I’ve never seen the sky this colour in the years I’ve lived here, somewhere between Methyl Violet and Lobelia Blue. It has an unreal feel to it, like the old Stereoscope cards from the 1950s. And it comes on the heels of two nights of unprecedented lightning strikes that went on for hours, like slow-motion, erratically staggered strobe lights, along with the distant rumble of thunder. There is, very rarely, every few years, a bit of thunder and lightning during the summer in San Francisco, but I can recall nothing remotely like this. A high wind has suddenly kicked up, ominously bending the large palm in the backyard, freighted with decades of unpruned dead fronds and bedizened with thick ropes of trumpet vine with its orange flowers.
When I lived in New York there was another dimension to the annual snowstorms, and that was the weather reporting of Robert McFadden, one of the New York Times’s great journalists. Now 78, he has been writing for the paper since 1961. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 'for his highly skilled writing and reporting on deadline during the year'. Among the pieces the judges mentioned was one about a shooting rampage in Harlem and another about cockfights in the Bronx, as well as McFadden's coverage of the Unabomber case and the Oklahoma City bombing. They also cited a feature on Easter Day in Corona, Queens. It began:
Lawrence Hogben on forecasting the weather for D-Day (LRB, 26 May 1994): At the beginning of June, forecasting became more difficult when a steady Azores anti-cyclone started to misbehave, and a series of depressions threatened to run across the North Atlantic, with associated fronts menacing a hitherto sheltered Channel. Up to Friday, 2 June, it was still peaceful, but we suspected the calm was near its end. Then began the forecasters’ and the Supreme Commander’s nightmare: a calm period ending – to be replaced when, and by what?
New York City is the greatest public works project in the USA. It is a city of tubes, grids, circuits and networks. We are organised by numbered floors and numbered streets and numbered apartments, fed and watered through great pipes and tunnels and bridges, shuttled to and fro in shifts along lines. On Monday night the magnificent machines were revealed to us, as they failed one by one.
In the beachside house where I used to live near Cairns in Far North Queensland, looking out through the coconut palms to the placid tropical sea protected by the coral reefs on the horizon, it could be hard to remember the region’s natural perils, and its far from picturesque history. In most seasons you could only swim within protective netting, as deadly stingers lurked in the summer currents. The rainforests were full of scorpions and snakes and ruthless logging operations, the mangrove swamps harboured crocodiles, the mosquitoes carried fatal diseases, cane toads were a plague, the Great Barrier Reef’s corals were dying under too many cruise ships and glass-bottomed boats, the cane fields had been established by the forced labour of Pacific Islanders, and cyclone warnings were common.
I flew into Brisbane on Sunday 9 January after three weeks in Britain. The pilot on our descent said the weather was ‘not good’. It wasn’t raining as I got out of the terminal but the humidity hit me like a torpid wall. On Monday, I was just glad to be home. Jetlagged and needing to go to work early the next morning, I went to bed early, unaware of the seven billion tonnes of water that had fallen in 72 hours. So it wasn’t until I woke up on Tuesday and listened to the radio that I had any inkling there was a major problem. I usually take the City Cat ferry service to work but as it was cancelled I went by car over the new Go Between Bridge (named after a Brisbane rock band). The water, usually slow moving and silty, was high and rapid.
I left Queensland three and a half years ago, just before Brisbane City Council began to give away four-minute egg-timers to help people spend less time in the shower. On beaches all along the coast the outdoor taps had been turned off. People were encouraged to report the malfeasants who watered their gardens or washed their cars. When I returned last August, the drought had not yet broken: reservoirs were at their lowest levels ever; people were showering over buckets to save water. No one was meant to flush the toilet till it was absolutely necessary. You’d certainly never leave the tap running as you brushed your teeth. Then the rain came, and at first there was widespread rejoicing. But it kept coming, till the floods covered an area the size of France and Germany combined. I’m now in Melbourne, watching the news as floodwaters rise in Victoria, thinking about the day I first saw Brisbane from the river.
Trouble does seem to haunt the footsteps of Colin Matthews, the chief executive of BAA, the company that runs the currently icebound Heathrow airport on behalf of its Spanish masters Ferrovial. This is the same Colin Matthews who was running the private water monopoly Severn Trent in 2007 when 350,000 of its customers were cut off for days on end; they were subsequently charged for the days they had no water, even though, at the time they were unable to wash, the company authorised a payout of £143 million to its shareholders.
Yesterday was the first day I have ever had off work because of the weather. I’ve had to take shelter in a downpour or a hail storm before. I’ve trudged through the rain while icy winds blew off the sea. I’ve worked in the frost and the rain and in fog and in heat. Once I was delivering along a terrace where there was a torrent of water pouring from a leaky gutter. I was avoiding it as best I could, but a sudden gust of wind took hold of it and directed it down the back of my neck while I was stuck at a letter box. I went back to the office sodden to my socks, but I didn’t take a day off because of it.