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Category: Nature

The Hurricane Next Time

The Hurricane Next Time

Another week, another hurricane. There was Harvey. And then Irma. Jose is heading north. Maria has worked its devastation. Hurricane Season being what it is, the storms line up across the Atlantic and the Pacific. Whatever the next time is, there will be a next time. And another hurricane.

I’m back aboard my boat after evacuating to Destin in the Florida Panhandle to get out of the way of Irma. Part of my excuse for the delay in posting to this blog. Irma, it turned out, was accommodating and jogged northeast just before it hit the Tampa Bay area. Good news for me and my neighbors. Bad news, very bad news, for people in the interior of the state and further to the northeast. Storms create winners, and losers. Mostly losers.

Ask the people of Houston and elsewhere in Southeast Texas. Ask the people of the Florida Keys, or Southwest Florida, and lots of other places in the state. Ask the people of Barbuda and St. Thomas, of Sint Maarten and Saint-Martin and Puerto Rico. And before them, ask the people of the Philippines, of Mississippi and Louisiana, of Mexico and Honduras and South Carolina and New Jersey and even New Hampshire and numerous other places.

Hurricanes aren’t picky and they don’t discriminate. They’re equal opportunity destroyers and, given enough time, they spread their devastation around. Of course, the planet would have worse problems were it not for the big storms that redistribute the earth’s heat energy, but try telling that to someone who can’t get out of their house without a boat, or no longer has a house at all, or who has no water, food, or electricity. Or lost a loved one. It’s a tough sell.

I’ve been around hurricanes almost my whole life, in their projected path several times but, if you ignore passing through two of them during one sea transit of the North Atlantic as a kid, I’ve never been in the middle of one. I guess that’s my hurricane karma. But I’ve seen the aftermath of them, spent weeks that turned into months that turned into years living with the after effects of Katrina, and I’ve had a chance to observe both close-up and at a distance the preparations for their arrival and dealing with what they leave behind.

It’s those two elements – advance preparations and dealing with hurricane aftermaths – that I want to focus on here. Some of what I have to say is based on observation of those two things in several storms, and some is based on a plan I developed while living with the protracted recovery from Katrina.

Based on the events of recent weeks, at least in the U.S., I think some lessons have been learned. Some are partly learned. But we still have a continuing learning curve to go up and more work to be done.

The debacle that was the overland evacuation in Texas from the approach of Hurricane Rita in 2005 taught us some things about evacuations. Rita, the Atlantic’s fourth most intense hurricane ever recorded, the most intense storm ever seen in the Gulf of Mexico, and coming just three week’s after Hurricane Katrina’s onslaught, prompted fears the storm would devastate the Texas Coast. This led to an uncoordinated series of evacuations that poured between 2.5 million and 3.7 million people onto the state’s highways, leading to total gridlock. While the concept of contraflow, to reverse all inbound lanes on the Interstates to outbound, was already known, the order to implement it came too late and it took more than eight hours to make the change-over. Of the seven people in the U.S. who died directly as a result of Rita, only one was in Texas. But an estimated 113 people died in the botched Texas evacuation, including 23 nursing home residents who were killed when the charter bus they were on caught fire on the Interstate.

In advance of Hurricane Harvey this year, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner decided not to issue any evacuation order for the city. Not mandatory, not voluntary. Turner, looking back at Rita, reasoned that you can’t put 6.5 million people on the highways without creating mayhem. But virtually the entire city wound up inundated, with many left homeless, or stranded in flood-damaged houses from record rainfall. Some were electrocuted when, for reasons that are not apparent, the power was not cut off as a precaution as is normally done. It seemed the city was far from prepared for the storm to come.

As for evacuations, the answer, of course, is not to evacuate an entire city the size of Houston, the nation’s fourth largest, but to evacuate the most vulnerable areas. To provide local shelters. To move some people in buses and not everyone in private vehicles. And to do the necessary to avoid ancillary deaths, to the extent possible. It wasn’t a mystery that Houston was going to be pummeled with massive rainfall. The path and potential of the storm was known, as was Houston’s topography and propensity to flood. And yet, there was no evacuation order.

