I spent the day Sunday waiting for rain. I’d like to say that I spent it preparing for rain, but instead I simply huddled down in partial dread, waiting for it to be over before it began. Such is one of the effects of weather forecasts.
I’ve noticed the increasing use of the term “the perfect storm,” mostly in the media but also in conversation. I think we got the concept from our meteorologists, whose knowledge of weather patterns and their causes has increased dramatically over the decades. But we seem to have taken the idea and run with it, applying the concept to other episodes in our lives.
What’s our fascination with “the perfect storm”? It has something to do, I think, with forces beyond our control (or at least out of sight,) suddenly merging to produce an impact (usually negative) that could not be predicted, that was previously unimaginable and thus not preventable. I think it represents our intuition (and our experience) that sometimes 1 + 1 can be more than 2, that not everything in this universe is additive, is simple math. I think it gives us a reason to explain why things sometimes spiral out of control, a reason beyond our responsibility.
I suspect that we also secretly wonder if there’s an invisible Hand behind these mergers, at least some of us, anyway. The Bible is full of imagery of storms as God’s doing (just ask Noah), as well as rain itself, sometimes blessing, sometimes curse. It falls on the just and the unjust alike, according to Matthew; it blesses the tender seed coming up and it drowns out our best efforts to be gods ourselves, to reap what our own hands have sown.
The atmospheric river that hit us Monday brought you and I a reprieve from dust on the trees’ leaves, our roofs and streets. But the deepest part of that river was centered over Santa Rosa, where the remnants of my family live. By Sunday night there were news items about rising creeks and evacuations, and I had no trouble imagining the mobile home park where my mother lives becoming flooded.
Two creeks run through it and merge about two short blocks from my mother’s tiny lot; both creeks receive drainage from two large shopping center parking lots. Paved surfaces amplify the flood peaks of storms, but when these kinds of projects get approved, all they have to show is that their drainage systems are designed to handle a certain amount of rainfall. They don’t have to show where that drainage goes or whether the areas below can handle their storm runoff. Especially not places like mobile home parks or Section 8 apartment complexes.
These are things I learned in my graduate course “Hydrology for Planners” at UC Berkeley in 1981, taught by Luna Leopold, one of the stellar hydrologists of this country. Planners know about these drainage problems by now, but the entire field is compromised by the power of land developers and the weakness of politicians and bureaucrats to counter them.
It’s a perfect storm, but not atmospheric: it’s the merger of self-interest and greed, our idolatrous belief in the free market, our refusal to look at land as the source of all wealth or to curb the rapacious use of the unearned increment in empire-building. And it’s our lazy approach to democracy, laying back and letting somebody else worry about how costs and benefits are distributed in this country.
I believe in the imperfect storm. Monday, as I wrote this, sitting in my corner window watching rain run off the metal patio cover, hearing the downpour wax and wane moment by moment, knowing we don’t deserve this either as punishment or reward, I relaxed. The wind blows where it will. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. And, as Woody Guthrie sang, it won’t be water, but fire next time. At least for now, the fires are on their way out. And perhaps, with enough evidence of our wicked, compliant ways, we’ll change.
Trudy Wischemann is a faithful hydrologically-inclined writer in Lindsay. You can send her your storm stories c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit www.trudysnotesfromhome.blogspot.com and leave a comment there.
This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.