Maggie A's Meanderings




August 28, 2011

Let the Hurricane Roar -- 'Cause What Can I Do about It Anyway?

Sometimes when I meet people from other parts of the country, they ask me how I can stand to live in hurricane territory. They say they couldn't do it. I'm a little dumbfounded when I get that question. Living in hurricane territory isn't really that bad ----- though it does contain the potential to be massively bad.

First, the US Gulf Coast and south Atlantic seaboard spreads out over a large area and usually a hurricane has got to get pretty close to you before it normally causes major problem. (The exception is if a tropical system stalls by you and just keeps dumping rain. In that case, even a tropical storm can cause some real flooding.) But what people typically think of "hurricane damage" with roofs blown off and storm surge flattening a coastline ---- in the time I've lived in Pensacola we've only had four hurricanes that have done that which averages out to about one every five years.

So odds are in any given year, you're not going to be hit. But the reality is that if you live in hurricane territory long enough that you will be hit.

But hit doesn't equal helpless and you can do a lot about it. The first thing someone should have is a sense of geographical awareness ---- that means a sense of how the surrounding environment can worsen or lessen the impact of a hurricane because when it comes to hurricanes, the most important rule to remember is "Location. Location. Location."

Even before I moved to Pensacola, I grew up in hurricane territory on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The legendary hurricane of my childhood was Hurricane Camille. Hurricane Camile was a category 5 hurricane with top winds over 200 mph; it was the strongest hurricane to make U.S. landfall in the latter half of the 20th century. We didn't move to Mississippi until after Hurricane Camille, but believe me people were still talking about it. People were still talking about it up until Hurricane Katrina hit. But even though we weren't in Mississippi when Camille hit, our house was. And whenever a hurricane threatened I took great comfort in knowing the house had survived Camille.

Growing up in hurricane territory, I watched when we were hit by hurricanes, watched and learned from it. I developed that sense of geographical awareness. And those were lessons that I applied when it came time for a house of my own. (Yes, there are other steps that can be taken: construction, retrofitting, hurricane shutters. But the first step of hurricane preparation should always be awareness of the natural hazards in the environment.)

"Location. Location. Location" -- Guidelines for House Buying in Hurricane Territory:

The first thing to consider is altitude. My dad lucked into buying a house in Mississippi that was on one of the highest points of land around. (On the flatness of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, it wasn't much, only about 35 feet, but it was the best you could do.) I actually live fairly close to the bay, but I'm at over 100 feet above sea level. No storm surge is going to be able to overtop the bluffs that line this portion of the coast.

Proximity to Water
If you're not at altitude, then you have to consider how close you are to water. That's any water, not just open ocean. The storm surge goes right into bays. And if you've got a lake, river or creek nearby, all the rain can cause flooding.

A hurricane can dump a tremendous amount of rain in a short period of time. How well does the area drain? After one hurricane, there was a place in town that looked like it had been built in the middle of a lake. It was at altitude. That brand new lake wasn't storm surge --- it was all rain.

Open Spaces
When it comes to hurricanes, too much openness is a bad thing. Open fields or living right by the water doesn't break the wind. Think about how windy it can get in those spots on an ordinary day. Then magnify that by a hurricane. Having something around to break the wind is good.

Huge Trees
Wind breaks are good. Huge trees are bad.

Growing up our neighborhood was filled with those big live oak trees complete with hanging Spanish moss that the Deep South is famous for. And I will never forget my first sight of what one of those oak trees does to a house when it lands on it. Let me put it simply: Big Oak Tree versus House: house loses. Smashed flat. One tree can take out an entire house. So on my list of things not to have around my house are huge trees. Small and medium size trees to break the wind ---- good, anything big enough to flatten the house --- bad.

Barrier Islands Bad Places to Live
Barrier islands take the brunt of a hurricane. What do you think that means for homes built on barrier islands, this flat spit of sand? Storm surge can completely cover it. We had one storm surge that cut the island in two: dug a channel right through it.

Underground Powerlines
Not technically a geographic mitigation issue, but it makes a difference to your life how quickly your power gets restored. If the power company has to go into your neighborhood to repair above ground lines taken out by trees, it's going to take a lot longer to get the power back. Though underground powerlines can be damaged if there's a big tree near them and its roots pull up the powerline when the tree comes down, that's a lot rarer than trees and branches taking out above ground lines. If none of the lines in your neighborhood were damaged because they're underground, then all the power company has to do is restore the main lines going to the neighborhood. We've gotten power back within hours for 3 out of 4 storms. Worst storm, power was out for three days while other areas went weeks without power.

But geographic awareness doesn't just apply to hurricanes. And geographic awareness is not sadly lacking just here in hurricane territory.

Many years ago, I had a job interview in Baton Rouge. I took some time to look around the city. From one residential neighborhood I crossed the street, walked up what I thought was a small hill only to discover it was a levee and I was standing on top watching water flow by. I said to myself, "Water should never be uphill." Because water likes downhill and if something goes wrong, it's going to end up in that neighborhood.

Or when I was out in Southern California on the Pacific Coast Highway, I would look at those cliffs and steep hills and think, "Stupid place to build a house. I wouldn't want a home up there or down here. Because those homes up there are going to end up sitting on top of the homes down here."

Those are people who showed a lack of geographical awareness.
If people actually had geographical awareness, it would mitigate the damage done when the inevitable natural disaster happens..............

Check if the area's in a flood zone. An easy first step is to look at the flood risk profile online. If it's a high probability flood zone, don't move there. If towns had been planned with that one simple precaution in mind, think of all the property that would have been saved through the years.

For an earthquake, geographical mitigation means looking at what you're building on. From the USGS:
"Ground shaking is the primary cause of earthquake damage to man-made structures. When the ground shakes strongly, buildings can be damaged or destroyed and their occupants may be injured or killed...........Soft soils amplify ground shaking. If you live in an area that in past earthquakes suffered shaking stronger than that felt in other areas at comparable distance from the source, you are likely to experience relatively strong shaking in future earthquakes as well."

Unless the USGS has a map of the area, finding out what the subsurface consists of could take some work, but it's an important piece of information to have in earthquake territory.

Ever since I learned the Petronas Towers, the world's tallest twin towers in Singapore, have a foundation sunk into sand I wondered if the builders had ever heard liquefaction. Liquefaction happens during earthquakes and, as the name implies, solids (like sand) liquefy. Singapore is in the Ring of Fire. When, not if, but when there's an earthquake if that sand liquefies, I think those towers are going to fall down faster than London Bridge in the children's song. There's a very sound basis to that verse in the Bible describing the man as foolish who builds his house on sand.

Geographic mitigation isn't possible for every natural disaster. When it comes to tornados and volacanos it doesn't help. For the former, the only mitigation is construction. For the latter, you'd better just keep your fingers crossed, or pray if that's more your style. But when geographic mitigation is possible, we're foolish to not do it.

Hurricanes, floods, earthquakes..............these events are inevitable. What's not inevitable is the scale of damage natural disasters can do. So to answer the question I posed in the title, "Cause what can I do about it anyway?" the answer is "Plenty."

Wind damage

For more about weather, read "Storm Over Pensacola Beach." For another dose of my commonsense approach to a problem, check out "Home Remedies That Actually Work -- Stinky Sweat." And this is some commonsense for dog and cat owners, "7 Scary Things You Didn't Know about Your Pet's Food." Please take a moment to look around the Archive.



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