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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Hurricanes Back in My Day

Hurricanes Back in My Day

It's official. I'm old. Not only am I old, but I'm one of those old folks who compares life today to the good old days and isn't afraid to tell you about how much better it was back in my day. Before reading further, I just want to check: You did notice my tag-line, didn't you: author, marine scientist, curmudgeon? It's not meant to be cute. It's true. Keep that in mind while reading on. So, let's take a walk down memory late to back in my day. Back when hings were actually different and--for some things--better.

Maybe not better in the sense of being good, but better in the sense of, well, not as bad.

What's brought on this crabby nostalgia for hurricane seasons past? I can tell you, it's not hurricanes themselves, or Hurricane Irma or Maria in particular. They suck--all of them. But they aren't nearly as bad as the aftermath. And from what I see and hear all over the internet, even all that suckiness was better, back in my day.

When exactly was my day? Way back when, in the time before the current age of constant electronic--rather than human--contact, when people had to deal with reality, rather than the virtual idea of it.

Subbase and Barnacle Bills after Hurricane Klaus, 1984

I'm not knocking technology. What a blessing it is to have the technology that lets us travel far and wide and still feel close to our loved ones. It has given wings to a whole generation of young travelers, self-professed adventurers. It's also given peace of mind to parents because their adult child is available 24-7, under constant surveillance, or--as it says on the inflatable rafts in my pool--"under competent adult supervision." As THIS phone company's commercial touts, you can go off and have great adventures in foreign lands today, thanks to that constant connection with the internet. You can hop on a plane without knowing a damn thing about the geography, culture, or language of your destination. Who needs to look at a world map to see where you'll be in relation to where you are? Why would it matter that it's a little speck of an island separated from the mainland by a whole lot of water? Who needs to know how to read a local street map when you have GPS on your phone? Who has to be bothered to learn local customs, etiquette, or a few words of greeting when your phone can translate? Why bother to show any consideration for the people you're about to ascend on since they only matter long enough to get that picture posted on social media? And of course that's all that matters because, as we all know, if it isn't on Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat, it didn't happen.


As I said...this isn't a Pollyanna, isn't-she-a-little-ray-of-sunshine, feel good post, but an old curmudgeon's grumble about the good old days of natural disasters. So let's begin where all old curmudgeon's stories do...

Back in my day...

That would be hurricanes of the 80s and 90s. Before everyone had a cell phone with unlimited talk, text, and data. Before a whole generation of "travelers" thought that "unlimited" meant uninterrupted, ever, by anything, including natural disasters. Back in my day, people would schedule long distance calls around the rates: calls after 8 p.m. and on Sundays were cheaper. Parents packed their kids off to college and then spoke with them once a week on Sundays. Back in my day, parents could do this because they'd actually parented. They were confident they'd done their job so that their adult children would survive away from them without needing to check in or be checked on multiple times per day.

Shoreline Marine in Subbase after Hurricane Klaus, 1984

Back in my day, people understood that, when a storm hit (and they will if you live on a Caribbean island) and power lines and phone lines went down, you and your neighbors would have to be self-sufficient for a bit--and by a bit, I mean many days, even weeks or months. Especially if you lived on an island. Even if you could contact them, your parents and friends afar couldn't do the work of post-storm recovery and survival for you, only you and your neighbors could do that. Back in my day, community came together--friends, neighbors, and strangers in that place at that time--and did what needed doing: secure whatever belongings remained, secure shelter, and start clearing debris so you could, eventually, make it out of the driveway or neighborhood. It's nice to see that, for many people--those who truly are part of the community--that hasn't changed.

Just like today, back in my day, we all had loved ones we needed to get word out to that we were safe. When one person got a message out, it included sharing a list of people to call--the families and friends of friends--passing on second and third hand messages that their loved ones were safe and would be in touch sometime in the weeks ahead, when they were able. Sometimes it was days or even weeks before we could talk with anyone in the states. All we had was each other. And somehow, we all survived. I've seen a lot of that, too. Anyone with access to a satellite phone or who (miraculously) still has phone service, is sharing info with family and friends.

