Beware, weather is everywhere!

Living an hour and a half north of New York City certainly was a nerve-wracking prospect when Sandy was on her way towards the east coast, especially with Hurricane Irene being such a fresh wound. When Irene ripped through the state last year many towns literally got washed away in the flood. People haven’t even begun to get back on their feet. So the idea of another devastating storm coming to negate all the blood, sweat, and tears of a years worth of excruciatingly hard work is just heartbreaking. For the last six months I’ve been working at a private home with four Alzheimer’s patients and at the home of an 82-year old woman with cancer who lives just next door. The homes–owned by a mother and daughter team from Ireland– are located alongside a creek that is normally just a trickle but when Irene came the residents literally watched as the homes on both sides of them were pulled into what had turned into a raging river. They never had time to evacuate. They packed what they could as they watched as their beloved tiki bar, loaded with antiques and family treasures brought over from Ireland, fall into the river. Luckily their homes and most of all, their lives, were spared. With the prospect of it happening again we created an evacuation plan for the patients, packed up their two houses and put everything into a storage unit.

Once again, the houses were spared with Sandy but we all know in our hearts that it’s only a matter of time. Today, I unpacked their cherished keepsakes knowing full well that there is no such thing anymore of a 100-year flood. In the six months I’ve worked there I’ve seen two occasions where the river rose dangerously high due to heavy rains and there was no warning whatsoever. It was upsetting to think that although we had time to prepare for Sandy, we more than likely won’t be so lucky next time. The raging river that successfully claims these homes may completely take us by surprise. With that in mind, they are looking to sell the property but no one would buy it knowing that its complete obliteration could come with the next rain storm. What makes it all worse is that authorities had more than a year to properly reinforce the creek sides but the “experts” choose the most costly and least permanent solution. They lined the edges with large rocks. They spent millions on this and we literally watched all of the rocks topple into the river during the first heavy storm. Millions down the drain, literally. That little maneuver raised the creek bottom so now it’s higher and more willing to flood. It’s an unfortunate situation.

So to review, what once was an expensive house with a beautiful view of the creek is now the future site of a disaster. At this point you may be asking yourself why they didn’t consider the potential for flooding before they bought the property but in actuality, like I mentioned before, this used to be a trickle of a creek. Over the past few years the engineers that be have diverted several other wetlands and streams into this one creek. If there is blame it should be placed on them.

It’s weird how weather–and how mother nature chooses to deal with it and how we foul up her choices–can completely change our perspective on things. While I unpacked today, I was forced to watch the news coverage on CNN. I’ve been avoiding this because it just brings back bad memories of Hurricane Katrina for me. Seeing Sandy’s mass destruction was truly painful but the stories of people helping other people (I love you kayak guy) and people being such troopers about having to walk four hours to and from work, that’s the stuff that makes you believe in the human race again. But then there are the people looting homes and taxi cab drivers charging $50 for a five minute cab ride that tarnish all of that brightness. For now I choose to cling to the brightness with what’s left of my raggedy fingernails.

Throughout the day my discomfort grew and I couldn’t figure out why–I still can’t, to be honest. I kept flashing back to my Katrina experiences (which I probably should seek help for). I would go to the Ninth Ward and help the hardest hit people in their FEMA trailers and then return to my uptown house. The contrast was night and day. I experienced the pain and anguish residents were going through and then I would drive a few minutes away to use the wifi in an uptown coffeehouse. People would often stop to ask me what I was working on which would lead to a conversation about how “those people” shouldn’t be allowed to rebuild in the Ninth Ward. “Those people” either meant black, poor or a combination of the two. They would use the excuse that the Ninth Ward was below sea level but in reality the ground they were standing on was below or at sea level as well. It was blatant classism and racism and it always bothered me. Seeing the Sandy coverage made me realize that weather is the great equalizer. It doesn’t give a crap about what race you are or how much money you have. Weather is all about location, location, location. Sandy destroyed mansions and boats along with low income homes. It makes me angry to think of what those people in uptown New Orleans would say about this current situation. Are they heartbroken looking at all of those smashed yachts but blaming the poor for choosing to live near the water? Would they say that only the rich should be allowed to rebuild? My main point is that it’s no dumber to rebuild in the Ninth Ward than it is to rebuild in a storm surge vulnerable Manhattan or Hoboken. I think people have it in their minds that this was a rare, freak occurrence but Hurricane Irene nearly doing the same thing a year ago should prove otherwise. The hard truth is that the weather game has changed and we aren’t privy to the new rules. Among other things, we are seeing stronger and more frequent hurricanes. The 100-year flood is now the 1-year flood. We all need to keep that in mind when we choose to reside where we do and if you choose to rebuild, it’s cool, but you do so at your own peril. Don’t rely on a government agency’s rickety infrastructure to protect you– and make sure to get fantastic insurance.

Two ironies:

1. Yes, I do plan to move to New Orleans within the next year or two. I’m one of those taking risks at my own peril. You only live once so why not do it with a Bloody Mary in your hand.

2. The last presidential debate focused on foreign policy and threats to the United States. Did either candidate mention the threat of increasingly catastrophic weather conditions due to changing climatic conditions? No. Sandy is a sad, yet good, example of a wide-spread threat to the United States that is far more damaging than a localized terrorist attack. Just sayin’. No politician wants to talk about a changing climate but there’s going to come a time when it’s inescapable. Sandy was a neon sign stating “You can’t ignore me any longer.” How many lives have to be ruined before this happens? Dangerous weather is not going away and we can argue about the causes of it as much as we want but wouldn’t it be nice to just get past the arguing and ignoring and start coming up with well-thought-out emergency management plans for every city and town?  That would be as good of a place as any to start working towards the climate change discussion.

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