With Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve
THE BIG IDEA: Five deaths related to Hurricane Irma have now been confirmed in Florida. Two of the victims died in a car crash southeast of Tampa on Sunday: A sheriff’s deputy had been stationed in an evacuation shelter overnight and was driving home at about 6 a.m. to pick up more supplies. A corrections officer was on his way to work.
Any loss of life is a tragedy, and the death toll is certain to go up, but it’s remarkable the extent to which the human cost of a storm as destructive and powerful as this one — which will cause untold billions in property damage — can be mitigated.
Forecasting has improved dramatically over the past century, as has the quality of construction. We have a much better idea of who should leave when a massive storm is coming, and they have more time to get out. Government officials of both parties are also more willing to order mandatory evacuations. Finally, better roads and equipment make it easier to extract people in harm’s way.
For context, at least 6,000 died when a Category 4 hurricane unexpectedly made landfall in Galveston, Tex., on Sept. 8, 1900. Some estimates put the number of deaths closer to 10,000. With no evacuation from the port town, people were sitting ducks. It remains the deadliest storm in U.S. history.
There are several other storms that may have been less powerful than Irma yet caused vastly more deaths. A storm surge from a 1928 hurricane killed more than 1,800 people around Lake Okeechobee, Fla. Separate hurricanes in 1893 each killed more than 1,000 people.
– Erik Larson wrote a gripping account of the Galveston hurricane in a 1999 book called “Isaac’s Storm.” The protagonist is Texas’s chief weatherman Isaac Monroe Cline, who led the Galveston observation office of the United States Weather Bureau when the storm hit and lost his wife to the storm surge. For a full decade leading up to the devastation, Cline insisted publicly that the idea Galveston could ever be “seriously damaged” by a hurricane was “simply an absurd delusion.”
“It would be impossible for any cyclone to create a storm wave which would materially injure the city,” Cline wrote in a piece for the Galveston News. That op-ed helped dissuade city fathers from investing in a sea wall that could have saved thousands of lives when the storm came.
Cline was once on his way to Mexico for a work trip when his steamship encountered a low-intensity hurricane. Rather than counting his blessings, the meteorologist concluded (insanely) that hurricanes were more survivable than conventional wisdom depicted.
He believed he was an especially gifted, even brilliant, scientist. But, Larson writes, “he did not know there was such a thing as the jet stream, or that easterly waves marched from the coast of West Africa every summer, or that a massive flow within the Atlantic Ocean ferried heat around the globe. Nor had he heard of a phenomenon called El Nino.”
Cuba had pioneered hurricane detection, and its meteorologists at the time held a more sophisticated understanding of how these storms worked than the Americans. But the forecasters from the United States, which maintained a heavy military presence on the island in the wake of the Spanish-American War, foolishly dismissed them all as backward and laughed at their methods. Trying to centralize control of forecasting, the Weather Bureau persuaded the War Department to ban telegraph operators on Cuba from transmitting forecasts unless they were from the U.S. government. That meant that key information was not passed to the U.S. mainland as the hurricane barreled toward Galveston.
Experts knew a storm was coming, but they had no idea how intense it was or what course it was on. Ironically, because of missing measurements and analysts wrongly interpreting what limited data they had, the government believed that it was a tropical storm and that it was heading for Tampa — not Texas. An advisory was sent out saying as much just hours before the hurricane hit Galveston. “The bureau had few hard facts about the storm, yet what is remarkable about its cables that day is the complete absence of doubt or qualification,” Larson writes.
Serious people mistook signs back then that would be obvious today to anyone who paid even a little attention in their high school science classes. Swells were coming in very slowly at Galveston, at intervals between one to five minutes. This should have been a red flag, obviously, but it somehow reassured people who were on the beach that the storm wasn’t going to be too bad.
Other mistakes were made that wouldn’t be repeated today. Concerned about fire, for instance, the city required that all roofs be shingled with slate, not wood. That made the hurricane much deadlier when the slate started flying around.