Back in my day, after a hurricane struck, there were no strangers on the island. We'd all just shared a common, horrific experience. We all had a new calendar to our lives. Forever more, all things would be divided into Before-Marilyn, During-Marilyn, or After-Marilyn" (or Klaus, Hugo, Georges, or whatever the storm had been.) We all had tales to tell of horror, of valor, of miracles. Everyone listened no matter how many times they'd heard it, because we all understood. We could tell our tales to those who hadn't been there, and they'd listen--once or twice before losing interest. But they'd never really know. It isn't like sharing with someone who knows.

St. Thomas waterfront after Hurricane Marilyn, 1995

I won't say hurricane recovery on an island was fun back in my day. It was not. It's still not. Even less so when you're hit with the strongest hurricane in recorded history. Followed by another. It's exhausting and emotional and surreal. The new chronology of before and after the storm isn't some random breakdown of time, but distinct, solid bulwarks dividing forever changed lives. The physical world has changed, too. Familiar landmarks, routines, places, events, and even people will never be there, not ever again.

No, that is not fun. But in that common circumstance, the community came together, back in my day. Many of the posts I see on Facebook and Twitter from my friends on my beloved islands--still the home where my heart resides--remind me of back in my day in a terrible-wonderful way. I know their exhaustion. I know their anxiety. I know the exhilarating, sheer joy of seeing even the smallest bit of familiarity. Back in my day, it was "Hurray! Percy's Bus Stop made it!" "Look, Cafe Normandy opened!" Anything to give us a touchstone that let us know things existed in the time before-the-storm, because that all seems so alien afterwards.

Frenchtown, in front of Cafe Normandy after Hurricane Marilyn, 1995.

Alas, the grumpy old curmudgeon in me also sees a new side to the storm, something that wasn't there back in my day. That's the distance and alienation---the separateness from that shared trauma--that some people are expressing. I blame it on social media that has allowed people to live 1500 miles away from "home" but never become part of their new community. Why talk with the person next to you when you can chat with virtual friends on social media? Why talk with one person when you can "connect" to hundreds with a single tap? The "So-Me" (SOcial MEdia) phenomenon--always being in touch, always having instant gratification, and always needing to have one's existence verified and validated by "likes" and followers without ever having to make a single human connection, has created a huge gap in some people's ability to function in a situation where the only important contacts are human-to-human, and where the internet isn't, but actual people are. Like on an island after a hurricane.

Many studies tell of increasing alienation, loneliness, and depression in 20- and 30-somethings, especially among those who live their lives on social media (Davey, 2016; Hobson, 2017; Molloy, 2017) I see that alienation, and the fear that brings, in some of the social media posts I've seen from the Virgin Islands in the days since Irma struck. This article talks about some of those rumors compared to what's actually happening on the ground. 

The even more telling posts come from people who were there back in my day. It's a similar message, over and over: "This post-hurricane island isn't like after Marilyn or Hugo--there are a lot of rude people out there." From the reports, it's clear many of the people making things more difficult and more frightening than they have to be--for themselves and everyone--are those who weren't prepared for the reality of living on a small rock in the middle of a big sea, who remained connected to their stateside life and disconnected from the reality of living on an island.

I guess this isn't a surprise. Back in the early 00s, when cell phone ownership and coverage expanded in a huge way, I remember reading stories from mountain rescue squads about how many people, ill-prepared for the realities and hardships of a mountain trek, would decide to climb not just a hill, but a serious mountain like Denali. As soon as the going got rough and they were in over their head, these "adventurers" would just make a call on their cell phone asking to be rescued, completely oblivious or uncaring to the fact they were putting other people's lives in jeopardy due to their own ignorance and hubris. "I have a cell phone, therefore I am invincible." Calling someone else for help relieves them of all self-responsibility and puts the onus for their safety on someone else's shoulders.

Just as the idea of a mountain climb differed drastically from the reality, the reality of island living is much different from most people's idea. Island living isn't all frozen drinks at the beach every day. First and foremost, it's life: work, bills, grocery shopping, and hoping the cistern has water. The reality is: Everything has to be shipped in so it's more expensive, so you have to budget. Potable water is scarce, so you have to conserve. Electricity is expensive and often sporadic, so you have to be able to function both with it, and without. Life moves slower, so you learn to let things happen when they happen. And, after a storm, communication off island, and even on island, is difficult at best or nonexistent at worst (like it was for many for a brief time during and after Irma). So,  you learn to interact with the humans next to you instead of the device in your hand. After a storm, help will arrive--that's a HUGE bonus of these islands being the United States Virgin Islands, but it's coming from a distance, and often, the storm that just struck is in between the island and the source of that help. You can survive the days after a storm, especially with the help of your friends. So you'd better hope they don't only exist on your So-Me feeds.

In line at Gourmet Gallery in Crown Bay Marina after Hurricane Marilyn, 1995.

Back in my day
, post-hurricane recovery on an island sucked. In that regard, it's exactly like today. There are no two-ways about it. If you want to see or talk to someone, you have to get out of the house and go to them. Going to them will be an adventure--and not in a fun way. Some streets will be impassable, others will be gone. Lights will be out, signs will be down. You won't get where you're going fast. When you get there, you'll wait in line. You'll wait for fresh water, for food, for ice, for the bank, for a phone line, a phone, a computer and internet access. Some who lost everything will wait in line for clothing, toiletries, and a bed. (If you aren't in that line, quite whining about having lost "everything.") You'll wait--sometimes months--for the utility workers to restore services to your house. You'll wait for limited supplies to arrive on island. You'll wait for the insurance adjuster, the FEMA people, and the contractor. Then you'll wait longer because every single person on the island needs all those things, and most of them are probably in line ahead of you. You'll wake at sunup and work and wait in lines until sundown, then you'll fall into bed exhausted. Wake. Repeat. Every day. For months. It will suck, no two ways about it.

Cleaning up after Hurricane Georges in Puerto Rico, 1998.

In all the many lines you'll wait in, and through all the anxiety, fears, and exhaustion, what remains and what makes hurricane recovery tolerable--survivable--is the actual, living human being next to you, who has shared your experience. The community, the camaraderie, and the support get everyone through the weeks, months, and years ahead. When your So-Me friends have moved on to the next trending hashtag, you'll still be in line and still be recovering. What will remain, are the connections, person-to-person, made during the time After-Irma. Those connections will validate and verify your existence and experience far more than a hundred "likes" from virtual friends.

I know that back in my day and today aren't all that dissimilar for the vast majority of those who live in--and whose lives are in--the Virgin Islands. We were terrified, in shock, and felt alone. We really, really wanted to close our eyes to the disaster and keep them closed until everything was back to normal. But we couldn't, just like you can't now. What's really different today from back in my day, is then we expressed all of our many emotions of the storm and what came after to the people next to us in line. They understood. We cried on each other's shoulders when we needed to, because we couldn't shout into the void of cyberspace. We couldn't broadcast our fears and difficulties out to the world through social media. Having that outlet makes it easier to react in a loud, far-reaching way, expressing the fear and grief that everyone will feel at many points during recovery. But that echo chamber also magnifies all the fears, the hardship, the trauma, and reflects that distorted version of our fears back to us, giving the impression that they're greater than they are; that they're insurmountable. They aren't.

FEMA Tarps across Tutu, St. Thomas, 1995.

For my dear friends and family on all the islands affected--and that's all of you who are there, who have gone through this traumatic disaster because there are no strangers on an island after a hurricane--for all of you who are now rolling up your sleeves (once again), and getting on with the work of recovering (once again): my heart is with you. Those who have been through past disasters know that this is not an easy time, but what we know is that the Virgin Islands has gone through this before and will go through it again, and because of the bonds forged as you overcome this, the community will once again come through stronger and more united than before.

For those who've never gone through something like this before and will remain to rebuild, it may be hard to believe now, but in the weeks and months ahead, you will survive together, as a part of the Virgin Islands' community. Choose to be part of that community, to connect with your neighbors standing in line with you. Just like in my day, the only way to get to the other side of today's turmoil and hell is to go through it. I guarantee, despite the challenges, despite the pain and fear, despite the exhaustion, you will survive and thrive-- together. Disaster recovery sucks. But now, in your day, it can also be an amazing, powerful, and, as hard as it is to believe right now, an ultimately positive experience, just like it was back in my day.

