You know, Houstonians used to be pretty nonchalant about hurricanes. A few would threaten us every so often, but they were more a reason for a ride-it-out party than a full-blown panic attack.
Things began to change with Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. Not even a hurricane, it caused billions of dollars in damage and floods in places people thought would never get flooded. Victims who got hit with the rising tide began to pay a lot more attention to weather forecasts.
And then came 2005. The year when phrases like "most intense Gulf storm ever" or "yet another Category 5 storm" became worrisomely commonplace.
We saw the devastation of Katrina, and heard about it firsthand from evacuees who swarmed the Astrodome. Houston doesn't really have any levees that are susceptible to collapse, but nonstop viewing of desperate residents clinging to roofs or sweltering in the Superdome did nothing to make anyone sanguine about storms.
Shortly after that, when Rita was becoming a megastorm seemingly headed directly for us, we took to the hills.
Or tried to, at any rate. The disastrous traffic jams that ensued -- soul-killing, death-affirming things -- were so debilitating that officials now worry that residents will choose to stay home even when they should get out. (Of course, if you're thinking of evacuating from Conroe, you probably should give it some more thought and leave room on the road for coast inhabitants.)
And now the hurricane season of 2006 is upon us. Who will be the biggest pain in the ass? Debby? Ernesto? Hurricane Nadine, with a name that almost seems predestined to fuck up a trailer park somewhere?
The National Weather Service has issued its official Hurricane Outlook for the year. The good news: NOAA, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, "is not forecasting a repeat of last year's season," says Conrad Lautenbacher, the agency's administrator.
The bad news: NOAA is predicting "a very active 2006 season," with up to 16 named storms and six major hurricanes.
AccuWeather is calling for hurricanes to hit Texas in June or July. Other weather junkies dismiss that claim as being impossible to predict, and good only for hyping the AccuWeather brand.
But that won't be the only hyping going on this summer. Expect to see a whole lot of hurricane coverage on local stations and the networks.
Let the fun begin, with our first ever Houston Press Hurricane Guide.
Good Ideas from Government
As hellish as the Rita evacuation was for Houstonians -- and it was pretty damn hellish -- at least it didn't involve a federal checkpoint that stopped and inspected every car.
You might think that the first week's classes in Hurricane Evacuation 101 would include a unit or two on Don't Make Traffic Worse than Necessary. If they did, however, the Department of Homeland Security apparently took that day off.
Brownsville is pretty unusual among American cities facing hurricane threats -- it's the only one that also deals directly with illegal immigrants. To battle the problem, DHS has a permanent road checkpoint at Falfurrias, north of the Rio Grande Valley on the main escape route of State Highway 281.
So if a major hurricane were rushing headlong toward Brownsville, it's a no-brainer that the feds would close the checkpoint and let cars speed on by, right? Don't be so sure.
In fact, as of the end of May, with hurricane season only days away, there's still no agreement on what will happen with the checkpoint. At one point in May, Governor Rick Perry's office announced DHS had agreed not to check documentation during evacuations; DHS then quickly announced no such agreement had been made.
"We're continuing to work with our partners at the Department of Homeland Security," says Perry spokeswoman Rachael Novier. "It's certainly a priority, and if you want further information on where they are in the process, I would suggest calling them."
All right. Let's talk to Russ Knocke, DHS spokesman:
Q. You can't possibly be thinking of running a roadblock during a hurricane evacuation, right?
A. It's an issue that we've discussed with the governor and his staff, and it's one we continue to discuss with them and have committed to taking it back to Washington and looking at it from a policy perspective.
Q. Some people -- if a huge hurricane was threatening, the idea of having a checkpoint might strike them as strange.
A. There are a couple of factors in play, one is the local evacuation plans that a given community might have...It's a local and state operation.
Q. Right, except the checkpoint is a federal operation.
Q. But people do evacuate, right? In Houston we think of Rita, with 25-hour traffic jams, and having those problems compounded by stopping and checking every car just seems to be bizarre.
A. Well, I -- you know, again, I would say it is an important issue and one we continue to look at here...But we have a very serious obligation to uphold the rule of law, but we also have an important humanitarian responsibility as well, and we're gonna be continuing to work and talk with the state on this particular and rather specific issue.
Q. But no decision has been made yet? Hurricane season starts June 1.
A. Our process is ongoing.
Q. Okay. I just wanted to see if something had changed and a decision had been made.
A. Yeah...Well, you can check back with me if you like.
Q. Check back when there's a Category 5 storm barreling down on Brownsville?
A. [Laughs] Let's hope it kicks right around and fizzles in the water.
Q. Okay. Thanks.
Your federal government -- it's not going to allow some wimpy scaredy-cats frightened of a hurricane to keep them from their appointed rounds. Some Mexicans might get in, and then the terrorists will have won.
Road Songs, Part I
Here in Houston, recent thoughts of hurricanes don't dwell so much on storm surges and wind damage as they do on traffic.
