Category Archives: Human nature

Remembering Apollo 11

I wonder how many bloggers chose that title today? I’m sitting here, listening to the rebroadcast of the moon landing on, and feeling a bit nostalgic. I was seven years old in 1969, and we lived in Florence, Alabama. Having lived in the Tennessee Valley for the past six years, I was well aware of the Apollo missions and the part that the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville was playing sixty miles away. We had lived in Decatur during the first few years of that period, only twenty miles from Huntsville, and I can remember climbing the ladder of a full-size mock-up of the lunar module at a county fair in Decatur. I also remember collecting newspaper clippings of many of the Apollo missions. I’m sure they are still somewhere around my house, shoved in a box somewhere.

In spite of my interest and awareness, my actual memories of the landing and moonwalk are pretty hazy. Given the date, I was clearly not in school, so I believe I must have listened to the landing broadcast. I do have a vague memory of our parents waking up my brother and I to watch the moonwalk later that night, but that memory could be the result of watching numerous documentaries and movies. I guess I  just assume I watched it, but I can’t be sure.

I view the Apollo 11 moon landing as the defining historical moment of my life. I remember when young engineers started coming to work at my employer who were not yet born at the time of the landing. It made me feel old and still does. I do, however, have a sense of joy in having been alive when the moon landing happened (pride is the wrong word, since I know I had nothing to do with it; I wasn’t even paying taxes at that age).

I don’t know if the U.S. will ever send men to the moon again (or women for the first time). I would like to see us do it again, just for the adventure of it. Mankind needs something wonderful from time to time to remind us of what it can achieve when it is united for a common goal.


Recovery from Hurricane Ike

I’ve now been through two hurricanes in my life, Andrew in 1992 and now Ike. I didn’t want to repeat Andrew, and I feel the same about Ike. The good news is that my family and property came through Ike with no serious damage. The pecan tree in my neighbor’s yard to the north is missing three large limbs, one of which landed on my fence and in our yard. I’ll need to replace the fence on the west side of my backyard, which was blown down, and I discovered that I have a window that is leaking and probably beyond repair. My doorbell appears to be schizoid from a power surge, ringing randomly in the middle of the night (at first we thought we were being pranked by neighborhood kids), so I had to disconnect it until I have time to troubleshoot it.

My neighborhood, West University Place, suffered much the same. There are numerous trees blown down, many more tree limbs littering yards, and many fences blown down. A few houses, sadly, were struck by trees or limbs that had fallen. As best I can tell, no homes suffered direct wind damage in terms of either damaged roofs or blown-out windows. The winds in Ike just weren’t that strong, thank goodness.

Electricity went out, as I predicted, about 2:30 a.m. It was restored the next day about 6:00 p.m., just as we were loading up to spend the night at my brother’s house in Bellaire, where the electricity was still on. We unpacked everything, especially the food, and were relieved. We even got to see Auburn play a horrible football game against Mississippi State that night (which AU did manage to win, nevertheless). Unfortunately, the next morning, Sunday, about 5:00 a.m., a line of thunderstorms moved through from a cold front that followed Ike, and out the power went again. The electricity came back on at about 2:00 p.m. Sunday, teased us for about 30 minutes, and then went out again for the third time.

My brother also lost power that morning, so about 4:00 p.m., I loaded up the refrigerator contents again and took them over to my father’s apartment, where the power had been on and stayed on since Saturday morning. When I returned home, our power was restored for the third (and so far final) time about 5:30 p.m. My brother then called and said he wanted to bring his food over to our house. Thus began musical refrigerators. Later that night, my brother’s power was restored, so today we reversed the process and sent his food back with him, and then I retrieved our food from my father’s apartment.

I learned a serious lesson in Ike. While I had heard more than once that north and west winds in a hurricane are generally weak from traveling over land, and therefore we should focus on protecting the east and south sides of the house, that little rule of thumb doesn’t mean diddly when you’re in the western eye-wall of the hurricane (we never actually felt the calm of the eye). Next time around, I’ll board up the north windows, too. The west proved to be reasonably protected by my neighbor’s house, fortunately, but my brother and I both believe the west winds were higher than the north winds.

The PLYLOX™ held throughout the storm. While the wind didn’t blow from the south, the west wind would have placed a lifting force on the plywood as it passed over the surface, which is the bigger test. I’ll keep using them.

We rode out the storm upstairs, which I had chosen not to protect with plywood. More than once, I jumped at the sound of a pecan being hurled against the glass. From the limited reports I’ve seen, sustained winds inside the loop were in the 70s and gusts reached over 100 mph. If we get a direct strike from a Cat 3 or higher storm, we’ll need to shelter downstairs where the windows are protected.

