Saturday, 27 August 2011

Come on, Irene

Her name is Irene. She was born in the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean seven days ago. She's the 9th of her kind this season, but the only one to accumulate enough power to become a hurricane. She's currently a category 1 with winds up to 85 miles per hour. She's creeping up the eastern coast of the United States at a slow pace of 13 miles per hour, drowning the seaboard on her way.

The first of the rain bands hit the DC area around noon today. It's been raining steadily since. The intensity is increasing as is the wind.

A few years ago, I was working as a researcher on a Discovery Channel show about climate and energy. The show was a mix of fact and fiction, projecting into the future what the world would be like if we did nothing to change our current carbon emitting behaviors. This future saw a hurricane travel up the east coast of the United States and into the Chesapeake Bay. The storm caused massive rain, flooding, wind damage to the nation's capital. We worked with storm surge modellers and looked at historic records for hurricanes and assumed warmer ocean waters to create a massive and terrible hurricane season that caused loss of lives and millions of dollars of damage around the country not dissimilar to the record breaking hurricane season of 2005 that featured storms with such names as Rita, Katrina and Wilma, as well as Irene. 

In the hurricane of the future, DC had been having very wet summer. After a few weeks of heavy rain and flash floods, the big Ricardo came through. It was a massive, slow moving, powerful hurricane. It brought inches of rain and fast winds. Tornadoes spun out of it as it made it's way north. Several feet of storm surge flooded areas of the mall. The heavy rain washed pollutants into reservoirs. The tornadoes took out windows, roofs and buildings. So much damage was done that there was discussion of rebuilding. In this scenario, a innovative and environmentally literate president opted to rebuild the city green. The tidal basin and other areas of the Potomac waterfront were returned to wet lands and marshes which would have served as a flood barrier had they not been taken out. Green buildings were erected and for the ones still standing and structurally sound, they were retrofitted to be more energy efficient and healthy. This response to the weather event set the ball in motion on the United States' big green makeover and paving a path towards an energy independent, carbon neutral (headed towards negative) state. An optimistic and still very possible future.

So here I am, about 4 years later, living just outside of D.C. in Arlington, Virginia, prepared to weather out hurricane Irene. I've filled up some trash cans (the 5 gallon size) with water in case the supply gets cut off or contaminated and the toilet needs to be flushed. I am charging up my phone while the power is still on. I have purchased some foods that don't need preparing such as fruits, crackers, cereal and salad stuffs (though I expect the gas stove would still work). I have a shake flashlight, though I can't really imagine what I'd need it for at this point (the apartment gets great natural light). I have filled pots and pitchers of filtered water for drinking and some juice. I've run all of my errands and I have no foreseeable need to go out. So I'm home, on the 5th floor of an apartment building, on top of a hill a few miles from the Potomac and a 1/4 mile from 4 Mile Run creek watching the rain poor down and the trees bending in the wind. I'm ready for some excitement.

This is my first hurricane and, while I'm so far inland it may not count, I'm excited. I'm ready for a good storm. In 2005, I had a little over a week off between two jobs and was considering a last minute vacation. I was thinking about New Orleans. I'd never been and it seemed worth exploring. About a week later, watching images of a flooded city, people stranded on roof tops, I was glad I'd opted to save money and stay home.

Today, I get a milder (and safer) experience of a hurricane. 4-8 inches of rain are expected along with 40-50 mile per hour winds. Officials are predicting downed power lines and trees, power outages, flash floods, flooding, and possible water outages. Already 71,000 are without power in the state. Six storm deaths have been reported including one child who was killed by a tree fell onto his house. An area governor called for those on the coast to go and stay with the ones who love you. Cities are being evacuated. Train service has been suspended. Sand bags are being given out to D.C. residents.

We'll be sheltered from the worst of it by miles of land separating this area from the Atlantic, but storm surge is predicted and flooding will still be present. With a few days of warning, all should be prepared. This will be the second natural event this week -- the first being an earthquake on Tuesday. The 5.9 trembler was centered 80 miles south of D.C. but felt all the way up to Toronto. My brother and his wife in Boston felt it. I was in a restaurant at the time. Being from California, I'm fairly familiar with earthquakes but don't expect to feel them here. In California, you get under a door way. In D.C., apparently, you flee the building. After the quake, everyone was out on the streets. (Including me -- we'd just paid the bill at the restaurant and I had started to think about being trapped in the parking garage that went a few stories below the building. I've never had that issue in California.)

With an earthquake, there's no warning. Growing up, we always had earthquake kits. They contained flow sticks, foil blankets, food, first aid kits and water. We always had water around. When the big Northridge quake hit in 1994, we had our kits. The house didn't fall down (but the dead-bolted door swung open and walls, ceilings and floors cracked), so we had shelter and the food that was in the house. We lost power and water. We had to turn off the gas until we were sure there were no breaks in the line. We used water from the pool to drink (after boiling) and to flush the toilets. For the first few hours, we sat in the dark of the early morning as a family on the couch and rode out the aftershocks. Outside, dogs barked in a chorus. From the front yard, we could see thousands of stars in the sky. They no longer had to fight to be seen through the light pollution. On a nearby hill, a church was on fire.

Hurricanes give you time to prepare. With the weather service in place and emergency planning, no one should be surprised. Except maybe the birds -- who are battling the winds on their way to what I hope will be safe shelter. Ships go out to sea. Barrier islands are evacuated. People are moved to higher ground and away from coastlines. There's time to buy supplies and time to move. While flash floods and tornadoes can occur and take one by surprise, and while houses, memories and materials can be lost, a hurricane isn't such a scary disaster. I suppose that's why I'm so excited about it. I'm hoping for an awesome storm that maybe gives me a day or two off work. And some thunderstorms would be appreciated, too. I'll happily sit and stare out my window for the next few days as leaves fly off trees and the rain pours down.

I find myself comparing this storm to Ricardo, the fictitious hurricane of the future, and wondering if we'll ever see the kind of leadership that can turn the environmental, climate and energy situation around. The kind of leadership that sees the potential, that wants America to be at the forefront of technology and responsible action, wants to create jobs and new technology and not be a slave to fossil fuels or special interests or the climate disruption that come with it.

While an example of innovative leadership on energy and environmental issues still remains to be seen at the top levels, individual citizens are trying to fill the void. The same day that Irene came into being, protesters began engaging in civil disobedience outside of the White House to try to stop the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. 381 people who have used their bodies to stand up for the Earth (and the rest of us) have been arrested so far. Given a lack of top down leadership, we're going to need more people to stand up (or sit in) for what we believe in and work to make a better, healthier, greener and more equitable future possible.


  1. It was a somewhat quieter weekend in Wivenhoe .... I do hope that it proved to be a bit of a non-event, much as I know you would have enjoyed a ring side seat :-)

  2. Shocking how comparable is the recent weather on the East Coast and the fictional prediction of Ricardo years ago, Mary. Thanks for sharing these insights. Are there any Presidential candidates planning on running who might resemble the noble, environmentally-conscious President in your story?

    Take care,