Before writing about the technical points of metereology, I want to write a few things about the news cycle, which is the new term for the way stories hit and rapidly disappear in the television, internet and print news. In the world of news, two or three days ago is a long time. For example, as of the time I am writing, the Russian invasion of Georgia happened about a month ago, and has not totally ended. In August of 2007, large scale demonstrations against the military junta of Burma took place. Both of these stories, and the follow-up to them are not widely covered in the media today. This could be because people have short attention spans or it could be because there is always new, more pressing stories coming forward.

In fact, as an American, I can think of two news stories from the past ten years that still stay fresh in people's minds. (And I realize that this is of course a somewhat parochial perspective, especially since amongst the events that have passed from discussion is the 2004 Tsunami, which was much more devastating than anything we have so far experienced). These are two events that subsequent events now provide the background for other events that happen: 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. As an example of the second, try to think of the name of a hurricane that hit during the (admittedly quiet) 2006 or 2007 seasons. They have probably already faded from memory. But there is a good chance that "Katrina" will bring to mind memories of devastation for the next generation.

And with that in the background, last week, when I was reading the news, hitting refresh on and, that I had the creeping realization that this was one of the big ones, that this was indeed an apocalyptic scenario. I had the feeling that "Katrina" would soon become "Katrina/Ike" in the public consciousness. I often watch out for what hurricanes are doing, balancing regret at the hardships they bring people with scientific interest and a somewhat childish glee at seeing big waves and radar maps. Most hurricanes are hyped up in the media and don't come too much- for example, Ike had been proceeded by Fay, which went back and forth across Florida dropping lots of rain, Gustav, which headed for New Orleans but weakened enough that the large scale evacuation it caused turned out to be unnecessary. So even though Ike had formed far out in the Atlantic, and hit Cuba as a Category 4, there was a good chance it would weaken or hit in a relatively unpopulated place. It was only when it a few dozen miles directly southeast of Galveston, Texas and Galveston Bay that I came to the dawning realization that this was indeed, going to be a catastrophe.

I live in Oregon, a state that, despite its name, only very occasionally is hit by hurricanes. I have only been in one mild tropical storm--2005's Tropical Storm Arlene, so there are some things I am unable to groundtruth about hurricanes, but from what I understand, hurricanes have different ways of being deadly and destructive.

  • The Storm Surge, where water is pushed by the hurricane's winds up to twenty feet above normal.
  • The winds themselves, which are very good at breaking glass, and destroying lighter buildings, moving vehicles around, and breaking power lines
  • Flooding rains, especially on hillsides, that can lead to giant mudslides
  • Tornados spawned from the winds.
Now, never having been through anything but tropical storm winds, I still know that wind, as bad as it can be, doesn't have the ability to be truly catastrophic. Consider 1992's Hurricane Andrew, which was a Category 5 storm at landfall, but whose costs in deaths and money were much less than Hurricane Katrina, which hit land as a Category 2 or 3 storm. Wind can cause damage to light buildings, but it doesn't have the ability to destroy heavy infrastructure. The real total damage scenarios from hurricanes come from a solid wall of water, 10 feet high or greater, hitting a low-lying, heavily populated area. There are a limited amount of places where that could happen, with New Orleans, Louisiana being one of them. Galveston Bay, and many of the suburbs of Houston, are the other. And the eye of the hurricane was heading down the middle of Galveston Island, which would put the surge directly onto Galveston, and then later directly in Galveston Bay. I looked at google maps, scanning around Galveston Island, seeing that the Galveston Sea Wall was not always as large as I had heard, and that the north side of the island, which included docks and railyards, was seemingly unprotected. I started counting freightcars, imagining what the cost would be if several hundred pieces of rolling stock were covered in twenty feet of water, or swept out into the ocean. I also wondered what would happen when an airport, even a seemingly small one, was covered in a dozen feet of water. All of these things seemed truly catastrophic to me. I made a few predictions:

  • That Galveston would be devastated in a way that would make rebuilding the island as a major city undesirable.
  • That the insured cost would be around 50 billion dollars, and the federal clean-up would be equal to that. I guessed because of that, some large insurance companies would fail.
  • I guessed that gasoline prices would shoot up to around 5 dollars a gallon, with shortages, and that they would slowly subside over the coming month. Along with this, many industries would face temporary inflation and unemployment, that would also subside.
  • That the environmental damage to Galveston Bay, in the form of pollution, oil slicks and raw sewage would be incredible.
  • That it would force climate change (which I believe became an acknowledge reality and political issue after Katrina) to become the most important political issue of the day.

If you read this list, you will notice that I was wrong on many counts, in fact almost all of them. Also, I find it ironic that the largest insurance company in the United States did indeed fail the next week, but not because of losses due to actual physical damage, but due to failure at moving pretend money around the right way. Not that the losses from Ike were not bad, they were, and more stories about losses will continue over the next month or so, especially the possibly environmental damage. However, they did fall short of catastrophic. I think I guessed wrong for two reasons: the storm changed course at the last minute (and also had a smaller storm surge) and my lack of "groundtruthing" of the area (since I have never been even close to Houston). At the last minute, the eye of the hurricane shifted to pass directly over Galveston, which meant the storm surge actually hit strongest just to the east of the city, on the Bolivar Peninsula. The Bolivar Peninsula does seem to have faced total devastation, but since it was less densely populated, and less economically important, the losses were less than they would have been. The storm surge also seemed to peak out at 12, or perhaps 15 feet, less than the 20 feet expected. Somewhere, an oceanologist or meteorologist has a chart showing the non-linear relationship between linear storm surge size and non-linear damage. The second reason I was wrong about the amount of devastation was that I couldn't totally understand the area looking at satellite maps. For example, on the east side of Galveston Bay, in Baytown lies one of the country's largest oil refineries, an Exxon-Mobil complex that covers around a square mile of waterfront. From the maps, I can't tell if it is three feet or six feet above the water, something that would make a gigantic difference during the storm surge. Twenty feet of water on three feet above sea level is much more devastating than twelve feet of water on six feet above sea level. And also, I obviously don't have the engineering background to know what happens when a square mile of refinery gets hit by a dozen feet of water. Although, to be honest, I don't know if the people who built or operated the refinery would really know what that would mean.

So Hurricane Ike did have enough force to destroy and heavily damage people's homes, as well as disrupting roads and electrical services, perhaps for weeks or months at a time. Galveston will not be restored until early next year, and insurers may not be able to insure heavy development on the island or the Bolivar peninsula again. The shock of the hurricane did indeed put dampers on the economy, although its damage was nowhere near as deadly as the bank failures that were to happen over the following week. Its environmental impact remains to be seen. What Ike didn't do is damage enough heavy industry to cause long term changes in the area, or to make climate change as pressing of an issue as it could be. This is the difference between extreme damage and catastrophic damage.

Of course, while Ike seems to have had the deck stacked against it in a way most hurricanes do not---it was physically gigantic, covering most of the Gulf of Mexico, and it was pointed directly at Galveston Bay, it also was weaker than it could have been. If hurricanes season continues in the vein of the last few years, the area could be hit by a stronger storm, with a much higher storm surge. Hopefully the fact that Ike had a relatively small death toll and financial cost will not blind people to the possibility.

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