I’m writing November’s President’s Column on day 19 after Hurricane Michael devastated the Panhandle communities in Bay County, Florida on Oct. 10, 2018. I was driving from the AAPG Eastern Section Meeting in Pittsburgh, Pa. to the California University of Pennsylvania for an AAPG Visiting Geoscientist lecture and pulled to the side of the road to watch the weather radar at 12:43 p.m. as the west side of the eye of a hurricane, two knots shy of a Category 5, passed over my hometown of Panama City.
After that, there was no communication. No power. No water. No sewage treatment.
My spouse, Kurt, had boarded up the windows of our house and prepared for the storm, as he had prepared every year for hurricane season: water, ice, food and can opener, paper plates and cups, shortwave radio, batteries, solar charger and fully charged cell phone, flashlight and head lamp, moist towelettes, plastic bags, propane for cooking and gasoline for a functioning generator. Plastic sheeting, a staple gun and duct tape were handy for immediate repairs and the chainsaw was in working condition.
When it was upgraded to Category 3, he made the decision to ride out the storm in our brick house in the relative safety of a utility closet built like a bunker. The storm quickly escalated and the supplies he needed most were buckets and towels to minimize the water from near Category 5 winds that pushed past door jams and window casings, ran along hardwood floors and leaked from ceilings.
After the storm, days were defined as sunup to sundown. Water jugs and the bathtub were full of potable water, creative camping solutions were in place to handle waste, and word-of-mouth communication kept those who stayed behind in contact. Kurt cleared paths to navigate around 200-year-old trees downed by the storm to check on our house, then on our neighbors and their houses.
Kurt’s words 10 days after the storm capture both the fatigue and simplicity of subsistence living:
“Day 10 since the storm? Feels like the 240th hour of one long, strange day. Another day, another blue tarp put on a neighbor’s roof, helped another put together his generator, helped another haul his wet furniture to the curb, tried to locate another’s missing sailboat. And, of course they have all helped me in important ways, too … ended the day with a moonlight swim in the bay to freshen up before bed. That bay has been nurturing me my whole life ...”
Hurricane Michael was a reality check on the importance of energy – ease and quality of life. One of the neighbors asked Kurt, “Are you still walking into a room and flicking the light switch?” He replied, “Not anymore.”
No form of energy was untouched. Solar panels on roofs and wind generators on docks were damaged. Even the neighbor who had a whole-house natural gas-powered generator had power interrupted when the roots of a tree downed by the storm ruptured the natural gas line.
The hurricane was also a reality check on access to energy in the United States. Legions of tree removal and powerline crews began arriving the day after the storm. Utility crews brought in to restore power came from Texas, Oklahoma, New York and as far away as New Brunswick. Georgia Power restored power to our street. Neighborhood residents offered food and water, which they declined, and instead the linemen took up cash donations among themselves and donated to a local church that was offering aid.
Gulf Power posted dates when power would be restored on their website and Facebook page. Those who were able to get cellular phone service communicated the messages and there was hope. Our power was restored Oct. 22, almost two weeks after power went out on the day of the hurricane. Clean water and sewage treatment followed shortly after that. When power and water were restored, Kurt’s first use was to wash sweaty T-shirts that had been line-dried and “solar-cleaned” then reused without water washing.
I am deeply grateful for the men and women who have worked and continue to work 24/7 to restore power to our northern Florida communities and to the aid groups that provide supplies and serve up meals and smiles. It will be a long recovery, and it’s made me pause to consider how many places in the world do not have access, or hope of access, to modern energy, to clean water, or to sewage treatment.
The President’s column in the July EXPLORER addressed the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. UN Goal 7 to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all” has new meaning for me and many others affected by recent devastating Atlantic (Harvey, Irma, Jose, Maria, Florence, Michael) and Pacific storms (Fernanda, Kenneth, Lane, Willa, and Super Typhoon Yuto).
Hurricane Michael has given me a visceral understanding of the role of geoscience in sustainable energy development. We need all types of energy and, based on recent experience, our role as petroleum geoscientists and as professionals is to explore for and develop affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern petroleum energy for all circumstances.
What Sustains You?
Kurt Cox, the resilience of our historic Cove neighborhood, and access to energy sustain me.
We’d like to hear your stories about how you or your community prepared for or recovered from a natural disaster. How did it affect your perspectives on access to energy? Did it change the way you view your role as an energy professional?
To the many AAPG friends and colleagues who have contacted Kurt and me, thank you. Your thoughts and prayers are felt. #AAPGSustainsMe