Categorized | Suffolk Close-up

Before Irene

Posted on 02 September 2011

By Karl Grossman

I am writing this on a sunny, beautiful Friday, before Hurricane Irene hits, because my editors say they need it now — not knowing what will happen the day after tomorrow when this powerful storm is predicted to make landfall on Long Island.

Without electricity — and a head-on hit of a major hurricane here is expected to cause us to lose electricity — newspapers and virtually every institution in today’s world, are in trouble.

People can think they have conquered nature, but that’s an illusion. Nature bats last — and can do so with unimaginable power.

Some news reports are talking about how vulnerable Long Island is pointing to the development in coastal areas and a population that has boomed in recent times.

“America’s Most Vulnerable Coastal Communities” is the title of a 2009 book by geologists Joseph T. Kelley, Orrin H. Pilkey and J. Andrew Cooper. It speaks of how areas along the shore — and cited among the “vulnerable communities” is the Town of Southampton — have been developed with “little regard” to the realities of nature. Dr. Pilkey, also the co-author of an earlier, classic book, The Beaches Are Moving: The Drowning of America’s Shoreline,” has given presentations in Suffolk County on his research.

“Our beaches are eroding, sinking, washing out right under our houses, hotels…Vacation dreamlands become nightmare scenes of futile revetments, fills, groins, what have you — all thrown up in a frantic defense against the natural system,” a summary of his 1983 book states.

Will Hurricane Irene provide a tragic and expensive lesson regarding this shoreline folly?

What we face, moreover, involves every aspect of modern life.

As I cashed a check for some money for the days ahead — credit card use could become problematic without electricity — I asked the manager of my Suffolk County National Bank branch in Sag Harbor how it might operate Monday if there is no electricity. Sue Tooker said no one could be allowed into the bank because the alarm system wouldn’t be operable. Electronics are vital these days in dealing with bank bandits. Only the drive-in window would be used.

There’ll be back-up power of various sorts — including home generators. I waited on line and bought one in the midst of Hurricane Gloria in 1985. We haven’t used it since and I’ve sometimes wondered about that $1,000 investment that’s sat in a shed for lo these 26 years. Will it wake up now and run anew?

Another survival plan I devised was saving a test well dug when a new well was drilled for the house. I had the well-drillers put a pitcher pump on top of the pipe they rammed into the ground. Yesterday I primed it and began pumping. Nothing happened. At Nugent & Potter in Southampton — which sells well supplies and, indeed, a pitcher pump is its symbol — I was advised that “the leather has dried up.” I got a new pump. Let’s see if this works.

A new pitcher pump was available, but if one wanted D-batteries or flashlights in this build-up to whatever is to happen, several hardware stores I was in today and yesterday were out.

It’s been quite a scene for all of us filling our cars with gas, stocking up on groceries, doing everything one can think of in line with the wise Boy Scout motto, “Be Prepared.”

But, in the end, nature will shape the outcome. That was so clear to me last week on a vacation trip to Alaska — seeing the Mendenhall and Sawyer glaciers, huge masses of ice bearing down and altering the landscape. And then, flying back, a reported worst-in-a-century earthquake struck the East Coast. While in Alaska, I negotiated via e-mail with a magazine editor who wanted me to write an article about the ongoing Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant complex disaster. Upon landing, he told me on my cell phone that he wanted a sidebar on the impacts of this earthquake on East Coast nuclear plants.

The works of humans can be wonderful. Looking out the window of the jet, I thought of how in one day I’d be glimpsing both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. That was inconceivable a few generations ago. But we humans can be so presumptuous, so foolish as well, with our development patterns and some of the machines we build.

Hurricane and glaciers, earthquakes and tsunamis. They are inevitable. And, often painfully, they teach us where sits the true power in this world.

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