Flood of rescuers calls to mind storms past

Reflections on Life
By Father Jerome LeDoux, SVD
The mighty Cajun Navy appeared in all their glory, towing their powerboats from Lafayette and other points in Acadia down the highways leading to Houston and other towns vulnerable to the caprices of wholesale rain and flooding. Having cut their teeth cruising the forbidding waters of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005, the Cajun Navy caravanned into Texas soon after Harvey hit Rockport just several days short of that awful Katrina rendezvous date 12 years prior. Their stylish arrival had all the makings of an action movie.
Although the Cajun Navy was the most prominent of all in appearance and numbers, many local and other Good Samaritans joined the rescue operation in their own powerboats, airboats, jet skis, low-powered skiffs, rowboats, flat-bottomed boats, other flotation devices, high-water vehicles and amphibious military vehicles. Some rescuers hailed from states hundreds of miles distant.
Of course, there were the spectacular helicopter rescues, some initiated by private helicopter companies, obviously scaring the beejeebers out of regular folk dangling on a cable high above the waters. It was better than Hollywood at its best. Do you think any of those being rescued dared to take selfies? I’ll wager some did.
It was weird that rescue boat pilots had to beware of submerged obstacles like fireplugs, cars and even street signs in some cases. Navigating etiquette was at a premium with so many in need of rescue and so many rescuers in the mix of waders with or without a load of scooped-up belongings, terrified people crawling out of semi-submerged cars, people with evident heartbreak bidding their homes goodbye, and an amazing number of neighbors helping others even with their own homes underwater. That included numerous first responders who did everything they could to help others, some even with their own homes wasted by the unruly waters.
Flooding by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans was not a rain event, but a storm surge event that broke ill-constructed levees. By contrast, the epic flooding of Houston, Port Arthur, etc. was a rain event of biblical proportions that fell in such a short period of time that storm drains, bayous and rivers were overwhelmed.
Likewise, the horrendous, nameless hurricane that virtually destroyed the island of Galveston in 1900, killing an estimated 8,000 people, was not a rain event but a storm surge event that leveled 3,600 buildings. Historically, it was the most deadly.
The following account does not intend to diminish the 2017 devastation that took place recently in Houston and its environs. Believe it or not, as bad as Harvey was, he fell below the total 1861-1862 rains and floods of the least likely competitor of all: California. Don’t believe the lyrics, “It never rains in southern California.”
Writing in the Scientific American Magazine on January 1, 2013, B. Lynn Ingram/Michael Dettinger explain, “Reaching back hundreds of years, geologic evidence shows that truly massive floods, caused by rainfall alone, have occurred in California every 100 to 200 years. Such floods are likely caused by atmospheric rivers: narrow bands of water vapor about a mile above the ocean that extend for thousands of miles.” Give a nod to climate change dating back to geologic times!
“The atmospheric river storms … are responsible for most of the largest historical floods in many western states. The only megaflood to strike the American West in recent history occurred during the winter of 1861-62. California bore the brunt of the damage,” reeling under 10-15 feet of snow to the north and 66 inches of rain (4 times a year’s worth) to the south.” As implied, neighboring states got it too.
“This disaster turned enormous regions of the state into inland seas for months, and took thousands of human lives. The costs were devastating: one quarter of California’s economy was destroyed, forcing the state into bankruptcy.”
Although the downtown district of Sacramento was raised 10-15 feet during the seven years after the flood, Sacramento remains second only to New Orleans as the U.S. city most vulnerable to flooding. It should also be noted that any city that receives a good fraction of the rainfall that Houston did will suffer from flooding.
Consider what happened to Chicago on August 13-14, 1987 when almost 9.5 inches of rain fell. Since the city was in an extreme drought, people were welcoming the storm since the ground was extremely dry. Unfortunately, everyone got much more than anyone bargained for: $220 million in damages and 3 lives were lost. It may surprise some that, when the pump operators maintain all 24 pumping stations properly, New Orleans can manage that amount of rain reasonably well.
“God is love, and all who abide in love abide in God and God in them.” (1 John 4:16)
(Father Jerome LeDoux, SVD, has written “Reflections on Life since 1969.)