Contrast that response with the response of Florida Gov. Rick Scott and state, county, and local officials in Florida. With Irma on its way and a high likelihood it would hit the state in some place or other, Scott went on what was almost a personal campaign to get people to evacuate the most vulnerable areas, and made it as easy as possible for them to do so. Tolls were removed from the state’s toll roads – they are about to be reinstated at this writing – hotels were ordered to accept pets, the Florida National Guard was partially mobilized, and state troopers were used to escort fuel trucks.

The first priority was evacuating the Florida Keys, which are tethered at the bottom of the state by 90 miles of the Overseas Highway, the sole land access to the Keys. Other areas deemed most vulnerable, the low areas of Southeast and Southwest Florida, were the next priority. And then other vulnerable areas came after that. Scott’s campaign launched a week before Irma’s arrival, and kept up throughout the storm and in its aftermath, and continues even well after the storm. Florida’s evacuation was not perfect – there were serious fuel outages, long delays at times on the state’s Interstates and other highways, and Irma’s vagaries wound up unexpectedly sparing some areas while hitting others, hard – but overall it went pretty well, given the enormous number of people affected.

Not everyone followed the evac. orders, and authorities said they would not arrest anyone for not complying. While a major reason for an evacuation is so first responders don’t have to risk their lives searching for stragglers in trouble, authorities also said that after a certain point no one should count on a rescue. Whatever the factors involved – in part, at least, the euphoria and excessive confidence that pervades many Keys residents – those who stayed behind in the islands came to find out the devastation a Category 4 hurricane can bring. It’s not yet known what the death toll is in the state as teams go through the destroyed housing of the Keys looking for survivors and casualties.

Of the points where preparations for the storm failed, perhaps the most telling and disturbing was the lack of back-up plans, power, and action by some nursing homes, both in Texas and Florida. The incident that has gotten the most attention was a nursing home in Hollywood, Fla., where so far 12 elderly residents have died. With a hospital just across the street, it’s hard not to assign negligence to the managers and owners of this facility. The state has opened an investigation and alleged criminal negligence, but meanwhile the horse – 12 of them so far – has left the proverbial barn and can’t be brought back.

A spokesperson for the nursing home association said that nursing homes are not required to have generators, only a back-up power supply. Whatever the hell that means. From my perspective, based on what happened in these and other storms and the personal experience of my own mother when she was alive, there is entirely too little oversight of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. This paucity of oversight applies in other times, too, not just when there are storms. But certainly things need to be beefed-up to deal with natural disasters. Every nursing home and assisted-living facility should be required to have an emergency action plan (EAP), which should be reviewed by regulators, and also to conduct drills practicing the EAP, to the extent practical. There also has to be more attention paid to those “back-up power supplies” and sufficient generation capability should be required to not just keep the lights on, but also run the air conditioning in hot areas and heat in cold ones.

As I mentioned, I lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast through most of the recovery from Katrina. The very slow pace of recovery in both Mississippi and Louisiana was a source of frequent frustration to me, but it was a true bane to those who had to suffer through it. In some cases, people have never recovered. Burdened with too much bureaucracy and red tape and some truly bone-headed decisions, FEMA proved to be largely inefficient and, for many, ineffective in its response. In the end, someone calculated that for all the money spent on FEMA and other agency responses, the government could have built a new house and put two new cars in the driveway for each affected family. That is a scandal of the first order.

What I have seen, and experience has borne out, is that a multi-pronged approach is needed to respond to any natural disaster of this magnitude. In the plan I previously developed, this approach would be more forward looking than backward looking. At the head of the effort would be a disaster council combining federal government agencies, non-profit relief organizations, faith-based groups (which often provide a major portion of recovery efforts), and the profit sector. All these groups have a stake, and a contribution to make, both in preparing for natural disasters and in recovery. And this applies not just to hurricanes, but to other natural disasters, such as tornadoes, earthquakes, and major fires.

Similar councils should be established at the state level in the most affected states, with coordination between the state and national councils. And under my plan, Congress and state governments should consider establishing a disaster fund into which both public and private funds would be deposited in advance of disasters, not leaving things to allocations after the fact, which often come too late to deal with the worst immediate effects of a major storm or other disaster. This approach makes the response both prospective – looking ahead to future disasters – and retrospective – looking back in the aftermath of those that have already occurred. The cost will be there in any event, but by having funds already allocated they can be assigned quicker and will offer the most and most efficient benefit to those affected.

We tend to avoid thinking about what might happen tomorrow, even less about paying for it. But just as our learning curve in preparation and recovery has continued to go up with each major storm, I see this as a logical next step in our approach to dealing with hurricanes and other natural disasters, which are not just going to go away.

There Goes, Here Comes, the Sun

There Goes, Here Comes, the Sun

It isn’t news to anyone that a full eclipse of the sun traversed the United States on Monday. You’d have to be ensconced in a lunar base on the dark side of the moon to have missed that. But if you got to experience the eclipse, especially in a place where totality occurred, you probably know how special this event was. And maybe you noticed how it was special in ways beyond the purely celestial.

I traveled from West Central Florida to the coast of South Carolina for the big event. This was the second full eclipse I’ve experienced, the first one being in March of 1970, at Cape Charles, Virginia. After that experience, I wasn’t going to miss a chance to be present for another one, especially one this close.

Without going into all the minute details, I wanted to stay flexible in terms of my precise destination since the weather was looking pretty iffy. As the morning of the eclipse went on, clouds were moving in from off the ocean and conditions were heading south almost by the minute. Viewing conditions along the coast were predicted to be fair to poor and, in the midst of all that, the Charleston weather radar went down, so I was pretty much on my own.The moon eats the sun

Charleston, which was on the southern edge of the zone of totality, was overcast as I passed through it, as was North Charleston, across the harbor. Following my inclination that conditions would be better on the coast north of the city, I continued up US 17, and that’s when I came across some signs pointing to a side road that led to the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. Making a snap decision, I turned right there and followed that road until it ended at the refuge. Cars were parked up and down both sides of the road, so I found a place, parked, and walked in to the picnic area and boat launch site at the road’s end. Cape Romain was actually the place, virtually on the center line of the zone of totality, I had thought to view the eclipse when I first started planning this expedition.

A long concrete pier stretched out across the marsh and clumps of people were out on the pier, interspersed with some open areas. I found one of those open spots and set myself up. It was about an hour until totality.

When I arrived there were big blue breaks in the clouds, allowing the sun to shine through, but as time went on more and more clouds moved in from off the ocean. At times the clouds obscured the sun, but when they did, one could see the disk of the moon encroaching on the face of the sun. With one layer of clouds, it was too bright to see the image. With three layers, the sun was too obscured. But with two layers, it was perfect, and the moon could be seen eating the sun – as primitive peoples believed – without benefit of eclipse glasses.

Birds overheadWith about a half-hour to go, a family of four set up next to where I was. It turned out they had come from Denmark, just to see the eclipse. As more and more people arrived, and looking up and down the pier, I was thinking how many people, not just on that pier but from coast-to-coast, had come to share in this event. I was hoping we’d get a clear view, not just for myself but for others, like that family, who had never experienced a total solar eclipse before.

Minutes before the moment of totality, more clouds passed in front of the sun. Inland and to the south things were totally socked in, with lightning strikes to the west. A bank of clouds was moving in off the ocean, but a big band of blue stood between where we were and it. The wind was blowing the lower clouds quickly, and then the wind blew them past, and there was the sun, framed by two high, thin, motionless clouds, and that was when the eclipse entered totality. And our view was unobstructed for the entire duration of the eclipse, as short as it was at about two minutes and 40 seconds. Speak about making the right decision and lucking out.

