Hurricane Floyd, that big wet blanket, that sloppy kiss, that drooling, lunkish blowhard of a storm, has now dumped its load on the mid-Atlantic and is no doubt pounding the North Pole at this point, on its way to terrorize the Siberians and Chinese and eventually retire in Australia as a mellow, light sprinkle.
My job this week was to meet the storm head-on, to go to Florida and face the fury of nature, even if that meant tying myself to a palm tree or a fishing pier or Dan Rather. The final instructions from my superiors, at least to the extent that I could understand them, seemed to boil down to a single word: "Die.` Instead I wound up in Savannah, knowing that the only thing separating me from the furious eye of Floyd was the entirety of the state of South Carolina.
Floyd was like a giant training exercise, as it turned out. It has trained people to stay home the next time a powerful storm threatens the coast. It has conditioned them. For a rational person, the choice between a 200-mile traffic jam and drowning is a close call.
The government asked three million people to flee to the west, and then the most peculiar thing happened: Three million people fled to the west. The government was caught completely off guard. There were not enough roads and not enough gasoline. In most places, state officials declined to open the eastbound lanes to westbound traffic. Thus you had one strip of asphalt virtually empty, while the other was a river of despair.
This situation resulted from a rare confluence of factors. First, you had a truly frightening storm approaching a country that surely has the world's greatest per capita population of meteorologists. Ordinary citizens now have Doppler Radar implanted in their teeth. Have you ever noticed the strangely hypnotic quality of The Weather Channel? In homes across America you hear people shouting, "Here comes the local forecast!` It's more fun to watch the radar imagery of an approaching storm than to look out the window.
Add to this weather obsession the perfect match between jittery government officials and the sensation-hungry news media. Your typical governor or emergency management official wants to act as responsibly as possible, and ordering an evacuation was surely the prudent thing to do with a Category 4 storm heading straight for the coast. To motivate people, officials tended to invoke the worst-case scenario - which, needless to say, is the VERY FAVORITE SCENARIO of the news media.
The lead story Wednesday on the front page of the Savannah Morning News had an end-of-the-world tone:
`Hit the road. Now.`
If you don't leave immediately, it said, "You will be on your own with a monster close behind you.`
And so everyone left, and by Wednesday night the streets of old Savannah were deserted, strewn with fallen branches but hardly a shambles. Damp Spanish moss still clung to the live oaks. The 19th century mansions were as dark as haunted houses.
Tom Trimble and Chester White surveyed the damage in a Stanley Steamer pickup truck, trying to figure out how much business they'd have the next day, and they let me ride along. They explained that the water running through the streets was "black water,` which is bad stuff, full of microbes from the soil.
`Very dangerous, health-wise,` said Chester.
`It has flesh-eating bacteria,` said Tom.
`It'll eat your arm off!` said Chester.
So you see there are hidden effects, secret dangers, of these storms. We always hear about the wind, the destroyed homes, the sunken boats, the people forced to cling to a life raft in the middle of the ocean. We should spend more time thinking about the poor souls who, months later, will be walking around with only one arm.
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