Jed Horne

The accelerating pace of disasters

By Jed Horne
August 27, 2011

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ON MONDAY, as you all mop up from whatever Hurricane Irene does or doesn’t do to New England, down here in Louisiana we’ll be marking the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Six years to the day. Sheer coincidence.

There’s a more ominous parallel, of course, and that’s the Hurricane of 1938.

It struck in late September, but on a course eerily like Irene’s projected path.

Like Irene, the ’38 hurricane (they didn’t give them names back then) passed through the Bahamas. It then grazed the Carolinas, whipped New Jersey, clobbered Long Island and Rhode Island and shot straight up the Connecticut River to wreak havoc well into northern New England, a hundred miles or more west of the Atlantic’s open waters.

I wasn’t born for another decade, but I grew up in the shadow of ’38 in ways that attested to its awesome scope. My father, a passionate and knowledgeable sailor, lost a 25-foot sloop to the storm as it crossed over his winter moorings at Barnegat Bay in New Jersey. My mother’s family had a summer house on Lake Sunapee, in New Hampshire, a day’s drive north of New Jersey in that pre-Interstate era. Hours before the storm, the house - a big old rambling place in the Adirondack style - stood within a towering forest of old-growth white pines, some of them 200 feet tall. Hours after it passed, the trees lay like pick-up sticks. The storm had clear-cut the property. Incredibly, the house was spared. Not so the boat house; it was erased. Years passed before second-growth birch and hemlocks were taller than I was.

Katrina, as most people are tired of hearing, was a lot bigger than the devastating Hurricane of ’38 - bigger than the British Isles in their entirety - and, at 1,600 souls, its death toll was more than twice as terrible. At $100 billion, its price tag was many times a multiple of the damage that ’38 did, even accounting for the diminishing value of a greenback over time.

We thought of Katrina as a once-in-a-century catastrophe. We assumed we had paid disaster dues for a lifetime. But five years later we paid them again, when British Petroleum lost control of an offshore drilling platform. The deadly blowout precipitated the worst ecological fiasco in US history. The floating crude ravaged fishing communities and tourism interests while further degrading the natural storm defense that healthy coastal wetlands once provided New Orleans.

Two disasters in five years. Surely that was enough. And yet we seem to be living in an age of disaster.

Last winter I had plane tickets in hand for a speaking engagement in Japan - at a conference on disaster, no less - when a tsunami swept across the coast and the reactors at Fukushima came perilously close to melting down. This could be interesting, I joked: a conference on disaster amid an actual disaster. But as the radiation plumes spread, I was not sorry when my Japanese friends canceled the conference, 36 hours ahead of my scheduled flight.

Whether attributable to global climate change, the hubris of high technology, or just plain bad luck, the pace of catastrophe seems to be accelerating, and at greater and greater intensity and danger.

Hopefully, Irene blows over and New England is spared the deaths and destruction associated with the region’s last serious hurricane. But it’s worth remembering that tropical weather isn’t limited to the tropics, and that cyclones aren’t necessarily the worst of what’s to come.

With luck, Irene - like last week’s East Coast earthquake - becomes a Katrina that didn’t happen. Heave your sighs of relief, but be alert to the likelihood that the respite is only temporary.

Jed Horne, a Massachusetts native, is the author of “Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City.’’