12 September 2008

Covering Hurricanes

The image on the right is Ike around 7 pm Friday. The red words on the green map say "Houston" and "Me." The arrow shows where Ike is heading. He will probably go just a little bit east of "Me." But you get the idea.

Bear with me as I reminisce a bit about the old days. The last major hurricane to smack Houston was a brat named Alicia, and she walloped the area in 1983, doing pretty much the same thing Ike is doing but with higher winds & less storm surge. 

Hurricanes haven't changed much over the years, but the technology for reporting about hurricanes has changed remarkably. I was a Houston Chronicle reporter when Alicia came through, and oh yes, we blanketed the area and reported everything we could, but it was a simpler time, and a newspaper was a daily thing, not a minute-by-minute online information source. 

Back then, if you needed to know what's happening now, you had your TV on, or, after the power went out, you turned your portable ratio to KTRH. [OK, some things have not changed; I bet most of us will *still* tun our portable radios to KTRH after the power goes out.]

Back then, when a tree fell on the power lines, it also fell on the phone lines. I can't remember when the Chronicle got its first satellite phone, but it was a monstrous military-looking gizmo that cost a small fortune for each call, so it was rarely used and we certainly did not have enough for each of the dozens of reporters scattered around the metropolitan area. There were no cell phones. No blackberries, no Twittering, no "live Ike webcams" (except TV news satellite trucks, of course), and no individual bloggers reporting on their own little microcosm of the world.

I was on "normal" duty for Alicia, so by the time the storm was up to strength, I was "off duty." But I couldn't go home because everything was pretty much shut down. I spent the night on the 5th floor of the Chronicle building, watching gravel fly off the roofs of the downtown high-rise buildings, breaking all their windows. The newsroom, at the time, was one large open space with enormous windows across one wall. Those windows bucked and bulged all night long, looking scary but ultimately doing their job.

When the storm had passed, I went to mom & dad's house in Memorial, where they had some trees down. I remember Allen Parkway was pretty well flooded but otherwise it was just a lot of branches everywhere. 

Storms are different now. I can sit at home & watch people all over Houston taking about their hurricane preparations, what they see out their windows as the storm rolls by, what they see on TV. I can unplug my TV and still watch live coverage on TV stations' websites, or (gasp) on my iPhone if the power goes out. (This assumes I can still get a cell signal, not a foregone conclusion if the towers get smacked.)

It's a different world, when I can sit at my house & know that power is already out and some homes are already flooded in Clear Lake. I know power is flickering in midtown. I know things I never would have dreamed about knowing back in 1983. And somehow it's comforting to know all of this because it fills the void that might otherwise be filled with fear of the impending monster storm.

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