As California withers and burns, plagued by endless drought and relentless wildfires, it's easy to lose perspective and forget that, elsewhere in the United States, the big weather problem right now is hurricanes.
In fact, the Hawaiian Islands are braced for two of them: Hurricanes Iselle and Julio. On the East Coast, the short-lived Hurricane Bertha -- the second tempest of the Atlantic hurricane season -- was downgraded to a tropical cyclone. It produced high surf and rip currents, leading to one drowning in Florida.
I asked Molly Solomon, a reporter with Hawaii Public Radio who lives in Honolulu, what it's like at the moment, as people scramble to get ready for a tropical doubleheader.
"I feel pretty prepared and even braved the crowds at Longs yesterday to pick up an extra set of batteries and a flashlight," Solomon said Wednesday. "I’m just hoping I won’t be stuck eating a can of Chef Boyardee for dinner come Thursday night."
Solomon said residents are being urged to prepare for heavy rains, winds of up to 65 mph and possible storm surges along the coastlines. To compound the situation, a 4.5-magnitude earthquake struck the Big Island on Thursday morning.
Several supermarkets and grocery stores are reporting that bottled water and canned goods have been flying off the shelves, even selling out at some locations, she said. School officials in Hawaii and Maui counties have canceled classes for Thursday, and hotels and resorts are stocking up and testing backup generators in case the power goes out.
Some hotels and at least three airlines -- Hawaiian, United and American -- have announced they will waive cancellation or change fees for visitors whose travel plans are affected by the storms. The Islands have encountered only three hurricanes since 1950, with the deadly Iniki being the last one in 1992.
Honolulu’s Department of Emergency Management is also reminding residents to secure outdoor furniture, Solomon said, and have their emergency disaster kits ready, which should include enough food and water to live on for seven days, as well as an LED flashlight with an extra set of batteries
On Wednesday, Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed an emergency proclamation activating a fund for disaster relief.
"I hope this isn’t as bad as it sounds," said Solomon, who grew up in Berkeley and graduated from UC Santa Cruz before moving to Honolulu three years ago.
In Hawaii, hurricanes are a rare event. On the other side of the country, they're part of summer and the U.S. Census Bureau keeps track of them. Its "Facts for Features" series on the 2014 North Atlantic hurricane season -- which runs June 1 through Nov. 30 -- is an educational experience. The Eastern Pacific season, by the way, ends on the same date but opens May 15.
Census numbers indicate that 185 coastline counties along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico face the biggest threat of hurricanes. The coastal states stretching from North Carolina to Texas -- totaling almost 600,000 square miles -- are particularly vulnerable. About 83 million people lived there in 2013, just over 26 percent of the U.S. population.
Hurricane names rotate every six years, except for those that are retired because of storms that were especially lethal or costly. So far, the World Meteorological Organization has retired 77 names, including Hazel in 1954, Flora in 1963, Eloise in 1975, Andrew in 1992 and Paloma in 2008.
Five names from 2005 were retired -- Dennis, Katrina, Rita, Stan and Wilma -- which is a record and gives you some idea of what kind of year it was. The Census Bureau noted that 28 named storms formed that year.
Last year, by contrast, only two hurricanes materialized during the Atlantic hurricane season.
It's one thing to look at hurricane facts and figures. It's another to hear about them from people who have spent most of their lives dealing with hurricanes. At KQED that person is morning newscaster Joshua Johnson, who grew up in West Palm Beach and has covered many hurricanes as a journalist.
These are some of his hurricane memories:
No one dies in a hurricane.
They die after hurricanes.
Lives are lost in the chaotic aftermath: people falling as they repair roofs, driving into washed-out roadways, stepping into puddles with hidden, fallen power lines. Those idiots you see on the TV news frolicking in 80 mph winds? They do it because they feel impervious to the storm. And they are, but only because of sheer dumb luck.
I know better.
Not because I’m a South Florida native, although I am. But because I’ve covered enough hurricanes to know what they can do. Andrew is the one everyone thinks about, but that wiped out Homestead, an area well south of the most populated parts of the Miami metro region. That storm barely touched me, even though it did shift South Florida’s population base north in dramatic ways. I’ve covered enough hurricanes to last me a lifetime. Most notably, Charlie, Frances, Ivan, Jeanne, Dennis, Katrina, Rita, Wilma …
… and then, Alpha through Zeta. Yep, we learned what happens when the National Hurricane Center runs out of names -- they use Greek letters. The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season set the record for the most named storms, most hurricanes and most major hurricanes (category 3 or higher). We were so sick of rain by the end of that season, California’s drought would’ve seemed like a gift from God.
Katrina was a major storm for South Florida as well as the Gulf Coast. Rita left quite a mess behind, too. And the damage it caused was extensive enough that we couldn’t finish cleaning up in time for Wilma. So Wilma blew the debris around and made life absolutely miserable. I think my power was out for a month or so. I don’t remember … I’d rather not remember … but I ate and slept and bathed for days at the Miami Herald, where I anchored news on WLRN Public Radio. Some of the staff got hotel rooms. I got to set up a reclining camping chair and blankets in Studio 1. Asleep at 11 p.m., up at 5 a.m., then dash into Studio 2 in my pajamas and keep anchoring.
At least I could play music to lull me to sleep. The studio speakers were awesome.
When a hurricane threatens, you settle into a “new normal.” It becomes normal to see people talking about nothing but the storm, or about how they wish people would talk about something other than the storm. It’s normal to see amazingly long lines at Home Depot before landfall, and even longer lines for free water and ice rations afterward. Is everyone on your block grilling outside because their appliances don’t work? Normal. Driving through your neighborhood at night super slowly with the high beams on because you’re scared of running over a fallen tree or a washed-out road? Normal, and wise.
The least normal thing came courtesy of MTV, which hosted its Video Music Awards in Miami in 2005. Much of the preshow hype had to be canceled because of Katrina, though the big show still went on. That was kind of fun to cover, though many of us wished MTV would just forget about the show and hunker down like everyone else.
Still, there were benefits to living in the days of the aftermath. For one thing, I got to know my neighbors in ways I never did when I had Netflix and Comcast and YouTube and electricity to keep me in my little bubble. Going out barhopping was awesome, because after a while everyone got major cabin fever and was determined to have a good time. And when I looked up from my backyard in Fort Lauderdale, I didn’t see the streetlights and hear the noise of the neighborhood.
For the first time in a long time, all I saw were stars. Vast, silent stars.
It was a majestic, moving and somewhat eerie reminder of the power of nature, and of the beauty in its balance. Rain brings rainbows. Hurricanes swamp the land, but they also clear the sky. And sometimes, the only way to see clearly is to turn off all the lights.