What really is a hurricane? The common man might call it a huge storm. Science majors might call it a low-pressure circulation of tropical rains due to the Coriolis effect. On the other side of the world they’d call it a typhoon, or whatever “hurricane” is in Vietnamese. To people living in a hurricane’s path, however, it’s a potential assassin, home-wrecker, and plunderer.
I’m a born and raised Floridian. I went through Andrew in 1992 and later moved to the other coast, where Charley ripped us a new one last year. I’ve been through dozens of others, but these were the big ones.
But what really causes such a destructive phenomenon? Meteorology 101, here we go: A tropical wave is a baby hurricane, which comes off the African coast usually sometime between June and November. As a bratty toddler it becomes a tropical depression, with winds of 38 mph or less. When it reaches its surly adolescence it is a tropical storm – 39 to 73 mph – which can cause a lot of damage but generally isn’t tried as an adult. The Al Capone of tropical storms is a hurricane, with sustained winds of 74 mph and up. A little more than twice that makes a Category 5 storm, strong enough to destroy absolutely everything in its path. Stick your head out of a car going 75 mph and that’s the lowest degree of hurricane. Like, whoa.
Where do they get the names – sometimes cosmopolitan, sometimes a little weird – for these hurricanes? In the Atlantic, storms are named by the World Meteorological Organization. They alternate boys’ and girls’ names (without the letters Q,U,X,Y, and Z) in a six-year rotation. The first name alternates between boys’ and girls’ names every other year (Alex, Bonnie 2004, Arlene, Bret 2005). Names like Ophelia and Odette pop up because three “O” names are pretty difficult to find, and names like Ernesto and Philippe are there to satisfy the Hispanic and Haitian populations in the Atlantic. I think we should follow the Australians and name them after politicians – a lot of wind, they go in circles, and who knows what they’ll mess up next?
Does it really matter what it is like for all the people living in the aftermath of Katrina right now, since Hamilton is a cozy little place far away from disasters such as this? Imagine a situation where you walk out of your room and there’s water up to your ankles. You walk outside and there’s an oak tree four feet in diameter crushing someone’s roof or lying across the road, blocking all road access. You can’t cook for yourself because there’s no electricity, and you can’t go out for a bite because every restaurant is either closed or lacking electricity. You can’t drive because there are no traffic lights working, and all your favorite radio stations are dead air because there are no towers. Ditches are overflowing, forming a current in your street that’s filled with snakes and sewage, and it’s dangerous to wade through to look for your lost pet because of all the downed telephone poles in close proximity.
We see a thing like this on TV and curse at its magnitude, but those curses are far more common when you’re sitting in your dark house, stepping on broken glass and coming face-to-face with birds – yes, like pigeons – taking refuge because their nests have also been destroyed. If you’re lucky, there’s unclean water in the pipes for a cold shower.
This doesn’t even take into account all the destroyed state parks, the destroyed thousand-year-old canopies of outlying islands, the fallen historic lighthouses, or an island now split into two different land masses at the point the eye hit.
Now that you’re acquainted with the mobsters of the oceans, I hope this will inspire you to try to fix the damage hurricanes do. Even if you’re not directly affected by disasters like this, imagine yourself in those situations and what millions of people are going through right now, and find out what you can do to help.
The COVE will be offering several opportunities for us all to do a small part, and I hope this little tableau will encourage you. I know I couldn’t have lived without help from faraway places.