Looking at tree damage has been fascinating. West U, like much of the Houston area, has a large tree canopy. The live oaks seemed to do very well. Ours, which reaches about 40 feet up, suffered no apparent damage. I suspect that the fact that Houston has so many beautiful old live oaks can be attributed to the ability of the trees to bow gracefully in a windstorm (there’s an excellent discussion here). Sycamores and pecans did less well. These trees generally lost branches. I read that many of the pines at Bayou Bend were snapped off, which is typical for pines, with their deep tap roots. Immature plants that were recent landscaping were easily toppled.

I suspect miles of fence were knocked down by the winds. Now is the time to be in the fence building business in Houston. The hilarious thing has been to look into some folks backyards and see the junk they have stored there, even in a neighborhood like West U. Fred Sanford would be proud.

My neighbors have all behaved admirably for the most part. It’s a bit ironic that it takes a storm like this for many of us to meet each other. I benefited from a good neighbor a street over who used his chain saw to cut up the large pecan limb in my backyard. Most people have already policed their yards for debris. There are piles of debris on the curb at most houses, waiting for pick-up. The streets are mostly clear because individuals took it on themselves to clear them rather than wait for the city.

As I suspected, garbage pick-up was cancelled for early this week. The City staged a pick-up point at West U Elementary this afternoon instead. The line was long but moved reasonably well. Most people behaved, but one or two drivers felt they were special and tried to jump their turn.

I’ve driven around the area within a couple of miles of our house all three days. Most of the traffic lights still aren’t working. I’ve seen two dangling precariously like the sword of Damocles. Very few businesses are open, because most still have no electricity.

The Kroger on Buffalo Speedway was open yesterday and today, running on a generator (or two). I drove by yesterday, and there was a line out the door and around the corner of the shopping center. I didn’t bother to go in. I actually went in today, however, to get some food for lunch (since most of our food was sitting in my father’s refrigerator), and the staff was doing an excellent job of managing the chaos. Of course, there wasn’t an item on sale in the store, as best I could tell. Everything was full price.

The amazing thing was watching the people milling around the store with this desperate look in their eyes, almost like ravenous wolves. You would have thought we had plunged into nuclear armageddon as people ran around trying to round up food for the lean months ahead. Certainly, and they have my empathy, many people still had no power, and they were easy to spot by the bags of ice piled into their carts, but others seemed to just be in a frenzy. I watched one woman madly inspecting bottles of wine, her cart already filled with at least two dozen bottles. I could only wonder if she was planning one last drunk before the end of civilization. Perhaps she just was a little late in planning her hurricane party.

Many of the shelves at Kroger were picked clean. The only crackers left were Kroger knock-offs of Cheez-its® and Triscuits® (I bought the knock-off Triscuits — they were good). The funny thing was that the Halloween candy aisle, recently stocked, was almost untouched. I suppose that candy corn and Tootsie Rolls® just don’t soothe the soul quite like a cracker when the end of civilization is nigh.

As for the big picture, we in Houston got off fairly lightly. The real damage from Ike fell on Galveston and the Bolivar Peninsula. Galveston is a wreck, and there are parts of the Bolivar Peninsula where just about every home was scoured from the face of the earth. The people who have lost so much there are in our prayers.


An Old Eagle Scout Waits for Hurricane Ike

Be prepared! That’s the Boy Scout motto. And Emergency Preparedness is a required merit badge for Eagle Scouts. So naturally, Hurricane Ike is a time when old Eagle Scouts like me swing into action. The interesting thing, however, is how little others in Houston seem to be doing. I’ll start out with what I’ve been doing to prepare and then spend some time on what else I’ve seen.

I went through Hurricane Andrew in Baton Rouge back in 1992. I was lucky and suffered no damage to my home, but I went without power for eight days. I’m very sensitized to the potential for a long wait to get power back after a hurricane.

Three years ago, Rita scared the wits out of many of us in Houston. Fortunately, it missed us here in Houston. It was good practice, however. After making the decision to stay put (which the experts have since confirmed was the correct one for people who live out of danger of the storm surge), I had to get up at 5:00 a.m. to go to Lowe’s to get plywood, and when I got there at 5:30, it took me about three hours to get eight sheets of plywood, which were being rationed. My wife and I spent the rest of the day measuring first-floor windows and cutting the plywood to size. In the end, we were able to protect six south-facing windows and the front door.

This time around, we had the plywood cut and ready to go. Before Rita, I had heard about a type of spring clip called PLYLOX™ that will hold a plywood sheet in a recessed brick or concrete window facing. They’re easy to install, and reasonably easy to uninstall with a prybar, but they appear to hold well. I used them again for Ike, and we’ll see if they work, since they didn’t get tested with Rita. Since the boards were already cut (the hard work), the installation this time around took only 30 minutes.