If you haven’t experienced a total eclipse, you don’t know what that moment of totality Totalityis like. Even 99.99% totality is not the same as 100%. It is when the sun is completely obscured by the moon, when the sun’s corona can be seen flaring out from behind the moon, when day turns almost to night, and when earthbound creatures express their confusion by going wild, that makes a total eclipse the awesome event that it is. Even knowing that an eclipse is happening and that it’s a natural phenomenon that has a beginning and an end, it can be a disconcerting experience. It is no wonder that people over the ages spun such myths and felt such fear around eclipses.

I have to say that the first eclipse I experienced seemed more awesome, and I think it had mostly to do with the environment. At Cape Charles, I was right on tidewater, and there were flocks of birds, and it seemed the tides reversed and the birds went crazy at the moment of the eclipse. At Cape Romain, it was marshes, and the few birds that there were had passed overhead minutes before the eclipse and flew on. But as a sheer celestial event, this eclipse was as awe-inspiring as any. This eclipse, any eclipse, reminds that we’re on an object somewhere out in space, spinning around a star, out in the vastness of the universe.

Plane flying close to the sunAt that moment of totality, I think most people experiencing it for those couple of minutes might have forgotten the differences, the views, the beliefs, the expectations that separate Major cloudsus. For those couple of minutes we weren’t liberals or conservatives, Americans or Danes, dog lovers or cat lovers or none of the above. We were just humans, curious, eager, awe-inspired humans, beneath the shadow of the moon as it crossed the face of the sun. It’s too much to expect that the feeling would last much beyond the eclipse and the return of the sun from behind the moon, but it was nice while it lasted.

After the eclipse was over, it took more than four hours to get to the Interstate, with the flood of people returning to wherever they came from – the plurality of cars on my route had Florida license tags – and from there things got easier. By the next morning the eclipse seemed already to have receded into the past, a curiosity for strangers to ask about in passing.

The marsh near totalityBoth on the way to South Carolina and on the way back, things seemed to be more homogenized than they had been in years past. Chain restaurants and fast-food joints, more than ever, supplanted a lot of the local down-home places that formerly one could find with ease across the South. I finally found the kind of down-home place I had been searching for, Grannie’s Country Cookin’, on US 301 in Starke, Florida, and it was worth the wait. The Jurassic-sized slab of meatloaf and the giant flaky biscuit and the grits and mashed potatoes and gravy were what I’d expect at a place called Grannie’s, and not some pseudo chain Grannie’s. But the average age of the patrons was somewhere north of 60, so I had to wonder how long it will be until the entire country is homogenized, fast-foodified, Amazoned, Uberized, Facebookifed, plasticized, devicified, electronicuted. What will the roads, and the country, look like for the next solar eclipse to come here in seven years, in 2024?

It’s a disconcerting thought, and the roadsides, and our world, will be darker for it. And not because the sun is in eclipse.

All photos by the author.

This piece also appears on Medium. Follow me there, and here, and if you like the post please comment and share it.

Thoughts on “the Longest Day in the World”

Thoughts on “the Longest Day in the World”

It’s June 21, the day of the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s a day that holds various meanings for different peoples, and its significance goes back millennia. The solstice, whether summer or winter, officially took place at 12:24 a.m. U.S. Eastern Daylight Time this morning, or 04:24 UTC.

Just to set the record straight and dispel any questions about my scientific knowledge, I know it’s not the longest day in the world. It’s the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest day in the Southern Hemisphere. But we’ll get to this a bit later.

It’s been a mixed bag today here on the West Coast of Florida. We’ve been having a lot of rain, something we didn’t have much of over the winter, and the rainy times are interspersed with sunny breaks. Right now, as I look out the window of my boat, the sun is mostly out but I’m looking at the light through rain-drop spattered glass. At least we’re not getting the effects of Tropical Storm Cindy, which is much further west and at this moment dumping lots of water on the upper Gulf Coast.

