Thursday, September 2, 2010

Hurricanes? Again?

Given my tenure aboard a precariously thin barrier island situated along Florida’s northern gulf coast, I can honestly say that I’ve weathered my fair share of hurricanes. In those years, I somewhat grudgingly learned that despite the dangers and the inconveniences hurricanes bring, like most things in life, they have their upsides as well.

I recall those powerful tropical storms as the only force which could disturb the Floridian high-pressure Shangri-La – blue, cloudless skies, highs in the 90s (35 C), lows in the 70s (23 C). Indeed, a hurricane rolling in was one of the only things that could thin the crowds of tourists, so adamantly were they determined to be On Vacation. The winds created exciting surf from the usually flat, placid coastal waters of the gulf. Given the endlessly repetitive, admittedly perfect Florida summer days, storms provided some relief from the innocuous, mundane weather sought with fervor by vacationers, beach bums and sun worshipers.

The highly-organized weather systems which so often damaged and sometimes completely obliterated the frail human toeholds on the coast were in fact an ecological process with generally beneficial results for the rest of the gulf’s denizens. True, some sea turtle nests drown, and some nesting shorebirds colonies are flooded when the storm arrives, but the following season those turtles, terns and skimmers return to newly-created habitat, wrested from the grip of coastal plant succession and high-rise condos. Psychological escape from fair-weather boredom and the maintenance of ecological diversity: these things, at least to me, represented the benefits of hurricanes and tropical storms.

The less enjoyable aspects of hurricanes are well documented and innately understood by those who choose to live near the coast. The economic costs of the damage and the invariable post-storm cleanup, the disruption – and tragically – the loss of human lives, the days or weeks without power or roads, the flooding, the fear and worry.

I will likely be spared such serious consequences in my current location, situated on a hunk of ancient rock jutting out into a remote section of cold water in the north Atlantic. However, I have been horrified to find that I won’t be spared one of the more, well, as Lisa might be temped to say, annoying aspects of a hurricane season: incessant media coverage.

The current storm of interest to eastern Canada is named, sadly, Earl. I guess Edwin and Ernie were unavailable. I’ve already been through a hurricane named Earl, which I referred to as ‘the lame storm with the goofy name’.

This new storm called Earl is the subject of hourly updates by the local news agencies. Much like along the US coasts, the objective of the Canadian media is evidently to accurately pinpoint Earl every time he moves more than 12 miles. What is more, they too display every projected track (called ‘spaghetti diagrams’ on CBC; I don’t recall hearing that in the US), overlaid with the general track, various windspeed zones, and satellite photos. The importance of this intense effort is somewhat dampened by what folks like to call the Cone of Uncertainty.

Referring the large swath, at times stretching from the eastern coast of Newfoundland to Jacksonville, Florida, and often colored red to freak everyone out, forecasters admit – every freakin’ hour – that a hurricane may choose to make landfall anywhere in the Cone, contrary to any early predictions.

“Here’s what we know right now, ladies and gentleman, but this projection is 100 hours out and will likely change as time goes on.”

“Folks, you can see the storm right here on the map, and the projected landfall in five days is looking like , although that will probably change.”

The size and force of the hurricane is always another source of nebulous information:

“Earl’s winds have increased 7 KPH and he is now a Category 4 storm!”

“Windspeeds have fallen by 4 KPH so Earl is now a Category 3.”

“Wait, we’re just received an update and Earl is now a Category 4 . . no, he’s back down to a 3 . . oh, just a moment, he may be a 4 again. Yes!”

I actually heard this morning that he's a '4 and a half'. I have to wonder if there in an albatross out there somewhere laughing about the human preoccupation with difference between 204 and 211 KPH winds.

And so, with a deep, calming, breath, I listen to update after update – and qualifying statements about how uncertain those prediction are – on TV each day. As an experienced storm watcher, though, I know that this is only the pre-game show: as the storm nears landfall, the media can only wait and make repeated guesses bolstered by reports from the Canadian Hurricane Center (I didn’t even know there was such a thing until a few days ago).

But once the hurricane begins battering its way onshore, however, the next phase begins. I can’t be sure about Canada’s media, but in the US it is customary to find the youngest or otherwise lowest-ranked member of the news staff, give them a North Face jacket, a mike, and a similarly undervalued cameraman, and then send them out into the storm. Anyone living in US hurricane country is familiar with the images of soaked, wind- and rain-pelted reporters, a species born in the proverbial shadows of towering eyewalls and swirling stormclouds, which for a brief time become a more frequent sight than disoriented frigate birds and floating cars (by the way, if you’re curious – Gore-Tex doesn’t breath in Florida).

I suppose I’ll just have to wait for landfall to see how the Canadian media handles the sea-land transition of violent low-pressure weather systems, although I don’t suspect it will be that different from the US. I’ll get hell for saying that, but there it is.

The concluding, and often most painful, stage of this process occurs once the storm has pushed inland. After the hurricane loses integrity and organization, the massive amount of moisture present in the storm falls as rain determined to make its way back to the sea as floodwater. The reporters then descend on ruined communities, seeking returning residents and the shock-numbed dumbasses who decided to ‘ride out the storm’. To get the scoop as to how they feel about the destruction of their homes and neighborhoods, you see. Particularly, it seems, they seek out the most thickly-accented, dentally-challenged people for such interviews. Well, Canada ain’t exactly lacking in rednecks, though their health care system promotes better tooth and gum care, so I’ll have to wait and see.

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