Never Mind Irma, the Gulf Coast is Toast

GELFAND’S WORLD--The simple equation is that a garden variety hurricane passing above overly-hot seawater is what is required to create a monster storm.  The transition from category 1 to category 4 or 5 can happen within hours, as we've seen twice just within the past weeks. As the average seawater temperature in the gulf rises year by year -- this is where global warming comes in -- the total number of hurricanes may not rise, but from that total, the number of hurricanes that become monsters appears to be going up. 

These are the hurricanes large enough to destroy a city. We've had two city busters on the gulf coast within the span of a dozen years, leaving New Orleans and now Houston in ruins. Now imagine what the result will be if we have a storm the size of Katrina or Harvey not once or twice in a century, but once every four or five years. Over the next quarter century, there won't be many miles of ground along the gulf coast that remain unscathed. Where a monster hurricane intersects the land is subject to randomness, but given enough storms, the odds get worse and worse for every place along the gulf coast. The economics do not bode well for real estate boosters or for the huge investment in refineries and chemical plants along that stretch. 

The current administration and its mass media supporters are officially global warming deniers. Whatever they may believe in the privacy of their own homes, they are economically wedded to the defense of the fossil fuel industries. Trump told us how he loved coal, then appointed some of the worst denialists to high posts in his government. EPA administrator Scott Pruitt led the denialist pack.  

No matter how loud Pruitt bleats, the facts are against him, and people will eventually begin to understand that the denialism he represents is beginning to have consequences. Payback, even at the psychological level, is certainly a bitch. By the time this weekend rolls around, we may have witnessed the destruction of two cities within a couple of weeks' time. We don't know what the second city is going to be, but San Juan, Miami, Tampa, or perhaps somewhere in South Carolina are possibilities. Hurricane Irma may drift somewhere that won't do much damage to Florida, but that would just be colossal good luck for Americans, but not so much for Cubans or Puerto Ricans or Bermudans. 

But what about the rest of the decade and then the decade after? We can't really assume that oceanic warming is a temporary thing. The observations that result in global warming as a working hypothesis are now too strong. We have to get used to recognizing the fact of global warming. And with that recognition, we are probably obliged to predict that human settlements along the gulf coast will suffer chronic, severe damage before we humans can get our carbon dioxide and methane emissions under control. 

It's true that we might get lucky for a while. If a massive volcanic eruption puts out enough soot to block some of the ambient sunlight, maybe we'll avoid some of the results of our own folly. But even that would only be a temporary respite. It might buy us some time, but how we would use it is another question entirely. 

There's only so far that denial can take you. If the people who have continued to deny global warming don't come to their senses now, they have nobody but themselves to blame. Will they react rationally to seeing two Harvey sized events inside of a month? It's getting harder to avoid the conclusion that global warming is now having direct effects on American lives and property. Houston just by itself has experienced 3 events that were referred to as 500 year floods -- all in the last 3 years -- and the eastern side of the gulf of Mexico / Atlantic/Caribbean has had 2 category 5 storms in the short length of years between Katrina and Irma. 

Yet the president and the senator from Oklahoma continue to deny global warming's existence in spite of 15 trillion gallons of water being dumped on Houston. 

In the long run, the Gulf Coast is Toast. It's hugely ironic that the same people who are the strongest supporters of the Republican Party are suffering the worst under global warming. Draw a line from Corpus Christi Texas along the gulf to Florida, then turn north along the southern Atlantic coast up through Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. That's a lot of red on the political map, and coincidentally that stretch of beach is also the long term target for those monster storms. The world could use the help of southern Americans in fighting global warming. Let's see if they start to join us. 

The immediate lessons of Hurricane Harvey and Houston for Los Angeles 

As many of you know, the neighborhood council system has been considering how to communicate disaster preparedness to the people of Los Angeles. The Neighborhood Council Emergency Preparedness Alliance (NCEPA) has been meeting for 18 months and will be discussing its findings at a session of the neighborhood council congress this Saturday, September 9 at the L.A. City Hall. To sign up for free parking and to attend this event, look at 

Here are some of the lessons of Houston that pertain to the possibility of a large earthquake in Los Angeles: 

As we have been warned repeatedly, a large earthquake would leave us without electricity, gas, sewers, and passable roads. Within a few hours, cell phone service would cease to exist. This is directly analogous to what the people of Houston have been going through. Here is a brief sketch of the most important topics, beginning with the reality that the police and fire departments will be too busy dealing with major events (i.e.: a shopping center collapses with people in it) to deal with your neighborhood. 

In summary: 

  1. When the big one hits, you're on your own (YOYO).
  2. First responders will be few and far between.
  3. There is no electricity.
  4. There is no available tap water.
  5. There is little or no available sanitation.
  6. Most residents didn't get educated or trained in emergency preparedness.
  7. Most residents didn't get training in post-disaster survival tactics.
  8. There is a relatively small number of dead, but a huge number of people rendered very uncomfortable.
  9. The political leadership has relied on denial and will now be struggling to adapt.
  10. As of now, prior to a major disaster, the city government is giving lip service to emergency preparedness, but isn't even providing the paltry few million dollars to properly fund the emergency management department.
  11. The city has way too few CERT instructors, and the problem is essentially political. It could be fixed easily enough by an order coming from above.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at