On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are…
Perhaps the only way any one person can carry on, in the face of all that nature and life presents, is to live in denial of how fragile life really can be and often is. Sadly for now at least, Houston is a poignant and painful reminder of how small and puny we are.
I have spent enough time at sea and along its shore to know how small one person can be in what a “mere” gale or storm may present. Hurricane Harvey’s deluge of rain stands as orders of magnitude more massive than anything ever recorded anywhere in this country and all too comparable to an entire monsoon season in all of India.
Large areas have received over 40 inches of water from the storm and as much as 10 more inches is expected. Weather forecasters had to add new colors to their rainfall maps to illustrate these rainfall amounts. Seattle, which is one of the rainiest areas in the country, receives around 40 inches in an entire year. Hurricane Katrina dropped about 10 inches of rain, by way of comparison, though its greatest damage came from its storm surge.
By some measures 9 to 11 trillion gallons of water have fallen thus far in Houston and more is sadly to come. It is hard to fathom (sorry for the pun) how much that of a deluge that really is. It would take 15 days for all of the people in this country to use that much water. By another measure, that measure amounts to all the water evaporated across the entire world in a single day. For more comparisons, see The Week, and the Washington Post.
Flood insurers count in terms of 100 year measures. Climatologists talk about 500 and 1000 year events. Sixty inches of rain is considered a once in a million year risk. None have meaningful comparisons for Harvey, whose name is perhaps most associated with an “imaginary” rabbit in an underrated film staring Jimmy Stewart. This flood is unprecedented, and perhaps Biblical. Sadly, there are news reports today that a protective levee in the region has broken, threatening even more destruction.
There are hints and a few records of floods in history. The one given Noah’s name could have been the breach of the Straits of Gibraltar or the demise of early Minoan civilization by way of earthquake and tsunami. The 1900 hurricane that destroyed Galveston now sadly pales in comparison with the flooding from Harvey.
It is impossible to say whether climate change contributed to this natural disaster. The unusually warm waters of the Gulf certainly contributed to the rainfall by allowing the air to hold more moisture. Gulf water temperatures have regularly been this warm in recent years, just as sea ice in the Arctic has all but disappeared in the same months.
What we do know is that the lives and livelihoods of all too many have been devastated and it will take years for them to recover. You can blame God, global warming or whatever you wish, but there are people now who need our help.
Social media is flooded with questions about a Houston mega-church that has refused to open its doors to those flooded from their homes. At the same time, the “Cajun Navy” of Houston’s local boaters has reached out like the private and merchant mariners of Dunkirk. Luke recorded a meaningful question for today and every day, “Who do you think was a neighbor?”
It was on this day in 2005 that Katrina made landfall. I was returning home on a cross-country flight that day and our plane was diverted by the storm. A few days later I flew on a relief flight to Baton Rouge to help residents there deal with FEMA. I was amazed at the resilience of the people I met and stunned at their gratitude for the little I could do. We must all do what we can now.
Follow up Friday, September 8, 2017:
On this day, actually this night, in 1900 the city of Galveston was destroyed by an unnamed hurricane, and today hurricane Irma is leaving a trail of its own destruction through the Caribbean with an eye toward Florida. Winds as high as 150 MPH and rains of 12 to18 inches are expected.
Much of Houston is still underwater from hurricane Harvey and one report says that the total rainfall for the area was as much as 27 trillion gallons. That is enough water to serve the city of New York for 50 years. The death toll there stands at 35. Irma is likely to be vastly more deadly, as entire islands are reported to have been overrun by its storm surge.