Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Life in the danger zone

Well, it's hurricane season, and we have a tropical storm and a tropical depression currently setting their sights on the Gulf of Mexico.  Couple this with the fact that the surface water temperature in the Gulf -- the driver for storm size -- is in some places at a record high, over 90 degrees Fahrenheit.  The whole thing has me feeling distinctly twitchy.

I'm a southern Louisianian born and bred.  My father was from Lafayette, my mother from Raceland.  Despite spending the past thirty years in the frozen North, a large part of my heart is still in the swamps where I was raised.  Southern Louisiana is a place of amazing natural beauty, and I still miss the wonderful Cajun food and music on which I was raised.

It's hard to know what to say as I watch these storms bearing down on the unprotected lowlands of the Gulf Coast.  From 2000 miles away, I can do little but check in on the NOAA's hurricane site several times a day, and watch as the forecast track gets shorter and shorter.   For my family and friends who still live there, I can only hope that as the storm progresses and its point of landfall becomes more certain, that you will evacuate to safer places if you need to.  After that, all I can do is what I did with Katrina, Rita, and Wilma; sit and wait.  And watch.

This brings up, as reluctant as I am to say it, the question of whether there are places in the world where people just shouldn't live.  New Orleans, much as I love the place (I have many fond memories of strong coffee and beignets at the Café du Monde), tops the list.  Hit by another major hurricane, the levees will eventually fail again.  Half of the city is below sea level.  How can it be sensible to gamble with your life, family, and property in such a place?

The fault-zone area in Marin County, California.  The Sea Islands off the coast of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.  The foothills of Mount Rainier, Mount Shasta, Mount Hood, and Mount Lassen, all of which are still active volcanoes.  The canyon country of south central California, with its wildfires and mudslides.  Countless volcanic islands in the Indonesian archipelago.  The Stromboli region of Italy, which is a ticking bomb for a Pompeii-style pyroclastic eruption.  All of these places are prone to natural disasters of terrible magnitude.  Ironically, all are places of incredible beauty.  Many are thickly populated; the volcanic ones are often important farming regions because of the fertile soils. 

I'm not foolish enough to propose that all of these areas should be evacuated permanently because of the risk.  Besides the complete impracticality of this, the sorry truth is that no place is truly safe.  Even in the geologically and meteorologically quiet area I currently live in -- the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York -- we occasionally have major storms.  The first winter I lived here, 1992-1993, was the winter of the never-to-be-forgotten "hundred-year storm," the Blizzard of '93, which dropped 54 inches of snow on my little town in one weekend.  (You can imagine how traumatic that was for a transplanted Louisianian, for whom "snow" was "that white stuff that's pictured on Christmas cards for some reason.")

Nowhere is safe, and everywhere you live is a tradeoff.  You simply pick what natural disasters you're most willing to risk, and choose what benefits you want badly enough to risk them.  And then, of course, there's the part about not blaming others for your choices, or expecting everyone to come rally around you when your house falls down due to a natural event you knew was likely to occur.  Even given that, however, everyone has different standards for acceptable risk, and what they think would be worth the potential danger.  I would, for example, happily live in western California (if I could afford it, which I can't) -- risking the earthquakes and wildfires to have the wonderful climate, natural beauty, accessibility to the ocean, and the ability to grow damn near anything in my garden.  I would not move to the Sea Islands -- beautiful as they are, one major hurricane and the island in the bullseye could well simply cease to exist, along with every structure and living thing on it.

I do, however, wonder how much of that is because I've been through several hurricanes (including Camille, the strongest hurricane ever to hit the Gulf Coast), but I've never been in an earthquake.  I know how completely terrifying a hurricane is.  I remember standing at night in my garage during Hurricane Allen, which scored a direct hit on Lafayette, and watching the strobe-light effect of the lightning strikes coming fifteen to twenty seconds apart.  The whole neighborhood would light up, and there'd be a garbage can seemingly suspended in mid-air; then darkness.  Another flash, and you'd get a picture of a huge tree branch standing on end in the middle of the street; then darkness.  The roar is like standing in front of a jet, and it doesn't let up for hours.  With Allen, we passed right through the eye -- all of a sudden, the wind drops, and silence falls, and a spot of blue sky opens up; animals come out, people come out, looking dazed.  The air doesn't feel right; you're at the point of lowest barometric pressure, and human senses have not yet degenerated enough that we can't feel that something's wrong.  There's a breathlessness, a feeling that sound won't carry right.  Then, ten minutes later, maybe fifteen -- there's the first flutter of a breeze, the leaves and branches stir.  Everyone runs for cover.  In twenty minutes, the wind comes screaming back, from the other direction, and it all starts again.

So I don't know how much of my lighthearted willingness to live in an earthquake zone is simple ignorance of what it's really like.  They say (whoever "they" is), "better the devil you know than the devil you don't know," but I've seen the devil I know, and he's a mighty scary guy.  I expect a sufficiently long conversation with a Californian could well change my mind.  After all, my impressions of earthquakes come from my imagination; and in my imagination I can say, "I could deal with that."  It could well be that the first little shake would leave me saying, "screw this, I'm outta here."

So here I sit, in my comfortable house in placid upstate New York, watching the storms ramp up.  I'm not a praying man, so to say "I'm praying for the people along the Gulf Coast" would be an outright lie, however noble the phrase sounds.  All I have to fall back on is the weakness of hope, and the breathless watching and waiting for the inevitable to occur.


  1. I remember Hurrican Allen. It was my first hurricane where I was old enough to really understand the devastation. It was also my first hurricane party. It seemed so strange to me that folks would want to party and get drunk before a huge storm arrived. It never occurred to me that we could be without electricity and phones for a week or more... in the hot muggy summer.

  2. There was a family in St. Martinville, where I grew up, who would sit out on their porch to appreciate hurricanes. I always expected the whole row of them to get decapitated by a sheet of corrugated roofing tin, but as far as I know this never occurred.

    It's probably a mistake to live on something that's too large to easily move out of the way of oncoming asteroids.

  3. Northern California valley, here. Loma Prieta Earthquake of '89. Driving home at the end of our day, my father in the driver's seat...
    "We just had an Earthquake!"
    "Really?!?!" I said. (Still surprised he could feel it and know what it was while being in a moving vehicle)

    We were 4 blocks from home. We get home, everything looks normal on the outside. We go inside, the chandeliers are swaying so hard they're hitting the ceiling and our swimming pool is tossing all of it's water out as if it was being tipped 45degrees back and forth.

    We lived roughly 150-200 miles from the epicenter. Apart from the aforementioned antics, there was no property damage and we were safe.

    My advice? Don't live IN San Fransisco, or the greater L.A. region, and you'll be fine. Just live a bit further inland.

    The only issue we have of significance is flooding (within the valley) but that is very infrequent and localized to specific areas that are easily avoidable.

    You are also correct. I can go to the desert, the beach, or the forest on a tank of gas (or less) and my garden flourishes with little intervention on my behalf.

    Winter lows are around 30 degrees, summer highs are 105 degrees. It gets hot in the summer but we really get a noticeable progression through the seasons.

    So to give summation for all this horn-tooting...
    Yes, it is as nice of a place to live as your imagination has perceived it. :D