Floods, Harvey, and Climate

Harvey is currently centered over Louisiana. It’s a big storm, so part of it is still over Texas. When Harvey was a hurricane, wind was a problem. Now it’s water.

At least 33 folks have died. Many drowned. (NPR, BBC News (August 30, 2017))

I’ll take a look at one of those deaths, a refreshingly non-hysterical Harvey-related “climate change” piece, and why some folks most likely couldn’t have evacuated. Not on their own.


Names and Suits

Folks have given tropical cyclones names for a long time. Centuries. The storms were often named after places they affected, like the Great Galveston Hurricane in 1900.

Clement Wragge systematically named hurricanes toward the end of the 19th century. We re-invented his system. Eventually.

I think it’s a good idea. Partly because folks remember names better than catalog numbers. Most of us, that is.

Wragge was a Queensland Government Meteorologist. From 1887 to 1907, he took names from letters of the Greek alphabet and Greco-Roman female names. Then the Australian government didn’t set up a federal weather bureau with him as director.

After that he named cyclones after politicos. He retired in 1907 and folks stopped using his system. I’d have to know more about the personalities, language, and cultures involve to be sure: but I think at least some folks didn’t like the idea of naming storms.

Sir Napier Shaw said Wragge’s system was like a “child naming waves” in his “Manual of Meteorology.”

Folks, including newspaper editors, didn’t forget Wragge’s system. Some said it was a good idea, and we should use it.

I’m inclined to agree. Making data easy to understand and remember is a good idea.

Naming storms systematically started, again, in the mid-20th century. But not willingly. Suits at the United States Weather Bureau said giving storms names was “not appropriate” when warning the American public about storms.

Maybe they thought it was more important to avoid panicking the public, by not using scary words like “hurricane” and “tornado.” (August 27, 2017)

Thousands of unnecessary deaths later, we learned what had been going on. That was in 1953. The policy changed a few weeks later. (August 11, 2017)

So did the Weather Bureau.

What we now call the Storm Prediction Center got moved from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City, Missouri, in 1954.

I gather that a lot of Americans were thoroughly fed up at that point. We get that way, occasionally, and that’s another topic.

Maybe a bit of ‘not invented here’ was behind the Weather Bureau’s refusal to name hurricanes. U.S. Army Air Forces forecasters had started naming typhoons after their wives and girlfriends in 1944.

The forecasters noticed that giving the storms names was a good way to reduce confusion while discussing maps. The U.S. Armed Services officially adopted a list of women’s names for Pacific typhoons in 1945.

Starting in 1947, the Miami Air Force Hurricane Office started using the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet to name significant tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic Ocean.

Beecher, Michigan. June 9, 1953, following the June 8 tornado. From NOAA, used w/o permissionMaking sense to fellow-forecasters is one thing. Giving the public useful information is, perhaps, something else.

I’ll get back to that.

The Hurricane Office didn’t use those readily-remembered names in public bulletins, though. As I said, we were ‘protected’ by the feds until 1953.

My language has several names for the sort of storm that went through the Caribbean on its way to the American Gulf Coast.

When winds around their center are below above 74 miles an hour, 119 kilometers an hour, they’re hurricanes.

Or cyclonic storms with an adjective, if they’re over parts of the Indian Ocean. Other places, they’re tropical cyclones or typhoons.1

When the winds fall below various values, they’re tropical depressions, deep depressions, or tropical disturbances.They’re all the same sort of storm. Wind, location, and history account for their names.

We may, eventually, develop a standardized system for the whole planet. Meanwhile, I’m glad that we live in an era when we often get told that one’s coming.

Still Learning


(From NOAA Central Library, Silver Spring, Maryland; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
(Surface weather, 1935 Labor Day hurricane.)

I think, hope, that government officials in the ‘good old days’ meant well.

There may even have been a time when “yeoman farmers,” “planters,” and the “plain folk” really were prone to panic and couldn’t handle scary words.

I appreciate the motives of folks who supported Jeffersonian democracy and others who recognized that people who aren’t wealthy matter, too.

