June 1 is the official beginning of hurricane season, marked by the Red Cross tossing out the first doughnut. With this warning, our usual slack-jawed calmness is put on hold until the end of November, during which time we cower in our bomb shelters awaiting the slightest breeze to send us racing to Amarillo. Our fear is because our local weather forecasters panic every time there is a rain squall west of Africa. “And I’m not saying it will, but it could — could — come across these 12,000 miles and slam right into your front yard! Back to you, Dave.”
Houston’s Hysterical Hurricane Harbingers suffer from what doctors call Dan Rather American Idol Syndrome. Every Natty Bumppo in the vast wasteland knows the story of how Rather, a modest KHOU-TV reporter, was discovered by CBS suits while standing on the Galveston Seawall — Rather was standing on the Seawall, not the executives — in the midst of a storm telling viewers that he was standing on the Galveston Seawall in the midst of a storm. It leveled practically nothing, but Rather caught the eye of the storm, so to speak. He was summoned to New York where he made a fortune exposing George W. Bush’s military record, then promptly disappeared.
Ever since then, Houston TV reporters have tried to follow the same route to success. Thus we view them withstanding gale force winds while wading in hip-deep water, telling viewers not to stand in hip-deep water because you can’t see the bottom and you can fall into AGGGG! Bubble-bubble. We also have the standard air shots from the BigCamSlamTeamEye, which the rest of the world calls “a helicopter.” Also, count on an interview with a salty old shrimper captain (by TV law, all old shrimper captains must be salty) who says, “Ain’t no storm strong enuf to git me to leave.” And we shall see at least one Puffy-the-cat-comes-home-safely story.
If we have any lingering doubts about the certainty of waving at Coast Guard helicopters from our rooftops, (incidentally, do not board a rescue vessel named the Unsinkable III), then we are duly rattled by “the dean of hurricane prognosticators,” Bill Gray, an emeritus professor from Colorado State. Annually, Gray predicts a named storm every other week during the season.
For 2008 he predicts 15 storms coming at us from the Atlantic. For 2005, Gray predicted 13 named storms; there were 26. For 2006 he predicted 17; there were nine. The fact that he is never correct does not stop the press, and especially our TV weather watchers, from scaring the bejezzus out of us. Besides being wrong, Gray has also been known to fine-tune his predictions by, say, August when there have been no hurricanes, tropical storms or high tides.
To be an official hurricane, the storm must have winds of at least 73 miles per hour and cause rain and high tides. But what’s a tropical storm, and what’s the difference between a typhoon and a hurricane? Let me put this in simple terms. First, go outside and run your flag to the top of the flagpole. If the flag sags, unflappable, the weather is “calm,” which could be because the flag is in a tropical depression. If so, try to cheer it up a bit. Sing, “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” then salute it.
If the flag ripples a bit in the air, we meteorological mystics call that a “slight breeze.” If your flag stands straight out, that means there is a tropical storm. The next step up is a genuine hurricane, and they come in five levels, or categories. Category 1 is when the flag gets ripped to shreds. Category 2 is when the flag comes flying through your window. Category 3 is when it comes flying through the door, and the door is closed. Category 4 is getting to be industrial-strength wind. You are in this category when the flag sails through your house, and it is still attached to the flagpole. The last level is Category 5. That is when your house sails through Houston.
Wait. Professor Gray says there will be 10 named storms, plus three anonymous ones. Anyway, now we know how to spot the various storms. As to the difference in a typhoon and a hurricane, one is spelled t-y-p-h-o-o-n and the other is spelled h-u-r-r-i-c-a-n-e. That seems rather obvious. Ah, but what to do when there are telltale signs bad weather is coming, such as when the animals at the Houston Zoo are lining up two by two, or your insurance company announces it is canceling your flood policy?
We now come to Preparations for Hurricanes, aka Preparation H. First, make plans. Fill up your car’s gas tank and keep an extra supply of fuel in a 50-gallon drum. Put the drum somewhere that’s easy to reach when you evacuate. Perhaps next to your hot water heater. Buy lots of plywood. For some reason, before every storm people run out and buy plywood. What happened to last year’s plywood? Pack the necessities such as food, clothes and a case of Heinekens. Remember, you’ll need an opener. The Dutch have never heard of twist-offs. If you have pets, bring them along. You may get hungry.
After analyzing new data on global warming, Prof Gray now says there will be only seven named storms: Dopey, Grumpy….
You newcomers to Houston may have heard chilling tales of the big evacuation in front of hurricane Rita in 2005. Let me set the record straight. Those stories are an urban legend, as the entire moving process was exacted with the precision of the Aggie Band at halftime. More than 2.5 million evacuees left Houston for safety, and within two days most got as far as Katy. By week’s end, those bound for Austin were stopped by red lights at Bastrop and east Austin. Cars sat dead still by the thousands, allowing farmers in their John Deeres to safely cross the highways. Credit must go to Gov. Rick Perry, who had planned for any massive evacuation of the Texas Gulf Coast with precise instructions, “Somebody do something!” After Rita, Gov. Perry took decisive action so the next evacuation would go a bit smoother, if that’s possible. He created a blue-ribbon committee, which met weekly at Tony’s and recommended a bigger expense account. It also recommended that certain evacuees be given priority. They would be easy to spot as they would be wearing blue ribbons. A year or so before Rita I suggested that when the next storm approached (west of Africa), all freeways be made outbound. The DPS had replied that contraflow was impossible. What’s more, TxDOT had not one but two studies to rely on, and both determined that reversing the outbound lanes was not feasible. The agency even gave me five reasons why my idea wouldn’t work. These included: Cars coming up the Gulf Freeway from Galveston would cause massive traffic jams in Houston. Some people need to head into the storm — those on official business, emergency workers, island residents (huh? aren’t they the ones fleeing?) and, of course, the hated press. They omitted looters. Also, TxDOT workers wouldn’t be available to change signs, barricades, etc. to convert the freeways to contraflow because — get this — the workers would be needed to clear up debris after the storm. Finally, TxDOT warned, “Do not flee the wrath of Thor!”
Guess what? After Rita, TxDOT came up with a plan to make all outbound freeways contraflow. Gee, someone should have thought of that. But now I have an even better suggestion: Let’s just change the hurricane season to one week in January. If we can move most of our national holidays to Mondays, Hurricane Week should be easy. Let’s turn the plan over to FEMA.