Monday, September 15, 2008

So why didn't all those people heed the coastal evacuation orders?

Like many other Americans I am puzzling over why so many people refused to heed the mandatory evacuation orders along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf coasts last weekend as Hurricane Ike bore down on the region. I am also hoping and praying the rescuers won't find a large group somewhere of drowned victims.

But as I puzzle over the scene, my mind keeps racing back to two situations that help me understand what was going on with those people who refused to leave their homes and businesses.

First: Several years ago I served on the administrative committee of board of trustees for a national church agency. That committee recommended sites for the board's future meetings. (This particular board  met six times a year.)  The previous year we had spent several icy days in Virginia in January and had met in the Florida Panhandle a few days after Hurricane Katrina arrived in New Orleans. Later after reflecting on those two incidents, I told fellow committee members I thought we ought to exercise better judgment and travel to Florida in the winter and to the East Coast in the spring or autumn. Another board member, a pastor in Nevada, ridiculed me unmercifully both during and after the committee meeting for my lack of faith and for even mentioning such an idea. Despite his verbal abuse I could not figure out why he was so opposed to what seemed to me to be pure common sense.

Second: I spent more than a third of my life living in Houston. My family and I are survivors of Hurricane Alicia, which made its way through our West Houston neighborhood 25 years before Hurricane Ike made his grand entrance. I recall how trees in my yard were literally yanked up from the ground by Alicia's violent winds. But I also recall the many times I taped up and/or boarded up my windows in anticipation of other hurricanes, only to be greeted the next morning with beautiful, clear skies and news that the hurricane had suddenly and without warning veered south and gone into a less-populated area of Mexico. In one such situation I recall standing in the hot Texas sun the day after a near-miss from a hurricane and fuming because the tape had some how fused itself to my living-room windows and I couldn't scrape it off.

One illustration reminds me how difficult getting people to understand the predictability of weather during certain seasons is. (Is understanding that hurricanes don't happen in January along the Gulf Coast and ice and/or snow storms happen frequently all along the Eastern Seaboard in the winter that difficult to comprehend? And if you want to avoid either, you simply stay away in seasons where these things happen!) 

The other illustration reminds me of the difficulty we experience in getting precise weather reports on what hurricanes, tornados or even ice storms are going to do. Despite all the remarkable progress meterologists have made in recent years in understanding our weather, storm tracks are still often an imprecise science.

No wonder then at least 100,000 people refused to heed the warnings and evacuate quickly out of harm's way.  I can just hear them arguing before the storm like my colleague on the committee or my own mind after Houston experienced only bright sunshine on the day a hurricane had been predicted.

Common sense, however, needs to prevail in situations like this. Maybe the government and private enterprise need to pump more money into meterology in hopes of making weather forecasting more reliable. And maybe we all need to take deep breaths and then start discussing calmly and sanely the wisdom of building homes and businesses in areas that historically have endured some of the worst storms on this planet. (In case you haven't heard the fact enough times, the worst weather disaster in U.S. hisory was the Galveston hurricane of 1900, which prompted the Houston Ship Channel and the growth of Houston 65 miles inland from the Galveston coast.)

I've spent many memorable nights and days in New Orleans, Galveston and even on the Bolivar Peninsula. Despite my affection for those sites, I just wonder whether maybe God never intended for us humans to spoil these places' natural beauty with our homes, our hotels, our businesses, our cars, and all the other things that make up our modern civilization. Maybe in God's original plans these places really were supposed to be beautiful beach-front property and natural preserves--created to look at but not possess.

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