Tuesday, August 19, 2008

How's the Weather?—A Hurricane FAQ

One of my favorite hobbies involves answering the phone during hurricane season and calmly explaining to friends and family that, no, the storm 250 miles off the coast and moving westward away from my house hasn't really been a big deal for me. My friends and family aren't dumb, so it's a regular source of amazement that, somehow — despite wall-to-wall media coverage of any significantly large tropical storm — a rough understanding of hurricanes' effects and basic geography continues to elude them.

The second thing baffles most of all. I live in a boring interior suburb, but it's close enough to a large and nationally well-known area of Florida that people just assume I'm from there. It's on all the maps, and the people in galoshes and yellow "I'm going to the Sizzler" rain slickers on the TV talk about it. In fact, it's almost impossible to not detect it when they show a map of the state. So when they show a hurricane crossing the state 300 miles to the south, east or west of me and I still get phone calls, it makes me wonder if these people breathlessly call San Francisco residents after an LA earthquake and ask ARE YOU ALL RIGHT???

Also, I know hurricanes are big. I remember the cloud cover from hurricane Frances (below left) in 2004 blanketed the entire state. On the radar image, I'm sure it frightened a lot of people, and there's no use trying to explain to them that worrying about outlying rain bands on a hurricane is sort of like fretting when you hear that smoke from a local building fire has drifted into your neighborhood. But when the hurricane is hundreds of miles out into the Gulf and moving toward Texas and I still get panicky phone calls, that's when I begin to question whether my beloved relatives are starting off each day with a hearty bowlful of Lead Nuts.

It could be worse. My wife's family worries about these things far more than mine does, at least in part because half of my family lives in Florida (and all but one of my grandparents are dead). Some of them call when storms have pretty much just left the horn of Africa. It's enough to make me want to call them every time there are tornadoes in Nebraska (they don't live there) and ask if they've gone down to the basement yet (they don't have one). The only thing stopping me is that they obviously mean well. Also, I can't really get on their case when I'm still speaking to my father after all these years. Despite my living in this state for well over a decade and despite his being married to my mother, a Floridian, for 13 years prior to my residency here, he still has managed to pick up almost nothing about the hurricane experience.

So, with that in mind, I thought I'd put together a helpful list of Frequently Asked Questions:

Hurricane FAQ*

Q: What's the worst part of waiting for a hurricane?
A: Commercials. Seriously, you have to spend something like three days watching The Weather Channel, and during that time you see the same six low-budget middle-of-the-day, no-one's-watching, geared-to-the-elderly, fuck-it-let's-run-another-Rascal™-ad commercial breaks over and over and over.

Q: What's the worst part of not being in a hurricane?
A: Preparing for it. You have to:
remove pretty much everything you can think of from your yard so you don't get sued when those objects become missiles that destroy another person's house
put up the reinforced pipe behind your garage door and screw it into the ground (otherwise the hurricane will punch it inward and rip your house open from the inside)
put plywood up over your windows
scrub the bathtubs and fill them with water
buy extra gasoline at the last minute (because you don't want gallons of accelerant sitting around in the garage for the 364 other days per year, but you do need it now, when the other two million area residents do too
make sure that you have a copy of your insurance policy somewhere where it won't be destroyed
buy every type of supply imaginable (you should have done this already)
then the hurricane turns away at the last minute and you get to undo all of this.

Q: What's the worst part of fleeing a hurricane?
The fact that probably 500,000 other people had this same bright idea, and they're all in front of you on one of three roads that take you the 300 miles north to safety. I evacuated my area in advance of Frances and spent 13.5 hours making a six-hour drive.

Q: What's the worst part of being in a hurricane?
The waiting. Seriously, fucking kill me or don't, but I have things to do. Most of the time, the whole affair defines "anticlimactic," but the process of getting to that point can take as much as a week.

Q: Corollary: would you rather be in an earthquake or a hurricane?
Earthquake, every time. If I'm going to die, at least my poor dumb ass won't know it until it's too late. I've been in an above-6.5 earthquake and a high category 4 hurricane, and I infinitely prefer the former. The total suspension of activity and trust in the future while waiting for a hurricane explains the concept of existential doom better than anything short of a remedial English course's production of Waiting for Godot at a high school for the speech impaired.

Q: What's the worst part of a hurricane's aftermath?
The death and destruction goes without saying, so the two runners-up are, in order:
1. The fact that, even if nothing happened to you or your home, your homeowner's insurance is about to increase, thanks to bad luck, people who couldn't be bothered to prepare or your truly cretinous fellow citizen who uses damages to the giant freezer in his garage to claim it was filled with $500 in shrink-wrapped filets mignon when it was actually filled with Lean Pockets (this is based on a true story).
2. Cleaning up.
Watching people gravely shaking their head and saying that this is a harsh lesson that won't soon be forgotten comes in a distant third, if only because seeing the lesson forgotten within 12 months every fucking time stops being funny after a few years and few scores of billions of dollars.

Q: What's the worst part of the end of hurricane season?
A: When you have to eat a shitload of beans and drink bottled water because they may not stay edible or potable for the next year. Then, next year, you get to buy all that stuff again!

Q: What thrills you the most about a powerful hurricane someday hitting your area?
Five things:
1. That the shape of the bay I live near may effectively funnel the storm surge to a narrowing point, ultimately increasing its power.
2. That massive barges and enormous three-storey fuel storage containers sit at the end of the bay, just waiting to explode under a Bruckheimer-like wave of so much predictable fate.
3. That the official hospital for the area when under emergency conditions is also at the end of the bay, on a perfectly flat island made entirely out of fill, which could possibly simply dissolve like a sand castle underneath a wave. It's also accessible only by a narrow bridge.
4. That the generators for that hospital are all on the ground floor.
5. Well within the reach of a storm surge.
Indeed, things like "city planning" and "hydrodynamics" and "an absence of DEATH does not mix well with both water and electricity" will be harsh lessons that won't soon be forgotten.

Q: Should I drink during a hurricane?
Probably not.

Q: If I am determined to get loaded during a hurricane, when should I do that?
There are a couple schools of thought on this. Some advocate getting drunk during the lead-up to landfall, because it makes the wait pass more quickly. But just imagine sitting in a natural wind machine with a hangover. Worse, imagine being drunk or passed out when a window breaks, when your inability to function could destroy more of your property due to your inattention. Best to do it when the chances of its hitting your area are slim but work has given you the day off anyway, and always make sure to have someone more responsible on hand to bail your sloppy ass out. The ideal time, of course, is when you do not own your own home and have renter's insurance.

Q: Okay, I'm going to party. How should I do it?
Since you're determined to be irresponsible in the face of overwhelming and incomprehensible natural forces bearing down on you and threatening billions of dollars in damage and devastation for millions of fellow citizens, you might as well go all out on the flippancy. Do what I did in college, when I was living in a giant brick building designed in a style best described as Wolfsschanze Chic. First, buy a novelty glass about the size of a fishbowl, with a wineglass stem. Fill it with a third of a bottle of liquor and lots of ice. Drink with a bendy straw. Wear sunglasses regardless of the outdoor illumination and put on a THESE COLORS DON'T RUN shirt.

Q: What should I drink during a hurricane?

* — Not the name of an actual hurricane