We certainly don't want to induce any flashbacks by retelling anecdotes, but it makes sense this season to be prepared for a repeat. And the best way to get ready is to burn a CD for the car.
Not a CD of hurricane-related songs. (If you want the definitive version of that, see Wack's "Hurricane Mixtape," September 29, 2005). The only way music can get you through another Rita-traffic episode is for you to make a mixtape so inutterably horrible that it -- combined with 100-degree heat, exhaust fumes and no relief in sight -- renders you into a zombie state from which you will emerge hours later, never remembering what happened.
To put this together we turned to the estimable David Sadof, whose High Fidelity with David Sadof show airs Sundays from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. on KNCN/97.5 FM on your dial.
His list of how to get through the trauma:
1. The Ramones, "I Wanna Be Sedated" -- "Twenty twenty twenty-four hours to go / I wanna be sedated." Speaks for itself. The rest of this mix is really awful, so we might as well start it off with a good song.
2. David Hasselhoff, "City of New Orleans" -- As you're sitting on the highway, you will undoubtedly have thoughts of New Orleans. How better to have that city in your thoughts than this version. And you thought he was a bad actor? Katrina did less damage to the Big Easy than this.
3. Billy Squier, "The Stroke" -- Heat stroke, that is.
4. Burt Reynolds, "Frosty the Snowman" -- Now that your car has overheated and your clothes are soaked with sweat, here's a song to cool you off for sure. Burt Reynolds singing the holiday classic "Frosty the Snowman." Why, we don't know.
5. Y&T, "Hurricane" -- You were probably expecting "Rock You Like a Hurricane" by the Scorpions. Thought I'd be clever and surprise you with this "lost treasure." Hey, just be glad I didn't put the hurricane songs by Lisa Loeb and Neil Diamond on here. Talk about being sedated. Dream Island
Anyone who's driven along the west end of Galveston Island recently knows one thing: There are a whole lot of optimists out there.
A few yards from the beach, at an elevation of about six inches above sea level, an entire community of elaborate homes is growing exponentially. How do the folks in these sure-to-be-obliterated houses prepare for hurricane season?
"We get religious," says Jerry Mohn, president of the West Galveston Island Property Owners Association. "We start praying June 1 and don't stop until November."
Which is one way of handling things, we guess.
Homes worth $500,000 to $1 million are now fixtures on land that will disappear, at least temporarily, under the Gulf with almost any kind of near-direct hit. Amazingly, a lot of those homes carry only the minimum $250,000 flood coverage needed to get a mortgage.
"A lot of people think windstorm coverage covers damage from the storm surge, but it doesn't," Mohn says. "And values have skyrocketed around here recently, with some homes increasing by 100 percent, so a lot of people don't have enough coverage."
Galveston is perhaps the sittingest duck in Texas, and with only one evacuation route -- which includes a road out of the west end that floods easily and early -- troubles loom.
"The problem we get is that a lot of these homes are second homes for people in Dallas or Houston, and when they hear there's a storm coming they'll actually come in to the island, to close the house up and make sure everything's secure," Mohn says. "So you get people coming in here who may end up getting stuck here."
So why live there in the first place?
"When we evacuated from Rita last year," Mohn says, "my wife and I sat on our deck the night before, had a sip of wine and thought about all the great times we had here, and never thought we'd see our house again. But we were prepared to come back and build again. There's just something about this island, it's like a magnet...[Moving here] was the best decision we ever made, even when we go through this hurricane stuff each summer."
Things are only going to get worse on the west end -- acres of land are staked out for construction of a high-rise condo resort.
That's a lot of fingers to keep crossed, but apparently that's the way they do things in Galveston.
Road Songs, Part II
All right, you've been in the car a couple of hours. And you're almost at the Loop. Time to turn Sadof's mixtape back on:
6. Zager and Evans, "In the Year 2525" -- "If man is still alive, if woman can survive / They may thrive." At the rate the traffic's moving, you'll probably find out for yourself. If you find yourself humming along to this song, do not panic -- it just means the brain-dead-zombie state is kicking in nicely. Go to the white light, my friend.
7. Lindsay Lohan, "I Want You to Want Me" -- Hey, I'm just kidding! She doesn't have a recording of this song. Man, wouldn't that be awful, all cheery and happy andÉwhat's that you say? It is on her new album? Never mind.
8. Paul Young, "Love Will Tear Us Apart" -- No doubt there will be some unrest on the highway, but there's no better way to keep everyone happy than with this uplifting version of the oft-covered Joy Division song. Amazingly, this unlikely cover song appears on The Essential Paul Young, complete with an obligatory "rock star" guitar solo.
9. Aretha Franklin, "Freeway of Love" -- "Never mind the exit signs / We got lots of time / We can't quit till we get to the other side." Is that the same exit sign we saw an hour ago?
10. Elton John, "Philadelphia Freedom" -- This song is just way too happy. Imagine my plight when I was once seated next to a radio morning-show host at an Elton John concert. He sat still for the entire show until this song came on. Then he started clapping his hands like a toy monkey with two cymbals. To make matters worse, Elton must have played the song for ten minutes. Don't worry, we'll make sure the version on your mixtape is extra long.
Fun with Insurance
Dealing with a hurricane doesn't just mean hunkering down, of course. It can also mean dealing with insurance companies.
Attorney Steve Mostyn represents about 150 victims of Hurricane Rita, most of them in the Beaumont area. He doesn't like insurance companies.
"I would call the insurance industry incompetent, with no desire to solve their incompetency problem," he says. "If you get a good adjuster who knows what he's doing you'll be okay, but if you happened to draw somebody who didn't know what they were doing or had a particular attitude about something, well, once we see that train get off-track, we never see it get back on track."
How bad can it get?
"I got a report over here," Mostyn says. "One insurance company, the engineer wrote for them that the 140-mile-per-hour winds didn't damage the house; the tree that fell over and landed in the yard caused seismic waves to shake the house and damage it. I didn't believe it when the homeowner called me."
The Beaumont area is far from recovered from Rita. "You fly into Beaumont and you think everyone has a swimming pool, but it's actually the blue tarps on the houses, which is going to be a problem if another storm comes," Mostyn says.
We can only hope the seismic-wave problem will be addressed in time.
I Know What You Did Last Summer
How did Ed Russell spend his summer vacation? Like he always does: following hurricanes around the Gulf.
He's a 42-year veteran who now oversees linemen for CenterPoint, and he and his troops get called in to help out utilities all around the country.
He started out the season of 2005 in Miami, where Katrina first hit; he then drove over to Mississippi and Alabama when the storm landed a second time. He kept heading west to work on restoring service in New Orleans, until he was called away by Rita. He ended up back in Florida for Wilma.
"That was no doubt the worst season," he says. "November 14 we bumped the dock coming back from the last hurricane, and the first one had hit in June."
Russell has done a lot of nights in the "CenterPoint Hilton," the nickname bestowed on the company's trucks when linemen are forced to sleep in them.
The workers don't go in until winds have died back down to 45 miles per hour, but it can still get hairy.
"Even at 40 miles per hour those raindrops feel like bullets hitting you," he says. "But it's the debris you've really got to watch out for, and for us it's the trees that fall over that are another issue...Oh, and tornadoes...And the striking of lightning. We've had poles we've been working on and get off them, and before we get too terribly far away lightning hits them and splits them down to the ground."
Sounds like fun. One of the worst experiences came two years ago -- not when he was high up a pole, but when he was eating dinner in a large tent on a shopping-center parking lot.
"The lightning was striking so hard it was shaking the ground, and it got to raining so hard...the water started rising up, and before I knew it, it was knee-deep inside that tent," he says. "It'll make you wonder, you know -- how high is this water gonna come? And then that lightning, you know -- where are you gonna run? And you're in a tent with steel poles sticking up."
Again, it seems the fun never stops. But the job does have its rewards.
"A lot of these people you encounter, they're the sweetest, kindest people," he says. "Some of them, they've lost their cars, they've lost their house, they're in there trying to rebuild and they see you and they offer you some sandwiches or some drinks that they might have...It just makes you want to be there because you see the need and see their spirit, and it just makes you proud to be a United States citizen when you see that."
Road Songs, Part III
Ten hours into your drive, and there -- far out on the horizon -- you can just barely make out the huge Sam Houston statue that welcomes every crack dealer to Huntsville and life in TDCJ. You've been behind a family from The Woodlands, spread out among their three SUVs and trailing a boat and two Jet-Skis. Time to get back to the music:
11. "It's a Small World" -- Speaking of songs that are way too happy, my worst nightmare is being on this ride at Disneyland and getting stuck. And that's exactly how you'll feel when you're sitting in traffic with this on your stereo.
12. Black Eyed Peas, "My Humps" -- Here's a song guaranteed to reduce you to a zombie state. Remember that sketch on Saturday Night Live with the two cheerleaders? The first time I heard this "masterpiece," I thought it was them doing a parody of this type of song. So, you're stuck on the highway. Whatcha gonna do with all that junk in your trunk?
13. Allman Brothers, "Whipping Post" -- This 23:04 version from Live at the Fillmore East will keep you occupied while sitting in traffic. In fact, why not just put this track on repeat? After all, you probably won't be able to tell where it ends and where it begins.
14. If all this doesn't succeed in putting you into a zombie state, how about 11 years' worth of demo recordings for the still-unreleased Guns N' Roses album Chinese Democracy? All you need is a stereo that plays mp3 files from a DVD. With that in your player, you'll still be sitting on the road long after the freeways have cleared out and everyone else has gone home.
But hey, no one said this hurricane season was going to be easy.
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