Monday, August 29, 2011

Shaken—and Stirred: An Earthquake and a Hurricane in One Week?!

I missed our late-spring tornadoes, but I was here for the latest outbursts from Mother Nature. An earthquake and a hurricane in one week: even though we think of ourselves as special, that really has to be some kind of record for Amherst.

Actually, I still almost missed the earthquake. "No earthquake shook the town," Louisa May Alcott said in a different context. I didn't notice anything. Evidently, I was wrong. I joked that it was because I had been taking part in a discussion of books and our minds were therefore not on earthly things. In point of fact, though, when I went back over the chronology, I realized that I was probably in my car, driving from Amherst to Hadley. I had heard a CNN news anchor on satellite radio announce that they were cutting to a picture of the Capitol because a magnitude 5.8 earthquake had recently been registered in the DC area. I could of course joke that I didn’t notice the quake because I just thought it was our lousy Amherst roads that were causing my car to shake, rattle, and roll, but (a) I was on a newly paved stretch, and (b) besides, that might irritate Town Manager John Musante and Director of Public Works Guilford Mooring, who are very proud (as am I) of the new Street Improvement Plan that is finally addressing the deferred maintenance on our roadways. I’ll instead attribute my lack of awareness to driving a heavy wagon with a smooth ride and fine handling.

 a more serious "seismic event": God causes the earth 
to swallow up Korah's rebellious faction (Numbers 16:28-34). 
Baroque illustration from:
Johann Jacob Scheuchzer, Physica Sacra . . . (1731-35)

Once it became clear that no one had been killed, the tension abated and jokes began.

Although science websites published serious information about this event and earthquakes in general (1, 2, 3, 4), some other learned authorities loosened up a bit. Even the Library of Congress got into the game, devoting its Sheet Music of the Week feature to an “All Shook UpEdition,” displaying items from popular dance tunes to liturgical music.

The Jewish Daily Forward reported that a lunch for seniors in a Washington synagogue had to be interrupted when the building was evacuated. More serious, perhaps:
No one had yet arrived for a bris scheduled for later in the afternoon. “Fortunately, the bris hadn’t started yet,” said Easton. “That would not have been a good combination. We hope there aren’t any aftershocks,” he added.
That reminds me of the old Saturday Night Live spoof of the Lincoln automobile commercial (and conveniently allows me to complete the circle of reference to my having been in a well-engineered car at the time of the seismic event; see how that works?).

As in the case of other breaking news stories, however, Twitter became the prime forum for discussion. Tweeps competed to see who could come up with the best photographs of the devastation, such as here, in Philadelphia and DC. And of course, there were plenty of verbal jokes: about earthquakes in general or about comparative toughness in coping with them. Buzzfeed ran a feature on "The Best Twitter Responses to the Earthquake" (sample: "I felt that earthquake last week" - Brooklyn hipster). Here, in no particular order, some favorites from the general Twitter stream:
(1) "East Coast shaken, not stirred. #whyisaneastcoastearthquakelikeajamesbondmartini "

(2) "Glass of champagne tipped over in Martha's Vineyard. Obama not harmed."

(3) "Guess we should have been more specific about wanting a government shake up"

(4) "There was 5.8 earthquake in Washington. Obama wanted it to be 3.4, but the Republicans wanted 5.8, so he compromised."

(5) "Massive post-quake looting underway in Manhattan! (Wall St traders allowed back into their offices)"

(6) "East coast: 'Holy crap.' West Coast: 'Amateurs.' Midwest: 'You still can't drive in the snow.'"
(7) "Earthquake damage here limited to my TV, which has been taken over [by] reporters babbling endlessly about nothing."
As Patrick Johnson of the Springfield Republican quipped, "This is shaping up to be one of the funniest earthquakes ever. Keep those one liners coming, everyone." And they did.

It was relatively easy to joke about the earthquake because it did relatively little harm.

It seemed, though, that the hurricane would be the real thing.

Still, it did have its humorous aspects, as well.  For a start, there were all the jokes about how to prepare for the disaster (the usual: what to stock up on, how to spend your last hours on earth, etc.). In addition, though, there was something new. I had been amused watching New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempt to make his periodic announcements in Spanish as well as English. One could truthfully say that he spoke Spanish without an accent: because he pronounced it just like English.  Evidently, I was not the only one who found the effort on his part at least as amusing as it was sincere.  A character named ElBloombito soon appeared on Twitter, pretending to be the Mayor and issuing encouraging announcements in Spanglish.

