Sandy and Obama: Diary of a Student of the Haar - Benjamin Morris

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The timing was almost too auspicious. Seven years almost to the day and I was on a plane back from Edinburgh to Mississippi, where a hurricane was bearing down on my hometown and my family. In 2005, the storm was named Katrina, and in the days that it had formed in the Atlantic and passed through the Gulf of Mexico, making landfall outside New Orleans on August 29, I had been finishing my master’s thesis at the University of Edinburgh. In 2012, the storm was named Isaac (Hebrew for ‘he will laugh’), and in the days that it moved through the Gulf, making landfall on the exact same day seven years later, I was no longer studying at the university. I had a job there. Something had happened in the meantime, but in all honesty, it’s hard to remember what.

 

Thankfully, the damage wasn’t as bad as we had feared. Rather than obliterate the coast like its predecessor (described in these pages in May 2006), Isaac preferred to crawl inch by inch, sometimes as slow as a few miles per hour across the land -slow enough that, had it been necessary, we literally could have outrun it. This is not to say we emerged unscathed: at my parents’ house we had trees down during and after the storm, and parts of New Orleans were without power for over a week. Our family has a small fishing camp not far away, a five-room cabin on a bluff overlooking a tiny bayou of the Pascagoula River, the river that defines the southeastern waterways of the state. Far enough inland as the crow flies to be freshwater, but close enough to the Gulf that the brackish line is only about fifteen minutes by boat, it sits deep within a mixed deciduous and evergreen forest nestled against the wetlands where cypress, tupelo, and spartina grass define the natural landscape. When Katrina hit, the forest was torn to shreds, with much of our fallen stock today dating to those winds. During Isaac, only a few young oaks came down, and the top half of a southern pine snag was stripped as clean as a freshly-shaven cheek.

The real impact lay in the river. Forests love storms; not only do they clean out dead branches and detritus, but they topple the weak and standing dead individuals, creating new patches of light in the sub-canopy and forest floor and stimulating new growth—not unlike a soapstone scrubbing open your pores. (There’s a reason it’s called exfoliation of the skin.) But the river: pushed up half a dozen feet by the surge incoming from the Gulf, it had brought a waterline of debris up onto the slope of our yard, the planks of our wooden walkway down there covered left in a slick grey mud of silt and grease and muck. The river had risen once, but because the water had entered the system from the south, against its natural flow, all the water that had been pushed upstream had come right back down, bringing with it a second wave of damage. You only learn to expect this with experience—wisdom sits in places, Keith Basso once observed—but whether you’ve known it for years or are witnessing it for the first time, it’s still going to happen regardless. Water cares little for what we think of it; at that scale, at hundreds of millions of gallons, we are but motes in its ever-moving eye.

We can, however, guess at its intentions; aided by models and satellites, we can now predict roughly where it will go. Isaac came at the literal peak of the season, the point where storms are almost expected, but who then could have predicted that, six weeks after he laughed, another system would have organised in the Atlantic so late in the season and have the national impact that it did? As I write this, the confetti is still falling from the ceiling in McCormick Place, and Republicans are alternately blaming themselves, their leadership, the electorate, the media, Frosty the Snowman, and most curiously of all, a storm named Sandy for the outcome. (One confession: despite all my sympathy to those who have been affected, it’s hard, now, having overheard a slip of the tongue by a friend here in Edinburgh, to call it anything but Hurricane Shandy – as though millions of gallons of beer and lemonade mixed had rained down upon the Northeast.) 

It’s difficult to say how much the storm had an impact in the race. Pundits love to suggest that President Obama’s ‘looking presidential’ in the aftermath had some bearing on voters’ decisions in the days leading up to the election (despite it being increasingly unlikely nowadays that presidents ever consciously appear the opposite), and exit polling data suggested that some voters may well have thought about the need for leadership in times of crisis when they cast their ballot - but with so many other issues on the table, it’s difficult to swallow the idea that they were electing someone on the grounds that they will be able to manage national disasters, even those which haven’t happened yet. Voters will reward leadership in office, but only if they have time to see its effects, and certainly not on such a short-term basis. Rather, it’s more likely that the president’s handling of the disaster - praised by the Republican governor of New Jersey – served as a sluice to retain any votes that would have left had he in any way botched it. Crisis management is good politics, but it’s not a campaign plank: if you’re going to sail, you build your boat out of different kinds of wood.