But many of my ancestors were hewers of water and drawers of wood; or, rather, the other way around.

I don’t think we were any more delicate than the lords and ladies we worked for.

I’ll grant that my forebears had the get-up-and-go to get up and leave the old country. But that’s true of nearly all Americans, except for folks like some of my extended family.

America’s really old families started as immigrants, too.

They arrived on foot, back when the Bering Strait was land. I still think it’s hilarious, sort of, that many folks who fuss about newcomers are descendants of other immigrants. (February 27, 2017; January 22, 2017)

Some official reluctance to say “hurricane” may have come from uncertainty.

Natural philosophers had studied weather long before 1835.

Forecasting started being possible when The electric telegraph let them share weather data, fast, across a continent.

And, eventually, across the globe. Ocean floor mapping for transatlantic cables indirectly helped scientists learn about plate tectonics, and that’s yet another topic. (August 11, 2017; February 17, 2017)

Today’s tech helps meteorologists make increasingly accurate forecasts.

And ‘the weather forecast was wrong’ jokes are still around. As I keep saying, we’re learning: and have much more left to learn.

A Little Science


(From Kelvinsong, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(“Diagram of a Northern hemisphere hurricane”
(Wikipedia))


(From From Jannev, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(“Tropical cyclones exhibit an overturning circulation where air inflows at low levels near the surface, rises in thunderstorm clouds, and outflows at high levels….”
(Wikipedia))

No matter what they’re called, tropical storms all work the same way.2 Sunlight shining on Earth’s ocean heats the water.

Water near the equator gets particularly warm. Earth’s poles are tilted, so water north of the equator heats up more in that hemisphere’s summer, and the process repeats during southern hemisphere summers.

When the water’s warm enough, tropical storms form and occasionally become hurricanes, typhoons, or whatever.

Hurricanes don’t form over the equator. Folks there get thunderstorms and the occasional tornado or waterspout. But hurricanes need what’s called Coriolis force — an inertial effect, actually, not a force. (July 14, 2017)

Hurricanes form in the northern and southern tropics. Our planet isn’t perfectly symmetrical, so they’re more common north of the equator.

Americans mostly hear about tropical storms in the Atlantic, but they’re in the Pacific, too. The biggest ones generally form near Asia.

One called Sanvu is now a typhoon. It’ll likely affect folks living in Japan.

Bangladesh, Nepal, and India have had heavy weather recently, too.

Being Prepared, Helping Each Other


(From Reuters, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The coastguard has been among the rescuers working to help stranded residents.”
(BBC News))

Earlier this week, someone noted that although Minnesota’s weather is a little extreme, our storms don’t have names. That, he said, was something to be thankful for.

He’s got a point. I’ve lived in the upper Midwest most of my life, and we’ve never had to evacuate a city.

We’ve been learning that building in flood plains is a bad idea, but getting folks out of low-lying areas hasn’t been a major issue.

Like I said Wednesday, Our lively weather pretty much guarantees that folks who make it through their first year develop situational awareness. (August 30, 2017)

At least one professor at a regional university didn’t last that long. He arrived in autumn, learned about winter, and left.

I like it here, but I grew up near the Minnesota-North Dakota border. San Francisco weather was nice but — boring.

Folks living on the Gulf Coast don’t have our advantages. Any one spot in that part of the world may go years, decades, without a major hurricane. My guess is that it’s hard to remember that ‘not recently’ doesn’t mean ‘never.’

For whatever reason, buildings near the Gulf Coast don’t seem to be designed around maximum stress levels.

That’s no problem most years. Then a hurricane comes along, and places like Rockport are in national news.

Ideally, everything we need for emergencies would be on hand and ready for use. We don’t live in an ideal world. The good news is that many folks help each other.

Urban Evacuation: Getting the Job Done


(From Texas National Guard, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Someone getting help from the Texas National Guard near Houston. (August 27, 2017))


(From Nick Oxford/Reuters, used w/o permission.)
(“Evacuees are transported to the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston.”
(Reuters))

Americans are also able to count on outfits like the National Guard to help. Again, it’s not a perfect system. But I think we do a pretty good job.

