September 2, 2007
No matter what the hurricane pundits declare, the official hurricane season begins when the first storm heads through the Gulf toward land. Officially and unofficially, that means that with Hurricane Dean on the 18th of August, hurricane season 2007 began.
We who live on the Gulf Coast get a little blasé about these storms -- by "we" I mean those of us who were raised here (Newcomers totally freak out). If it's not coming our way we wait until the one that is before we get worried.
Now we have Hurricane Felix, which at this point it has yet to touch a corner of land anywhere, and has the Yucatan Peninsula and the Bay of Campiche to terrorize before its trek across Mexico or its turn through the Gulf. Forecasters have come up with an intriguing visual device they dub "the cone of uncertainty" as they track the projected path of a hurricane -- a path that stretches wide enough in both directions to give them a huge margin for error. We in hurricane country are well aware that this cone has little to do with the reality of whether or not the storm will come our way or not. The cone allows for, but does not help predict, the size or direction of the wobble a storm almost always makes right at landfall. The wobble, we who await the wrath of a hurricane know, the wobble is the determining factor.
I go back to the days before hurricanes were identified by categories -- even before they were given names. When they began naming them, it was decided by some naming bureau or other to give them women's names, then I suppose Women's Liberation sensitized the guys at the bureau and they decreed that the names should be divided equally between masculine names and feminine ones. I remember a column by Mobile's beloved newspaper man Mike McEvoy suggesting the storms be named after medicines, like "bicarbonate of soda" or "castor oil." I remember the column but don't remember the point. The bureau would have run out of generic names soon enough if they had tried that, and manufacturers would not have appreciated having hurricanes named after branded products. Let's just say it was a lousy idea. Kinda like, a few years back, when the bureau came up with the French Georges for a hurricane's name. Local weathermen in Mobile had a time with that one. One pronounced it George's, as written.
A reader inquires why natural disasters occur. What is God's plan in such random acts? I've been over this territory before, but this particular reader, a self-identified "oaf," still implores me to explain it, since I seem to think I'm so smart.
One more time. The earth is a natural place with its own laws. There is a higher power which, you might say, owns the property. Man is a tenant -- and not a very good one -- who sometimes oversteps the boundaries. This higher power, and I won't say "God" this time for fear it will call a picture to your mind of a bearded man in the clouds with lightning bolts in one hand. There is not a man at all; that image, as pointed out by Margaret Atwood, was based on ancient drawings of the pagan god Zeus. It is not Zeus, doling out punishment by causing earthquakes, tsunamis and Hurricane Katrina. On the other hand, it is nature doing what we know nature does. We, mankind, have these brilliant scientists who tell us in February that there will by 19 hurricanes beginning in June (although Joe Schmoe on the street in Mobile can tell you there's not likely to be any activity before August) but those scientific experts are not quick to point out that man should not be living in cities below sea level, and that if he is, he'd better attend to his levees and have evacuation plans in place before the first hurricane of any season hits.
In other words, we ignore what we know to be a fact, that certain localities on the planet, while affording beautiful views (or tasty ways with seafood), may not be suitable for permanent year-round residence. We are convinced that we can control nature, and that if we are good the man in the clouds will protect us from harm.
I have said this before: It doesn't work that way. This does not mean there is no god, no power greater than us. It means that we have to work to be in tune with this power and have the good old-fashioned horse sense to get out of the way of an oncoming catastrophe, whether it comes from above in the form of rain and wind or is of man's own devices as in the train wreck. There are risks we take. We have our own decisions to make. Most of us are aware that we are as likely to be hit by a drunk driver as we are to get killed by a hurricane, excessive heat, or other forces of the weather. We live in our own cones of uncertainty. But we take our chances and we name our poisons.
The laws of nature allow us to do just that. If we think there is a power that will keep all problems at bay if we just learn to manipulate it, we are in for a lot of big disappointments. If devising a belief system that works for us, say, "There is a reason for everything," we'll spend a lifetime looking those reasons, tons of them, and end up with the inevitable, "There are some things we are not meant to understand."
As hurricane season goes into full swing -- around here at any rate, largely because the law of averages works in our favor this year -- we have a fair hope that we'll dodge that bullet -- for now. This wisdom is lost on insurance companies, who now refuse to cover anything close to any waters, it would seem. Hurricanes have real effects, whether or not their damage hits home.