by Katherine Hale
Homewreckers have a way of dominating the headlines, so famous they don’t need a last name. Perhaps you’re familiar with Andrew, Katrina, Sandy, Floyd, Irene, Joaquin, and Matthew – what I call the Hurricane Gang. And now the latest member, Harvey, has struck, drenching record rainfalls along the Texas coast.
Even if you live outside the reach of the Hurricane Gang, you know who they are and where they’ve been. You’ve seen the trail of the destruction they’ve left behind, felt the rage and grief of survivors as they try to pull their lives back together after the devastation. You’ve seen the pictures of ordinary people standing on rooftops, waiting to be rescued by civilian boats paddling through four-lane intersections. You’ve seen sandbags and boarded up windows, downed trees and twisted powerlines, waterlogged furniture and children on cots in makeshift shelters. Maybe you’ve been the one preparing before the storm or the one cleaning up afterwards.
You, too, have seen lower Manhattan drown under storm surge, and the levees breach in New Orleans. Those images are everywhere and they haunt my dreams, because I know I’m not special. I know it could happen here, too.
Somewhere out there is a storm with my name on it. I don’t necessarily mean that literally – there already was a Hurricane Katherine back in 1973, though the name’s never been officially retired. But I know that a storm will eventually come for me, that I can’t escape forever. If it’s not hurricane, then perhaps it’s a series of rainstorms, one after the other, that will have the same effects. Massive floods. Power outages. Downed trees and damaged cars. Neighbors losing their homes overnight.
As Bob Dylan famously observed, “You don’t have to be weatherman” – or, in my case a field naturalist – “to know which way the wind is blowing.” There will be storms in the future, and given what we know about climate and atmospherics, they are likely to be stronger and more intense than what we’ve seen in the past. Certainly, they will be more expensive – as we continue to develop forests, destroy wetlands, and stabilize coastal barrier islands, we lose the natural absorption and resiliency that help buffer the impact of these storms, resulting in even more damage from water that has nowhere else to go.
Sea walls are unsustainable. Flood insurance can’t cover everyone. There are no easy answers or pat solutions. We can’t keep rebuilding in the same places forever. But changing the paradigm of how we live and work and build is hard, expensive, scary and difficult. Nor is it the work of one person or family alone – it must be a collective effort, as we work together to mitigate disasters before they happen with the same intensity we apply to recovery after the fact. While the debate continues and we are far from consensus, I know in my heart that another storm may come before my region is truly ready for it.
So I continue on my course, as the rains fall or do not fall as they will. I cannot control the weather, but I can prepare as best I can for what I know is likely to come. I study maps of current waterways, their relationship to the surrounding topography and soils, calculating my future risks when it comes to buildings and infrastructure. I store water and plan for power outages lasting for days at a time. I stock up on staples and learn how to take care of my basic needs if I am stranded without assistance in times of crisis. I build soil and add organic matter that holds moisture and nurtures life. I plant trees, perennials, cover crops, to hold the soil down and keep it from washing away. I mulch heavily, so the ground is never bare and water can more easily absorb into the soil pores, flowing underground instead of into my basement. I install rain barrels and rain gardens, channelling water where it can be gradually released over time, rather than sheeting all at once into ditches and drains and overwhelming the sewer system.
Much of this I would do anyway – there are other benefits that cascade beyond mere preparation for a possible disaster that help myriad other beings besides myself. But I know, as Dylan observed, that some day a hard rain is a-gonna fall. I know that the time to prepare for a crisis is long before it comes. I know it’s hard to help others when you’re struggling yourself. I know that it can happen here. And when it does, ready or not, here I come – more ready and more prepared than I would have been otherwise.