– In its April edition, Popular Science chronicled how much the federal government’s satellites and technology for interpreting data have improved even in the past few decades: “Although predicting where tumultuous weather might go is challenging, NOAA’s errors in storm tracking have been cut in half in the last 12 to 15 years … And beginning five years ago, the agency could give imperiled residents 12 more hours of notice that a hurricane was expected to hit (we now get 36 hours of advanced noticed — up from 24 hours). … In a 2007 study published in Natural Hazards Review, scientists demonstrated that improved storm forecasting prevented up to 90 percent of deaths that would have occurred should satellite-less, error-prone technology still have been used to predict hurricanes. The researchers found that between 1970 and 2004, an average of around 20 people died from hurricanes each year. But if forecasts were as faulty as they were in the 1950s, they estimated that 200 people would have died each year, simply because significantly more people had settled into the path of destructive cyclones. ‘The bottom line is that the number of deaths have been going down, but the coastal population has been going up,’ says Hugh Willoughby, the study’s lead author and a hurricane researcher at Florida International University.”
– There has also been a paradigm shift in how public officials prepare for storms. Politicians have become more likely over time to err on the side of caution when it comes to ordering evacuations. Back in 1900, the Weather Bureau (which became the National Weather Service in 1970) banned the use of the word “tornado” in dispatches to avoid panicking people. The government-run network also “took special pains to avoid using the word hurricane, except when absolutely necessary or when stipulating that a particular storm was not a hurricane,” Larson writes. “The Weather Bureau’s reluctance to use words like hurricane and cyclone inadvertently reinforced the bravado of sea captains.”
– While many still die from big hurricanes — Katrina took about 1,200 lives in 2005 — the causes of death are different than in the past: “Many deaths that follow a big storm in the U.S. come in the days and weeks afterward — especially if there are power outages,” NBC News reported last year. “Carbon monoxide poisoning often leads the list, as people turn to grills and gas stoves. ‘About 70 people die every year and many more are injured from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by portable generators,’ the Consumer Product Safety Commission warns. ‘Carbon monoxide (CO) from a generator used indoors can kill you and your family in minutes.’ … In 2008, Hurricane Ike hit the Texas coast near Galveston, killing 74 people in Texas and Louisiana. The largest percentage were people who died from carbon monoxide poisoning after the storm had passed and left 2.3 million people without power — 13 people died this way, state health officials reported. Eight people drowned and 12 died of heart attacks, strokes and other heart-related causes.”
– Hubris is the most interesting theme in Larson’s book. “The nation in 1900 was swollen with pride and technological confidence,” he writes. “There was talk even of controlling the weather — of subduing hail with cannon blasts and igniting forest fires to bring rain. In this new age, nature itself seemed no great obstacle.”
Even though they’re vastly more accurate, today’s forecasts include nuance and acknowledge uncertainty. For most of last week, it remained unclear whether Irma would make landfall on the east or west coast of Florida, for example, and the government’s forecasts said as much.
David Von Drehle marvels in his column for today’s paper that Irma reminds us of all we still don’t know about the natural world: “As 21st-century heirs to the Enlightenment, we know an awful lot. We know how to edit a gene. We know how to convert millions of simultaneous messages — conversations, texts, memes, movies — into packets of ones and zeros and speed them from tower to tower to another person’s hand. We know how to convert the energy of sunlight into a ride in the car. Yet we still don’t know everything. In the case of Irma, meteorologists and their computers could read the air currents across a hemisphere and forecast the storm’s eventual collision with an air mass that would push it sharply to the north. What they could not predict five days in advance, the hole in their knowledge, was the precise spot above Earth where the collision would occur…
“One could choose to marvel at the overall accuracy of the forecast or grumble about its imperfection. The difference is largely a matter of temperament,” David concludes. “Across the Caribbean, throughout Florida, in sodden Houston and shaken Mexico and elsewhere in this world of death and woe, nature is reminding us of all we have yet to learn — and all that is beyond our paltry control.”
– Hurricane Irma plowed into Florida on Sunday, reminding everyone that when a tropical cyclone reaches a certain size, “it simply can’t miss.” From Patricia Sullivan, Leonard Shapiro, Perry Stein and Joel Achenbach: “This storm was nearly as big as the state of Florida, which is why everything but the Panhandle was under a hurricane warning. Irma’s broad wind field also meant that when the winds picked up, they stayed up as the storm howled northward. Even cities far outside the eye of the storm found themselves caught in an atmospheric blender that had no off switch.”
