One topic has dominated conversations throughout this summer in Northern Ireland — the weather. One rainsoaked day followed another, dampening the holiday expectations of thousands unable to get away to sunnier climes.
Many schoolchildren have returned to the classroom after the summer break hardly able to remember a dry day. Indeed, the abiding image of this summer has been the flooded underpass at Broadway in Belfast as the province’s newest road succumbed to a virtual cloudburst.
Yet, watching the images of Hurricane Gustav as it hit land along the Louisiana coast, even our unseasonal rainfail seemed as naught. Covering an area 200 miles wide, the hurricane, although downgraded to a Category 1, brought devastation in its wake. Most attention focused on the city of New Orleans which suffered immense damage three years ago in Hurricane Katrina. Huge wave surges brought water levels dangerously high, sometimes spilling over the protective levees, but so far the defences seem to be working. Other areas of the state were not so fortunate with the deluge leaving vast areas flooded as Nature again unleashed its untameable power.
Although the US authorities could do nothing to halt Hurricane Gustav as it cut a swathe through the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, they did everything in their power to ensure that life was protected. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin did not mince his words when he ordered the evacuation of the city and the vast majority of the people heeded his warning. It is estimated that some two million people left the city and surrounding area with only 10,000 sitting out the storm. Both the mayor and the citizens had learned the lessons of Katrina.
It is reckoned that this mass evacuation is the largest movement of population in the history of the United States, and for it to be accomplished in a relatively orderly manner was an astonishing piece of organisation. It helped that the warning about the potential impact of the storm was given early and was of sufficient gravity to spur people into action. But the city also managed to evacuate the elderly and critically ill, showing the level of planning which had been undertaken since three years ago.
Another critical initiative was the doubling of the National Guard and police force to stamp down on looting, a crime which had defaced the city after the Katrina hurricane. Would-be looters were left in no doubt that they would go on a one way trip to jail if caught. These strong security messages probably gave more people confidence to leave the city and their homes in the expectation that their possessions would be safe until they return.
Watching the awesome power of the hurricane and the widespread impact of the storm, it seems astonishing that the area could be back to relative normality in a reasonably short period of time. Of course, the authorities in the southern US states are well used to hurricanes and their impact and plan accordingly. It is a matter of some amusement that it takes only a fraction of such disruption to cause widespread dismay in Northern Ireland. We never seem prepared for what we describe as extreme weather conditions, but which in comparison to the hurricane belt is nothing more than a storm in a teacup.