What were we talking about just the other day? The need for a national water policy? How about just a little common sense? Ahem:

ATLANTA, Oct. 22 — For more than five months, the lake that provides drinking water to almost five million people here has been draining away in a withering drought. Sandy beaches have expanded into flats of orange mud. Tree stumps not seen in half a century have resurfaced. Scientists have warned of impending disaster.

And life has, for the most part, gone on just as before.

The response to the worst drought on record in the Southeast has unfolded in ultra-slow motion. All summer, more than a year after the drought began, fountains blithely sprayed, football fields were watered, prisoners got two showers a day and Coca-Cola’s bottling plants chugged along at full strength. In early October, on an 81-degree day, an outdoor theme park began to manufacture what was intended to be a 1.2-million gallon mountain of snow.

In late September, with Lake Lanier forecast to dip into the dregs of “dead storage” in less than four months, the state imposed a ban on outdoor water use.

Like lots of women, I’m a worrier by nature. I’ve been concerned about gas prices since OPEC was a new player on the scene, throughout the era of ’70s road boats and ’90s road freighters. I was an early adopter of recycling. Jimmy Carter didn’t have to tell me to turn down my thermostat; it was already lower than he recommended. So the idea that an area can be in a drought for two years and no one even considered whether it’s wise to keep watering lawns simply baffles me. (John and Sammy, my friends there, have been gray-watering for months, so I know at least some people have the sense to pay attention to the world around them.)

People have pointed out, correctly, that too much caution is as much a handicap to success as heedlessness, but I yam what I yam. My parents were Depression babies, and “waste not, want not” is part of the Midwestern DNA. It drives me nuts to see automatic sprinklers going in a downpour. I say, “Were you born in a barn?” And if my local landscape included sights like this at the reservoir that served us all, I wouldn’t be standing by smiling while someone tried to make snow on an 81-degree day.

I had a job interview a few years ago in Houston. People there crowed about how they had “air-conditioned the outdoors.” Never have I been so glad to not get the offer. Place would have made me insane.

We continue to keep our fingers crossed for our friends and readers in SoCal, no matter what idiots with a national platform say about the place. Three hundred thousand evacuations is quite a lot. Having lived here all my life, it’s hard to get my head around the conditions that could lead to such a disaster, and I give the WashPost credit for some pretty good description of the strangeness of the weather there: The winds were the Santa Anas that routinely sweep into Southern California from the northeast and funnel through its canyons, gaining speed, heat and dryness as they descend and compress. One gust was clocked at 112 mph, which I imagine would be like a blast in the face from a giant hair dryer.

I once asked a native why you couldn’t keep a house safe in a fire like that by, essentially, turning on a roof sprinkler. What if every house had a built-in water line that followed the peak of the roof, and when fires approached, you could attach hoses to the master line, turn them on, and keep it soaked down, the way firefighters will pour water on structures adjacent to out-of-control fires, so they don’t get engulfed, too?

I gather, from his reaction, that it was perhaps the stupidest remark possible, but only now do I fully understand why it wouldn’t work — the conditions are simply too super-dry and super-hot for water to do any good at all. You just have to wait for a break in the weather.

Well, it’s raining here. If I could, I’d send humidity your way.

Our friend Ashley is attending to family business today, but if he were here, perhaps he’d make the obvious New Orleans native remark: Let’s ask ourselves, is it wise to rebuild San Diego? I mean, isn’t it simply inevitable that another fire will come along someday and burn these structures all over again? Isn’t it foolish to develop areas that nature is programmed to clear out with fire every few years? Really, does it make sense?

I’ll leave you to think on that one.

In the meantime, it’s only stuff, folks. Although it’s hard to remember at a time like this.

Posted at 10:15 am in Current events |

24 responses to “Dry.”

  1. Connie said on October 23, 2007 at 11:15 am

    Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue was interviewed yesterday on NPR. His big beef has something to do with the Endangered Species Act requiring the Corp of Engineers to divert Lake Lanier water to other waterways, and they say they can’t just stop doing it because Atlanta needs water. He was going on and on about people being far more important than wild animals. Considering the lack of any water conversation planning or implementation, I got no sympathy for Sonny.

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  2. Vince said on October 23, 2007 at 11:28 am

    The richest of the rich have some help…. if they’re with one insurance company.
    It’s spraying down homes with expensive fire retardant
    This same company did the same in Idaho during wildfires last summer.

