A wake-up call for preparation

Published 8:08 pm Thursday, November 12, 2009

As with so many potentially catastrophic weather events, this one kind of sneaked up on folks in Hampton Roads. There had been warnings that the remnants of Tropical Storm Ida would result in some pretty big wave action at Virginia Beach, and area residents were braced for a few days of rain, but most folks weren’t prepared for the winds or the flooding they experienced throughout the day on Thursday.

As it turned out, a high-pressure system clashed with Ida’s residue to create winds that were stronger than either system would have brought the area on its own. Those winds drove water up the Chesapeake Bay, clogging rivers and streams that feed the great body of water, especially during high tide.

The result was flooded roads, riverbank erosion and school closings, not necessarily in order of importance. By Thursday night, only one Suffolk family had sought assistance because of flooding. The big differences between this storm and Hurricane Isabel in 2003 were the lack of a significant storm surge this time around and the fact that Isabel came on the heels of other storms whose torrential rainfall had left the land drenched and trees in an unstable condition. The combination of Isabel’s hurricane-force winds and the soggy ground spelled doom for thousands of trees around the area.

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Both Isabel and this most recent November nor’easter were stronger and more damaging than folks in Hampton Roads had expected. And that’s not really surprising, since most people tend to think of their communities as something close to invincible. Hampton Roads residents need look no further than New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Katrina blew through in 2005, however, to see that catastrophe can strike and that the damage is unfathomable. Looking back in time a bit further, Hurricanes Agnes (1972), Hazel (1954), Floyd (1999), Donna (1960) and others have resulted in death and destruction on an unimaginable scale.

The difference between then and now is in the area of advance warning. Even though we might be surprised by the magnitude of what hits us, most of us pay enough attention to know that something’s on the way that will affect our lives. That knowledge gives us all a chance to prepare — to strengthen our homes, to collect survival supplies, to prepare and finalize escape plans.

One of the lessons of Katrina that Hampton Roads residents would be foolish not to learn is just how important it is to know how you’re going to evacuate in a hurry, if worse should come to worst. Perhaps Thursday’s storm will be a wake-up call for those who haven’t yet learned that lesson. If so, the potential lives saved will have been worth the headaches from the rain, winds and flooding.