Archives For Hurricane Harvey

Tropical Depression

September 7, 2018 — 7 Comments

It’s that time of year. Waves are building. Cabo Verde off the west coast of Africa is often where we start hearing of them forming, but really these potential storms start their trek well before they hit the Atlantic Ocean. Innocuously named ‘invests’ until they garner enough strength to become a tropical storm or a hurricane.

This time last year Hurricane Irma pummeled St Thomas and St John in the US Virgin Islands, and the British Virgin Islands, before continuing on to wreak havoc further along the island chain. People on St Croix, the southernmost of the Virgins, set about sending help to their sister islands. Supplies of tarpaulins, water, foods, baby products, clothes were sent 40 nautical miles north on cabin cruisers and dive boats. Then fourteen days later St Croix was slammed by Hurricane Maria before it too continued on its devastating path to Puerto Rico.

When I am not on St Croix, I am in Houston, Texas. 

Last year Houston was at the mercy of Hurricane Harvey. We were fortunate. Our property, a sturdy Downtown warehouse conversion atop a three foot slab, brushed off the winds with rising waters stopping about eight inches short of the top of said slab. Our cars and those of our neighbours floated on the waters spewing down White Oak Bayou. Rendered useless we were reimbursed promptly by our insurers.

On St Croix we were also fortunate. Our house lost some shingles. A gate was torn from its posts and palms trees denuded of most of their fronds. Power of course was lost. For us, until early November. For much of the island it was a great deal longer. 

But many, almost twelve months later, are still struggling to regain a level of equilibrium following the battering. Power is fully restored to the island and has been for some time, but blue tarps are still visible – and not just from the air. Many are still awaiting monies from insurers, some of whom have been shameful in their reluctance to pay up. Hoops have been jumped through, then jumped through again, and again. Frustration has been high. Tensions brittle.

Through all of it, a strong sense of community has been the saving element in a traumatic event. Neighbours helping neighbours. Strangers helping strangers. There have been thefts and some vandalism from people lacking empathy, and getting through life by making the most others misery. But that kind of person is found around the world, and needs little incentive to do bad. Much has been made of the linemen who came in droves of trucks from the mainland to help restore power. They worked long hours alongside those from the island. Some lived on a cruise ship leased and moored at Frederiksted. Some lived in semi-demolished hotels. Some are still here, though the cruise ship has long gone. They worked hard, in relentless heat with no shade from trees denuded by rude winds, but were also well reimbursed. 

Physically the island is recovering though vistas have opened up because of trees torn from their roots, or houses ripped from their foundations. Schools lost their roofs. Books became sodden piles. Mould proliferated. Hospitals sustained wind damage and were flooded. Historic walls stood yet another battering though some lost their roofs.

It takes time to restore life to normal, a new normal in some cases. Teachers have been under enormous strain to present a semblance of normality to their students through dual session days. Even now all schools are not up and running, and those open face a shortage of desks and chairs. Valid questions are being asked. What has taken so long? Why are we still waiting? 

Questions have arisen also about the lack of hospital facilities. As they should. Elected officials are always ready with an answer – often trite. Money is coming from the federal government. Monies that would have come whoever was in power, which is something to be remembered in the gubernatorial election in November.

Tropical depression though is not just a weather phenomena. It is also human ailment. It has affected many who still hear, as they try to sleep, the roaring of the winds as it peeled back roofs. The slightest rainfall sends glances skyward to check a recently repaired roof is not leaking, or a home is not being lifted from shaky foundations. A sudden thud can have a man, woman, child or animal jumping in anticipation of a tree landing on the roof, or scything a wall. A sudden blackout can have those traumatized by IrMaria breaking out in a sweat at the thought of months with no power. 

Stability should never be overrated. A tropical depression never underrated. As we approach the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, anxious eyes are turning to those waves starting in West Africa. Invest 92L, forming behind Hurricane Florence, is one such wave. With another behind it. With luck they will bear north west and dissipate in the Atlantic, nowhere near land. And as the end of November approaches we will look forward to celebrating a hurricane-free season.

