Don’t worry, if it was apocalypsing outside I wouldn’t be wasting phone battery on this post. Barry is just hovering over the Gulf like an asshole, shooting protein shakes and throwing tires around at Crossfit so he’ll be in good shape to pummel us.
But really, the past few days I have been thinking a lot about how tracking hurricanes is kind of a learned language, and if you are concerned for a loved one (or are unfamiliar with them but become under threat of a hurricane), I thought I’d share some information.
Before I start, I just want to highlight that Delta Sigma Theta (a well known black sorority) had to cancel their convention here, and donated the 17K prepared meals for the event to the Second Harvest Food Bank.
If you’ve been reading the OTs this week, you’ve probably seen Violet and I stressing in the comments from here in New Orleans. The threat we were most stressed about was that the Mississippi River is at a high, due in large part to storms and flooding up the river (climate change!). The NWS had originally predicted that the river, because of storm surge from this hurricane, would basically crest at the same level as the top of the levees in New Orleans. If that happens, it will be a totally unprecedented, freak situation. Much to our collective relief, that threat has now passed for the city (this time), although lower parishes will likely experience it if they haven’t already. The main threat now is a deluge of rain which seems like it will mostly fuck central southern Louisiana (keep them in your thoughts). The coastal parishes have been largely evacuated and rescues are underway.
Understanding hurricane severity
Tropical storms and hurricanes are pretty much defined in the media by their wind speed. Hurricane categories are all wind speed but doesn’t take anything else into account. Storms have their own characteristics - they are special snowflakes. Some are a wind threat (which also brings a lot more storm surge flood threats, but whether those apply to you directly depends on your topography). Some hurricanes are more characterized by rain, bringing other types of flood threats. The way these threats manifest depends on a ton of tiny details.
So categories are not a complete picture of severity. Harvey, which fucked over Houston last year, was a Cat 1 but it sat on top of the city and just dumped rain on them forever. Florence was similar. You have to look to local media and really the NOAA to find accurate information on what to expect from a hurricane.
When a hurricane hits land, it immediately starts to weaken in terms of wind speed, but not rain. A rainy hurricane can do more serious damage further inland than a windy one.
Why are hurricanes so unpredictable?
They move slowly but spin. So the little details of who’s going to get rain exactly when are almost impossible to know. Other things affect the threats - including the topography and waterways, the angle at which it makes landfall, and forward speed at landfall, and so the exact same hurricane can have very different effects even if it moves just a few miles east or west. How fast a hurricane moves also affects these things - whether it moves at 2 or 12 mph might be the difference between life or death (faster is better).
Whether you are in New Orleans or a little over an hour away in Baton Rouge, you PROBABLY don’t know which of the two of us gets fucked worse until the 11th hour.
The picture in your mind of a hurricane - spirally clouds with an eye - means the storm is “organized”- once it organizes, the predictions become much more accurate but at the same time, that’s often very close to landfall and sometimes too late if you want to evacuate. That’s why you see a lot of evacuations called prematurely that weren’t needed - because they don’t want to err in the other direction. Barry...uhh, look at this fucking shit. He hasn’t organized at all so the meteorologists have been like UMMMM with this one. It’s been part of the anxiety and confusion.
What is being in a hurricane like?
Mostly just waiting around. The safest thing to do is stay the fuck put. Sometimes it’ll deluge and the wind will go nuts and then it’ll be calm for six hours and then start up again. You often can’t tell what part of a hurricane you’re experiencing unless you look at a radar. Hurricane Isaac in 2011 sat on top of us forever but was all wind, so it just sounded like a white noise machine for 2 whole days.
The part you need to be most worried for is afterward when you are out of power. Isaac was super chill but blew wind for so long power lines were just down EVERYWHERE. It took some people 2-3 weeks to get power back and that shit barely affected anyone around here otherwise. With notable exceptions, the most people who died in Katrina died in the aftermath - of disease from the toxic flood waters, of not being able to find food or water or medication, of sun exposure and heat exhaustion, etc. That is the biggest threat no matter what, and often is the reason people evacuate even if it seems like an overreaction - for whatever reason, they or their families will be vulnerable without power.
