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Unpopular Ideas

Ramblings and Digressions from out of left field, and beyond....

Location: Piedmont of Virginia, United States

All human history, and just about everything else as well, consists of a never-ending struggle against ignorance.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Storm Drill, or Going Out on the Limb with Rita

When I was a child, and I assume still today, regularly something mysterious and irritating would happen at school, more "official" than most of the other mysterious and irritating goings-on there. A bell or a gong or something would ring and the teachers would herd everybody outside, where we would have to stand and wait, sometimes in the freezing cold, looking at each other with blank, vacuous expressions, till told we could file back inside. These aberrations were called fire drills but that was just a name given to an exercise that seemed so unnecessary to us, conducted by the teachers for their own diabolical and unfathomable purposes. As there were never any fires in the school and we had never heard of any being there, no connection could be made.

With the slow approach of the large hurricane, Rita, the authorities and the Weather Channel are acting in a very responsible manner. They are busily advising everyone in and around Galveston and Houston to get out on the highway and leave. And millions are obeying, while sagely mentioning Katrina. All the same, though those authorities obviously have no choice, I can't help thinking that the fates will ultimately arrange things so that it will look as if some mass hysteria was at work here.

Of course the people of Galveston have good reason to run. Their protective sea wall, built after their forebears were so horribly hit in 1900, was originally 17 feet high but has now "settled in"to 15 feet in places, and Rita could send surges higher than that, maybe enough to cover the whole island. Houston, more inland, has low-lying areas, too, and it touches a bay that adjoins the Gulf, but a lot of it is on higher ground, on an average, I've heard, of 45 feet.

New Orleans on the other hand is a special case. Unlike Houston, and Galveston, too, most of it is below sea level. It is surrounded by high levees, with a big lake on one side and a big river running through it. After Katrina the water had no good way to get back out any time soon, because too many of the pumps intended for that job had been disabled. But in Galveston and Houston the water will run right back out into the Gulf, of its own accord.

The authorities and the Weather Channel have no choice. Still, just as with the numerous terror alerts, where the authorities do have a choice and exercise them too often for questionable purposes, I wonder if it occurs to these mayoral and weather authorities that they could be contributing to some unnecessary fear and a lot of discomfort and a waste of good gasoline by urging people to get out of Houston so fast and so generally. Maybe -- as I think is in the back of storm tracker Jim Castore's mind for all his urging people to leave -- they even risk helping to set the stage for a different sort of catastrophe, for, strangely, in a state with 26 refineries, lots of those cars are running out of gas while on the road. It wouldn't do for them to be sitting there disabled and blocking others, when the first rain bands and strong winds arrive. And meanwhile their vehicles could be getting in the way of those driven by people fleeing from the more vulnerable coastal areas, including some in already hard-hit Louisiana.

Like children at a fire drill, lots of those evacuating could be forgetting their earlier wisdom, as they wonder if this effort is worth it, finding themselves stranded in their cars in traffic for nine or ten hours or more in what amounts to a sudden Texas desert, complete with record heat, nowhere to get something to eat, no bathrooms, no gas, and no air-conditioning because that would exhaust the little gas that they do have.

If I had had the poor judgment to live in Houston, I think I would still be there instead of melting down from the heat and frustration on the highway. I admit, I'm one of those foolish souls who would resist leaving wherever I was, till I saw the storm surge approaching, and then I would wonder if it really has my number, while thinking, Naw!

I doubt that I would be alone. Somebody sneered at the hurricane parties that used to be so popular on the Atlantic and the Gulf coasts, and spoke of how Katrina changed all that. If that's true, I would bet that it is purely temporary.

One of my ideas of Texans is that they like big, out of control parties. Maybe after this storm a lot of Houstonians will ask themselves why they chose to submit themselves to the interstate pressure cooker and in so doing passed up the chance for a good storm blast at home, sitting up on a height of some kind and throwing back a few while watching all the brightly painted pleasure boats merrily crashing against each other down in all the little marinas next to the dock of the bay, while the wind roared and the rain pelted and then quickly enough drifted off somewhere else, probably to say "Hi there" to all those sitting dazed in their SUVs somewhere in the howling hinterlands.

There are still grounds for optimism. The projected path keeps drifting farther east, so that now it looks as if the center will pass between Houston and New Orleans, and Houston will see the less lethal left front quadrant of the storm.


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