Hurricanes And Eclipses: In Awe Of All Of Nature
The feats and achievements of nature, unlike those of man, are unusual in their ability to inspire awe. Man becomes but a cheap imitator in her presence, an interloper on her stage. She, unlike he, is able to transform, on scales both grand and infinitesimal, macrocosmic and minute, the order of all things. She manipulates the natural world on a scale that man can’t conceive. He can only hope to imagine it as an abstraction or as a diagram in a text. For him, it takes great effort and purposeful thought. For her, barely the lifting of the finger will shape and re-create form. She does so unconsciously, without discrimination, yet with force. She’s able to dance, uncaring, capricious, and fleet of foot, from something numinous to something ruinous. Within the course of this past month, we as the humble men and women of her earth have witnessed every side of her puissant scope.
Uniquely positioned, we as Americans awaited the arrival of August in an unusually excited state. The reason being, of course, was that of all the peoples on Earth, Mother Nature had chosen us to bear witness to her solar eclipse. It stole the nation’s attention. August’s days waned as the moon waxed and saturated itself in light. It became abnormally luminous and full, pregnant with life. Compelled by Earth’s gentle gravity, it stepped demurely into the sun. The sun’s foreground, I should say, as still they reside millions of miles apart, but it was enough to confuse the lunar for the solar. If only for a moment, the moon was able to finally and magnificently grasp its dream of becoming a veritable daytime star. It yanked from the sun its brilliant and monopolized display and was for once in its life the talk of the town. No longer would its job merely be tugging on the tides or inaugurating night. Now, it was the object of a country’s undivided fascination.
In the sun’s “absence”, the moon took precedence. Aligned in their syzygy, the image gave me and so many like me and next to me pause; I gazed to the heavens first with curiosity, then with humility, and then with awe. Rare is it to feel so small in relation to the expanse above. Rarer still is it to contemplate the smallness of man in the boundless realm of the world, the sky, and the universe at large. It’s a scale that we, as busy, egocentric humans, seldom recognize if ever we do. But our attention can be suspended for only so long. We certainly are busy, and after a minute or two inebriated in awe, we sobered up. We tossed to the floor our special retina-preserving glasses and picked up with the quotidian goings-on of the day. We bounced from the “totality” of the eclipse to the normality of life.
But normality persisted only briefly, when after the passage of a few weeks, the nation was met once again with another paralyzing phenomenon. This time, it would be more harrowing. Hurricane Harvey, the brobdingnagian category-four storm, made landfall in southeast Texas. Its arrival brought 130 mile-per-hour winds and torrential rains. Its circumference knew no bounds; it reached miles in every possible direction. It looked from the meteorologist’s report to be sufficiently capacious as to swallow up whole the Gulf of Mexico. Very nearly it did. It landed first at Corpus Christi, Texas, a small port city of around three thousand inhabitants. It was either irony or tragedy that saw the first town struck by this biblical storm to go by the name, “Body of Christ”.
Yet from this storm, there was no sanctuary nor peace. Harvey continued northward up the Texas coast. As the weekend progressed, it ripped through the coastal towns of Rockport, Victoria, and Galveston. The worst of fears were then realized, when the hurricane made its way through Houston, which—with over two million inhabitants—is the state’s largest metropolitan city. It was at this point that Harvey brought to mind the poignant and distressing memory of Hurricane Katrina, that past disaster which crippled New Orleans twelve years ago (and, what’s more, nearly twelve years ago to the very day).
Houston was torn asunder, and submerged in endless rain, but Harvey wouldn’t quit. It continued further along the coast, dousing the towns of Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange, before continuing and then weakening in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Though at that time it was no longer properly designated as “hurricane”, Harvey continued to assault the small towns as if he was. All said, Harvey—over the course of a weekend—was responsible for the single largest rainfall to hit the continental U.S. in recorded history. For what it’s worth, the previous record stood at forty-eight inches. Harvey recorded fifty-two.
While it’s impossible to say for sure, if the rainwater could in fact be measured volumetrically, scientists believe that it would amount to nearly twenty trillion gallons. Equally impossible to determine at this time is the hurricane’s economic cost. Insurance, governmental, and private assessments and predictions vary widely, and it is far too soon to estimate the cost with any degree of certainty. Restoration projects are historically more expensive than the assessors presume. Super Storm Sandy’s restoration effort, for instance, was originally allocated $8 billion by Congress, but that subvention quickly inflated to a daunting $70 billion. Of course, in the case of Sandy as is the case with most large allotments of cash, there were endless accusations of “pork-barrel” funding where it needn’t be. In comparison, Katrina’s ultimate cost was about $160 billion.
Ultimately, many think that Hurricane Harvey will end up costing more than its two predecessors—Sandy and Katrina—combined. If this seems staggering, you need only glance through the earliest images released in Harvey’s aftermath. Highways and underpasses are fully submerged. Suburban streets are navigable only by kayak or canoe. One-story homes can no longer flaunt even that; they’ve been reduced to submersibles. While tens of thousands of citizens have found refuge in temporary shelters, the vast majority lack the means to return to their lives. Upward of 80% of Houston homeowners lack flood insurance, either federally or privately sourced. This means that if their homes are indeed salvageable, and again, it’s very likely they won’t be, these Texans will be funding their restoration projects privately with savings or bonds with the real potentiality of an everlasting debt.
More important than the loss of infrastructure is the loss of life. As I write and prepare to publish this article, the estimated death toll stands at forty-five. Death counts after events like this are forever torturously too high. The most painful thing is to see a daily count that is “updated” to include more casualties than it did the day before. We’ve learned of intrepid civilians who’ve helped save lives, but we’ve also learned of heroic feats that led to death. Houston police officer Steve Perez was attempting to navigate his patrol car through the flooded streets when he found himself consumed by the water. He was trapped in his vehicle and drowned to death. A mother and her child were swept in the currents, in a place from which—days earlier—they might have walked away hand in hand. When first responders found the pair, the mother was floating face-down with her young child clinging for life atop her limp back. She saved her child at the cost of her life. Another young man endeavored to wade through the water to see to his sister’s cat and help it to safety. He inadvertently stepped on a live wire, was electrocuted, and died.
Doubtless, many more similarly wrenching stories are bound to surface as the water recedes. Luckily, it seems as though Harvey’s eventual death toll—when finally it becomes known—won’t come close to that of Katrina. Hurricane Katrina claimed the lives of 1,833 people. Other notably fatal hurricanes like Mitch in 1998 and the Galveston storm in 1900 caused the deaths of over ten thousand people, which would be incomprehensible today.
Texas is only now beginning its slow transition from rescue to restoration. It’s the most arduous time for those thinking but not knowing if they’ll be able to return to their saturated homes. The adrenaline and the pure focus on self-preservation during the evacuation process has settled, and now people will come soberly to grips with their losses—be they financial, material, or physical. Now, in the stagnant waters that remain on Houston’s streets, Bibles, home-goods, and livelihoods join in the flotsam.
Thus, Hurricane Harvey marks the ruinous. Mother Nature has had her way, that at times beautiful and at others, baneful force we’ll never fully comprehend.