In Defense of Hurricane Laura
OK, I am no stranger to tropical storms. Hurricane-prone Louisiana was my childhood home Our Cameron Parish duck camp was exactly under 2005 Hurricane Rita and Laura’s 27 August 2020 eye-track. Later I was a USGS coastal wetland researcher out of Lafayette, Lousisiana and actually published several peer reviewed journal articles on Hurricane Andrew’s wind speeds and ultimate effects on marsh configuration.
However, today 5,000 km northwest of Louisiana in northern Canada, I am having trouble sifting the real story from hurricane headlines. Reporting has changed in my lifetime and all the news anchors are trying to out-hype the others, thereby growing storm surges from 10 to 20 feet, urging the storm to hit Category 5, invoking the “unsurvivability” clause as in “WE ALL GONNA DIE MAN’”, seeking out the most graphic wind shots, using garish and threatening colors and fonts. It is really like a hyperbolic video game but maybe that is required to scare people into departing.
Thirty years ago, all one had to do to evacuate Cameron Parish was whisper “Hurican . . . “ and their cars were rolling north. They had family members who remembered Hurricane Audrey that killed 400 mostly un-warned rural people when the eye wall landed between Cameron and Sabine pass, not unlike today’s storm. The Audrey survivors all knew people who spent the night with snakes on tops of houses and clung to floating roof tops moving up to 15 miles across the marshes. The stories were real to them and my Cajun friends Livaday Conner and Israel Foster, both rural marsh dwellers in their 50’s during Audrey, were in their prime when it hit. They had to retrieve human bodies, burn bloated cattle, remove the snakes, dead fish and alligators from dwellings, and rebuild houses, fences and canals. That memory is fading however and maybe Laura will reinvigorate it.
I had friends in Pecan Island who wanted to demonize hurricanes as an “out-there spectre of doom”. They didn’t like it when I defended the storms by reminding them that hurricanes pre-date humanity. Entire inland ecosystems and ranch livelihoods are reliant on tropical storm and hurricane energy bringing rain into the far reaches of dry west Texas, recharging groundwater, and helping rivers flow for years afterward. Coastal pine forests alternately are felled and re-invigorated, thereby setting back plant succession (what we now do less effectively with a chainsaw and logging truck). Coastal zones benefit from the lifting of millions of tons of rich yet idle, bay bottom mud onto marsh surfaces, cutting new channels in clogged barrier islands, mounding new coastal sand dunes, refreshing oyster reefs, and uncovering trillions of viable plant seeds buried under dark muck. The problem is, with a great system of denial, hubris and ego, us humans have built our lives in the path of this natural bulldozer and think our dikes, storm weirs, FEMA, insurance, elevated houses, and evacuation plans can thwart the energy pulse. Nope. Despite our love of the predictable and human control, it is a delusion and fallacy.
I have heard large-scale thinkers describe hurricanes as the energy escape valve for an overheated Gulf. Not unlike the little worrisome rubber gasket I often stared at on my Mother’s pressure cooker pot. If the hissing weight failed to do its job, that gasket was to blow before the pot became a shrapnel bomb. Hurricanes are that rubber gasket. If the Gulf of Mexico actually remained heated to 28 degrees C to a depth of 60 meters as it was yesterday, it could jeopardize fisheries, weather patterns, coral reefs, currents up the east coast, and reconfigure livelihoods in many unpredictable ways. The churning, evaporative cooling and massive internal wave currents created by hurricanes dilute that heat-stratified gulf with upwelling currents (capable of lifting 40 kg coral blocks from the gulf bottom!) all work to cool down this inland sea.
The myopia occurs when our whole world and understanding of ecosystems is confined to the man-made veneer of commerce and dwelling on the earth surface. I am reminded that if we examined an ordinary display globe of the earth with its printed paper-covering of the earth’s continents, the highest and lowest points on earth would not display enough topography (to scale) to exceed the thickness of the printed paper covering of that hand held model. Think about it for a moment. We occupy a tiny, fragile, dynamic living skin of this planet. We humans are compressed into a narrow veneer of viability. We are sandwiched between two zones of certain death. Above our heads are freezing atmospheric winds bathed by deadly bombarding solar irradiation. Just below our feet lies a thousand km of roiling molten nickel and silica. Whenever these two death-makers dip into our worlds via polar vortices, unbearable heat waves, or upwelling volcanoes, we might be reminded of our vulnerability and powerlessness.
Talk about humbling! One of the miracles of life is that we can survive at all. It is almost accidental! I won’t invoke deities or religion here but, understandably, many do. Maybe the lack of humility is why I so dislike the media hype. Their messaging implies disasters are unique and that blame and demonization are appropriate. More insidiously though, I suspect the business of news’ primary motive is to sell emotion, gain viewership and capitalize on advertising. Thus, we have to wade through all that hyperbole to actually observe dispassionate phenomena and make our own judgements; the very judgements and color they want to make for us. Rise up sheep! Even the naming and personification of storms misdirects public sentiment and implies a malevolent intent of nature towards mankind when the obverse is far more accurate.
We try mightily to abrogate or abnegate -both words work here- responsibility for our land use decisions made in a state of denial. At least we are consistent; our denial systems work non-stop regarding population control, petroleum stocks, water availability and climate change. We have been well-trained to not look too far into the future. In fact, many ideologies throw up their hands and build in an inevitable Armageddon clause so they don’t have to carry these worrisome burdens of our future each day.
The human tragedy is not dispassionate. The whole of humanity is one of tragedy if we let our expiration define our success or failure. We all die, we all fail. From natural phenomena humanity mostly occupies patches of earth in the shadows of fire, earthquake, freezing, flooding, hurricanes, insect-borne disease, tsunamis, sea level rise, or drought, because people need to live, love, procreate and work somewhere, risks and all. The truly ill-advised living locations become the only places the poor can afford. Consider living below sea level in New Orlean’s hurricane alley; in densely forested rural pineywoods or Appalachian hillside; on liquefaction-prone fill soils in earthquake zones, in energy-sucking deep freeze conditions of Siberia or central Canada; beneath steep and unstable hillsides in the earthquake zones of the Himalayan Mountains; or in the rapidly heating desert zones of the Middle East where world heat records were broken last week (August 2020). If you could afford to move to safety you probably would.
It is not as if these events are totally unexpected either. In every case it is a matter of “when” and not “if”, so make your peace with Damocles, take out a little more insurance, join a fundamentalist religion with all the answers, but remain ready to rework your life after an event. Without schadenfreude, but with full appreciation, maybe we should enjoy the safe and healthy times between catastrophes even more — that gratitude thing — and build our acceptance, humility, and resilience to bounce back when something really big knocks us down.