A few choice samples:
• Lo siento el briefing is el late. No subwayo y yo have to walko.

•  No elevatorador serviso en el high rises por que no electrico para movo y no rescue. el sucko para you.

• Ay Ay Ay! Yo forgoto evacuato el isla de Rikers! My bado.

• Nueva Yorko will get through el hurricano por que nosotros el besto personas de la earthador.

• Muchos trees esta falling downo. No stando under los trees. Que splat!

• El hurricano is Categoryo 1 y still vamosing towards Nuevo Yorko. Cuidado!

• Los cans del trasho por favor to turn them back overo. Gracias.

• No criminales comito el mucho crimes last noche. Poco few arrestados compardo to el average. Felicidades!

• Yo soy muy proud of los effortos del el departementes de policitas y el flamo. Tu es el pride of Nuevo Yorko.
 The hurricane itself proved to be no laughing matter.

I followed its progress hurricane via the internet and television (more the former, actually).  Certainly, there was a great degree of fear at the outset.  By this afternoon, as the storm headed inland and declined in severity, the chatter on Twitter had largely been reduced to two voices: (1) “Boy, this was a lot of hyped up nonsense,” and, in response (2): “Shut up, asshole.” As someone observed, well, it was a big deal to those who were affected.  As of this moment, there have been 21 fatalities, this, above and beyond the losses of property and disruptions of daily life. Eventually, a consensus seemed to emerge around the idea that the hurricane had been pretty bad, but what irritated people was the hyped up coverage, and journalists who talked about the story 24-7 but really had nothing much to say (see above, under: earthquake). It was good to know that know that, in the end, both good sense and good humor prevailed. 

Here in Amherst, it was hard to know what to expect.  My own hunch was that we would escape more or less unscathed (Given our situation in a valley, with the Holyoke Range to the south and the Berkshire Mountains farther west, it can be hard to predict how we will be affected by a given weather phenomenon. Sometimes, thunderstorms and blizzards hit us, whereas at others, they deliver a knockout to our neighbors but leave us alone.) That said, one certainly cannot make policy on hunches, and in any case, we have seen that far less violent storms can wreak havoc simply by bringing down a few tree branches near power lines. One winter, our house was without heat and electricity for days for that reason. In this case, predictions were complicated by the fact the storm path came farther inland than some had expected. The eye had been predicted to follow a path between Boston and Worcester (i.e. still well to the east of us), but in the event, it moved west of us, toward Albany.

shoppers buying up bottled water at Stop & Shop in Hadley Friday afternoon
shelves of bottled water emptied fast
Trader Joe's had to restock shelves of bottled water; here, bread shelves empty out, as well, on Saturday evening
The Town of Amherst prepared to the fullest, as it had to. I played no part in this, but as a member of the Select Board, I did receive regular updates on the progress of our plans from Town Manager John Musante, who shared information on weather conditions, developing local emergencies, and action steps. Beginning on Friday, an emergency management team assembled to deal with all possible occurrences. It included the Town Manager, Police and Fire Chiefs, the Directors of Health, Public Works, and Conservation and Planning, as well as other staff responsible for safety and Town facilities. There were preparations for every potential aspect of the crisis, from communications and power supplies, to removal of fallen trees, and emergency medical services and shelter.

The Town issued an Emergency Declaration at the end of the workday on Friday, detailing expected weather conditions, and emergency contact numbers and procedures. The emergency alert system directed key information to individual residents via telephone messaging. Periodic announcements updated the community on the most severely affected streets or neighborhoods, power outages, and changing weather forecasts (1, 2, 3). We in Town government received, in addition to the public announcements, periodic internal updates.

Here’s a snapshot of the situation.