The problem with protecting a two-story house, of course, is the second floor. I’ve made a conscious decision to not climb a ladder and try to place a sheet of plywood, especially given that the winds will pick up and run around 10-15 knots two days before the storm. I once had a representative from Home Depot come out to discuss hurricane shutters with me, and surprisingly, he talked me out of it. His basic premises were that the shutters were not proven to work at high wind loadings, that they were expensive, and that I should just depend on my homeowners’ insurance to cover the damage. The downside of doing nothing, of course, is that if the windows on the second floor are breached, things are going to get pretty chaotic on the second floor in the middle of the storm, and then we could have a long wait to get the damage fixed.

The other risk, which plywood, hurricane shutters, or even Rollac shutters won’t touch, is that one of the two large trees in my front yard (the south side, naturally) could fall into the house. We’ve kept them trimmed and healthy, and if they don’t fall or snap a large limb, they’ll make good windbreaks, but it’s a crap shoot in high winds as to whether or not they’ll survive.

With the windows covered, the big issue is being a good neighbor and removing the potential for flying objects. I moved everything around the house that wasn’t nailed down (e.g., patio furniture, potted plants, garden hoses, door mats) into the garage. Unfortunately, my neighbors have been a bit more cavalier, and I suspect they will be shocked on Saturday evening to find that some things they left out will be gone. I just hope none of them are embedded in the side of my house.

As for my power outage worries, here’s my list of chores in anticipation of an extended power outage:

  • Set up electronic payment for any bills that have arrived since the last payment session.
  • Wash and dry enough clothes for the week ahead.
  • Run the dishwasher.
  • Freeze extra ice, including containers of water, to help keep the refrigerator cool.
  • Charge all cell phones, laptops, and rechargeable batteries.
  • Check that portable radios, the weather radio, and the handheld TV work and have fresh batteries.
  • Pull out the ringer phone, which runs off the low voltage on the phone line.
  • Check all the flashlights.

That last item produced a rude surprise. All of my D-cell flashlights were corroded to the point of being worthless because of leaking batteries. I should have known better. Fortunately, I still have several AA-cell lights that work well and a lead-acid battery-powered fluorescent lantern. Next week, I’ll need to buy some more large flashlights.

Low or no water pressure is a possible risk if the city’s pumps lose power. Also, any damage to the municipal water treatment plant could cause a shortage. We’ve filled numerous containers with water, including a five-gallon jug I use for camping, to provide a clean water supply. I also have a hand-pumped water filter, usually used for camping, to clean more water, if necessary. Later tonight, I’ll fill the tubs with water so that we can scoop some out to start the siphon action in the toilets if the water pressure fails.

I also gathered up the garbage and changed the cat litter and moved the bags to the garage since the City didn’t pick up trash today and might well be unable to pick up garbage on Tuesday.

As for the rest of my neighborhood inside The Loop of Houston, there is an amazing sense of nonchalance. Most homes have made no provision for wind damage. My qualitative guess, based on a couple of limited drives through the neighborhood, is that one in ten homes put up some kind of substantial wind protection. A few were silly and taped their windows (and oddly enough, not all of their windows). More businesses boarded up, perhaps as much out of fear of looters as from the wind itself, but many still had no protection. The local ABC affiliate, KTRK, is nearby, and one segment of their facility has Rollac shutters, which were lowered (I had never noticed that the shutters were there until today). The rest of the building’s glass windows, however, are unprotected.

We went out to have lunch, and most restaurants were open and busy. Traffic was light because most people were given the day off, but people still wanted a good last meal before the storm, apparently. We went to Goode Company Barbecue and suffered one of the longest waits we could remember. The issue wasn’t the size of the line, it was the large volume of pick-up orders that the meat cutters had to process. The weather was muggy and breezy, but actually quite pleasant. I did have to laugh at one woman who had brought her children and was dressed for the occasion. She was wearing her new, blue-and-white patterned wellies with a skirt and tee-shirt. I’m sure she had waited for just such a moment to wear those wellies. It must have been a real disappointment for her that the streets weren’t yet flooded with water.

All during the day, my neighbors were out walking in the breeze, some with their children. Since school was out today, some children down the block from us were playing in the street last night at 9:00 p.m., oblivious to the storm to come early Saturday morning.

So far, the State of Texas, Harris County, and the City of Houston have handled preparations for the storm with good sense. I’ll be interested to see the post-mortem reviews when the storm has passed.

About 5:30 p.m., the wind had picked up here, looking to be about 20-25 knots. It’s died down again for the moment. I’ll write again tomorrow, after the storm, or as soon as the power (and perhaps the cable modem service) are restored (I’m assuming we will get a power outage).