As a lifelong Arkansan, my professional interaction with weather horrors involves mostly tornadoes, some floods. I have a little experience with hurricanes, most of it after the fact.
I spent almost eight weeks reporting in Louisiana and Mississippi in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It made landfall a few hours before I arrived in New Orleans, having driven against her winds and rain, and dodged her tornadoes, from mid-Mississippi south to the Big Easy. That was the late summer of a dozen summers ago, but the memories, to include the stench of death, are still vivid.
Twenty years earlier it was Hugo, which savaged the coasts of the Carolinas, reducing homes to rubble and making toothpicks of a great national forest.
Katrina’s death toll (in the whole of this hemisphere) was never officially established; no one disputes that it exceeded 1,200 and some estimates take it to almost 2,000. The dollar loss was put at $108 billion.
Hugo claimed no fewer than 50 lives, and the tab ran to $10 billion (about $15 billion in today’s money).
No one yet knows the price of Harvey and Irma, this year’s demons, the two mammoth hurricanes that have tormented the southern and eastern edges of the U.S. after ravaging the Caribbean. It may be days before the human toll can be measured, although we know the storms have ended several lives on our shores and ten times that number in the near Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.
As for property: structures (dwellings, resorts and other businesses, plus civic buildings including schools and hospitals); vehicles, aircraft and boats; crops, tourism bookings, refining and manufacturing. And public infrastructure: streets, highways, bridges, water and sewer systems, generating stations and power lines, telephone service (cellular and landline). Set aside overtime for first responders and repair crews, and the cost of rescuing, feeding and sheltering the stranded and the displaced. Estimates range from $50 to $150 billion, to include the damage inflicted on previously edenic atolls, some of them U.S. territories (the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico) and others under French, British or Dutch rule. And Cuba, under less representative governance.
Now, consider that cities and communities on or near the coast were lucky. Only that, lucky. Suggesting as much to someone who has lost a loved one, or a home or livelihood, is not recommended, though already dozens of state and local officials are acknowledging that only happenstance spared their territories far worse travail. A few degrees of the compass one way or another, a few degrees difference in ocean temperatures, and a dozen American cities in about as many states would more nearly resemble the splinters that today are all that remain of those tiny isles in the Caribe. And, evacuation orders notwithstanding, in would have come the big mobile mortuaries, their refrigeration equipment and thick doors unable to contain the withering, unforgettable odor of decomposition.
My several other brushes with hurricanes were familial, of a sort: my wife’s parents owned a condominium on the Florida Gulf Coast, on Navarre Beach, a barrier island getaway popular with many Arkansans. When I say on the beach I mean, on the beach. Right there, only a few yards of sand between the surf and the deck. Come get me, the condo taunted, and, one after another — Alberto and Opal and Ivan and Dennis — they obliged. In the 25 years my in-laws owned it, using it primarily as a weekend and summer retreat, they spent more time awaiting its repair (and, after one hurricane, its complete reconstruction) than they did inside it.
They weren’t simply lucky; they were smart. They heeded the warnings and evacuated. So they survived.
Arkansas, by and large, has been lucky. (And here, all sympathy for those too many Arkansans who fortune did not favor when the tornadoes and high water roared through). Our principal advantage against the elements is simple geography: we are inland. The deaths and damage from the twisters, even the most powerful of them, that I have covered over almost a half-century pale against the carnage wrought by the ferocity that characterize hurricanes.
The point here is not to argue climate change; leave the politics of an issue that ought never have been politicized to another moment. Nor is it to indulge a reporter his recollections. Rather, it is to note that one storm system has, in a single state and in a span of hours, robbed more than double the population of Arkansas without electricity. We may be inland, we may still be more rural than urban (if increasingly less so), but we are not immune to natural disaster. Ask not only your weatherman, ask a geologist.
Are we ready?