– On Sunday afternoon, Irma was downgraded to a Category 2 storm, though the National Hurricane Center said it is “expected to remain a powerful hurricane” with sustained 100 mph winds. She is slated to hit Georgia today, with tropical storm and hurricane conditions also predicted in Alabama and parts of South Carolina. (Capital Weather Gang)
– Tampa Bay may escape the worst of its nightmare scenario. “Irma weakened as it approached Tampa Bay and was expected to pass over the area as a Category 1 storm — still dangerous enough to cause flooding and wind damage,” Darryl Fears and Katie Mettler report.
– Florida officials praised Washington’s response. Via Robert Costa and Ashley Parker:
- Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said the federal response to Irma was better than in previous storms, including Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and described the coordination between agencies as “seamless.”
- “The president said, ‘Look, I will provide whatever resources you need’ when I talked to him,” said Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R). “I pretty much talk to him every day.”
- “Paperwork and money should not get in the way of saving lives, and I believe Congress recognizes that,” said FEMA Administrator Brock Long.
– First responders are still taking stock of the sprawling damage in large parts of the Caribbean. Anthony Faiola reports from Haiti: “On St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, ‘people there are roaming like zombies,’ said [a bar owner] who managed to leave for the mainland. Her husband, who is still there, told her Sunday[:] ‘It’s like the walking dead down there.’”
– Keep an eye on Hurricane Jose. From Greg Porter: “Jose, a Category 3 storm with maximum sustained winds of 120 mph, is currently located a few hundred miles to the north of Puerto Rico, steadily moving toward the northwest and away from land at 16 mph. Jose is expected to continue this general motion and speed over the next 24 hours. However, after Monday night, Jose may slam on the brakes hard, ceasing nearly all forward motion, probably setting up a roller-coaster-like path that will take the storm in a series of loops, circles, dips and dives … Unable to move to the north and restricted from moving to the east by a developing upper-level high pressure, Jose should have no choice but to meander for a few days between Bermuda and the southeast U.S.”
– The Washington Post is providing free digital access to all hurricane-related coverage. (Follow live updates from our in-house meteorologists here.)
GET SMART FAST:
- An L.A.-based tech company is weighing whether to fight a judge’s order to provide D.C. prosecutors with information about visitors who frequented an anti-Trump website in the months before his inauguration. The case has touched off a spate of concern in the tech industry, where some worry it could have a “chilling” effect on online communication. (Keith L. Alexander)
- Eight people were shot and killed at a home in Plano, Tex., yesterday after a man opened fire on a group reportedly gathered to watch the Dallas Cowboys game. Little has been released about the victims or the motive of the suspected attacker, who was shot and killed by police. (Dallas Morning News)
- At least nine people were arrested during a Portland, Ore., rally yesterday after a series of violent skirmishes broke out between “antifa” activists and far-right protesters. In one especially alarming moment, the driver of a black truck adorned with American flags and a Confederate decal accelerated toward a group of protesters, causing people to scream and jump out of the way. (Derek Hawkins)
- Grieving parents in Dallas have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Boy Scouts of America, after their 15-year-old son collapsed and died of heatstroke while on a backpacking trip with the organization in June. (Rachel Siegel)
- A new clinical trial could change the treatment of severe melanoma, after a head-to-head comparison of two immunotherapy drugs found the newer drug to be much more effective than current standard post-op treatment. (Laurie McGinley)
- Benjamin Netanyahu’s son removed an anti-Semitic meme from his Facebook page. The post earned a pile-on of praise from neo-Nazis and white supremacists, who dubbed him a “bro.” (Ruth Eglash)
- Prosecutors in Brazil are investigating reports that an uncontacted Amazon tribe was massacred last month by gold miners. They are said to have brandished the tribe’s homemade tools against them and then bragged about it at a bar. (New York Times)
THIS IS THE 16TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE 9/11 ATTACKS:
– Thousands of victims’ relatives, survivors, and rescuers are expected to gather today at the World Trade Center to commemorate those who died 16 years ago in the deadliest attack on American soil. (AP)
– At the White House, President Trump and the first lady will lead a moment of silence before attending an observance event at the Pentagon. Jim Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford are hosting a private observance for victims’ relatives there at 9:11 a.m. Vice President Pence and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke are slated to deliver remarks at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa. Construction remains underway at the site, and on Sunday, ground was broken for a 98-foot tall “Towers of Voices” monument honoring the passengers and crew onboard the flight.
