Overhype vs. Underpreparation

“It’s a wonderful piece of classic literature. It not only has a cast of thousands, it also has a typhoon and a flying balloon.”
– Richard Hopkins

It’s been funny for me to listen to how many people on the East Coast are complaining that they overprepared for Irene, the Hurricane That Wasn’t, and that things weren’t as bad as advertised.  It’s equivalent, in my mind, to saying, “That wasn’t nearly as catastrophic as you said it would be.  BORING.  I want my money back!”  A more proper response, in my point of view, is, “Thank Jupiter, Odin, and Quetzalcoatl it wasn’t worse,” or even perhaps, “Had we not taken the precautions we have, it probably would have been worse, so it’s time well wasted.”

And now, a lecture on why hurricanes are a Big Deal, you ingrates.

This self-righteousness on my part, and I do acknowledge it, dates back to that miserable little island we discussed in last week’s natural disaster post (PS – my family is still feeling aftershocks.  Amusingly, Snickers was caught in the shower when another one struck, turning bathing during earthquakes into a family tradition).  See, apart from earthquakes, we got the pleasure of multiple typhoons and tropical storms every year.  These storms would rip the island to pieces – schools would be closed for weeks to months (one year the school board had no choice but to allow our school year to be shortened because there was no way we could make up missed time without going over into the upcoming school year), services would all but stop, power would be out for weeks/months, harbors would be closed and the airport shut down, and the dirt roads in the jungle would be completely trashed and new ones had to be cut.

Prepping for a typhoon is a monumental chore.  Children scour the neighborhoods  picking up coconuts, debris, and anything else Mother Nature can transform into a projectile missile.  Food, water, batteries, first aid gear, and dinky generators have to be stocked up on.  Bathtubs must be filled with water to flush toilets (and in extreme cases boiled for drink).  Everything that is at all feasible must be moved indoors, including bikes, lawnmowers, trashcans, toys, gardening tools, lawn furniture, and any other paraphernalia, which makes things rather a tight fit indoors.

The houses on this island (we got the privileged of living on a US military base) were single storied, small, and made entirely of concrete and steel, built to withstand all of nature’s fury.  Yet despite the touted airtight quality, a typhoon manages to get in to the damnedest places, so anything valuable must be covered up or stored in watertight containers.  Bookshelves are covered in tarps, carpets are rolled up, knick knacks are boxed up with jewelry and family papers and photos, and fingers are crossed.

In other words, it’s a big freaking deal.  It takes days to prepare for a storm and weeks to months to recover from one.

Nah, I'm really feeling Taiwan this time. Let's go wrecking!

The real question is whether or not you’re going to prepare for it.  Because typhoons, in addition to hurricanes, are tricky biscuits.  They have the tenancy to fizzle out without warning, or up several categories overnight.  A storm that is heading straight for you may, without noticeable provocation, decided to head off to batter South Korea instead.  And since prepping for a typhoon is such a massive task, no one wants to do it unless they really must.  (The governments have the added angst of deciding whether or not to mobilize whole fleets of ships and planes to get them out of the way – which can cost millions to billions).

So, when a storm is coming your way, you play the waiting game.  The trick is to wait as long as you can to pack up and prep, but not so long as to fall prey to the typhoon’s growing power and speed.  My father, the Boy Scout, does not believe in playing the waiting game past reasonable certainty that a storm is coming.  When a typhoon was barreling down he, Mum, and all four kids mobilized.

One year that we lived there, we had (as memory serves) five storms that brewed in the deep pacific and headed our way.  Each time it was a 99% certainty that it was going to land right on top of us, and so each time the entire island prepared for it.  And every time, the storm fizzled out just before it hit us.

So by the time the sixth one started swirling on satellite images, not many people took it seriously.  It headed toward us, but stayed small.  Most kept their eye on it, but went about their business with unconcern.  Which meant that when it morphed into a Category 5 typhoon practically overnight, much of the island was caught – meteorologically speaking – with its pants down.

Dad was ready.  The children were settled in my mother’s walk in closet with supplies and strict orders not to come out.  Mum, Dad, and I were doing out best to mop of the water that was pouring through the supposedly sealed door and window cracks.  We worked at this (in almost total darkness) until a large palm tree was broken off and hurled into the house just above where Mum and I were working and Dad dragged us away thinking the wall could collapse.

Actual photo of actual damage of the storm on my island.

It was the worst storm in recorded history and the island was devastated.  When I finally did get back to school, it was still covered – inside and out – with a layer of shredded foliage that looked like a thick green carpet.  We had plywood for many windows for the rest of the year.  The entire island lost power and communications, the water wells were inoperable, and the main gas tank in the harbor caught on fire and burned for five days.

My long-winded point?  A storm is never bad.  Until it is.  By which point it’s usually far too late to prepare for it.  If you’re lucky enough to be on the receiving end of advanced warning, count your blessings.  Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.  If the worst happens, you’ll be so much better off than had you done nothing (heck, you may even be alive with food, water, and shelter!), if the best, you’re out a few hours of time and energy.  It’s a pain, I get it, I’ve done it.  But do it anyway, and don’t whine about the inconvenience of it all when you are spared the worst.  Others, just a few states down from you, have not been as lucky.

7 thoughts on “Overhype vs. Underpreparation”

  1. I completely agree. We all watched Irene as she threatened Florida – high school football games were rescheduled, we stocked up on bottled water, we looked up what to do in the event of a hurricane (earthquakes we got down, but hurricanes are new to us), and waited. . . And nothing happened, thank goodness. Not even rain this weekend. Being prepared seems to be something people think about AFTER something awful has already happened, but it’s really the “pre” part that’s the key.

  2. Here in Richmond, people were freaked out by the earthquake. But, we know what hurricanes can do. After the substantial flooding of Isabelle, people were being smart. Unfortunately, it was the wind that did the most damage here.

    My complaint? I wish the weather ‘professionals’ would quit calling each storm or natural event ‘The Storm/Earthquake/whatever of the Century’. Seriously, how many storm of the century have we had since Katrina?

    Having enough batteries, water and chocolate to make it through is priceless. Listening to the emo/hipster whining of ‘what’s the big deal?’ Aggravating.

    1. I completely agree! As opposed to treating them like a natural eventuality and usually annual event, they are trumped up as a once-in-a-long-while-act-of-god anomaly. Impractical and unhelpful.

  3. Being the adventure-seeker I am, I love natural disasters (and yes, I know there’s a special bunk reserved for me in hell). So it was disappointment more than anything else when Irene failed to deliver in New York. So much potential, and so little to write about!

    1. Now THAT I can sympathize with 😉

      I’ve always treated natural disasters like adventures too, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like my kit nearby and ready to go anyway.

  4. Having just moved back to the East Coast and then suddenly encountering a surprise Earthquake and a potentially disastrous hurricane, I did what I was raised to do: prepare the best I could, and then pray that nothing happened. I agree with you completely; it’s much better to go through a few inconveniences and to be thankful for the warning than to lament the fact that your house is indeed still standing because that darn storm didn’t have the nerve to destroy it!

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