We’re also able, with varying degrees of competence, to improvise. I think the truck taking Houstonians to the George R. Brown Convention Center hauls garbage on most days. I haven’t confirmed that.

This photograph, with a caption that identified the truck’s everyday use, was removed from a BBC News article a few hours after it appeared.

Maybe someone complained, or was offended that Houston used a truck instead of providing limousine service. If I’d been in the back of that truck, I hope I’d have the sense to be glad I was alive, above water, and heading for a shelter.

Self-respect is okay,3 but being picky during an urban evacuation doesn’t make sense.

More of my take on Harvey:


1. The Child Lives


(From Angela Jacobs/KBMT, via 9news.com, used w/o permission.)

Beaumont mom dies saving her infant daughter during Harvey flooding
Mary Bowerman, 9news.com, USA Today/KBMT (August 30, 2017)

“A Texas mom died Tuesday while saving her infant daughter during Hurricane Harvey flooding in Beaumont, Texas, according to authorities….”

Houston floods: Toddler found clinging to mother’s body
BBC News (August 30, 2017)

A toddler is in stable condition in Texas after she was found clinging to her drowned mother’s body in a flooded canal during Tropical Storm Harvey.

“The mother was seen trying to save her 18-month-old from a flooded parking lot when they were swept away into a ditch, a Beaumont fire-rescue official said.

“A police and fire-rescue team in a boat found the pair about half a mile downstream….”

The woman and infant hadn’t been publicly identified the last time I checked.

Authorities in Beaumont know who she is. They’re waiting until the child’s father gets back home. He’s in for a rough patch in his life.

A BBC News article fills in a few gaps in earlier accounts. Someone had seen the woman give up trying to drive along a flooded traffic lane, and turn into a parking lot: also flooded. From there, she tried walking out, carrying her daughter. That did not end well.

I don’t know the circumstances, other that what I’ve read.

With 20-20 hindsight, I could say that she shouldn’t have been driving in the first place.

Maybe if she’d stayed with her vehicle, someone would have been able to reach her and the infant before the flood killed them. Or maybe not. I prefer focusing on what she was doing: trying to get her daughter out of a dangerous place.

I’ll assume that she had a good reason for being out, didn’t realize that she and her daughter had been spotted and might be rescued, and thought their chances were better if she tried walking out.

As it turned out, that may not have been her best option. Life, and sometimes death, includes decisions that seemed reasonable at the time. We often survive these ‘had I but known’ situations. Sometimes we don’t.

Family is important, and parents have obligations. One of them is recognizing that each child is a person, due the respect and care we owe anyone. Particularly those who depend on us. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 366, 1931, 2208, 22212231, 2273)

Knowing that she died trying — successfully — to save their child may be cold comfort to the surviving parent. When we lost our children, my wife survived. Barely, in one case. (October 9, 2016)

This man lacks that considerable comfort. I wish him well.


2. The Inevitable ‘Climate’ Angle


(From Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The intensity of rain in the Houston area is being linked to rising global temperatures”
(BBC News))

Hurricane Harvey: The link to climate change
Matt McGrath, BBC News (August 29, 2017)

When it comes to the causes of Hurricane Harvey, climate change is not a smoking gun.

“However, there are a few spent cartridge cases marked global warming in the immediate vicinity.

“Hurricanes are complex, naturally occurring beasts – extremely difficult to predict, with or without the backdrop of rising global temperatures.

“The scientific reality of attributing a role to climate change in worsening the impact of hurricanes is also hard to tease out simply because these are fairly rare events and there is not a huge amount of historical data….”

I read BBC ‘science’ news regularly. I like the range of topics they cover.

I’m not overly thrilled about their assumption that humans make Earth’s climate change, and that “climate change” causes bad storms. But I’m not surprised.

That assumption in a news service’s outlook is as unexpected as an ultra-right-wing group in 1950s America saying the communism is a menace.

On the other hand, I appreciate seeing phrases like “hard to tease out,” “fairly rare,” and “not a huge amount of historical data.” Someone at BBC News is thinking. That’s nice.