Those in theses tropics are hoping for no more depressions.

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VI Strong!

October 6, 2017 — Leave a comment

Once upon a time – long, long ago – I lived on a beautiful little volcanic island, covered in jungles of ceiba, mahogany, palms and giant stands of bamboo like rows of drill pipe that lie in neat piles in oil service company yards. Bioko, in the Gulf of Guinea. For those who may not be familiar with West Africa, Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, is on that island though President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo would dearly love it to be in his home town of Mongomo, well away from the threat of a coup d’etat, perhaps staged from the sea. Think of Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War and you’ll get the picture.

Living there for nearly three years was arguably the most challenging experience of my life – not least because of the lack of culinary supplies though boatloads of San Miguel beer were regularly unloaded at the docks. A ‘keep the man on the street drunk and he won’t worry about basic human rights’ sort of ethos. And what I couldn’t do with an aubergine was nobody’s business.

Cement and sand were also in short supply. Both, as the most inexperienced builder will attest, are fundamental to construction of any kind. One might struggle with the concept of sand being unavailable on an island, but believe me when I say you do not want your home built with black sand. It might take a month for streaks of black and a purplish grey to leach through any number of layers of paint – rather like varicose veins creeping uninvited up aging legs.

Cement was in fact the tipping point for signing a contract on our home. The tawdry monetary details had been settled, but still, but still, the landlord – a crafty and not entirely reliable banker – held out. In the round about way of African negotiations it became known that a bag of cement would seal the deal. Not the size of one from say, Home Depot, or B&Q. No, no, the bag in question needed a forklift and a crane to maneuver it into place.

Why this fixation on building materials?

Well, on our walk along Buffalo Bayou this morning, Clyde and I noticed one such bag of cement. It was large enough to cause a certain amount of consternation, and a lot of barking for my companion. It is being used in the construction of a much-anticipated cycle and walking path around the University of Houston Downtown. It will allow a pleasant circulatory ride, or amble, and negate the need to back track to one’s starting point. Across the banks of the bayou, by Allen’s Landing, which as any Houstonian will tell you, is the birth place of Houston, are mountains (I exaggerate only a little) of soft yellow sediment sand. Deposited by the swirling wrath of Harvey as rain pelted into already soggy land and overflowed already swollen waterways, the sand left the banks of the bayou looking like naked dunes. It has now been scooped up by dinky little red backhoes and piled underneath the bridge, presumably to be used elsewhere.

Now I have a home on another island, this one in the Caribbean. St Croix is also in need of building materials. Not because of poor governance as in our West African home, but because she has been ravaged by nature. Hurricane Maria, a Category 5, ripped roofs, stripped trees, tumbled power lines and crumbled walls as she blew in all her rage across the edge of the island. Remember a fury of her magnitude can stretch 150 miles with hurricane force winds and another 150 miles of lesser winds. For an island of just under 83 square miles that is enough to wreak catastrophic damage – which Maria did.

And so sand and cement, or lack thereof, again take on an importance not necessarily commensurate with their normal value, in one of the places I call home. These seemingly simple commodities delivered promptly to our Virgin Islands, will help rebuild the infrastructure. So too will jungles of ceiba, mahogany and palm regrow to once again entrance and shelter the resilient inhabitants who, despite Irma and Maria’s ill-temper, have remained VI Strong!

Harvey Blew Through

September 5, 2017 — 2 Comments

Houston has always had a huge heart, and through the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey’s wrath it has been truly wonderful to see the outpouring of not just community spirit but community help. Neighbours helping neighbours. Strangers helping strangers.

Until September 2017, Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 was the benchmark for high water in Harris County. She churned ashore, then went back into the Gulf of Mexico before returning with even greater ferocity. Houston learnt many lessons as the devastation was recorded and plans put in place to prevent such an event affecting so many people again. But Mother Nature is capricious and all eventualities can rarely be planned for.

Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican, has been the Harris County judge since 2007, and through three Democratic Mayors has shown his common sense ability, his calm leadership and his willingness to put politics aside for the benefit of the people. So too Houston’s current mayor, Sylvester Turner.

What a concept. Elected officials working for the people who put them in their position.

But Harvey has been something else. The rain just kept pouring. The water just kept flowing. And flowing. The reservoirs built on the old rice fields of west of Houston filled, then spilled. The lakes north of Houston did the same. Controlled releases flooded neighborhoods in a deluge of swirling, brown water which respected no one’s property. Grand or humble. And questions are being asked about the notice given to residents of areas inundated. They will, I am sure, continue to be asked as people survey the damage and then count the cost of the storm, both emotional and financial.

Our city leaders opened the doors of the George R Brown Convention Center, the NRG Stadium and various places around Houston for those displaced by Horrible Harvey.

H-E-B, a Texas-wide, and Texas-proud, grocery store has donated not only a $1 million to hurricane relief efforts, but have supplied food, water and fuel to areas hardest hit with many employees volunteering. “It’s part of our company culture. It’s that spirit of giving,” explained Houston H-E-B’s public affairs director, Cindy Garza-Roberts.

J J Watt, defensive end for Houston football team, the Texans, has raised $18 million for Hurricane Harvey relief. He is more than a football icon, he is fast becoming a Texas legend and he wasn’t even born here!

Gallery Furniture, owned by another Houston luminary, Mattress Mack, aka Jim McIngvale, opened their stores as refuges for the Harvey victims – family’s clustered around a Hunstville dining set or a Navasota sofa, their possessions stuffed into black bin bags clutched on their laps; children wide-eyed from fright, or excitement, darting between the set pieces.

Donations of clothing, toiletries, food and water have been dropped off all over the city – sometimes carried for blocks by people who’s cars have been totaled by flood water. Volunteers have lined up. Hundreds of them. The generosity has been incredible; the selflessness of those who might also have been affected helping others who have lost everything has been heartwarming.

And then we have Lakewood Church – the monumental edifice in which Pastors Joel and Victoria Osteen spout their brand of evangelical christianity. I have written about them before – see previous blogs (September 18, 2011 – You too can have Friday every day of the week, and Nov 27, 2012 – What Constitutes Community).

It is no secret I do not hold the Osteens in high esteem. Charlatans abound in every community and country but if they offer solace to those in need then they are filling a need. But during Harvey Joel Osteen forgot he was a member of the very community he purports to serve, the community who has given him the riches he seems to feel he deserves, the community who has allowed him to live a life of extreme luxury.

Lakewood Church did not offer sanctuary. Only opening its doors as a distribution center for donations, and offering space for a few hundred evacuees days after the storm and only after a public and nationwide backlash. This is a building which has seating for 16,800 people.

In his Sunday six-minute ‘Hope for Houston’ message Osteen thrice reminded the crowd, significantly smaller than usual, “We’re not victims in Houston: We are victors.” His palliative style of preaching I suppose offers an element of hope to his congregation but it was, as always, without any great substance. He appeared more concerned about the outcry, telling his listeners “I know y’all love me. You need to get on social media.” Osteen on NBC’s ‘Today’ show excused his church for not opening the doors, “We were just being precautious.” That same social media disclaimed his assertions of the church being inaccessible due to flooding.

Not only does the man preach ‘cotton-candy gospel’, as stated by Reverend Michael Horton, Professor of Theology at Westminster Seminary in California, he’s a fabricator and obviously illiterate.

Precautious? That is enough, in my book, to be sent to damnation.

Harvey has blown through but the destruction and pain will last a long time. The National Guard, police, firefighters, neighbours and people from all over the country have helped rescue victims with boats and monster trucks; have hauled the detritus of ruined homes out onto the streets. Others have offered beds, cars, clothes, and sometimes just a hug.

Houston has shown she does not need the trite entreaties of a mountebank secure in his private citadel. We have strong and sturdy leaders, company’s with a community culture, and most importantly Houston is a city with heart.