In this country, the summer solstice marks the official beginning of summer, though in other places and other cultures it marks the middle of summer, as indicated by the name Midsummer Night, which can occur anywhere from the 20th to the 24th of June. And really it is midsummer, since the days, which have been lengthening since the equinox three months ago, now will start to grow shorter, the nights longer.

The sun has reached its apogee in this hemisphere, as it stands today directly over the Tropic of Cancer. I feel summer ending, we already are on the downhill side, the side that will take us through the hot coming months but already on the slide back into winter, the cold time of year. Just as in the Southern Hemisphere the days will begin to grow longer as the seasons move back to summer.

A year ago on this day I was in Alaska, where there never really was a night. Where I was, well below the Arctic Circle, the sun went down sometime around midnight, but there was a kind of twilight that lasted until the sun rose again a few hours later. Above the Arctic Circle on this day, the sun never sets, and it truly is the Land of the Midnight Sun.

My thoughts turn to other things on this day. Someone asked me the other day, which was Father’s Day in the U.S., what thoughts I had of my father on that Sunday. But really, I think of Father’s Day as a commercial holiday. I also remember the last Father’s Day I had with my father, and how my mother did her unwitting best to create conflict between me and my father. While I may wish a happy day to the fathers I know on Father’s Day, it is today, the day of the solstice, that I think of my father. June 21 was his birthday, which in most years coincides with the solstice. I was told as a child that it was the longest day of the year, which I translated in my own way into it being the longest day in the world, and I would go around telling everyone who would listen that it was.

“It’s the longest day in the world!” I’d exclaim each year on his birthday, from morning until night.

I think today of my father on this day, the 21st of June. Gone now, for nearly 48 years. And I think back to the day of his birth, June 21, 1913. One hundred and four years ago. Even had he not died young as he did, just 56 years old, it is hard to imagine that he would still be alive today had he not died when he did. A prolongation of the inevitable.

A factoid I learned earlier is that today is not the longest day in the history of the world, as one might imagine it to be given that the earth’s rotation on its axis generally was slowing. Rather, the longest day in the history of the world is believed to be June 21, 1912, and things like the earth’s tides and recession of the glaciers have caused a slight increase in the rate of the planet’s rotation since then. My father was born a year later, which arguably could have been the second or third longest day in the history of the world, if not the actual longest day in the world.

I wonder what it was like on that June day, the day of the solstice, the longest day of the year, the day my father was born, in Jersey City, New Jersey. Did his father and mother, his Italian parents, my grandparents that I never knew, know it was the solstice? Did they even know of the solstice? Regardless, I’m inclined to think they did not think of it, if for no other reason than that they had something else on their mind that day. And then I think of the things people from then knew and were taught and how many of those things have been lost today, in these encroaching new Dark Ages in which we find ourselves, and I have to wonder. Perhaps they knew, better than most people today know. Or care to know. And they did note the auspicious day on which their son was born.

I’ll think of my father again on July 27, the anniversary of his death, and by then even our summer, the summer as we define it, will be half over.

The solstices, like the equinoxes, serve as a kind of punctuation for me. I watch the ebb and the flow of the days, the seasons, the years, and they mark the passage of time, time that increasingly slips by way too quickly. All of life is punctuation, I think. Slowing. Stopping. Breaking things, even waves on the water, into different parts, different pieces, different rhythms and fugues and movements and phrases and sentences. It is through such punctuation that we mark our lives, mark our transit through summer and back into winter, from day into night, from life into death. Watching, as a reader of a story does, while the time of our lives flows past. When we lose that punctuation, everything blends into one big mass, and we feel lost in the current, flailing and drowning as we’re pulled inexorably along. At least I do.

Enjoy this song, which I found today amid my files, and with which I end this post, and enjoy the time that nature and life give us.

This piece also appears on Medium. Follow me there, and here.