BBC News editors have their own viewpoints and assumptions, like anyone else.

But they also, to a remarkable extent, understand differences between fact, assertion, and opinion.

I also see evidence that someone on the staff knows how to use Google. Just as important, whoever it is takes a little time to fact-check assertions and opinions.

They do a good job of distinguishing between facts and opinions. But I don’t assume that everything on BBC News is therefore absolutely reliable.

They’ve got a discernible viewpoint. But someone there apparently realizes that ‘I feel that this is true’ isn’t necessarily the same as ‘this is true.’

Matt McGrath probably believes that global warming should be called “climate change” now, and that humans cause both.

As a writer, I appreciate his use of “smoking gun” and “a few spent cartridge cases.” That’s a good use of metaphor.

About hurricanes and “climate change,” I think he’s right. To an extent.

Science and Sense


(From Dragons flight, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

Let’s assume that Earth’s climate is changing. I think that’s a reasonable assumption.

Over the last few centuries, we’ve learned quite a bit about our planet. Some folks are still unwilling to believe that Earth is billions of years old.

I don’t “believe in” science. Not as an answer to questions like ‘why do we exist.’ But I’m willing to accept that facts and reality exist, and can be studied. I think using our brains is a good idea. (October 28, 2016; August 28, 2016; July 31, 2016)

More recently, we’ve been learning that Earth’s climate has changed. It’s changed a great deal. It would be astounding if it somehow stopped changing at this particular instant.

Folks who are fervently opposed to the notion that Earth is more than a few thousand years old apparently don’t like science. That’s understandable.

I could expect them to also assume that Earth is pretty much the same now as it was when it was new, and should stay that way. Some probably do.

Others acknowledge change, and have shown considerable imagination in making up stories that merge their assumptions about science and the Bible.

How well they manage the job depends, I think, on whether you view their work as fiction or scholarship.

I might enjoy less-verbose inheritors of the Thomas Hawkins tradition more, if painfully-religious folks accepted their alternative reality as fiction.

My appreciation of Hawkin’s florid prose may help explain my enjoyment of Lovecraft’s tales, even though I don’t share his apparent assumptions about science. (May 5, 2017; December 16, 2016)

Oddly enough, ‘Bible thumpers’ don’t seem to be going ballistic over climate change.

Folks who take the newspaper-headline version of science seriously apparently believe that Earth’s climate was exactly right at some point in the very recent past.

Maybe they’re thinking of the time between the years 400 and 600 AD. Or 1400 to 1600.

If ‘Sunday supplement science’ folks are going to be consistent, they could blame feudalism for the Medieval Warm Period. I suppose the Little Ice Age could be blamed on the Portugal’s ‘imperial oppression’ of Brazil. (May 26, 2017; January 20, 2017)

I don’t think either claim would make much sense.

But, like I said, I do think Earth’s climate is still changing.

We’re experiencing, at the moment, warmer weather — on average — than anything since the Medieval Warm Period.

What we should do with this knowledge is something I’ll talk about in another post.

Pursuing Knowledge

I’ll give ‘climate activists’ credit for taking their convictions seriously.

It’s hard to miss their fervent cries that Earth’s climate should remain even as it was before, and every more should be forever and ever.

So sayeth the experts, may they ever remain anonymous and omniscient, even unto the end of the age, amen.

Oi. If this keeps up, I wonder how many folks will take religion or science seriously a generation from now.

I sympathize a bit with folks who assume that science deals with facts and logic, and that religious folks fear both. But I don’t agree. (May 7, 2017; March 31, 2017)

Sympathizing with folks who believe that science and technology will kill us all? I see their point, almost. But I think they’re also wrong. (May 26, 2017; October 30, 2016)

I’m a Catholic. I take God and faith very seriously.

I take science seriously, too. Real science, not political propaganda with allegedly-scientific trimmings or the weirdness called “creation science.”

Politics hasn’t had the same reputation since Machiavelli’s book hit the best-seller list, the Thirty Years’ War did no one any favors, and that’s yet again another topic. Topics. (July 14, 2017; August 4, 2017; October 28, 2016)

I’d probably be fascinated by science even if I’d never heard of Jesus. I love truth, and learning: including what we are learning about this universe.

