Monday, September 22, 2008

Ike was here

Ike came to the Gulf Coast of the US, and left a great deal of misery in its wake. There has been a lot of breathless reporting on it as it happened, and that has started to fade from the news. The towns and general area are still recovering.

I lived here during the last hurricane, Alicia in 1983. Even though Alicia was a Category Three, and Ike was a supposedly lessor Category Two, Ike has been much worse in terms of total destruction from what I can see and remember. According to the talking heads on the news, the main problem with Ike was not that Ike was slower wind speeds than Alicia, but that it was a much larger storm, side to side, end to end.Ike could cover the entire state of Texas: Alicia was much smaller than that.

One personal odd thing about Ike versus Alicia is that back in Alicia I was young and stupid. I went for a walk in it, just to say I had done it. It stung like crazy when the water hit skin, even through a T-shirt, so it was not a long walk. If debris had hit it would have done more than sting.

For Ike I was older... and much farther away. I was on business in Sunnyvale in fact, and had to watch along with the rest of the world rather than be there. It was a very unpleasant sensation to feel that helpless. I would not have gone for a walk in Ike, but I did want to be there rather than 1600 miles away. Mostly this was because my family remained and had no power. Their connection to the outside world was me: I watched MSNBC's coverage, and IM'ed it to them to let them know what was happening. Oddly, IM worked the whole time, even when voice did not. At least it felt like I was doing something. Thank goodness I had an iPhone for that much IM'ing!

Ike slammed the Gulf Coast area late Friday. I flew back into town as soon as the Houston InterGalactic Airport reopened. It was about what I expected at first: Branches and signs down all over the place. Odd places where there was no obvious damage. Power was broadly down. I packed up the family and we headed to Austin till our power returned. Again I was out of town, but now I did not feel so bad.

Driving out of town Monday evening after dark reminded me strongly of my trip to Pune India: I *knew* millions of people were around me, but the city we drove through on the way out of town was pitch black except for the odd spot here and there where there would be lights. Pune was like this: One evening while having dinner up on a hillside, I was looking out over the dark valley below, dotted here and there with lights. One of my friends there asked me what I thought of the view. I was confused. I thought I was in the countryside someplace. They pointed and said I was looking at a major part of the city.

I could see the outlines of buildings in the dark, but so few lights were in evidence that I had no idea what I was looking at. I decided that India was doing a much better job only lighting things that needed light than we do in the states: In the Gulf Coast area there is no chance to have a telescope and have it be very useful: Too much light pollution. Too many useless photons.

It had a funny feeling of Deja Vu: Like I was back in Pune, to see Houston and the surrounding metroplex like this. I could not help but think that it would not be a bad thing to not turn back on all the lights that were currently out. Not the ones in the homes of course, but the ones in empty office buildings, and on signs for places no one goes to at night: Just silly to have everything lit up like Xmas. The mind goes down odd tracks in the middle of disasters.

Once we were west of Beltway 8 / The Sam Houston Tollway on Highway 290, lights started to be on, and another 30 kilometers or so northwest we found an open fuel station. It had a line of cars around the block, and police guarding it: It was surreal in another way: The hint that violence was lurking just below the surface. The veneer of civilization was wearing thin. My wife had wisely conserved enough fuel we did not have to stop.

Our house had power restored Wednesday, and so we returned to start cleanup. I don't mind working and getting dirty, but I can not sleep in the swamp without A/C. Most everyone around us were doing the same cleanup kinds of things. The primary sounds up and down the block on Thursday were generators and chainsaws: We had power, but we were among the very first. Even now, over a week later, about half of the houses I drove by last night in our area were still without power.

Civilization is not really returning as of yet: All last week, people drove slowly everywhere, either to conserve fuel, or to avoid downed branches, power lines, and other debris. This week some... to many... are driving like they are all mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore.

I always drive slow and in the slow lane at the posted speed limit: I have a Honda Fit, and there is no point is speeding about. I'd rather get 40 MPG if I can. Yesterday and today I had cars taking umbrage at this, and honking and speeding by as close to me as they could without actually hitting me. More fuel stations are open: enough that the long, police guarded lines are gone, but the good humor has gone from some peoples lives. Not without reason. All last night and on the way to work I heard the sound of police, fire, and ambulance sirens rushing off to the latest problem, from looting to people being hurt trying to cut up fallen tree limbs with chain saws they do not know how to operate.

This is not to saw that disasters don't bring out the good in people. While I was in Sunnyvale helplessly and uselessly watching the hurricane, my neighbors fence fell on my car as well as my wife's. The next day when the winds backed off several neighbors left their own personal situations to help my wife pull the fence off our cars and prop it up until it could be fixed. That story was repeated a million times too, all over the Gulf Coast area.

It will be at least a year before all the damaged signs are replaced, and all the visible signs of Ike on the infrastructure are removed (As an aside, for Galveston it will be much longer than that, if ever. Some historic landmarks like the Balinese Room were utterly destroyed). It will be years before all the trees that were damaged regrow all the canopy they have lost, and the uprooted ones replaced. Some lost huge, 100+ year old trees that will not be replaced in their lifetimes.

I expect the veneer will be re-shellacked as soon as people get their power back and their finances and lost deals and whatnot recaptured, redone, or at least put far enough in the re-view mirror that they don't affect they way they drive.

Me: I'm glad I'm moving to Austin.

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