August 27, 2011
Looks like as I write this on Saturday, Hurricane Irene has hit North Carolina and is poised to strike the Northeast tonight or tomorrow. It's not particularly strong (as hurricanes go) but it's incredibly wide, so a lot of people will be affected. I'm currently looking at a baseball game that was moved up a day for a doubleheader. Major hurricanes and their aftermaths bring all sorts of land use and other legal issues into focus (see, e.g., Robin Paul Malloy, ed., Law and Recovery from Disaster: Hurricane Katrina (Ashgate 2009).
But right now I'll just offer a few basic observations from experience living on the Gulf Coast. Growing up in New York I had no experience with hurricanes. Since living here I've been through the storm or the aftermath of Tropical Storm Allison and Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Ike.
The most important decision is whether to stay or go. On this question you should really trust the authorities. In 2005, Houston was the major evacuation center from New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina. Having volunteered to help with the 100,000+ refugees in person and being well tuned-in to the scenes of the destruction, suffering, and lawlessness in the aftermath, many Houstonians instinctively decided to evacuate several weeks later when Hurricane Rita bore down on the Southeast Texas coast. But the mass evacuation turned out to be miserable--or worse--for most. The entire state's highways were gridlocked, all the gas stations were sucked dry, and the majority of evacuees either spent 24+ hours on the road (in 100 degree heat) or got stranded.
Most local governments now have fairly sophisticated data on where storm surges (which are the most dangerous parts of hurricanes) are going to hit. During Hurricane Ike in 2008, the civil authorities did an outstanding job in communicating exactly which low-lying areas needed to evacuate, while the word of the day to everyone else was to "hunker down." This turned out to be quite effective. You can see that New York City has something similar with it's pre-planned hurricane zones and it's order as of this writing to evacuate Zone A. Ike devastated Galveston but loss of life was kept down and the 4+ million in Houston handled it much better than Rita.
If you rely on public transportation, prepare for it to be shut down. New York has already closed the subway. Don't plan to drive unless you have to. In fact, if you do "hunker down," get your hands on as much stuff as possible, particularly water, ice, batteries. Gas up and get cash now. Get some food that will last a week or more. Tie down or move indoors anything that could become a projectile. There are lots of hurricane-preparedness websites out there (even Louisianan James Carville has chimed in) so I won't repeat everything you'll find there. Prepare to be without electricity, internet, or cell phone service. If you have relatives or friends in the interior, it's a good idea to contact them now and ask them to serve as a "rally point" for communications or even to meet up with family in case power and communications go out for a while after the storm.
Bottom line, take it seriously. Don't assume that the danger is linked to the "cat" number--Allison was downgraded to a Tropical Storm before it hit Houston, and did more damage than any of the other hurricanes (just ask my friends at the University of Houston Law Center). But don't overreact by fleeing if you don't need to or without proper supplies. Go ahead and have that hurricane party, and bond with neighbors in the cleanup, but not until after you've done everything you can to prepare. Remember, it it turns out to be not as bad as you thought, that's a good thing. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Hopefully you'll all safely bid Goodnight Irene.
UPDATE: Looks like the storm has moved into New England towards Canada, and it turned out to be not as bad as anticipated. Great news. Some pundits will predictably complain that it was overhyped, but that's doing a disservice to everyone involved, and hopefully will not cause excessive underreaction next time. These are incredibly dangerous and destructive events, and once people start dying it's too late to change your mind and start taking it seriously. Better safe than sorry, and it doesn't hurt to have a dress rehearsal in an area of the country that doesn't have as much experience responding to this particular type of emergency.
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