Shake, Rattle and Roll of a Different Kind

I guess I can understand why easterners freaked out about the earthquake the other day; they are sufficiently rare, and if you’ve never been through one before the sensation of the ground suddenly heaving, rattling windows and shaking buildings, will seem pretty unsettling.  Having grown up in southern California and lived through several of the larger, sharper California quakes, this was a piddly little excuse for a temblor.  I actually got up and walked around the second floor of my house, looked out the window, and then walked down the stairs while it was still going (to check on a nine-year-old), and thought, “An earthquake in Virginia—how weird is that?”  And as icing on the cake, I immediately estimated that it was probably about a 5.6 magnitude quake, just based on the duration and amount of the shaking—not too far off the official number that soon came in from the instruments.  I. Am. That. Good.

The photo nearby expresses my sentiments about how easterners overreacted to the quake, which is similar to how we seem to go all DefCon1 with three inches of snow in the winter.  (The only “damage” at my house was a book that, um, . . . fell into the commode in my bathroom.  No, critics out there, it wasn’t one of mine.)  My guess is that by the time Hurricane Irene is done, people will forget entirely about the earthquake.  This will be shake, rattle and roll of a different kind.

The precedents for this kind of storm don’t look good.  There are several good books about the hurricane of 1938 that struck Long Island (just as they may well be a few books about this one eventually), but there isn’t time to get through one before the lights (perhaps) go out here in suburban Virginia.  I dusted off William Manchester’s brief account of the 1938 storm in his sweeping two-volume narrative history The Glory and the Dream, and it ought to be enough to dash any complacency.  The 1938 storm was the largest to hit New York since 1815, so obviously no one was prepared or had any experience with a storm of this size.  There’s one aspect of Manchester’s account that ought to be especially worrying.  The typical line is that hurricanes weaken once they hit landfall, but Manchester describes why this didn’t happen as much with the 1938 storm:

Long Island and New England had been lashed by rain for four straight days and nights.  The air there was unnaturally warm and muggy.  Ears felt queer, because atmospheric pressure was decreasing.  In Vermont people noticed the smell of the seashore in the air.  Hurricanes love nothing so much as warmth and dampness, and this one lurched toward the broad moist carpet six hundred miles long.  Moreover, the instant it crossed the shore, another dreadful principle would come to bear upon it.  Usually hurricanes weaken over land, but the soggy ground, extending all the way to Canada, meant the storm would continue to blow as hard as it had been in the Caribbean—picking up speed from the sticky air until the eye was moving at 60 miles per hour, as fast as a tornado, fast enough to reach Montreal that same night.

I don’t know if Manchester is completely right about this, but if he is even partly right, then look out.  It’s been raining a lot lately here in the northeast, and the ground is saturated.

The 1938 hurricane killed more than 700 people, and destroyed over 60,000 homes (one of them J.P. Morgan’s mansion on Glen Cove).  The storm surge on Long Island went as far as a mile inland in some points.  The storm was slow to make national news, by the way, because it occurred at the height of the Munich crisis, which commanded much more media and political attention.  The political disaster in Europe outweighed the natural disaster in the U.S., and rightly so.  That won’t be the case this time.

Maybe Paul Krugman will tout the hurricane’s economic benefits, as there’s going to be a lot of broken windows by the end of the weekend.  James Pethokoukis is probably more on target suggesting that the hurricane might be the blow that sends the economy back into recession (and provides Obama with yet another excuse).  Moreover, this storm could be Obama’s Katrina if the government response is seen to be slack.  This will be a test of whether the Obama administration and FEMA have learned and adjusted from its mistakes after Katrina.  Is Obama coming back to Washington early from Martha’s Vineyard to take charge of the federal government’s relief effort?  I haven’t heard.  There isn’t much he can actually do, of course, but the “optics,” as they say in show-business world of modern politics, are important.  President Bush took lots of fire for being at his Texas ranch during Katrina, and then doing his low-pass flyover.

My guess is that between the widespread geographical scale of the likely damage and the inherent difficulties of coordination for large scale one-off events like this, FEMA will not be seen to have performed very well.  It can’t, by its very nature as a lumbering federal bureaucracy.  The thing to watch will be to see how much better state and local officials perform (Louisiana’s Gov. Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin were incompetent, whereas New Jersey has Gov. Christie, etc), and whether FEMA impedes private sector efforts such as WalMart and the Red Cross, as it did shamefully with Katrina.

In 2003, my power was knocked out for two days when the remnants of Hurricane Isabel blew through northern Virginia.  So if I don’t show up here starting Sunday, you’ll know why.

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