What are These Hurricanes Trying to Tell Us?


We are riveted to images of the hurricane’s victims hauled by choppers from rooftops because we are as amazed by the ways life carries us away as we are by salvation. Hurricanes are never just about hurricanes.

They are also about communities pulling together and neighbors reconnecting. In time, what was torn down is rebuilt, often with a keener eye for opportunity in its garish forms. People go their own way. And the hurricanes come again.

Some scientists believe that global warming is intensifying hurricanes, by pumping more thermal energy into ocean waters. But you don’t have to be a scientist to take home a simpler message: how our families and jobs are at high risk from a catastrophic interruption in our nation’s energy supply.

Consider gasoline, for example. In South Florida, Port Everglades is an around-the-clock operation for automobile fuel, maintaining a one-to-two-week inventory. The port serves as a conduit for tankers and thousands of trucks servicing gas stations whose steady state is constant motion, serving millions of South Floridians.

During the hurricane, the power went off at Port Everglades, and in Miami and elsewhere, gasoline stations began to close almost immediately. Fuel tankers at sea waited for Katrina to cross the Florida Straits, and once Katrina passed, created a traffic jam in the port similar to passenger jets landing all at once with only a few gates from which to unload.

People need gas to drive to work. If automobiles are not moving, there is no work. Impossible?

Those who believe it is fantasy that inventories supplying the nation’s large-scale infrastructure systems could ever draw down should talk to the people of Florida, Louisiana or Mississippi who will be without electricity for weeks.

It is a different perspective from politicians who are the last people in the world to question the underlying assumptions of calm and stability of energy supply. They are elected, after all, not to represent people so much as the large-scale systems that workers depend on.

Corporations are successful by returning to shareholders profits measured on a quarterly basis. Deviating from the path of past profits — and compensation packages tied to them — is not helpful to the careers of executives who depend on replicating past success of large-scale enterprises.

This is particularly true of the oil and fossil-fuel industries, the backbone of the U.S. economy for more than 150 years.

Today, the hurricane of U.S. foreign policy, spinning around the axis of oil supply, accounts for the misadventure in Iraq masked as an exercise in democratic reform.

While America is mired in a war that drains the national Treasury, we are no less vulnerable to chronic shortages caused by a sharp, unexpected decline in oil production or supply, or, a contagion like avian flu.

A lot has changed in the world since 1918, when the Spanish influenza whipped around the globe, killing tens of millions of people. The world is far more populous.

Today, the economies of industrialized nations are interconnected through large-scale systems that resemble a vast ant farm, with tasks so differentiated and so interrelated that a shock to any part turns the colony into chaos.

Americans have been insulated, more than our counterparts in Europe and Asia, to the threat of avian flu. There was the recent hint in President Bush’s summer reading: three books, one of which details the history of the 1918 epidemic. If this president is reading about the flu, so should you.

Whether bird flu materializes or not — and many scientists believe it is inevitable — a principal focus of political leadership should be on lessening the nation’s vulnerability to shocks to large-scale systems that depend on fossil-fuel distribution by creating parallel backup systems to provide electrical power and transportation.

Florida has abundant capacity to generate electricity through solar or wind power with small-scale rooftop panel systems or turbines that could supply both individual homes and power grids.

Unless you have lived through the aftermath of a hurricane, it is hard to understand how psychologically devastating it is when systems whose smooth operation you take for granted don’t work.

Solar panels may not be able to withstand a Category 1 storm like Katrina, but the hurricanes in our future are not made of wind and rain.

Reforming energy supply and distribution to make individuals less dependent on large-scale systems whose interruption can shatter the nation’s economic base is the highest order of priority.

In the Gulf of Mexico, more than oil rigs are adrift: Our national security depends on Congress and the White House seeing things this way.

ALAN FARAGO, a writer on the environment and politics, can be reached at alanfarago@yahoo.com.


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