Nevertheless, the timing did matter. The storm focused our attention not just on an area which, by comparison to the Gulf South, has had less exposure in recent years to these kinds of events - run a tracking analysis on the NOAA hurricane database and you’ll see, storms in the past thirty years have flocked to the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean like starlings to a telephone pole - and, equally, it called attention to the fact that we are all, even in unlikely places, vulnerable to the waters that are still deciding in the era of climatic change which ways they ultimately want to go. Consider the aerial photographs of the post-Sandy Atlantic shore taken by the National Geodetic Survey, which show images of entire coastal communities swept away or covered in debris from the beach, as though a giant hand had raked acres of sand clear across the rooftops. Houses which had lain in neat, clean rows as though snapped into place like Legos now sit at strange, janky angles to each other, slid off their foundations and jostled about in the box. One particularly chilling photograph shows the town of Montoloking cleaved in half by a new river, a channel formed by both the onslaught of the water and, as in Pascagoula, its retreat. Like a serrated knife on the body of the land, water cuts just as much coming back out as going in.

The cleanup from Isaac only took a few weeks, but the cleanup from Sandy will take months – in some cases, for the tens of thousands of new homeless, particularly those who lived in public housing, it could take even longer. Sound familiar? Already friends and family in the Gulf are mobilising to take strangers and relations in, wishing for the first time in years that the South were a little closer to the North, just so they could jump in their trucks and help – in part, to return the past favour. After Katrina, while we rode around on ATVs and cut the fallen trees out of the streets, day after day we passed fleets of electricians and landscapers down from Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, a debt of time and treasure we well remember. 

But the immediate relief efforts are only part of the response, and the real challenge over the coming year will be to connect the dots between this storm and the impacts not just that it has brought about, but those which have brought it about as well. We are entering an age in which atmospheric and climatic events no longer operate in their expected context, and if that is not an indication that something is wrong, then our definition of what is right and wrong is so fundamentally off as to be unusable. New York’s Mayor Bloomberg made the point well enough in his post-Sandy endorsement of Obama, but politicians across America – not just in those states that were already leaning a certain way - are going to have to endorse the idea that a new normal is headed towards us as fast as one of those storms, and that this is what it looks like.

It might be a while before my neighbours in the Pascagoula river basin will buy that argument. Despite my general agreement with Brian Morton in the last SRB that most folks these days are more comfortable with talk of flood plains and water tables than they used to be, most folks at home are more comfortable still with the notion that Barack Hussein Obama (and by extension all liberals) is a African Indonesian Communist Muslim Buddhist agent of Satan whose goal is to run this country into the ground, despite the fact that it is neither legally nor logically possible to be all of those things at once. But these people are good people, and they will come over three times a day to check on you after a major storm, bringing water and fuel and a spare generator if you need it. This is not just a disaster habit: in peacetime, too, should they have an extra few catfish from the catch, or more ears of corn from the crop than they can eat or freeze, you will almost certainly receive the benefit of their bounty. I’m just concerned that, in the years to come, they’re going to be buying more generators, and by the time they’ve accepted why, it will be too late. 

But. There are the timings we seek to create, and those which create us in our response to them, and like any good hydro-logic or political cycle, the two spin round and round one another before converging, like a Fujiwhara effect, on the work in the world we have to do. For now, as I’m nearing the end of my time here in Edinburgh (studying the history of the haar, a rather more benign atmospheric process), I’m looking forward to returning home in more peaceful times than when I’ve last flown there, and sitting out on that bayou with a rod and a bucket for crabs. 

There are a couple different ways to catch them, most involving traps or pots, but my favourite involves tying a chicken leg to a long piece of wire or string and dropping it down in the water. The bayous in Pascagoula can get pretty deep – up to twenty feet, depending – but if you find yourself a good six- or eight-footer then you’re bound to feel the crab come along and tickle the line. Crabs, like politicians and pundits, are greedy little critters; they’re like to keep holding onto that line even as you pull it up and out of the water, holding on to the wire with one claw while picking at the chicken with the other. Once you’ve got them right at the surface of the water, you have to scoop them up in the net before they realise their situation and let go. You do have to be careful, though: there are rules on how many you’re allowed, and the state fisheries marshals will seize you and make you dump your haul. The trick is to catch as many as you can, drop them in the bucket, and race back towards home as quickly as possible to cook them up.

Timing, as they say, is everything.

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