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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Stormy Weather

Here's a dire prediction from Max Mayfield of the federal National Hurricane Center, which predicts that this year we may be in for even more hurricanes and that active hurricane seasons can be expected to last for the next 10 to 20 years.

Mayfield, testifying before Congress, shrugged off claims that global warming might be the cause of the hyperactive hurricane seasons we've been experiencing since the 1990s. In fact, Mayfield told the Senate Commerce subcommittee that active Atlantic storm seasons run in cycles, the last one ranging from the 1940s to the 60s.

It's true that during the 80s, when I lived in Fort Lauderdale, hurricane seasons tended to be mild and to not produce many storms. However, Hurricane David, which did little damage in the U.S., was a huge killer storm that claimed thousands of lives in the Carribbean before it made landfall in Palm Beach on Labor Day weekend of 1979.

I remember David. I spent a scared night in Fort Lauderdale while we all waited out the once ferocious storm (and David packed power before reaching U.S. shores - we just got lucky). Although David didn't live up to his reputation, the Keys were evacuated and my cousin's long planned wedding was cancelled (it was the reason we were all in South Florida).

Then, in the 80s, when I had moved there, myself, we braced for several storms that threatened destruction and then either turned in a different direction, sparing us, or fizzling out. Again, we were lucky. But a pall of doom hung over the air of South Florida as most long term residents muttered direly to newcomers, "we're due for one."

Back then, Ft. Lauderdale had a schizophrenic attitude about hurricanes. We all thought we were due for "the big one." And yet, when actually threatened, we usually made fun of the hurricane. In fact, the night before David hit, I had been out at a Las Olas Avenue nightclub called Mame's. The female impersonators at Mame's all did skits, jokes, quips and songs that had a spit in the Devil's face kind of derring do. No hurricane was going to scare them out of a good party.

I was charmed by that attitude. But then I went home, listened to the weather forecasts, found out about the wedding cancellation and read a CS Lewis book, Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer. Mostly, these were erudite and inspirational letters between the famous Christian apologist and his friend Malcolm about the topic of prayer, just as the title suggests. However, this night, the letter I read was Lewis' explanation of why some prayers are not answered. It's the letter with his famous line, "every deathbed is a testament to a prayer not answered."

So killer storm David was bearing down and Lewis was expounding on when God says no. Thanks a lot. Probably why I'm still losing my religion.

Anyway, I didn't pray that night; I just read. And David missed us, making landfall up in Palm Beach rather than Fort Lauderdale. I woke up to calm, balmy and clear skies that were a gorgeous blue and to soft warm ocean breezes. That's when I learned another truth: After hurricanes make land and bring their destruction elsewhere, sometimes the weather turns heartbreakingly beautiful.

Palm Beach took the hit, but even then, compared to the thousands of lives lost in the small, poor islands in the Carribbean, the damage was minimal. And although David was downgraded, it was a powerful storm that held together and made it all the way up to New York, where it caused flooding and wind damage in Westchester and upstate and then cut a swath of destruction all the way to New England. Oh yeah, I experienced David - now a storm but still powerful - back in New York City too, after a bumpy flight over David in Savannah. So much for the joys of modern transportation. We can fly over some powerful storms, which are sometimes low to the ground, and we can even beat them to their next target of destruction.

I won't even talk about living through Hurricane Juan, Hurricane Hugo, and others whose names I've forgotten. They were also near misses for Florida back in the 80s when the U.S. coasts were luckier.

But for all the times I've waited out anxiously while hurricanes howled their threats in my direction, I have never seen a season with 17 named storms. The record supposedly is 21 hurricanes or storms back in the 30s.

But even in the active Atlantic seasons of the 50s and early 60s, which produced the killers Camille and Donna, never were there 17 named storms. In fact, the killers, which came in September, were only in the C's and D's, not in the R's and possibly S's.

Mayfield may dismiss the threat of global warming and blame it on a natural cycle. But lots of other reputable scientists don't agree with him. In fact, not only are we having more active hurricane seasons that produce more intense storms, but even in the winter, the East Coast has been experiencing an increase in severe and crippling blizzards like the ones in 1996, 2003 and 2004. All of those were dubbed "storms of the century" as they dumped 2 feet of snow over Washington, DC and crippled that city and closed down the federal government for days at a time.

My question is how many times can you call a storm "the storm of century" before the very term ceases to be meaningful? And how many of nature's warnings can you ignore?

This strange and stormy weather may not be caused by global warming. But maybe it is. Reputable scientists on both sides of the issue disagree. Perhaps, erring on the side of caution and making some modest changes to protect the environment, just in case it really is global warming, might not be the worst idea in the world. Because who knows what the storm next time might bring?

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