Stay Away from Floodwater: Why I’m upset about Sandy

I am terribly far behind on my challenge, but instead of specifically writing a challenge post, I wanted to write about something that has been bothering me for a while.

It concerns the events surrounding Hurricane Sandy.

I live in the United States, considered by many to be one of the most technologically advanced countries in the nation. There is only one reason that any person living in this country should have died in that storm – that reason is stupidity.

But that is not the only reason people died in and after Sandy. That makes me angry. Very, very angry.

In the last ten years of my life – the years I have been aware of what is going on around me – we have watched any number of disasters cause far too many deaths. Most of these disasters struck with little to no warning. Tsunamis, for example, are usually unpredictable. Seismologists and geologists (and whoever else) studying earthquakes are working to find more reliable ways to predict those disasters, but progress isn’t as fast as we all wish it could be. Weather prediction, on the other hand, is quite advanced. We may not be able to say with exactitude where a hurricane will make landfall days before it happens, but we can approximate the time of landfall and the general area. We can predict days ahead of time that a hurricane will develop, and we can say with almost complete certainty that it will hit one area or another.

We can estimate storm surge and its effects. We can say with near certainty what areas will experience flooding days ahead of time. There was plenty of time to communicate and heed the evacuation warnings for Sandy. Plenty of time for officials to make certain everyone would heed their warning except perhaps a few exceptionally stupid people, but it seems to me that officials didn’t work hard enough. I’m not blaming the deaths on officials, but rather on the anti-science bias of the American public and the clearly inadequate SOPs that led to people staying in places that should have been completely evacuated and to inept responses after the storm.

Getting on the television and telling people to leave their homes and stuff behind was and is not enough, particularly in areas unused to disastrous storms. If you tell an American living in tornado alley that there is a tornado touching down and they need to find shelter, they will find shelter. If you tell someone living in the flood plains of a major river like the Mississippi or Minnesota to leave his or her home because that river is on the verge of flooding, they will nearly always leave their home*. When a damn breached in Iowa in 2010 and residents of the area nearby had only minutes to evacuate, no injuries were reported. Minutes. Why do these people listen to warnings and heed evacuation notices? Because they have seen on a somewhat regular basis the effects  flooding or high winds can have. Talk to a Californian about earthquakes – many will tell you that if they had advance warning of an earthquake, they would absolutely heed it.

I grew up near the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers. I grew up being told over and over again how dangerous floodwater is. To stay away from flood waters, even if it looks shallow, even if it looks like just an inch. Don’t ever try driving through even what looks like a small amount of water. I grew up watching clips of the very few people that don’t heed these warnings and discovering that I actually like being safe and alive. People who live in or near flood-prone areas better know what can happen when you ignore evacuation orders. We don’t worry about the possibility that officials are basically crying wolf.

I think in a lot of cases, the people of New York City and New Jersey that got caught in floodwater lacked that type of knowledge. I take for granted that everyone around me knows to stay away from flooding and to heed evacuation or emergency orders. When people here hear of a single person or family that tried to ride out a flood or just flatly refused to leave their home, we have a hard time feeling sympathy for them. We all understand how attached people get to homes and things, but in the end your home and your things aren’t going to come through the storm any better off just because you stay, and in staying you are a lot more likely to lose the most valuable thing of all – your life.

In places where floods and high-winds or other major hard-to-predict disasters are not a common occurrence, though, maybe people just don’t realize what they risk by ignoring warnings. That makes for a situation in which community leaders and officials need to get out the word about evacuations by doing more than just going on television. Whether that means going door to door or what, I don’t know. All I know is that it is shameful that in the year 2012 in the United States of America a hurricane predicted days ahead of time was able to take so many lives in one of the most developed areas of one of the most developed countries in the world.

*remember my stupidity exemption?

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