Nighttime is the worst time covering a hurricane. However hard it blows during the day, dark always seem to bring the terror of nature’s escalating violence.
Trees bend and break blocking roadways, signs and traffic lights swing wildly, the air gets filled with invisible flying debris, walls and roofs start peeling off, and power cables snap and burst into flames as power loss aggravates the scary darkness. Mobile homes and gas station roofs, always prime targets of a hefty storm’s wrath, get trashed.
I’ve covered dozens of hurricanes including Sandy, Hugo, Rita, Maria and terrible Katrina, whose 15th anniversary we grimly commemorated Saturday. Reporting a hurricane’s landfall is like going to war, except no one is trying to kill you specifically.
As in war, the intrepid or reckless or fearless reporters try to get as close to the expected action as possible. You prepare for it, pick your spot, hunker down and await the wind and the water it is pushing your way.
Despite the night terrors, I prefer it to seeing the next day’s aftermath. Daylight reveals the killing zone, the carnage, pain and devastation wrought by the wind and floods. There is no good way to console or comfort a family that has lost everything overnight, irreplaceable personal treasures, perhaps even a loved one to the storm.
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Hurricanes are random, heartless weather roulette. We track these giant counter-clockwise swirling monsters as they churn into existence, often ravaging the Caribbean. Then they pick a lane, a right turn into the Atlantic Ocean or left into the shallower, warmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
The coast not targeted breathes an enormous sigh of relief, spared this time from the potentially devastating cost in lives and property these terrible events can represent.
Meteorologists meticulously chart a big hurricane’s approach to the coast, giving us blow-by- blow, minute-by-minute course corrections and estimated times of arrival. It is fitting that in this most deplorable year, 2020, we also have our most active hurricane season so far; nine tropical storms formed before August, 13 more before September.
Hurricane Laura— like Harvey, Rita, and Katrina before — chose the Gulf of Mexico. The swirling storm pushed toward the low-lying Louisiana-Texas shoreline, where millions live in sometimes humble homes on the marshy coast or in the floodplains around Lake Charles, Houston and Galveston Island.
The storm’s approach brought deep dark memories of Katrina, which killed more than 1,800 people in and around New Orleans in 2005. The storm’s impact on neighborhoods, and even the racial composition of the Crescent City, can still be felt.
Having been uncharacteristically imprecise about Katrina, the National Weather Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Hurricane Center erred in favor of caution this time with Hurricane Laura.
The federal agencies used language that made our knees knock. Laura was only the 10th hurricane in the modern era to make landfall in the continental U.S. with winds of 150 miles per hour, prompting officials to warn of an “unsurvivable” storm surge. Hundreds of thousands of people evacuated ahead of landfall. We feared the worst.
“As it turns out, we got a little bit lucky,” President Trump explained on the eve of his visit to storm-ravaged sections of Louisiana and Texas Saturday. Because the storm passed inland quickly and with relatively modest flooding, property damage and loss of life was not nearly as catastrophic as feared. “A little bit lucky” until next time or the time after that.