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THOMPSON: Hurricanes are nature's way of balancing the books

September 11, 2017 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


I am not a meteorologist, but I am an expert on hurricanes. Now, to be clear, my expertise stems not from formal education…but from experience…kind of like how a professional boxer is an expert on concussions.

A friend recently asked, “Why do hurricanes even exist?” Not a bad question, really. The short and simple - but absolutely true - answer is that hurricanes are nature’s way of balancing the books. They dissipate heat from equatorial areas to polar areas in summer. During winter, hurricanes’ cousins - blizzards and nor’easters - spread the cold toward the equator. You really have to marvel at Mother Nature.
 
Growing up in Florida, hurricanes - like sunshine, palm trees and white sand beaches - were more or less a fact of life. As both a child and an adult, I witnessed firsthand the devastation and sheer terror that define hurricanes. It turns out that I have been in or arrived to help just after four of the ten worst hurricanes to ever hit the United States.

Hurricane Donna - a catastrophic storm that hit the peninsula in September of 1960 - was the first I actually remember. I was ten years old and recall vividly my dad taking my brother, Clark, and me into the backyard as the eye of the hurricane passed over our house.

It was as eerie as you might think…total silence…no birds...not a breath of air stirring. This after enduring winds in excess of 100 mph before the calm of the storm’s eye. Donna’s winds had slowed from 160 mph when it first came ashore in the Florida Keys. Still, to this day, it is the only Atlantic hurricane to produce hurricane force winds - 74 mph or more - all the way up the east coast to New England.

We waited maybe ten minutes in the backyard before first hearing the wind and then seeing mature trees bending as the hurricane’s inner wall moved toward us across the big field in back of our house. Dad rushed us back inside to ride out the storm. My father - a master carpenter - helped build our new house and he was no doubt pleased to see it weather the storm with only minor damage. The storm bent our television antennae pole - yes, I’m that old - leaving the antennae rods to roll back and forth across the roof.

I can’t tell you exactly how many hurricanes I lived through in the 1950s and 1960s…but names like Alma, Debbie and Ginny, among others, are in my memory. It used to be that all hurricanes were given women’s names, but in 1978 men’s names were added to Pacific storms and a year later to Atlantic storms. Today, the World Meteorological Organization names the storms, alternating male and female names on a rolling six-year rotation. Severe storm names - like Katrina and Harvey - are never used again in sensitivity to loss of life and property.

Of course, growing up in Florida I also experienced scores of unarmed tropical depressions and summer thunderstorms with four-inch-per-hour rainfalls and gale-force winds (32-63 mph) that were both terrifying and destructive. Some spawned tornadoes, which were even scarier.

One of the worst hurricanes to ever hit North America was Camille on Aug. 18, 1969. The storm’s eye made landfall at Waveland, Mississippi in the middle of the night with an estimated 190 mph sustained winds and gusts up to 205 mph. The winds were estimated at landfall because all of the wind-recording devices were destroyed…uprooted by the winds.

A series of small towns line the beach on the Mississippi Gulf Coast…with names like Gulfport, Bay St. Louis, Biloxi, Pascagoula and Pass Christian. Single road signs inform you that you’re now leaving one community and entering another.

My timing could not have been much worse…as I joined the U.S. Air Force and was stationed at first at Keesler Air Force Base near Biloxi, about 38 miles east of ground zero, and that area took the brunt of the storm. Hurricanes are most powerful on the right side of the storm…the northeast quadrant. So, Camille’s highest winds and the tornadoes it spawned hit towns east of the eye - like Pascagoula and Pass Christian - especially hard.

The devastation was incredible. The area looked like a war zone and I was among thousands of military and civilians cleaning up the area for months afterward. Nearly 20,000 homes were destroyed or suffered major damage, making them uninhabitable. The damage was assessed at $1.42 Billion U.S.…that’s more than $9 Billion U.S. in today’s dollars.

Some places - like the Richeleau Apartments and Baricev’s Seafood Harbor restaurant on the beach - were gone without a trace. The only things left…concrete slabs and re-bar bent at 90-degree angles stripped of concrete like devoured chicken drumsticks.

An oil tanker longer than a football field was pushed ashore…sitting upright on land north of the beach road, U.S. Highway 90, nearly an eighth of a mile from the Gulf waters. It’s hard to imagine if you’ve never seen it…but even minimal hurricane-force winds can hurl an eight-foot two-by-four through a concrete block wall much like a knife through soft butter.

My experiences with hurricanes was far from over. On August 16, 1992, Hurricane Andrew hit Homestead, FL, with sustained winds of 165 mph. It completely destroyed more than 63,000 homes, with another 120,000 uninhabitable. The total price tag…more than $46 Billion in 2017 dollars. Only Katrina, and Harvey, were more costly.

I drove three hours to Miami from my home in Bonita Springs on the Gulf coast two days after Andrew to check on friends who lived in the storm-stricken areas. I had to leave for Ireland three days later on business, but I loaded up bottled water and some non-perishable food just in case.

I found my first set of friends in Coral Gables, a community just south of Miami…they were fine but with a hole in the roof of their home and lots of water damage. Then, I tried to find friends who lived in Homestead, but was stopped by a Florida Highway Patrolman a few miles away.

“All the street signs are gone,” he told me. “You’ll never find them. There’s nothing left…the homes were blown away.” I returned home crestfallen…and with a sense of dread.

Five days later, when I was in Ireland, I heard from my friends, a young couple with a child. They were all okay - including the family dog - alive because they all huddled in total darkness in a small bathroom as howling winds surrounded them. When they opened the bathroom door five hours after taking refuge…all of their home but that bathroom’s walls and ceiling were gone. They all cried, my friend said, more from the joy of being alive than losing everything.

My last hurricane experience was 12 years ago with Katrina. I’ve had a close tie with New Orleans for more than 45 years…a lot of culinary friends, good memories and a culture that I dearly love. I helped clean up and re-build after Katrina…it was like home.

It was - and anyone who has been in a natural disaster understands this - the best and worst of times. You bond with people on an elemental level. You know you’re doing good…the right thing…but it’s exhausting and emotionally draining. Like the movie, “Groundhog Day,” every day looks and feels the same. You work hard but everything…everything…seems like an uphill battle. Still, somehow you smile and even find reasons to laugh.

At this writing - Thursday preceding Monday’s posting of my column - forecasters are unsure exactly where the latest storm, Hurricane Irma, might make landfall in Florida. As you read this, you’ll know where it hit and a rough idea of the damage to life and property. I hope the millions of people in its path took appropriate action. And, with our property in Florida possibly in harm’s way, my wife and I simply hope for the best. We are here…safe…and that is everything. I know…because I’m a hurricane expert.

– Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.  His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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