north as a position dead-abeam of most of the people I most care about in the world. And that's just not something for which Lake Wales'ians or Gainesvill'ians are prepared, to even the remotest degree. Which brings me to point number two:

2. As far as I'm aware, there's simply no precedent for a storm of this intensity passing this close to either of these two places. In 2004 Hurricane Charley went straight over my mother and stepfather's roof (and, as an aside, they were purely lucky that they weren't killed for very, very foolishly staying in their house instead of evacuating). But Charley was a Category 1 hurricane when it did this. Not a Category 3 or 4 or 5.

Later that same summer, Gainesville was visited by Tropical Storms Frances and Jean, the second one looping around in the Atlantic to hit Gainesville a second time, a week later. These were Tropical Storms, you understand. According to the deep data archive on the NHC's website, the maximum sustained wind experienced at the Gainesville Regional Airport, for that entire hurricane season, was 32 miles per hour. And power was off at my house for ten days. Three close friends endured the excitement of having trees fall on their houses, and two more were lucky not to be killed in their cars. From a storm that produced 32-mile-per-hour winds.

Gainesville is the first city ever to receive the "Tree City USA" designation, as a result of a 60s-era initiative championed by Lady Bird Johnson. Mrs Johnson loved trees very much -- and fair play to her for doing so -- but it is unlikely that she ever stopped to consider what an eighty-foot canopy of mixed hard- and softwoods, stretching for as far as the eye could see in every direction, would imply for the safety of life and property if you templated it down onto the heads of 350,000 people living and working in the pulsating heart of Hurricane Alley. As I used to tell my students at the local two-year college, living in Gainesville during hurricane season is not unlike living inside a locked missile silo: The odds of the missile going off are low, but if it ever does you are going to really regret it.

As far as I can tell from my research, it never has. There is no official record of a 1-minute sustained hurricane-force wind occurring in Gainesville, going all the way back to when such records were first kept. If it happens this weekend, as seems likely, it will be something for which the supposedly battle-hardened poo-poo'ers are utterly unprepared. They think they've come to understand Atlantic-coast-skirting hurricanes by precedent; there simply is no precedent for a Category 3, 4, or 5 hurricane parking itself as close to the city as St. Augustine. They simply don't know what they're talking about. Which brings me to uncomfortable point number three.

3. Some of my smartest and most generally proactive friends are displaying alarming levels of complacency.
For me one of the pleasures of living in Cambodia has been the unlikely solitude. ("It's like a hermit cave on top of a mountain, but catered" is how I've described the situation more than once.) But with Irma's appearance and its ominous predicted track -- to say nothing of the devastation it has wrought already -- I've abandoned my self-indulgent Kerouac routine to reach out to some of my key friends in Gainesville, and essentially without exception I've been laughed off as a drama queen.

One friend of mine said he'd cannibalize the picket fence from his garden to cover his windows if things got dicey, ignoring the facts that (a) there isn't enough fence, (b) it isn't stressed for the job, (c) there'd be no way to attach it, and (d) by the time it seemed like a good idea it would be lethal folly to try. Another friend said that there was "nothing" that could be done, so we all may as well "hope it goes someplace else." A third friend, when asked about a fourth, drolly replied, "Oh, he'll probably just stay home; he always does."

I don't want to reach for melodrama, here, but these are *precisely* the things people are recorded as having said just before they are killed in natural disasters for which they cavalierly chose not to mitigate their risk. It may be true, as my mother told me yesterday, that it is already too late to brave the congested highways for an evacuation (which, by the way, I'm calling bullshit on, given the tone of everyone else's disposition toward this thing), but even if it's no longer safe to leave, it's certainly not too late to trim-back tree branches, tape windows, move vehicles to parking garages, refill prescriptions and plan on hunkering in an interior room away from windows. (Incidentally, Mr. Picket-Fence-Over-the-Windows Guy also laughed-off that suggestion, saying -- drolly *and* wrongly -- that his house doesn't have any rooms without windows. His downstairs bathroom has no windows and I know that after having seen the inside of it for all of about thirty seconds at a Christmas party.

The other thing a person could do, if he were inclined to take this seriously, is stock up. But only if he or she chose to do so very, very quickly. Which brings me to uncomfortable point number four:

4. As a strategy, complacency has a finite shelf-life.
Among religious believers the great tragedy of the Noah's Ark story is that when it finally did start to rain, all the people who'd laughed at Noah were locked out of his boat. They pounded on the door but Noah had been ordered not to let them in, and they drowned.

I'm about as much a religious person as I am a meteorologist, but when it comes to hurricane preparedness the Noah story has some serious legs, people: You can't decide that the NHC's prediction was a little less standard than you thought it was, the day after tomorrow. There won't be anyplace left open to go to, and the few open stores won't have anything left to buy. If you think that a Category 3, or 4, or 5 hurricane is going to be an 80-minute drive up the highway at midnight on Monday, the time to get your water and your ice and your batteries and your plywood (if there's even still any plywood, which I doubt) is now.

Again, and with the same disclaimer for melodrama, my friends are shirking this responsibility in precisely the tone of people who bought Mai-Tai mixers in the run-up to Katrina. And the window for changing course on that mindset is closing -- literally -- by the minute.

I can't change anyone's mind with a blog column (probably). I don't get listened to or taken seriously when the subject is something I went to school for seven years for, much less when the topic is atmospheric science and my lone citation is of a little white letter in a little black circle on a map. But here's the thing: I am worried. And I could have added, "And that really is all that I can do," but I won't, because it wasn't. I could write this column, saying so. There was this one, little, other thing that I could do, besides worry.

And, unlike at least some of my smartest friends, I've done it.

Please, everyone stay safe. I love you all.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

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