– A new memorial on Long Island is being dedicated today, not just to those who lost their lives on 9/11 but also those who died of illnesses stemming from the attacks. (LA Times)
– “Sixteen Years After 9/11, How Does Terrorism End?” by the New Yorker’s Robin Wright: “The current spasm of international terrorism, an age-old tactic of warfare, is often traced to a bomb mailed from New York by [to Havana in 1968]. Since then, almost four hundred thousand people have died in terrorist attacks worldwide, on airplanes and trains, in shopping malls, schools, embassies, cinemas, apartment blocks, government offices, and businesses … In the run-up to the 9/11 anniversary, I reached out to [terrorism experts] … who identified six ways terrorism evolves, fades, or dies — and under what conditions it succeeds.”
THE TRUMP AGENDA:
– Since making a deal with Democrats last week, Trump has received only muted backlash from Republicans lawmakers and activists — a reaction that should serve as a warning for the rest of the party. Michael Scherer reports in his debut story for The Post: “The president has never seen himself as a party standard-bearer, but as the leader for a growing share of the electorate furious at the haplessness of the political system. [He] has tied his fortunes to a growth in the share of voters more focused on shaking up the system than in prescribing specific ideas for its replacement. … The 2009 tea party rebellion in the Republican Party, which began as a demand for less government spending, seamlessly morphed into broad support for Trump’s 2016 campaign, despite his promises to resist cuts to government entitlement programs and his disinterest in lowering federal deficits. The trend could have significant implications not only for the coming legislative negotiations but for the midterm elections next year.”
– The New York Times reports that Trump’s executive actions have promoted the conservative social agenda. From Ben Protess, Danielle Ivory and Steve Eder: “The aggressive regulatory effort … has led to policy changes related to gun ownership, gay rights, reproductive choices, immigration and other divisive political issues, according to a New York Times review of government documents and court records … The turnabout stems in part from lobbying by evangelical Christians and other conservative groups. In interviews, these groups said they have regular discussions on domestic and foreign policy with the administration — more so than during the presidency of George W. Bush … Top White House officials have led the outreach, including Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s Orthodox Jewish son-in-law, and Vice President Mike Pence, a staunch social and religious Christian conservative. Kellyanne Conway, a senior aide, counted some of these groups among her paying clients before joining the White House …
“Yet the new direction has also met some resistance among rank-and-file civil servants. Within the Justice Department, several long-serving lawyers have decided to retire or quit rather than help carry out the new policies.”
– Jeff Sessions has suggested that every member of the National Security Council staff should be forced to take a lie-detector test as part of an ongoing effort to root out leakers in the administration. Axios’s Jonathan Swan reports: “Sessions’ idea is to do a one-time, one-issue, polygraph test of everyone on the NSC staff. Interrogators would sit down with every single NSC staffer (there’s more than 100 of them), and ask them, individually, what they know about the leaks of transcripts of the president’s phone calls with foreign leaders. Sessions suspects those leaks came from within the NSC, and thinks that a polygraph test — at the very least — would scare them out of leaking again.”
– The New York Times’s Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes that Speaker Paul Ryan might actually emerge strengthened from his battles with Trump. Of the spending deal Trump struck with Democrats, House conservatives are furious with the president: “’It was thrown at [Ryan],’” said Representative Mark Sanford [R-S.C.] … a member of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus, referring to the fiscal deal. ‘He didn’t create it; he’s reacting to it. I think he laid out a course that was acceptable to the conference as a whole, and to conservatives as well, and he had the rug pulled out from underneath him’ …
‘Some of us feel that we got jammed when you couple Harvey disaster aid and the debt limit,’ said one outspoken conservative, Representative Dave Brat [R-Va.]. He added, ‘The leadership just needs to give us right now a tax plan.’ Representative Mark Meadows [R-N.C.] and Freedom Caucus chairman, agreed, warning in an interview that failure on the tax plan would be ‘extremely damaging for the speaker and for all members of the G.O.P. conference, as well as the president.’”
