Volume XI, Issue 40 ~ October 2-8, 2003

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Isabel In Retrospect
Who can protect us from the vagaries of nature?
by Dick Wilson

Well, she’s come and gone. Isabel started out in the Eastern Atlantic somewhere as a Category 5 hurricane with 160mph winds but shrank to Category 2 by the time she hit the coast of North Carolina. By the time she made it our way, she had lost her strength, falling to probably only Category 1. Estimating from my wind gauge, which tops out at 60 mph, Isabel’s worst wind was about 80mph. But Isabel did make an impression and, like strong drink, she gave us a bad hangover.

It is no great revelation to say that, for most of us, the flooding caused by the storm surge did much more damage than the wind. It’s no secret that many of us were without electricity for at least four days. And it’s also no secret that here in the 21st century, we in Bay Country, like everyone else, are dependent on electricity. Without electrical power, we can’t do many of the things we must to survive.

Survival, that’s what it’s about, and we elect people whose job it is to help us survive. At the core of every political campaign is an unspoken promise that, if we will just support this candidate, he or she will keep us safe. They indeed try, more or less successfully, to keep us safe from people who would do us harm, but they can never protect us from all the vagaries of nature. No politician is going to prevent hurricanes, floods, disease or other natural disasters from occasionally inflicting some part of humanity.

We in the United States usually try to find some way to blame our elected officials when something goes wrong. But we can’t blame this four- to six-day loss of electricity on any politician, and that’s frustrating.

Isabel is now a vivid memory, and we are hearing calls to “do something” before the next big storm comes along. We are angry that we have had to get along without a necessity — electrical power — for what seemed like forever, and we really don’t want to hear the standard response that the crews are out there working as hard as they can. We know the crews are working hard, but that isn’t enough. We feel to the depths of our souls that something should have been done earlier to give us a more reliable electrical system.

The fault lies in years and years of whipsawing back and forth between the forces in society that make our system work the way it does.

Why didn’t they cut down all those trees that had electrical wiring near them? The answer to that question is, among other valid reasons, that cutting down all those trees would increase runoff and soil erosion. The state has laws that dictate the extent to which trees can be cut. And remember, we’re talking about thousands of trees.

We don’t have underground wiring everywhere because it is costly, or so they say, and the many politicians and bureaucrats who would have a hand in such a program keep coming up with excuses why they can’t do it. In these days of high technology, wouldn’t it be possible to come up with a plan that would deliver at least some of us from these periodic, disastrous electrical outages? Changes on that scale can’t be done overnight, but any progress is better than nothing, and an incremental plan to put wiring underground would help a few people at first and a lot of people eventually. Right now we wait for the next hurricane or ice storm, knowing well that when that big outage comes we will all be in the same boat again — without power.

Downed trees are not the only threat to our electrical grid. Remember the East Coast outage of August, when millions were without power? That was caused not by weather, but by some poorly understood technical problem. Let’s use the technology we understand to start moving wires underground, and maybe we will see at least some improvement in reliability.

When all is said and done, we will rebuild our properties and our lives, and Isabel will become a receding memory. Maybe we in Bay Country won’t have another big storm in our lifetimes, but someone will, somewhere. Bet on it. That’s the way life is now.

Dick Wilson, Bay Weekly writer and proofreader, is a retired air traffic controller. He watched Isabel from a Bay shore perch at Chesapeake Beach.


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Last updated October 2, 2003 @ 2:37am