The warnings and news articles issued this week about Hurricane Laura have shifted in tone over this week in a familiar way. What starts as clinical meteorological jargon about trajectories and fronts and currents and wind speeds, when the destructive power finally emerges or when the path veers to the left, evolves into dire warnings, leaving behind abstract words like ‘dangerous’ and suddenly calling for language with no ambiguity: “catastrophic” and “devastating” and “you still have time to leave.” All writing has a purpose, aiming to provoke the reader to think or understand or feel something, but this style—call it the “meteorological genre”—is different; it is physical, deliberate, sharply accurate, and its success is measured in how many people’s lives were spared because they heeded it. On Wednesday, the National Weather Service used these words to describe Hurricane Laura: “Unsurvivable storm surge with large and destructive waves will cause catastrophic damage from Sea Rim State Park, Texas, to Intracoastal City, Louisiana”. These words have a familiarity. They have echoed forward from 15 years ago.
Robert Ricks is not a household name. Raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, right in the Lower Ninth Ward, Ricks has weathered many such storms in his life. I found him on Twitter; he has around 60 followers, doesn’t post much, but when he does, it generally falls into the genre of innocuous, wholesome, nerdy humor about sports or meteorology or Star Trek. I considered emailing him to ask if he would talk with me for a few minutes, but I thought better of it. I’m sure the man is busy.
Robert Ricks is an expert on storms. He knows more about them than most people, not only because he’s lived through the worst of them, but also because he has spent his career analyzing them and their destructive capacity. He was the forecast coordinator at the National Weather Service office in Slidell, Louisiana on August 28, 2005, and he wrote these 288 words:
WWUS74 KLIX 281550 NPWLIX
URGENT — WEATHER MESSAGE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE NEW ORLEANS LA 1011 AM CDT SUN AUG 28, 2005
…DEVASTATING DAMAGE EXPECTED…
HURRICANE KATRINA…A MOST POWERFUL HURRICANE WITH UNPRECEDENTED STRENGTH… RIVALING THE INTENSITY OF HURRICANE CAMILLE OF 1969.
MOST OF THE AREA WILL BE UNINHABITABLE FOR WEEKS…PERHAPS LONGER. AT LEAST ONE HALF OF WELL CONSTRUCTED HOMES WILL HAVE ROOF AND WALL FAILURE. ALL GABLED ROOFS WILL FAIL…LEAVING THOSE HOMES SEVERELY DAMAGED OR DESTROYED.
THE MAJORITY OF INDUSTRIAL BUILDINGS WILL BECOME NON FUNCTIONAL. PARTIAL TO COMPLETE WALL AND ROOF FAILURE IS EXPECTED. ALL WOOD FRAMED LOW RISING APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL BE DESTROYED. CONCRETE BLOCK LOW RISE APARTMENTS WILL SUSTAIN MAJOR DAMAGE…INCLUDING SOME WALL AND ROOF FAILURE.
HIGH RISE OFFICE AND APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL SWAY DANGEROUSLY…A FEW TO THE POINT OF TOTAL COLLAPSE. ALL WINDOWS WILL BLOW OUT.
AIRBORNE DEBRIS WILL BE WIDESPREAD…AND MAY INCLUDE HEAVY ITEMS SUCH AS HOUSEHOLD APPLIANCES AND EVEN LIGHT VEHICLES. SPORT UTILITY VEHICLES AND LIGHT TRUCKS WILL BE MOVED. THE BLOWN DEBRIS WILL CREATE ADDITIONAL DESTRUCTION. PERSONS…PETS…AND LIVESTOCK EXPOSED TO THE WINDS WILL FACE CERTAIN DEATH IF STRUCK.
POWER OUTAGES WILL LAST FOR WEEKS…AS MOST POWER POLES WILL BE DOWN AND TRANSFORMERS DESTROYED. WATER SHORTAGES WILL MAKE HUMAN SUFFERING INCREDIBLE BY MODERN STANDARDS.
THE VAST MAJORITY OF NATIVE TREES WILL BE SNAPPED OR UPROOTED. ONLY THE HEARTIEST WILL REMAIN STANDING…BUT BE TOTALLY DEFOLIATED. FEW CROPS WILL REMAIN. LIVESTOCK LEFT EXPOSED TO THE WINDS WILL BE KILLED.
AN INLAND HURRICANE WIND WARNING IS ISSUED WHEN SUSTAINED WINDS NEAR HURRICANE FORCE…OR FREQUENT GUSTS AT OR ABOVE HURRICANE FORCE…ARE CERTAIN WITHIN THE NEXT 12 TO 24 HOURS.
ONCE TROPICAL STORM AND HURRICANE FORCE WINDS ONSET…DO NOT VENTURE
I have read this bulletin dozens of times. With each read, I discover new shades of terror and dread, and sometimes I try to imagine what it must have been like to write it. “Human suffering imaginable by modern standards”. “Certain death if struck.” “Do not venture outside!” This bulletin, which he issued on the morning of August 28 just before he bunkered down with his colleagues at the National Weather Service and prayed the rosary, now lives in the Smithsonian. It is likely that thousands of people survived because this warning accurately communicated the gravity of the circumstances and the need to evacuate. In the official inquiries that followed into the historic, colossal ineptitude of the government response to Katrina, the National Weather Service was found without fault and commended for their actions. Robert Ricks is damn good at his job and showed up to work that day. We know that not everyone did.
I was two weeks into my freshman year of college when Katrina hit. I was 17 years old and lived several states away, observing Katrina from the periphery, observing what information I could from a news cycle that wasn’t yet inundating. The event itself never touched me. It wasn’t until years afterward that I truly understood what had taken place. That the death toll went from abstract to real. That I was able to contemplate the convergence of storm surge meets weak levees, that I internalized sitting on rooftops begging to be rescued by a canoe or a standoff with police on the bridge to escape or drowning in your attic or dying months later of Legionnaire’s disease from breathing air trapped with filthy water. I read the history; I traced the timeline; I visited New Orleans and saw the markings of the water line and felt the letters on the memorial with my hands. I know I will probably never do or write anything as important as Ricks’ bulletin in my life, but the privilege to have read the words and know their meaning fills me with purpose. Because it’s not just that the words saved lives then or that their legacy continues to protect people today, which they do. For those of us who weren’t there, the words carved into the memorial or the bulletin in the museum continue to give testimony to what happened, to the good work that was done to try to protect people and the people for whom the work wasn’t enough.