– Steve Bannon declared “war” against Republican congressional leaders in an interview that aired last night on CBS’s “60 Minutes.” Ashley Parker reports on the former White House chief strategist’s comments: “He accused Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan of ‘trying to nullify the 2016 election.’ He blamed them for failing to repeal and replace [Obamacare], and made clear that he would use his Breitbart perch to hold Republicans accountable for not helping Trump push through his agenda. ‘They’re not going to help you unless they’re put on notice,’ he [said]. ‘They’re going to be held accountable if they do not support the president of the United States. Right now there’s no accountability.’”
- Bannon believes Trump firing FBI director James Comey was the biggest mistake “maybe in modern political history.” “I don’t think there’s any doubt that if James Comey had not been fired,” he told Charlie Rose, “we would not have a special counsel.”
- Bannon suggested Trump’s decision to punt DACA to Congress with a six-month deadline was “extremely unwise” and predicted that it could cost Republicans the House in 2018. “If this goes all the way down to its logical conclusion, in February and March, it will be a civil war inside the Republican Party that will be every bit as vitriolic as 2013,” Bannon said. “And to me, doing that in the springboard of primary season for 2018 is extremely unwise.”
- He also stressed “absolute loyalty to Trump” and criticized White House staffers who he said leaked to the media in the aftermath of Trump’s Charlottesville response. “You can tell him, ‘Hey, maybe you can do it a better way.’ But if you’re going to break, then resign. … ‘If you find it unacceptable, you should resign.’” Gary Cohn, who criticized Trump’s comments in a Financial Times interview, should have “absolutely” resigned, Bannon said.
– Bannon and other Trump allies are planning a slate of primary challenges against Republican senators — a move that threatens to drain millions from party coffers, and possibly undermine GOP prospects in 2018. Politico’s Alex Isenstadt reports: “Bannon has begun holding private meetings with insurgent challengers, vowing his support. He’s coordinating with conservative mega-donor Robert Mercer, who is prepared to pour millions of dollars into attacks on GOP incumbents. Bannon has also installed a confidant at an outside group that is expected to target Republican lawmakers and push the Trump agenda. The activity has alarmed senior Republicans [and] McConnell has repeatedly expressed concern to the White House about the danger primaries pose to his members, stressing that it could imperil his narrow four-seat majority. … Bannon is paying little heed to those warnings. On Thursday, he huddled with Danny Tarkanian, an attorney who is challenging Sen. Dean Heller.” He is also intent on unseating Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). Former Trump campaign official David Bossie has embarked on an effort to recruit several potential primary challengers, including former Rep. Matt Salmon.
SUNDAY SHOW HIGHLIGHTS:
– “Sen. John McCain, battling brain cancer, reflected on a life well lived in an emotional interview Sunday, saying he was ‘very happy’ with his 81 years and noting, ‘Every life has to end, one way or another,’” Robert Costa and Ashley Parker report: “Speaking to Jake Tapper on CNN’s ‘State of the Union,’ McCain offered an optimistic update on his health — ‘the prognosis is pretty good’ — and acknowledged the challenges he’s facing. ‘Look, this is a very vicious form of cancer that I’m facing, but all the results so far are excellent,’ he said. McCain thanked the doctors … and [presented] himself as a man at peace[:] ‘I’m very happy with my life, I’m very happy with what I have been able to do,’ he said. ‘And there’s two ways of looking at these things. And one of them is to celebrate. I am able to celebrate a wonderful life, and I will be grateful for additional time that I have.’ When Tapper said he hoped it was not his last interview with McCain, the senator quipped, ‘A lot of people want it to be the last.’”
