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Know Your Local Media: The Chron's Eric Berger on Hurricanes, Climate Change and Evacuating Katy

Full disclosure: In 2000, I was working on a grassroots campaign supporting the arena referendum that passed and resulted in the building of Toyota Center. At the time, the Houston Chronicle's Eric Berger was covering the campaign, a less contentious follow-up to the loss suffered a year earlier that almost sent the Houston Rockets to Louisville.

Since that time, I've stayed in touch with Berger mainly because we both are nerds when it comes to weather, hurricanes in particular. Over the last five years, he has turned his SciGuy blog on Chron.com into one of the best science blogs on the Internet. He routinely deals with skeptics, science-bashers and people who think they should flee anytime there is a tropical storm in the Gulf (people in Katy during the mass evacuation of 2005 seemed particularly jumpy).

In many ways, Berger is the foremost authority on weather and science in our city and he's neither a weatherman nor a scientist. Here are his five, ultra-nerdy questions.

You started at the Chron doing general assignments, right? How did you get to the science desk? I started as a GA reporter way back in 1998, and over time covered several beats including the business of sports, a hot topic with Enron Field and Reliant Stadium under construction, and the yet unbuilt Rockets arena still needing public approval. But I majored in astronomy and always wanted to cover science. So in late 2001, when the beat came open, I jumped at it. In a newsroom full of liberal arts majors, it wasn't exactly a hot competition.

 

Berger's SciGuy blog covers hurricanes like no one else in Houston.
Berger's SciGuy blog covers hurricanes like no one else in Houston.

Climate change seems to be a flashpoint on your blog. What is the most frustrating element of that discussion? It is the hardened positions people have. I understand that people will bring their own biases to whatever they read, but their inability, or simple unwillingness, to have an open mind is frustrating.

How do you think science is being harmed or even suppressed in today's political climate? I wouldn't say science is being suppressed, but there definitely does seem to be a tide of anti-intellectualism boiling up in this country, and it's at least partly politically driven.

With climate change, for example, during the middle of the last decade there were many Republicans who were open to the science. Now climate change skepticism has become a virtual plank of the party's platform. A respected social survey recently found that trust in science among self-identified conservatives declined by more than 25 percent between the years of 1974 to 2010.

I think this is because, during the 1950s and 1960s, the scientific community was focused on matters that coalesced with national defense, such as nuclear weapons and the space race. Today the scientific community's focus has shifted from physics to biology (evolution, stem cells) and environmental issues (climate change). These are less politically palatable topics, obviously.

You wrote an article a few years ago about the doomsday scenario for a hurricane in Houston. How likely is that to actually happen and how is our hurricane season shaping up thus far? Historically the return period for a major hurricane to hit Galveston is about 25 years, but the catastrophic events are more rare than this. In my "doomsday" scenario -- I prefer the term "realistic worst-case scenario" -- a Category 4 hurricane hits the San Luis Pass and plows over Harris County. Since 1900, a Category 4 hurricane has hit Galveston Island twice, in 1900 and 1915. So they're rare, but plausible.

Recent modeling has suggested wind damage alone from such a storm could exceed $350 billion in Harris County. Remember, Ike only produced 80-mph winds over Houston. Considering that the force applied by winds is the cube of wind speed, even 100-mph winds would cause substantially more damage. We're extremely vulnerable and haven't been tested by a wind storm since, well, since pretty much everyone reading this has been alive.

Seriously, when should we evacuate from Katy? What? It's after June 1. I was under the impression Katy had already evacuated.

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