I see the virtuous pagans in Thomas More’s Utopia as possible, if hypothetical, examples of what humanity can achieve.

Since I am a Christian, a Catholic, I see faith as a reasoned and conscious embrace of truth. All truth. (Catechism, 142150, 283, 341)

Pursuing truth will lead me to God, if I’m doing it honestly. (Catechism, 27, 3135, 74)

Given what I believe, fearing truth or the systematic pursuit of knowledge would be illogical. (May 7, 2017; October 28, 2016)


3. Reality and Options


(From BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Judie McRae did not have the means to flee before the storm struck”
(BBC News))

Harvey: Too poor to flee the hurricane
James Cook, BBC News (August 27, 2017)

In the detritus of Hurricane Harvey a splash of red, white and blue catches the eye.

“It is a rain-sodden American flag, half-hidden under the green leaves of fallen trees.

“A few paces away Judie McRae, 44, is inspecting the damage to her trailer home.

“Judie has lived more than half of her life here but she says this is her first hurricane. She spent it hunkered down in bed, unable to sleep.

“She does not want to see another one….”

This is a BBC News piece that I thought might not have been adequately fact-checked.

I remember the ‘good old days,’ when American culture was shifting from older “poor but honest” assumptions to the current ‘oppressed poor’ notion. I think old and new knee-jerk responses both fall short of reality.

About “poor but honest,” let’s think about it.

Why wouldn’t someone who is poor be more, or less, honest than someone who is rich?

I suspect that someone from an impoverished background would have excuses for dishonesty that didn’t match those of a person born into an affluent family. But they’d both have the same reasons for honoring truth. (Catechism, 24652492)

Whether an individual is aware of the underlying reasons for ethical standards is — still another topic.

I don’t have a problem with folks having, or not having, stuff. What matters, I think, is what we do with what we’ve got. (September 25, 2016)

Having lived on both sides of the 50th percentile probably helps.

In any case, money isn’t the problem. It’s love of money. Poverty isn’t a virtue. Detachment is. (1 Timothy 6:10; Hebrews 13:5; Catechism, 2540, 2544)

Where was I? Science, death, Lovecraft, history, truth. Right.

I didn’t dismiss the possibility that folks in this woman’s situation would have trouble evacuating. But I wasn’t going to accept a reporter’s assertion that it was not possible. There were enough facts in the article to get me started.

Comparisons


(From Google Maps, used w/o permission.)

Rockport, Texas, is about twice the size of the town where I live. It’s not a major city, but folks there have access to roads and a marina. It’s not exactly isolated.

Folks in Judie McRae’s neighborhood remind me of folks here. While the reporter was talking to her, someone stopped by. He was checking on one of her neighbors. The man hadn’t, apparently, heard from the neighbor since the storm: and was concerned.

Judie’s neighbor, happily, wasn’t under what was left of his home. Where he was, and whether he survived, I don’t know. I’m pretty sure that folks who know him have either found out by now, or are still searching. Humans can be persistent, if we see a need.

Rockport’s major land connections are paved roads: US-181 S and TX-35 N. The closest town is Taft. It’s a tad smaller than Sauk Centre. Nobody in Taft died when Harvey’s eye went by, but quite a few houses were severely damaged.

Lets say, though, that someone in Judie’s neighborhood, with her resources, decided that evacuating to Taft was a good idea.

There’s a hurricane coming. If her neighbor has car, motorcycle, or even a bicycle, driving or riding to Taft wouldn’t be hard. During good weather. Taft is about 27.3 miles, 43.9 kilometers. By car, that’s a nice 29 minute trip.

Travel and Weather


(From AFP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Rockport has not been destroyed by the storm but it is in bad shape”
(BBC News))

With a hurricane’s outer storm systems in operation, the trip might not be so nice. But it might be possible. In a car or truck.

On a motorcycle? Someone who was sufficiently young, male, and/or risk-loving might think it was worth a shot.

I think the trip would be exhilarating, while it lasted.

On a bicycle? I’m not sure how crazy or desperate someone would have to be.

Quite a bit of the Rockport-to-Taft route is through open country. It’s flat, with nothing but a few road signs to stop the wind.

Climate and proximity to the sea aside, it reminds me of the Red River of the North, where I grew up: good farmland, but breezy.

My guess is that on that sort of road, during a hurricane — being somewhere else would be the best option.

Someone at azcentral.com figured that someone in reasonably good health could walk 26 miles in six to 13 hours. In good weather.

Young and Crazy: But Not That Crazy

Rockport-to-Taft, at the ‘azcentral.com’ rate, would take around six hours and 20 minutes to 16 hours and 50 minutes. Again, in good weather.

That’s a lot of walking, but doable.

During a storm that may become a hurricane before I reach Taft? It’s still doable. Barely. For most folks. Not me. I’m in my mid-60s, with health issues.

Someone in good condition, with life-or-death motivation, and “death” as the most likely result of staying in Rockport, might start walking.

But even at the peak of my ‘young, male, and crazy’ youth, I might have thought taking a 27-mile stroll through open country — in weather that tosses SUVs around and shreds buildings — would be imprudent.

With no vehicle, and Harvey coming, I might think my odds were better in a trailer hunkered under something. Not good, but better.

Doing What We Can

This op-ed, in Monday’s Fortune magazine, made another point about ‘evacuate or stay’ decisions:

“…To evacuate, you also need to have a place to stay. People who do not have family or friends nearby with the space to shelter them and the disposable income to feed them will need to stay in a hotel or live in their cars. They will also need to buy and find a way to cook food, or pay to eat out for an indeterminate length of time….

“…Studies and surveys persistently show that almost half of Americans have not saved enough to cover a $1,000 unplanned emergency such as a hurricane evacuation. Only about 20% could use a credit card to pay for the emergency, and approximately 10% could borrow from friends or family….”
(A. Mechele Dickerson, Fortune (August 28, 2017))

I don’t know how valid the $1,000 cost for self-funded evacuation is. But the basic idea makes sense. Going someplace else takes money. Another factor is employment.

Some of my bosses were reasonable, some weren’t, and some simply couldn’t have kept my job open if I took an unscheduled trip. It’s not a matter of being “fair.” Employers have expenses, needs, and limitations too.

My household has a vehicle with a half-full fuel tank at the moment. We might be able to evacuate if we had to. Provided that our vehicle didn’t end up under a tree.

Someone in or near Rockport has a ton or so of scrap metal that had been a truck before Harvey.

I’ve had times when I was in Judie McRae’s situation:

“…’I had some problems getting out of town, a little broke and stuff, so I had to come home and, you know, tough it out,’ she says. ‘We’re all the working class people.

“‘We’re the ones who go to the restaurants and wait on you and pick up your trash and do all that work. We don’t have a lot of money.’…”
(James Cook, BBC News)

Some Americans have resources that let us build storm-hardened houses. Some of us don’t. Like Rockport and most if not all of America, trailer parks are part of many towns and cities here in Minnesota.

We may be a bit ahead of the game here, thanks in part to our lively weather. We’ve never had a hurricane, but there’s interesting weather in most years.

That encourages a certain situational awareness, and makes planning ahead a more obvious priority. Sometimes legislators get the memo, and do something sensible.

327C – 2016 Minnesota Statutes says, among other things, that trailer parks must have an evacuation plan or shelter. Just as important, the statute says that residents must receive a written copy of the evacuation or shelter procedures.

It’s not a perfect solution, but like I keep saying: this isn’t a perfect world. Not yet.

But we’re working on it. And that’s — another topic:


1 A storm by any other name:

2 Rotating tropical storms:

3 Make that healthy self-respect, the sort of humility that recognizes a person’s own dignity, and humanity’s transcendent dignity. (Catechism, 1700, 1730, 1780, 1929, 2407, 2559, 2546)

Some of my take on humility, dignity, and getting a grip:

About Brian H. Gill

I'm a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I'm only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.
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