    I wonder how well this will work.

    “Rich Homeowners Get Extra Fire Protection
    One Insurance Company Fights Fires, Spraying Pricey Homes With Fire Retardant” http://www.abcnews.go.com/Business/IndustryInfo/story?id=3763676&page=1

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  3. beb said on October 23, 2007 at 11:52 am

    I do wonder about the seemibng lack of any planing for these masive Santa Ana wind fires. Shouldn’t the place be checkerboarded with fire lanes to stop or at least slow down the spread of fires. Shouldn’t there be holding ponds of water so abundant water would be available at the start of firesso put them out? Circling airplanes with Infra red detectors to spot the start of fires so they can be put out quicker?

    Any-hoo, it’s things like this that makes me glad to live in the Great Lakes Region. No earthquakes, hurricanes, forest fires and only the occasional torando…..

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  4. Catherine said on October 23, 2007 at 12:37 pm

    Here’s the thing about fires in SoCal: There is a ton of planning for them. Fire lanes, water ponds, water dropping helicopters/planes, building codes and so forth. People know pretty much what they are getting into when they buy homes in certain regions because 1) their insurance companies tell them so; 2) their houses are usually built to resist fire (which is not to say that they are fire-proof) – hence all the stucco and tile roofs; 3) they get brush-clearance notices constantly from local fire stations. The Santa Anas come every year at the same time, and every year there are fires somewhere. People still flock here by the thousands, and put up with things like expensive homes & insurance, fire and earthquake risk, in exchange for things like cultural diversity, economic opportunity and beautiful weather.

    And, I think there is a distinction between what happened in NOLA and SoCal. Many people believe that NOLA’s flood was a government-caused disaster – the flood was caused by national government-built and maintained levees that didn’t perform up to promised standards. In SoCal, fire fighting is mainly a local and state job, and those agencies pretty much do what they say they will to protect citizens.

    So, to respond to Nancy’s question about whether we should rebuild San Diego, I’d suggest that the marketplace will answer that question. It’s been rebuilt before, with most of the risk internalized in the prices, and most of it probably will be again.

    As for no forest fires in the Great Lakes, allow me to suggest that you Google the Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871.

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  5. LA mary said on October 23, 2007 at 12:41 pm

    There aren’t any holding ponds because there isn’t any water. We had about three inches of rain last winter. That’s it. The fires start in brushy areas and spread by flying embers. The idea of greenbelts is great and they work to a degree keeping ground fires from spreading, but they don’t stop flying embers and they don’t do much when there is a wall of fire 100-200 fee high, which is often the case.

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  6. nancy said on October 23, 2007 at 12:56 pm

    I thought it was obvious I was being facetious about rebuilding San Diego. My point is that every place has its own natural disaster stalking it, from tornados to hurricanes to floods to fire. While I do question the wisdom of building on mountainsides that regularly slide down in rainstorms, or of putting houses in forests that burn predictably, we’re all at some risk. If we’re all in it together, it will shake out in what you pay for homeowner’s insurance.

    Getting back to the difficulty of wrapping one’s Midwestern head around California weather, I’m reminded of a piece in John McPhee’s book, “The Control of Nature,” about debris flows in the San Gabriel Mountains. I reread the piece several times, trying to imagine what it would be like to hear a boom one rainy night, and moments later find your house filling to the ceilings with mud and boulders.

    And Catherine is right about forest fires in the Midwest, and you don’t have to go back to Peshtigo in 1871. Big chunks of the U.P. burned just this past summer.

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  7. LA mary said on October 23, 2007 at 1:11 pm

    John McPhee got it right, and that’s an amazing book. Things here are sudden and big. Earthquakes, fires, mudslides. When stuff happens like the huge fires now, I really wonder why I’m here, and to be honest, I can’t say I love it here or feel a connection.

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  8. nancy said on October 23, 2007 at 1:24 pm

    Not to minimize your anxiety, but that’s the wind making you feel that way. I read somewhere that there’s a high correlation between areas with regular high winds and domestic violence. That great Raymond Chandler paragraph —

    There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

    — isn’t just Raymond Chandler talking. It’s windy all the time in Livingston, Montana; the wind comes pouring off the Yellowstone plateau and it just blows and blows and blows. I think one of the many writers who lives there, maybe Tim Cahill, wrote about how often meek little wives get the shit kicked out of them there. Wind + long winters = nothing good.

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  9. brian stouder said on October 23, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    Things here are sudden and big.

    See, things here in Indiana are exactly opposite; even tornadoes aren’t all that sudden, and normally aren’t horribly big (although they’re plenty big enough if your town takes a direct hit).

    These fires are at least seasonal – but so are hurricanes. As the song says – whatcha’ gonna do when they come for you?

    And what warning does an earthquake give? (I felt one, once, hereabouts; I noticed I went right into denial – couldn’t believe it wasn’t a passing truck [a fairly long, heavy truck!], or some neighbor using a power tool of some sort)

    edit – Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.

    and in a California firestorm, a particular sort of meek little wife could commit the perfect crime

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  10. LA mary said on October 23, 2007 at 2:16 pm

    This year’s fire season started about three months after the previous one ended. No rain, lots of fires. Griffith Park burned last spring.

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  11. James said on October 23, 2007 at 2:49 pm

    To be fair, people here had a fit when the “snow mountain” was announced, and then it went away quietly and quickly…

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  12. Danny said on October 23, 2007 at 3:50 pm

    All, thanks for your concern. As of now, we are safe and our house is still standing. Suffice it to say, we are not out of the woods yet, but we prefer non-smoking.

    Sunday afternoon, within less than an hour of the Witch fire starting about 50 miles east of here, thick smoke had occluded the sunlight throughout our neighborhood. Winds gusting up to 70 mph that day and throughout the night led me to believe we were going to have a replay of the 2003 wildfires when the fires burned to within 5 miles of us on three sides. That evening we reviewed our list of things to pack, stayed tuned to the news and got as much rest as possible.

    By Monday morning 6AM our neighborhood was declared a “mandatory evacuation area” and the fire was on multiple fronts about 10 miles northeast being driven by a strong southeasterly wind. It took a little under an hour to pack and load everything irreplaceable and then we helped friends and neighbors while waiting for the reverse 911 call that gives one the last chance warning to get out. We did get a pre-warning call to be ready, but the final call did not come yesterday and it has not come as of yet.

    Winds were gentle most of today, but are beginning to pick up again. We remain packed and vigilant, but are at the mercy of the winds. The air is thick with ash, acrid, stifling and oppressive. The relative humidity varies between 0 to 5 percent. The whole county is a tinderbox with dozens of hydra-like hot spots, threatening to multiply at a moment’s notice and turn seemingly safe areas into full on flee-for-your-life conflagrations.

    I’ll keep you posted, as time permits, but currently we are still very much in helping mode with neighbors who need us. Hopefully the fire will stop before it reaches Hawaii.

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  13. LA mary said on October 23, 2007 at 4:16 pm

    Be safe, Danny. I hope you and your home come through things ok.

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  14. brian stouder said on October 23, 2007 at 4:33 pm

    What Mary said.

    The neighbors around here all band together for digging out of snowstorms – but the idea of packing things and possibly losing all that you leave is hard to imagine; sounds like a waking nightmare

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  15. LA mary said on October 23, 2007 at 4:36 pm

    If you could see what the sky looks like and what the air is like, you would realize that nightmare is the word. The sun was deep red this morning in a cloudy red sky. I tried to take a picture with my phone but as we know, phones have crappy cameras. I park on the roof of the hospital, seven floors up, and from there you can see smoke in three directions.

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  16. John C said on October 23, 2007 at 5:20 pm

    Not to minimize this at all, but I lived through an apartment fire when I was in Chicago. My roommate’s room caught fire, most likely from a not-quite-extinguished cigarette, and as she roused our other roommate and headed for the stairs, the whole middle of the place went up. I called 911, and right after I gave the address I tried to take a breath to repeat it and – nothing. I could not breathe. I dropped the phone and ran down the stairs and we were all fine. But we all lost a lot of stuff. At the end of the day, I remember a very strong feeling of gratitude that no one got hurt, in spite of losing stuff. Not that I hope anybody loses a significant amount of stuff. But just make sure you’re still around to piece things back together.

    And I don’t know what you do for a living, Danny. But that comment was an excellent piece of journalism.

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  17. nancy said on October 23, 2007 at 5:53 pm

    Wow. Zero to five percent humidity? I just checked our hygrometer: 98 percent.

    Like I said. We have some to spare.

    Stay safe. We’re all pulling for you.

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  18. alex said on October 23, 2007 at 6:20 pm

    Incredible sunset tonight in Cedar Canyons. (Canyons is a joke in these parts — California makes it look like a gulley by comparison.) You’d think the western horizon was afire. I could kick myself for not having a camera. The setting sun cast a golden light on everything and the ground is covered in yellow leaves. Bewitching. As opposed to most of the time when Webitching.

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  19. LA mary said on October 23, 2007 at 6:22 pm

    It’s so dry here that when you go outside your face feels a size too small. It’s even that dry at the beach right now.

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  20. Marcia said on October 23, 2007 at 7:47 pm

    but I yam what I yam. My parents were Depression babies, and “waste not, want not” is part of the Midwestern DNA.

    Whatever, Nance. You grew up in UA, for God’s sake. Me, I’m one generation from homelessness (my dad as a child), so I don’t exactly weep for your lost values.

    Okay, I’ve come back to edit a minute later.

    I’m watching The Pursuit of Happyness as I post, and totally hating the man. Forgive my bitchiness.

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  21. nancy said on October 23, 2007 at 7:50 pm

    No offense taken.

    Hard to believe, but UA was a different place then. Yuppies hadn’t been invented yet. Also, both my parents worked (unheard of, then).

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  22. Marcia said on October 23, 2007 at 7:59 pm

    I knew you’d understand my thought process. Otherwise I would have just deleted the whole anti-establishment post.

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  23. Ricardo said on October 23, 2007 at 11:12 pm

    The winds started here about an hour after sunup on Sunday. They were already causing problems elsewhere on Saturday. After about 2 hours, two of the four main branches fell off my big ficus into the neighbor’s yard. No problem, the tree was going to be removed soon anyway, this saved me the danger of hanging on my ladder with a small chainsaw. I spent the rest of the day cutting the branches up and removing them from the neighbor’s yard.

    About noon, I smelled the inevitable smoke which turned out to be from the Santiago/Irvine fire. About 8 miles due east is the Cleveland National Forest and the ridge that separates Orange County from Riverside County, north and south. Since the fire started, the sky is dark from smoke and it smells like it did when you could still burn leaves in the street in front of your house. Ashes everywhere. The winds are quiet now, but could come back later. It’s still very hot, in the 100s today.

    One thing that caught my attention while outside on Sunday was that in my 33 years here, I had never experienced the winds blowing so strongly. And last winter, I had never experienced so many days of really warm weather. Hmmm.

    If you ever went into a house or building that burned, you will know that it is a very horrible experience, something you never forget. Losing your own house by fire is pretty damn devistating, I feel for those that just lost homes. One friend lost a nice cottage in Laguna Canyon a few years back from that notorious fire. 30 years ago, a lot of the houses built in the 60s and 70s still had shake shingle roofs. Not any more!

    My house is on a flat, city street with ordinary surroundings. If you look at every burn area, the houses are in mostly newer developments in outlying areas. Very nice places until nature comes back to claim its land. Fires, mudslides, floods constantly hit homes built in semi-rural settings or hillsides. No one plans for 75mph winds when they pick out a new home, but I am sure you can find wind like that in a 100 year weather cycle.

    An Orange County fire chief was bad mouthing the support he got from the state to fight the fire here just as Arnold was giving a speech bragging about the support he was giving us. Now, the chief was tired and some of his people were nearly killed, but he sure embarrassed the guvinator. Most of these firefighters have probably never seen conditions like this either.

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  24. brian stouder said on October 25, 2007 at 8:53 am

    See, I wanna comment on the Mad Men post, but don’t wanna be the first poster (again!) (really gotta cut down, I know)

    Doesn’t that office remind you of a James Bond (Sean Connery era) bad guy office? (was it Dr No?) One can just see the heavy, sitting behind that desk, saying “You disappoint me, Mr Bond” as he presses a button, and the handles on the chair where Bond is seated instantly clamp him down. (I love the protruding cylindrical phone dial!)

    I will indeed look for a copy of Hour Detroit, along with Assassins’ Gate this weekend…

    and regarding wild turkeys – when our son was 7 or 8, we were at the FW Children’s Zoo, and he was pecked on the cheekbone by an aggressive peacock (they have several of those wandering around the facility), which was an altogether unpleasant (although memorable) experience

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