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September 2, 2011

Irene v. Katrina

Roy Meachum

Irene’s only property damage at my yellow-door house was in the patio; a garden statue fell on its nose in the corner, bruising plants.


My eldest son’s golf match was called off. The storm evacuated Sunday, headed for New England; the links were too soggy to play. Services at New Market’s Grace Episcopal were cancelled. My life was the beneficiary of the slow, steady rains that fell from the heavens. Pushkin pushed for walks nevertheless despite the non-blustery weather.


Irene contradicted forecasts, not surprisingly, and missed the large metropolitan centers, instead heading to such unlikely places, like Vermont and New Hampshire. I saw the movie, “Portrait of Jennie,” on my first U.S. Army Band tour to Boston; on the nearby Massachusetts coast, the mother of all American hurricanes that inspired the film struck in 1938.


Called the Yankee Clipper, in the years before hurricanes were given human names, it was estimated to have killed between 682 and 800 people, damaged or destroyed over 57,000 homes, and caused property losses estimated at $306 million ($41.1 billion in 2011).


Irene is no slouch, bringing a billion dollar claim for damaged property from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo this week. The Associated Press estimates Irene’s total cost at $7 billion and climbing. Lives lost are a piffle compared to 1938, but there were no radar and weather diagnostic tools before World War II. Not the high horrifying winds but flooding that accounted for the destruction in property and of lives, both human and animals.


In the trip back to New Orleans five months after Katrina, I discovered traffic lights dropped on Canal Street and in the French Quarter; and, looking overhead, I saw a few buildings torn apart. Swollen bayous, rivers, Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico had wrought destruction on my home town. Driving out to my boarding school, the buildings were ruined by mud, so much so that Holy Cross moved inland, away from the Mississippi levee I loved when a student.


Since Manhattan and high population areas saw few effects from Irene, comic caricatures of reporters and weathermen abounded on television; because of Katrina, the routines fell flat with me. Nor were they appreciated in the homes and bars without power. As far away as Maine and as close as Virginia and Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a million buildings still wait for their utility companies to turn on the juice going into the weekend.


In this part of the country, we were astonishingly fortunate. Science goes only so far in predicting weather. Lady Luck takes over, bad or good. As I wrote, my childhood memories retain nothing about flooding and blustery winds; I know they existed before my time. Pontchartrain spillways stand as monuments.


As a direct result of the national disasters, federal flood insurance was required at my sold purple house on Chincoteague Island. During America’s Bicentennial, Frederick’s Carroll Creek flooded downtown, requiring businesses and residences in that part of the city to buy the insurance.


During Irene, as I wrote, we were little more than lucky.


Thank God!


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