Joaquin stalkin' across the Caribbean
© 2015 NOAA
It looked like it would be an interesting week. Last Monday, two rather grim forecasts began to approach a disturbing symmetry. First, an epic Nor'easter, one of those legendary Atlantic coast storms, would slam into the local area bringing tropical rainfall, high winds and certain flooding. Then, the day after, a full-fledged hurricane, at one point a vicious Cat 4, would storm ashore, making landfall right over the nation's capitol region. And after the Nor'easter's 6 to 10 inches of rain, the hurricane would dump an additional 10 to 20 inches along with a 10-foot storm surge into the Chesapeake, up the Potomac River, and into downtown Washington DC. Historic communities like Georgetown and Alexandria, cities with an almost 300-year history, would be inundated and destroyed. Freeways, bridges, roads, and the Metro light rail would be washed away, effectively paralyzing the entire region. Government would be forced into Continuity of Operations mode, shifting control and authority to remote scattered classified sites. First responders, overwhelmed by the disaster, would require the military to regain and maintain control. Hundreds of thousands would be made homeless; hundreds would die. The entire area would never be the same
No, this wasn't the script for a new disaster movie. This was the actual forecast faced by the six million people who live in the DMV, local shorthand for DC, Maryland, and Virginia.
But as time unfolded, both events turned out to be pretty much a local fizzle. The Nor'easter was far milder than forecasted. Don't get me wrong, we still got a ton of rain, up to 6 inches in some places, and pretty good winds. Trees were knocked down, some power was lost in the region, and there was some road damage. The beach areas along the Eastern Shore were beat up some and shoreside communities had some flooding. The hurricane, responding to a couple of pressure systems in the atmosphere, peeled off to the northeast and is headed steadily into the colder waters of the North Atlantic where it will meet its eventual demise.
All things considered, we were lucky. Some areas in the Carolinas took up to 11 inches of rain from those systems, and a lot of damage was done there. But it could have been much, much worse.
It's interesting that in the face of impending disaster, that insulating sense of disconnect fostered by our dependence on media is torn away as we are confronted with the very real possibility that the disasters we've watched happen to other places, could happen here. Streets and homes would be recognizable as being parts of our own neighborhood. Suddenly, it becomes very personal.
In terms of media saturation, both on the broadcasting and receiving ends, we are pretty much inundated all the time. We don't have to be home to watch television anymore. Computers, tablets, and smartphones bring the world, literally, to our fingertips. We have become accustomed to viewing tragedies associated with natural events (such as weather and earthquakes) and human-caused disasters (wars, riots, starvation, epidemics) with a certain amount of detachment. They always happen far away, safely remote from the mall, the grocery store, and Starbucks. People die every day in such events, and we may take a moment to grimace and shake our heads...but go on with our lives.
But one day, out of the blue, a disaster, instead of happening continents away, lands right on our doorstep.
“Far-stretching, endless Time
Brings forth all hidden things,
And buries that which once did shine.
The firm resolve falters, the sacred oath is shattered;
And let none say, "It cannot happen here". ”
In 1993, we were living in central Missouri, a few miles from the Missouri River. Between April 1 and August 31, nearly 50 inches of rain fell on land already saturated from record winter snows. The water turned quiet country streams into raging torrents, dumping it all into the Missouri-Mississippi River system. In Kansas City and St. Louis, waters reached nearly 50 feet and some communities near the confluence of those two great rivers were underwater for over six months.
Many of those rainstorms were biblical. It was like standing under a firehose. I remember many a night spent in the backyard of our home, frantically using shovel and large squeegee to keep water from pooling around the foundation. I ended up digging a three-foot deep trench across the middle of the yard and out through the fence. But on some nights, even that was not enough. The thunder and lightning was continuous, flashing and roaring like some over-budgeted Hollywood film. And of course, there were tornados. When it wasn't raining, the temperatures soared into triple digits, with dew points well into the 70's. I don't know when I've ever been more miserable.
At the time, we were living in Columbia, halfway between KC and St. Louis. I was working in Boonville, which meant a 20-mile drive along Interstate 70. At one point, just west of Rocheport, the road dips down into the Missouri River bottoms, resting atop of a 25-foot tall levee. This is actually the ancient riverbed, some three miles across. For most of that summer, that entire three miles was flooded, and on a couple of days, the Interstate was closed as the waters came, literally, within inches of covering the roadway. On one day, I had to go to Jefferson City, the state capitol. But I never made it. I was stopped at the top of a hill and watched in slack-jawed amazement as the river claimed the road, eventually submerging an overpass. I could see the dome of the capitol building, some 7 miles away. There was nothing but water in between.
I learned quickly that there was a huge difference between seeing a flood on television, and witnessing one in person. We volunteered to sandbag some of the smaller river towns in a vain attempt to save them, and saw close up the frantic emotions of those residents as they feared for their homes.
I suspect that is the way for most people. You never appreciate the magnitude of a disaster, and it's effect on human lives, unless you live it yourself. Some of my Federal co-workers were among the volunteers who went to the areas stricken by Hurricane Katrina to coordinate and deliver disaster aid. They were forever changed by the experience. I had spoken with a person who had gone with a team to Chile after a major earthquake to search for human remains, and perhaps, survivors. They were reluctant to talk about the experience. I have a very dear friend who was part of another rescue team that worked The Pile, as the rubble of ground zero in New York after 9/11 was called. To this day, he refuses to talk about what he saw.
It's a little like the anxiety a soldier feels on the eve of his first battle, knowing that the only way he will know how he will react is to be there when it happens. Such events are overpowering, beyond the limits of comprehension. Those of us who are lucky enough to only see such things electronically will never know just how lucky we are. We offer condolences and support to those who have suffered, but it never feels like enough, because we can't take away the floodwaters, and we can't, by ourselves, restore lives thus torn apart.
But we can try to be there for one another. As lucky as we in the DMV were this week, our thoughts will not stray from those folks in the Carolinas who got what we missed. We will send relief supplies, some of us will go there and volunteer, because that's what we do. But we can never truly feel what they feel. Because our homes still stand.
Nature is capricious and implacable. It cares little for the damage it wreaks on the fragile human souls who cling so precariously to the dirt and clay. It is some days quiet, somnolent. Other days, violent beyond description. That is what it does. But when the rage is spent, and the storm dissipates, we humans will clean up and go on. For those who survive, hearts will ache for those who were lost, but the human spirit demands that we rise, plant our feet defiantly and rebuild everything we can, if for no other reason than to prove that in even the face of disaster, we will not be defeated.
Because that is what we do.