Tom Clyde: Nature shows who’s boss
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September 17, 2017
The hurricanes in Texas and Florida have been interesting to watch from a comfortable and dry distance. The power of those storms amazes me, and the damage left in their wakes is stunning. There are plenty of good reasons not to live in Texas or Florida (Ted Cruz, humidity, alligators), but having whole cities swept into the sea is near the top of the list. But they will rebuild, more or less where they were before, and sooner or later another hurricane will hit and do it all over again. Building codes may be a little stronger, and buildings may be raised up a little higher to reduce the flood damage.
Two huge hurricanes in the space of a couple of weeks seems like a lot, and there is a third one parked out in the Atlantic. So far, the forecasts show Jose moving north and maybe not making landfall.
Meanwhile, sort of under the radar, Mexico had a magnitude 8.1 earthquake. That's the sort of earthquake that would flatten Salt Lake. It was on the west coast of Mexico, and on the southern end of the country. The death toll was surprisingly small, at least as reported so far. Apparently it was a sparsely populated area. That lowers the overall damage, but is little solace for the people whose houses are a pile of rubble.
You begin to think Mother Nature is angry.
The news coverage of the hurricanes quickly became a self-parody. Sometimes there would be a split screen with four or five reporters in various parts of the affected areas, each getting battered by the wind and rain. They would earnestly report that it was windy and raining, and the power was off. They all reported that only an idiot would have ignored the evacuation advice and actually be standing there, outside, in the wind and rain. There were interviews with people who were going to hunker down in their 30-foot boats, because, you know, what could possibly happen? Now back to the studio.
The real news is the process of putting things back together. Do we really rebuild in the same flood-prone places, and re-issue federally subsidized flood insurance on the same property that will surely flood again? Is it even possible to relocate a city the size of Houston to higher ground? Will insurance companies be able to pay the claims, or spend the next year trying to weasel out of their obligations (the smart money is on weaseling). Normal homeowners insurance typically covers wind damage but not flood. That will be a pretty fine distinction in Texas. Is your stuff ruined because the wind blew the roof off, and 50 inches of rain came down through the wind-damaged roof, or is your stuff ruined because 50 inches of rain came up through the crack under the door? That's multi-billion dollar question.
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Fifty inches of rain in a matter of days—that's just incredible. We are lucky to get about 30 inches spread over an entire year. Houston is flat enough that the rain water just sat there. It takes a while for it to move out to sea. On steep land like we have, 2 or 3 inches is enough to cause serious erosion damage. I can't imagine what rain like that would do to us.
Meanwhile, nobody is covering the local weather disaster. After a winter with snow pack so heavy that roofs were collapsing, we have gone through the entire summer without any significant rain. The reservoirs were full this spring, so the impact of the drought is mostly hidden. But the West is on fire. We've been lucky here and haven't had a major fire (since Brian Head burned this spring). Things are bone dry. The rivers are running low.
I'm trying to picture how the cable news would cover a drought. There are the classic images of dry lakebeds with cracked soil. Having Jim Cantore standing next to a cornstalk watching it not grow, then wither over the course of several weeks just isn't the same as having palm fronds and street signs flying around while the rain comes in sideways. Hurricanes move slowly, but are over in three or four days. Droughts drag on in slow motion until there is a fire to cover.
On our weekend bike ride, the conversation turned to the coming winter, and everybody wondering what it would be like. Another one like last winter, with the constant roof shoveling and snow plowing might make me reconsider Florida. The skiing was great, except for the rainy parts. So far, I haven't seen any predictions of the winter weather pattern. This dry summer is concerning, if this pattern holds into the winter.
But if Jim Cantore shows up, it's time to hit the road.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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