Davey, Graham C.L. (2016). Social Media, Loneliness, and Anxiety in Young People. Psychology Today. Available at

Hobson, Katherine (2017). Feeling Lonely? Too much time on social media may be why. National Public Radio, South Carolina. Available at

Molloy, Mark (2017). Too much social media 'increases loneliness and envy' - study. The Telegraph. Available at

The author has been through Hurricanes Klaus, Cesar, Luis, Irene, Marilyn, Bertha, Hortense, Georges, Floyd, Matthew, and Irma. It doesn't make her an expert on hurricanes, but it does make her an old hand at surviving all the suckiness of their aftermath. She also knows that there are many people who have very valid and urgent reasons to get help or to get off the island during recovery---to take care of illness or injury, either their own or of a loved one, elderly parents needing care, and others. She knows some people just can't deal with the trauma and should leave to take care of their own mental health first. She also knows many lovely people have moved to an island on a flight of fancy, not knowing the realities of island life--herself included--but have learned to live in that reality and gone on to become active, contributing, and valuable members of the community. Nothing here is meant to deride any of these people, but to encourage them, in her curmudgeonly way, to stay #VIStrong.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

You Have Chosen

I feel no glee, no gloating, over this win. To be proven right by the events of history is a shallow victory. Knowing some that I love chose poorly, not because they picked the losing side, but because they continue to embrace it and rally to the side of hate. Knowing that by their poor choice, they are condemned.

It's not in their one bad choice that their fate has been sealed, but that in the face of mounting evidence, with each egregious assault on decency, morality, and humanity, they continue to choose, again and again, the side of hate.

They embraced, rationalized, and justified the evil words and deeds. They still do, even when there is no lingering question of the nature of the side to which they rally, what side of history they've chosen. When redemption offers itself, they cast themselves further into the fire.

The term "hollow victory" is no longer a stale expression, cliché. I am hollow, empty inside. Devoid of the hope and certainty that good people will chose goodness. Ripped from within, torn asunder, the truth exposed. That those good people, deep down, are not. The lie of perception--the misperception: because I love them, they are good--is no more.

I feel no glee, no gloating over choosing what is right. Only pain and sorrow. For my loss, for their hatred, for a country torn apart by those who praise evil, who willingly follow evil. Sorrow for those who don't retreat from the one who has exposed their veneer of goodness for what it is. Who don't renounce, but stand--by choice--with evil.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Wow. Just wow. Yesterday, Kellyanne Conway disclosed to the world news of the "Bowling Green Massacre."

And some people believed her.

I guess it's no surprise in the current political climate (where half the country think that "gaslighting" refers to some romantic mood set by this administration) that making up what are easily debunked stories is considered acceptable for "news."

When we have the need for articles with headlines like this:

you know we've gone down the rabbit hole into a world turned upside down. Since when have we had to use the word REAL in front of the word facts? Isn't that redundant? If a story isn't real, it's fiction.

How has the term "alt-facts" become a thing? If facts aren't real, they aren't facts. As any writer knows, words have specific meanings, and those meanings have power. Choose and wield your words as you would a surgical instrument--for precision. A scalpel, not a mallet. Know and use the correct instrument. The correct, precise word for alternative facts is LIES. 

While the GOP, and particularly this administration, are masters in the art of lying, and their followers are happy to be led down that garden path, I blame liberals for starting us down that path with the oh-so-trite and misleading axiom that "perception is reality."

Not when your perception is incorrect it's not. Then, it's a misperception. 

This ridiculous and patently false phrase became quite de rigueur in the late 90s and early 00s. It's echoes can still be heard in many halls and offices where agencies are trying to accomplish goals related to complex scientific ideas that a vast majority of the population don't have the educational or intellectual foundation to fully grasp. (Think climate change communication, think astrophysics, think stem cell research.)