– Hillary Clinton ruled out the possibility of running for office again in 2020, saying on CBS that she is “done being a candidate.” Robert Costa reports: Speaking days before the release of her 2016 campaign memoir, “What Happened,” Clinton told CBS’s Jane Pauley that she plans to stay involved in national politics, though not as an “active politician.” “But I am not done with politics because I literally believe that our country’s future is at stake,” she said. Clinton also criticized Trump’s preparedness for the White House: “We have a reality show that leads to the election of a president … [Now] he says, ‘Boy, it’s so much harder than I thought it would be. This is really tough. I had no idea,’ Clinton said. ‘Well, yeah, because it’s not a show. It’s real. It’s reality, for sure.’”
THERE IS A BEAR IN THE WOODS:
– Russia is readying for its “war games” this week — a major installment that simulates its plan for a war with NATO, and comes as relations with the Western world plummet to all-time lows. David Filipov and Michael Birnbaum report: “The exercises will show off a military that has been transformed under [Putin] into an effective force that has deployed to Syria and Ukraine in recent years. Moscow has insisted that the exercises will rehearse a strictly defensive scenario and will involve no more than 12,700 troops …. But senior Western government officials believe the real number of Russian military personnel involved could reach 100,000 or more. … At NATO headquarters in Brussels, senior officials say their intelligence services are closely monitoring Russia as it draws up its military alongside their borders. They say that Moscow’s unwillingness to open the exercises to observation raises the risk of unplanned conflict stemming from misunderstandings.”
– As Germany prepares to head to the polls this month, many are baffled by a growing mystery: Where are the Russians? Griff Witte reports: “In 2015, suspected Russian hackers broke into the computer networks of the German Parliament and made off with a mother lode of data, [and] ever since, German politicians have been watching nervously for the fruits of that hack to be revealed[.] But with the vote only two weeks away — and with [Putin’s] European nemesis, Chancellor Angela Merkel, seemingly on track for a comfortable win — the hacked emails haven’t materialized. Nor have Russian-linked propaganda networks … [and] even Kremlin-orchestrated [bots] have been conspicuously silent. The apparent absence of a robust Russian campaign to sabotage the German vote has become a mystery among officials and experts who had warned of a likely onslaught. … Have Germany’s defensive measures — significantly boosted after the hacks and propaganda campaigns that preceded last November’s U.S. vote — actually succeeded? Or perhaps Moscow is simply biding its time. ‘That’s what makes me worried,’ said Maksymilian Czuperski, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. ‘Why is it so quiet? It doesn’t feel right.’”
SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:
The front page of today’s Miami Herald:
Donald Trump Jr. responded to Internet trolls who asked why Mar-A-Lago is not open to Irma evacuees:
Hurricane Irma was so strong that sea waters were literally sucked away from the shoreline. But weather forecasters said the water could return in a matter of minutes — and frantically urged residents to stay away from the bizarre-looking beaches:
Money quote from Tampa police chief “I’m most worried about the stupidity of people”
— Glenn Thrush (@GlennThrush) September 11, 2017
The scene in Havana:
GOOD READS FROM ELSEWHERE:
– The Guardian, “The Wall Street Journal’s Trump problem,” by Lucia Graves: “Dozens have left the paper in the past year and interviews with current and ex-staffers show outrage over pressure from management to normalize Trump.”
– It was during the French Revolution that Napoleon first outlined the concept of a national lost and found, asserting as a basic right man’s uninterrupted right to his possessions. More than 200 years later, the New Yorker explores France’s “Bureau of Found Objects” — and how the sprawling underground facility, which receives more than 100,000 items annually, specializes in the unique, improbable art of reunification. (New Yorker)
NEWS YOU CAN USE IF YOU LIVE IN D.C.:
– Another warm, comfortable day today. The Capital Weather Gang forecasts: “High pressure stays mostly in control, even as it starts to give way to Irma’s influence from the south. That means partly sunny skies and afternoon highs into the mid-70s.”
– The Nationals clinched the National League East title, and earned a spot in the playoffs, by beating the Phillies 3-2 on Sunday. (Chelsea Janes)
VIDEOS OF THE DAY:
John Oliver hammered Trump’s DACA decision:
Four takeaways from Steve Bannon’s interview on “60 Minutes”:
Fact Check: Will a border wall stop drugs from “pouring in?”:
Meet Sarah, the new Siri:
Cowboys wide receiver Cole Beasley made an incredible catch against the Giants on “Sunday Night Football”: