Monday, August 29, 2011

The Lessons of Irene

This past weekend, my wife and I survived our first hurricane on the Delmarva Peninsula. Hurricane Irene brought tropical storm force winds and a drenching 20 hours of rain to Centreville and most other Eastern Shore environs. Thankfully our communities were mostly spared from the catastrophe that some had predicted; but as the sun dawns bright, and the skies a clear blue, maybe its time to reflect on the past week of weather.

-While I suppose an earthquake isn't technically weather, last Tuesday I felt my first earthquake while on the phone at my Washington office. It was over by the time I figured out just what was happening, and thinking that the novelty had quickly come and gone, kept on with my conversation with a colleague from Montana. After the phone call ended, however, I went into the street to find a Diet Coke, and what met me in the building lobby was pandamonium. Crowds milled around the streets with no purpose and certainly no direction. I wouldn't go so far as to call it chaos; but if this truly had been an emergency of any magnitude, well, lets just say that the ingredients for chaos were all there in the right quanitities. Federal and state governments spend a ton of taxpayer dollars on "homeland security," but incidences like this one prove that after all those billions, there is no workable plan to get people information.

-Which brings me to my next point, communications. There were none in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. Both cell phones and land lines were essentially useless in the couple hours after the event. Again, if this were a real emergency, those of us in downtown DC would be shutoff from the rest of the world in a way that would almost certainly be dangerous. It is somewhat frightening to know that the best method for staying informed during a low-level emergency were social media sites like Facebook.

-Fast forward a few days to Hurricane Irene. Both national and local news outlets were sold on the idea that Irene was going to be a catastrophe of the highest order; they then sought to sell that same idea to a general public all too willing to buy. Even the generally staid Weather Channel wasn't immune from the hyperbole, no longer simply forecasting weather but evoking a sort of doomsday expectation, a morbid and perverse attempt at higher ratings. Generally, the sensationalism of the news is something we can switch off and disregard, perhaps even chuckle at. But in this instance, when real information was needed, it was difficult to find the helpful amidst the high-pitched.

-As a result of this obsession with catastrophe (indeed seemingly encouraging it), my neck of the woods was ignored almost entirely. The Weather Channel, CNN, and every other national news outlet seemed to forget that a 500 mile wide hurricane cannot get to New York City from the Outer Banks without passing through Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I suppose that the potential for catastrophe just wasn't high enough on the Delmarva Peninsula for any meaningful coverage. But come to think of it, if the coverage is nothing more than vapid doomsaying, best to leave us out.

-We shouldn't cut every tree in every neighborhood down because occasionally a branch falls and breaks a window. Trees add to the quality of our lives, add to the livability of neighborhoods (if you don't believe that, go take a drive through treeless Northbrook). Sometimes they are dangerous (what isn't?) but let's not let a momentary passion possess us to do something we will regret for a long time.

-People can't drive. Generally speaking, we don't need bad weather to bear this out, but it becomes especially obvious in bad weather. If a red light is out at an intersection, it becomes a four way stop. It is not a license to barrel through as if you've never laid eyes on a drivers ed manual.

-The best lesson of Irene is that the Eastern Shore, and our small town of Centreville is a great place to call home. On Sunday, people came out to gossip and help each other clean up. I hear a lot about what is wrong with Queen Anne's County, but Irene helped us see a few things that are just right.

1 comment:

Jay C. said...

The communications situation was scary. Hopefully somebody (besides us) took notice. Buy a HAM radio, I guess, if you really want to talk to your family anywhere. F-ing ridiculous the lack of preparation in this country if anything really bad ever happened. On the plus side - our electric crews were super on the ball and deserve a huge thanks from the city for restoring power to most customers freaky fast. Maryland crews not handling things so well I hear.