This is not to say the audiences are stupid, but they didn't get sufficient science education at the requisite level to understand all the many disciplines and concepts at play. Just because you took A & P in college doesn't make you a doctor. A medical doctor spent many years learning all she needed to know to get that title. Similarly, understanding the natural world means spending years learning the many and complex concepts, strategies, and processes involved. That 100-level science class that you may, possibly--or not--have had as a freshman in college (and may or may not remember at all) doesn't begin to provide a complete picture on which it build an accurate framework, nor does it make you an "expert."

For the layman, actual, factual information and explanations of any specialized field can sound like gobbledy-gook. The easy, comforting sound bite is easier to digest. Filled with misperceptions, these at least give people something to latch onto. The easier they are to understand, the more comforting they are, the better.

Although the thinking behind "perception is reality" as applied to learning is solid---before we can learn new information, our misconceptions must be identified and addressed, then those can be corrected with factual information--what's happened is we've been too accommodating of the misperceptions. We did a great job of recognizing the misperceptions, but stopped short of correcting them. We bastardized "Respect other people's opinions" into accepting that all opinions are just as valid as facts. We let the mantra that "not everyone has to think the same," extrapolate into "being wrong about facts is just as valid as the facts themselves."

Those cliches about the validity of opinions and varied views are only true when we're talking about subjective topics like beliefs, and phenomenon that aren't subject to scientific evaluation to determine whether or not they're factual. Your taste and preference in food, art, music, your religious beliefs--those are subjective. They depend on individual perception and circumstance: how, when, and where you were raised, what you're accustomed to. There is no right or wrong, just different.

Scientific facts aren't that. They are objective and evidence-based. They are built on observation, measurement, and verification. The scientific method starts with a hypothesis (perception), but then it goes further and validates that hypothesis, or corrects it, through experimentation and evidence. Misperceptions are identified, addressed, and corrected through the scientific method. Repeat after me:


Now go learn the facts. If the subject matter is too complex, find someone who really is an expert in that field to help you understand it. HINT: Politicians are not experts in any field other than getting re-elected.

How do you--or I, or anyone--keep from getting caught up in the hysteria of "alt facts," aka lies and damn lies, flooding social media and even some (not particularly credible) alt-news sources? Here are few ideas:

Follow only credible news sources. Here's that list of 10 good places to start. Don't believe these? You might want to subscribe to Stars and Stripes, the US Military news source. Each year, they get blasted by half their readers for having a left bias, and the other half for having a right bias. Pretty strong evidence they're neutral. They also select a panel, balanced between newspaper editors and publishers considered left- and right-leaning, to evaluate a random selection of news stories they published in the past year and rate the "slant." Again, they typically come out in the center.

Check out the Poynter Institute's many online courses on news- and media- literacy designed to help you understand and evaluate news stories and news sources to determine their credibility. They also offer a number of online courses in fact-checking.

Finally, since the title of this blog is lies, damn lies, and statistics, let me address that last one: the dreaded "s-word." Many people have learned nothing more about statistics than this quaint phrase, often attributed incorrectly to Mark Twain. The actual, verifiable source (and who Mark Twain himself credited as such) is British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. 

Image from

Statistics is nothing more than math. It's a way to evaluate your numbers--the data you've gathered--to determine if they're meaningful and accurate, or if the results are random and arbitrary. Our brains like to put order on chaos. We see patterns when they may not exist. Statistics gives us a way to check our own biases and determine if the imposed and supposed pattern actually exists. 

Can statistics be used to lie? Not really. They can, however, be used to confound those who are ignorant of how statistics work. One oft-seen example is when news sources report on poll results. Turn to one channel and you'll hear, "Polls show that 24 percent of people support the president's actions." Yeah! Look at that! Clearly, he's doing the right thing. 

At least, that's what it may seems like to someone who doesn't actually understand math and statistics. Turn the channel and you hear the same story, reporting the same statistic: Seventy-six percent of the people polled oppose whatever that action is.

Spin? Yes and no. It depends on if you know your numbers. As I tell my students, statistics can only be used to lie to those who don't know statistics. 

If you don't want to be lied to, learn statistics.