OP-ED: Hurricanes: Times have changed

John M. Crisp
Tribune News Service

As I write, Dorian, a formidable Category 5 hurricane, is slowly approaching Florida’s east coast; by the time you read this, you will probably know whether Dorian hit Florida or whether it skewed north for a landfall on the coast of another hapless state.

I have considerable sympathy for fellow citizens who live in Dorian’s path. I’ve lived nearly all of my life in hurricane country. I know the wary eye that coastal inhabitants keep fixed on the tropics during the six months of hurricane season.

Most years the odds work out in your favor, but the worry that this particular year could be the one that leads a disastrous storm to your community never entirely goes away until the cold fronts begin to blow through in November.

But longtime inhabitants of hurricane country learn to accommodate themselves to the threat and generally accept hurricanes as just another hazard in a dangerous world.

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Beach goers in Sexton Plaza watch the waves crash onto Vero Beach as Hurricane Dorian inches closer to Florida's Treasure Coast on Monday, Sept. 2, 2019. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald/TNS)

An illustrative anecdote: On Sept. 11, 1961, Carla, a category 5 hurricane ranked as the most severe ever to hit the mainland, made landfall 50 miles southeast of my hometown, Victoria, Texas, with wind speeds as high as 175 mph.

To my three young brothers and me, Carla was an adventure. Only in retrospect can I imagine the anxiety that it must have caused my parents, who, as far as I know, never considered evacuation. Nearly everything they owned, including a home for four youngsters, depended on our modest frame house’s capacity to withstand the ferocity of one of the worst storms ever to hit the coast.

During the night before landfall, an ominous knocking developed somewhere in the house. When my dad looked into the attic, he could see the edge of the roof lifting off the framing enough to reveal the howling storm outside. We four boys watched from the rain-pelted windows while my dad held the ladder as my mom — she was better with a hammer — nailed the roof down in a blowing gale, probably saving the house.

By the time Carla’s eye skirted a few miles east of Victoria, the storm had lost some of its power — the local weather station’s anemometer blew away at 114 mph. The house survived with the loss of only the TV antenna, the basketball goal and all of the shingles sheared cleanly off the north side of the roof.

But this close call never planted in my parents’ minds the thought of moving away from the coast. Nor did it prevent me from living for 29 years in Corpus Christi, Texas, a low-lying coastal city subject to hurricanes.

A few times, I had to board up and evacuate, but the city never received a direct hit. Two years ago I moved to central Texas, leaving the threat of hurricanes behind. I packed the last of my belongings and left Corpus Christi on Aug. 24, 2017. The next day hurricane Harvey made landfall 30 miles east of the city. I’ve been lucky my whole life.

But, really, what I’m describing is a bygone era, when we could think of hurricanes as acts of God or nature, and luck could provide 29 hurricane-free years in a vulnerable coastal city.

Things have changed. In 1961, most coastal inhabitants could reasonably evacuate, if they chose, before a hurricane like Carla. In 2005, as hurricane Rita closed in, my brother and his wife spent more than 24 hours evacuating from the Houston area before giving up, having covered fewer than 60 miles. A hundred people died in their vehicles. Overdevelopment has made the coast a much more dangerous place to live.

So has climate change. Science shows clearly what common sense says is obvious. Heat revs up hurricanes; as the ocean water warms, hurricanes generate more energy and carry more moisture. Carla’s heaviest rainfall was under 18 inches; Harvey dropped close to 60 inches on parts of Houston. Rising sea levels don’t help, either.

Once we could blame hurricanes on providence or nature; now human activity is making them worse. How much worse remains to be seen. In the next few days, may you fare well, coastal citizens.

— John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at