For a few weeks last fall, white seashell-shaped clouds changed the way the earth looked in satellite photos. Cameras captured an onslaught of hurricanes from enormous distances, making the mad weather seem a mere design element, an illustration of theories involving chaos and complexity, fractals for the uninitiated. Never have hurricanes been so well-documented as Ivan, Charley, Jeanne, and the others, 14 named storms in all, and never has weather, just weather, revealed so many stark and disturbing truths.
Many of these truths were not about weather, or even nature, but about ourselves. Social class, for instance, played a disproportionate role in hurricane relief. When Ivan threatened New Orleans, sheriff's deputies drove former congresswoman and ambassador Lindy Boggs from her home in the French Quarter to the Jackson, Mississippi, airport so she could be evacuated to Dallas. In true Louisiana fashion, Boggs, who is 88, has known the sheriff since he was 14.
This was all well and good. But the city's poor residents, mostly African-American, received different treatment. While suburbanites complained of 10-hour traffic jams, people without cars were herded to public buildings within the city of New Orleans. The trouble was, public safety officials had determined that none of these buildings could withstand a major hurricane.
The weather gods spared New Orleans. But next time, things could get ugly. That's what Louisiana lobbyists are telling legislators in Washington as they ask for funding to stop erosion of the state's coastal wetlands. A chunk of wetlands the size of Manhattan Island disappears into the Gulf of Mexico every year. Without marshes to shield New Orleans from the tidal effects of an Ivan-size hurricane, 40,000 people could die and the city could end up underwater, says Walter Maestri, head of emergency management for Jefferson Parish.
The disaster this time around was in Haiti, where long-term deforestation led to floods and mud slides. Doctors stuffed cotton in their ears to muffle screams as they amputated limbs and delivered babies without anesthesia. Haiti's poverty only grew worse when the United States withheld aid because of the Bush administration's opposition to former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Now that Aristide is out, Secretary of State Colin Powell was able to free $50 million in emergency post-hurricane aid for the Caribbean, including Haiti.
Scientists say we're at the start of a cycle of increased hurricane activity that could last 40 years. And those hurricanes are likely to become more and more severe because of global warming, according to a study released on September 28 by the U.S. Department of Commerce. An exceedingly odd couple, Senator John McCain of Arizona and Russian President Vladimir Putin -- head of the country formerly known as the Evil Empire -- took this to heart. Putin's cabinet sent the Kyoto Protocol on global warming to parliament for ratification, while McCain, speaking to the Senate commerce committee, made an explicit link between the hurricanes and climate change.
Human nature revealed itself in many ways: increased liquor sales, wealthy animal-lovers airlifting stray dogs and cats out of the Bahamas, the odd bit of looting. Perhaps the most indelibly human reaction was found on the Redneck Riviera, that beachfront bonanza recently discovered by developers, whose sugar-white sands stretch from Alabama's Gulf Coast to the Florida Panhandle. After the hurricanes subsided, Learjets and Citations flew in like shorebirds returning. Real estate speculators were arriving to snap up old folks' beach shacks, tear them down, and build condominium towers. As a local real estate broker told the New Orleans Times-Picayune: "Everybody's looking for a deal."
Indeed, it may be just this aspect of our common humanity that unites us in the shuddering wake of natural disaster. No matter how detailed our scientific models, how finely calibrated our economic levers, how frenetic our satellites beaming down truth from space, there is only one thing we can truly count on when things go south: someone will try to take advantage of the situation.