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"Me and the "I" of the Storm (Sept. 2011)

With special thoughts for friends facing fire in Texas, flood in the northeast, drought and heat on the High Plains.

I've written a lot about the weather in these essays over the years, both casually and as a primary topic. This year it feels like all I write about, even though I strive to do otherwise - life is a lot more than rain or shine, after all. But between riding out an earthquake(!) with my little daughter, and explaining to her what hurricanes and wildfires are (adding to her knowledge of threatening meteorological events like tornadoes and blizzards), it seems like I talk about it at home a lot too.

A recurring theme is best described paraphrasing Shakespeare; "Beware the I storms" :) In the last 8 years I have had considerable run-ins with hurricanes Isabel, Ivan and now Irene. That's not to neglect others that were a royal pain - oh yes Fran, I'm talking about you! - but the storms with I names will forever keep my attention focused until they are completely disappeared and dissipated.

I don't typically plan trips along the southeastern coast during late summer, more because of the stifling heat and humidity than the somewhat minimal odds that one will actually run afoul of a tropical cyclone. Whatever the reason, last month found me on the phone cancelling shows in New Bern and Southport NC with the Weather Channel on and the latest Hurricane Center prediction maps all screaming at me in the background.

Though the 24/7 coverage of the latest insert-weather-or-geology-related-natural-disaster-here wears our attention down, we ignore it at our own peril. After all, it's the disaster that hits us that focuses our attention. As awful as the videos of Bastrop burning in the Texas wildfires, or an iconic Vermont covered bridge disappearing in the flood, our capacity for deep and visceral empathy is limited. We can only take so much before it retreats in our consciousness - "it is far away", "I'm so glad THAT doesn't happen here", "I sure hope they can help save/rescue/rebuild, etc.".

I'm a little concerned about disaster fatigue too when we start arguing about the cost of helping our neighbors. It is true that we take risks no matter what and where we build, but along coasts and flood plains, or in scrubby dry canyons, those risks are pretty present and real. They aren't a mystery to those who choose to go there. But we also have to ask ourselves, what is the cost of not helping? At least to relocate, to recover, to get back on one's feet again. These are difficult questions that we are having to face nearly constantly now.

Only two things seem certain to me. A lot of people have been seriously impacted by weather's vagaries this year - droughts, extreme heat, torrential rain and flooding, blizzards. It is hard to see so many people struggling when times are tough enough as it is. I need to look up where the most benign environments in the U.S. are and pay them a visit.  Secondly, it might just be my imagination, but these natural episodes sure seem to have sharper teeth this year. Serious business indeed.

All the more reason I need to give myself regular breaks from the Weather Channel, but keep a close eye on it regularly too.



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