Good night, Irene.

The past few days have been horrific. As of this writing, hurricane/tropical storm Irene has killed some 40 people, and caused billions of dollars of property damage. Another case – one of dozens well-documented – of a hurricane’s landfall changing the storm from a terrifying cyclonic wind shredding everything in its path to a rainmaker. Think hurricane Camille in 1969, which dumped some 30 inches of rain in the Virginias after making landfall. Camille killed 150. Or hurricane Agnes in 1972, putting as much as 20 inches of rain on the ground in eastern Pennsylvania and nearly as much in Virginia and New York. Agnes caused the death of 130.

Today, Vermont is wracked with flooding…hardly any part of that small, mountainous state has been unaffected as the waters rage south. Hundreds of thousands remain without power, from New England all the way through the middle Atlantic states. And North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the stuff of legend when it comes to hurricanes and nor’easters? Reality continued to build the Outer Banks’ reputation this week. No ships lost off the coast this time around…but 2500 are isolated from the mainland after storm surge tore up highway 12.

Much of this death and destruction occurred after many had believed Irene’s dangers had passed. [In this way the storm shared much in common with 2005’s hurricane Katrina, which made landfall on August 29, 2005 – six years to the day as I write this. New Orleans had survived the wind – or so we all thought. But we failed to note in time the levee breach…and we failed to appreciate fully the likely consequences until too late.]

The lessons we learn from these rainmakers and the subsequent riverine flooding? First, any location from the Gulf coast states all the way through the entirety of New England, needs to be prepared for as much as 20-30 inches of rainfall from such storms. And the storm need not be a category five to produce this much rain. Indeed, 1994’s Tropical Storm Alberto, which never reached hurricane strength, dumped over 20 inches of rain in parts of Georgia and Alabama. The reason? Instead of racing up the Appalachias over a 24-hour period as forecast, it stalled out over the southeast, producing walls of water as much as 25 feet above flood stage in the region. 30 people died.  

Second, when it comes to weather prediction and effective emergency response, we’re not yet where we need to be. Forecasts of hurricane track, landfall, maximum wind speeds and precipitation continue to improve, but it’s clear that we can do more to predict storm details, and with that improvement – better identify likely the geographical location and timing of impacts. This in turn can lead to more effective evacuation and a safer public.

As we see the back of her, some of us might be reminded of the 20th century folk standard, Goodnight, Irene. Virtually every blues singer has recorded this one. Go on YouTube; you’ll find a sampling. Two of my favorites? Willie Nelson and Eric Clapton. But you can find your own. After this past weekend, the lyrics are haunting. They vary a little, but here’s one version:

Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I’ll see you in my dreams

Sometimes I live in the country
Sometimes I live in town
Sometimes I have a great notion
To jump into the river and drown

Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I’ll see you in my dreams

Quit ramblin’ and quit gamblin’
Quit stayin’ out late at night
Stay home with your wife and family
Sit down by the fireside bright

Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I’ll see you in my dreams

I asked your mother for you
She told me you was too young
I wished to God I’d never seen your face
I’s sorry you ever was born

Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I’ll see you in my dreams

I love Irene, God knows I do
I’ll love her till the seas run dry
And if Irene turns her back on me
I’d take morphine and die

Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I’ll see you in my dreams

You cause me to weep, you cause me to mourn
You cause me to leave my home
But the very last words I heard her say
Was “Please sing me one more song”

Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I’ll see you in my dreams

Irene? Sadly, we’ll be seeing her in our dreams for quite a while yet.

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