Goodnight, Irene

Published 8:45 pm Monday, August 29, 2011

It was a low-grade Category 1 hurricane as it passed through Hampton Roads, and a weakening tropical storm as it blew through the northeast U.S. But Irene still packed a punch.

Folks in Suffolk spent most of Sunday and Monday cleaning up limbs, branches and other debris, lining the city’s roads with piles of detritus waiting to be hauled away by the city’s Public Works Department. Many of them still lacked electrical power, but crews from Dominion Power and a host of contracted companies were working 24 hours a day to restore power to all who had lost it.

The same things were happening from North Carolina to Vermont, except that in many of those areas, things were much worse. A new inlet had been carved across North Carolina’s Outer Banks, flooding of historic proportions was taking place in the Northeast, and more than 20 people had been died in storm-related accidents by Monday morning, including one in Newport News.

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All in all, then, Suffolk and the rest of South Hampton Roads fared reasonably well in this hurricane. But the video news segments from Vermont, showing swollen rivers crashing through dams and smashing covered bridges hundreds of years old remind us just how bad things can be.

But for a last-minute weakening of the storm before it made landfall, Irene could have blasted through our area as a Category 2 hurricane, with winds even stronger than those we experienced. And if not for the relatively dry weather we have experienced late this summer, the ground would have been saturated here as it was prior to Hurricane Isabel’s landfall in 2003, and the extent of destruction would have been far worse locally than it was.

Much has been said in the past day or two about how the media and government officials over-hyped this hurricane. Evacuation orders have been second-guessed, and the dire warnings of last week have even been mocked.

And yet, the fact remains that hurricanes are, by their very nature, unpredictable and capricious in character. The best that we can do is to prepare for the worst and pray for deliverance.

That may be the lesson from this storm. Better to prepare well and be pleasantly surprised than to be caught off guard and wish you’d been prepared.