Hurricane Idiot #1: Al Roker and people like him
Advice: never listen to the national media - not even The Weather Channel - if you are trying to pay attention to a storm. They don’t stay up to date, their audience is people who aren’t actually affected. Locals have their networks of resources and are more knowledgeable about what’s happening minute-to-minute. TWC sends Jim Cantore to whatever spot looks the most dramatic and shouts into a microphone when the rest of us are still drinking wine on our porch. He has a habit of going to the lower parishes, where the hurricane will look more TV-friendly - areas which get storm surge and shit but also are built for that - and implying that he’s right outside New Orleans so that everyone can get their hurricane Katrina images back in their brains and be ready for DRAMZ. Al Roker told the world that we were already “underwater” because we had some flash flooding Wednesday. What we learned later was we got 8-10 inches in just a couple hours, something that hasn’t even been predicted from the worst case scenario of this storm. Al Roker also took a message from the NOLA Mayor telling people to shelter in place to mean GTFO now, and spread that shit around on Twitter. Sheltering in place is SOP during a hurricane. You never DON’T do that. It’s not an alarm bell. I was also skeptical of why they weren’t talking about evacuation at the time, but Roker in his position is irresponsible for sharing that piece of advice against what the local officials have said.
The Washington Post told everyone people were fleeing the city (while some people have evacuated, you can hardly call it “fleeing”, it’s more of an err on the side of caution). Plus the accompanying photo - some tourists walking in front of a fancy restaurant with suitcases - is not what residents fleeing New Orleans looks like. Evacuating means filling up gas cans, grabbing family photo albums and bring a bunch of weird shit and all the alcohol and junk food in your house on an involuntary road trip. Not leaving your Airbnb for the airport early.
Last year, Charleston was evacuated ahead of Hurricane Florence with very little warning (which makes an actual evacuation nearly impossible), and based on reports from national media but not listening the hurricane experts at the NWS. While sometimes evacuations turn out to be unnecessary, the panicked manner in which that one was done would have been a fail even if that was a necessary evacuation.
Katrina was such a nightmare because of a failure of the levees, but you can’t compare every single storm on a scale of 1 to Katrina because, as I stated above, they are all different. So when someone is telling you that something is the Next Katrina, the only way that could be accurate is if it is a largely wind-based Cat 3 storm on the exact same path, and if the levees are still vulnerable. In Roker’s defense, we really don’t have a good understanding of how vulnerable the levees are, but they also have worked all the times EXCEPT Katrina, so it doesn’t make sense to start invoking Katrina.
Hurricane Idiot #2: My mother and people like her
My mother moved to Charleston in the past few years and since her house is raised high, she’s ridden out a few hurricanes, but because of the over-hype and rapid evacuation with Florence, she now believes that hurricanes are not a threat. She says, “they make a big deal out of it and then it’s always fine.”
She’s half right, they always make a big deal out of it. Where she is wrong is that it is in fact not always fine, and that storm just managed to turn north and fuck NC instead of her. Like, what kind of level of delusion do you have to exist at to forget that it hit someone else because you got lucky?! The thing is, it will always seem like hype more often than not because due to the unpredictable nature of the storms, they have to over-prepare a wide swath of people and it will only go where it actually goes.
Hurricane Idiot #3: The Lifer
This guy views himself as invincible to hurricanes, and anyone buying so much as a bottle of water and a battery is a pussy. This guy thinks that because he hasn’t yet died in a storm, all storms are no big deal. He probably floated down the street in a boat rescuing people during Katrina and thinks that only helps his case that it’s fine. He was one of the few who had the right flood insurance, he is one of the few wealthy enough to face this threat again, and most of all, he is going to live forever. If you live anywhere in Louisiana (or probably Florida), this guy lives on your street.
He also woke up this morning - when The Shit was supposed to start last night but didn’t - and shared on social media that this storm is a dud and you can’t trust science, despite the fact this is what the radar looks like right now.
Don’t believe the MSM about hurricanes. If you’re worried about someone you love or experiencing it for the first time, rely on the community around and local resources.
Thank you for reading my hurricane novel.