My main concern was that there might be widespread and extended power outages. In the end, only 127 customers (1% of the population) were without electricity, and by early evening, power had been restored in more than two dozen cases. There was flooding in some of the “usual” problem areas, resulting in temporary street closures, but no worse. Here, scenes from Haskins Flats and East Leverett Road:

[images courtesy of Town Manager John Musante]

The torrent at the Puffer’s Pond dam, near where I live, gives just a hint of what we escaped (see the story on Shelburne Falls):

[video courtesy of Town Manager John Musante]

Some of our neighbors suffered as much or worse. Compare our paltry 127 darkened homes with the total of 319,631 Massachusetts electric customers who were without power, and the 4 million along the east coast as a whole. Our flooding, too, was minimal. Rising river waters forced evacuations in Huntington and Chester, to the south. Closer to home, I-91 between Deerfield andGreenfield was closed, and in Shelburne Falls, the Deerfield River rose so high that the waters swamped the famous Bridge of Flowers. Late this evening, the Connecticut River was threatening Northampton. And that's not all. The ten inches of rain flowed into the rivers, which aren't expected to crest until Tuesday. Meanwhile, the eastern half of Connecticut was still reported to be without power at midnight tonight. The situation is even worse in Vermont. I am told that CNN was the only network still covering the hurricane live by 11:30 p.m.—which means Vermont. (Maybe it is trying to make up for its slowness in covering the fall of Tripoli.)

We were twice lucky: lucky in that the storm passed over us without doing serious harm, and lucky that our Town’s emergency management team was impeccably prepared for the worst.

Update Monday afternoon:

And again, it is not over:  Shelburne Falls (see above) was hardest hit, and Deerfield and Greenfield are still suffering from flooding. In the latter, for example, a golf course is awash in toxic sewage: what officials describe as "poison water" moving at a speed of 4-6 knots.

Tuesday updates:

Last night, Town Manager John Musante reported to the Select Board on the Town's response to the hurricane. We "came through," he said, "in very, very good shape. "We're very fortunate, very lucky," certainly more so than out neighbors to the north and west. There were no reported injuries, and only 6 or 7 temporary street closings due to flooding or fallen branches. The roughly 125 residences that lost power had it restored by the next day. Town buildings were not damaged.

Mr. Musante stated that he was "very, very pleased at how prepared we were for the storm," and he thanked citizens for heeding Town advice and staying off the roads so as to reduce danger to themselves and facilitate the work of emergency responders. He had the highest praise for Amherst's emergency team, led by Fire Chief Tim Nelson, which ensured "tremendous cooperation" among between public safety teams, the Health Department (which worked with the Red Cross), Public Works (DPW), and others. Every branch of Town government did its job: IT ensured continuous communication, the Animal Welfare Officer assisted farmers with livestock problems. The University of Massachusetts was part of the picture, ready to put its facilities at our disposal if things had worsened.

Going forward, he explained, DPW would be continuing street clean-up and dealing with some 20 downed town trees. The continuing concern, however, was water in the wake of the heavy rains. That water drains into rivers and streams, which are not expected to crest for another day or so and pose an often unappreciated danger. "Be smart in the days ahead," he advised residents, advising them to "stay safe and stay away from the high water."

Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe reported being deeply impressed with what she saw when she attended one of the emergency response meetings on Saturday: "ever base was covered.," "The Town was really just on top of all these things, and I want to compliment and thank you very much."  It was "an excellent exercise in preparedness and readiness."

Further selected coverage:

As of today, some 4,000 western Massachusetts residents were still without electrical power. Threats arising from the rains—first, flooding and, particularly in our immediate area, health hazards through contamination—remained the most pressing concern.

Springfield Republican, 30 August:
• AP: "Helicopters rush food, water to Vermont towns"
• S. P. Sullivan, "Sen. Ben Downing: Flooding of roads, bridges and culverts remains a concern in the Berkshires after Irene"
• John Appleton,  "Hurricane Irene flooding devastates several Western Massachusetts farm crops"
• George Graham, "Shutdown of Greenfield's wastewater treatment plant sending wastewater into Greenfield and Connecticut rivers"
• Patrick Johnson,  "Irene has gone but problems remain; Western Massachusetts towns waiting to get full measure of damage"
• "Editorial: Calm after the storm - Lessons from Irene"

Daily Hampshire Gazette, 30 August

• AP: "Irene brings worst flooding in century to Vermont"

Daily Hampshire Gazette, 31 August

• Chad Cain, "Threat of more flooding subsides, most roads re-opened"
• Chad Cain, "Area residents warned about contamination of rivers after Irene"

• "Slideshow: Local scenes from Tropical Storm Irene"


SnoopyTheGoon said...

Well, not noticing a level 6 (well, almost) quake... it must have been a very exciting book you were discussing. Or a strong debate ;-)

Citizen Wald said...

Actually, I was presenting on two books that I have discussed/will discuss here. One was John Hench's Books as Weapons, on publishing in World War II. :}