Houses Are Built on Top of Mountains

Coping and suffering is what Ireland has decided to throw its chips on. Years of corruption in our planning system, with politicians receiving payments to approve ill-thought through housing projects, have led to housing developments on flood plains, at the mercy of the weather each winter. Houses are built on the top of mountains, or in remote fields, draining resources, encouraging the use of the private car, and wrenching apart Ireland’s small towns and villages.

Hurricane Ophelia diary

Country Cork, Ireland.

On Sunday evening, the sky appeared to still and to thicken. By now, we were ready, or at least warned. There had been chatter toward the end of the previous week, but earlier that day, things had gotten serious. “DO NOT IGNORE THIS STORM,” tweeted a senior government minister based in the south of the country, an area under a red weather alert (the most severe). Schools, colleges and many public institutions were ordered to close, and private businesses to prioritize the safety of employees. Ireland has a small, exposed coastline and those of us who live in the south and west are used to being regularly drenched and blown about during fall and winter, but Ophelia, as a commenter on the radio noted, was “a rather different beast.”

A storm of this kind rarely, almost never really, travels so far east, and so far north across the Atlantic Ocean. The water is typically too cold on this side of the Atlantic for a hurricane (or a violent post-tropical storm, which is what it had officially become by the time it washed over Ireland’s cold seas) to gather strength, but the oceans have warmed, it is happening. There would be wind, we were told, real wind, gusting at up to 160 kilometers per hour, maybe more. Trash cans could be lifted up and tossed about, becoming missiles that could crash into a roof, or a car, or a person. The country’s oak and chestnut trees, heavy still with leaves in mid-October, would not bend like a Caribbean palm and withstand the wind’s momentum. “Those falling trees . . . that’s what’s going to kill people today,” said a woman on Met Éireann, Ireland’s weather forecasting service.

Friends post updates on Twitter before bed: eerily calm here ahead of #StormOphelia; Calm b4 the storm; so quiet……#Ophelia. Someone else uploads a video of a cluster of crows, scattering wildly against the indigo sky. Think they know there’s something big coming? #Ophelia #mondays. By Monday morning, the red weather alert has been extended to the entire country and every radio station is playing an emergency message at 15-minute intervals, alerting people not to drive, to stay home and to secure their houses and gardens. There is no work, no school, and we sleep later than usual. Around eight in the morning, I go out into our garden to pick up the children’s toys scattered about, take down our round clothesline, already liable to topple over, put the lighter garden furniture in the shed, drag inside one of the emptier, less heavy bins. It is no longer calm: there are strong gusts, the trees shake, and the sky is dense and yellow-gray. It’s warm, too warm for the season, like moving through solid air.

By 9:30 AM, Ophelia still hasn’t made landfall. I text my husband, on his way to work, but he is already walking back home: his workplace has also closed. By now it’s wet, getting windier. I check my phone for breaking news, try to keep working, but instead end up looking out the window, watching the trees shaking, twisting. Via a WhatsApp group, updates come through. One person has seen her fence scatter across four gardens, another watched her 100-year-old apple tree crash down. Someone’s dog fell over. The messages are tense, excited, fearful. Here comes another ping, advice on a website that is displaying an animation of the wind and gusts hour by hour. There is something mesmerizing about looking at the slow, staggering, circling movement of colors, the eye of the hurricane suspended over the south-west coastline. It is 12:45 PM. We are nearly at the peak.

We lose electricity around one. The machines go black, the radio silent. Our water is starting to run out. We switch to battery power and my phone jumps to 4G. Now the WhatsApp pings are coming from abroad: the Irish diaspora in Australia, New Zealand, England. Nick in Australia sends through a link to the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald: London sky turns eerie orange as tropical storm kills two in Ireland. I read a tweet that sums up the disconnect, and that reminds us—if we needed reminding—of how tiny, insignificant, is this country: Two people are dead and thousands are without power, but no, please tell me again about your orange sky, British friends.

By 3 PM, it is clear that the worst has passed in the south and the storm is now making its way up Ireland’s west coast. People emerge from the inside, blinking into the light. I take my daughter for a walk, bumping into neighbors along the way. How’d you get on? How did you fare? Did you survive OK? Later it will be made official that Cork city, where I live, and its surrounding counties, bore the worst of it, but the damage is already obvious. Holes gape from residences that have lost slates; one house, thankfully uninhabited, has a branch from a fallen tree pushing through its roof. An electricity cable lies sprawled across a road. Later, I watch footage of the roof blowing off a school not far away. I live in a suburb close to the city center, and as we walk, I take pictures of the large trees that have been uprooted around the area, come down across streets and green spaces, the snarl of their great, jagged roots exposed to the air.

People have come together, checked in on neighbors, taken out their individual chainsaws to make safe the trees for their community. Three people died in the storm, all a result of falling trees; two more have since died trying to make repairs to their property. Emergency shelters, pubs and hostels, and the largest mosque in Dublin were opened up to the homeless for the twenty-four hours of the storm. At the coast where my parents live, the local pharmacy has been operating by candlelight: if customers can remember the name on their prescriptions, they write down the amount owed, to be paid the following week. Our electricity was back before 10 PM on the night of the storm, and the crews have been out since, painstakingly restoring the services lost by around 300,000 homes and businesses countrywide. Inevitably, I have heard the other sort of stories: anarchy in the supermarkets, fights over bottles of water, accusations of hoarding what are now scarce resources. On the whole, though, we have coped.

Coping and suffering is what Ireland has decided to throw its chips on. Years of corruption in our planning system, with politicians receiving payments to approve ill-thought through housing projects, have led to housing developments on flood plains, at the mercy of the weather each winter. Houses are built on the top of mountains, or in remote fields, draining resources, encouraging the use of the private car, and wrenching apart Ireland’s small towns and villages. In the southern county of Kerry, a strong offender for what are known as “one-off houses,” the politician Danny Healy Rae, who has publicly stated he does not believe in climate change, won a seat in the last election with thousands of votes to spare. The Irish Green Party went into coalition government for the first time in 2007, just as the financial crash was beginning. The Greens managed to implement a carbon levy and significant changes to the planning system before they lost all their seats in the next election. Though it recovered subsequently to win back two seats in parliament, the party is still more politically marginalized than it was ten years ago.

Since the hurricane there have been some articles and radio discussions on climate change, but the Irish psyche tends historically towards a kind of fatalism, a shrugged acceptance of the imponderable cruelty of life. Three days before Ophelia hit, Denis Naughten, the country’s first minister for climate action, went to Europe to wrangle concessions and plead for flexibility in meeting the 2030 climate goals, though Ireland is already one of only four European Union countries that will fail to meet its 2020 emissions targets. We burn peat and deplete the resources of our boglands in the teeth of serious fines from the European Commission; members of the independent turf-cutting sector have mounted a furious, sometimes militant, defense of their trade, and no government since 2000 has had the courage to fully face them down. Bord na Móna, the country’s state-owned, for-profit, peat-harvesting company, intends to keep generating electricity from the fuel until 2030. Our farming sector, wounded grievously by Ophelia, accounts for about a third of national emissions. We have developed a car-based society and everybody drives everywhere, burning up gas and diesel. I attempt to recycle, live close enough to the city to walk to work and school, but I own a car, heat my house with gas, still light a fire on a peat-burning stove.

The day after Ophelia was dry, bright, warm, the skies blue and sharp. We breathed it in, spirits rising. But when I woke this morning, four days since the hurricane, the sky bled orange and red, filled with dust particles from the Sahara. The southwest is once again on alert—amber this time. Storm Brian is gathering. It’s calm for the moment, but the air suggests something. The rain, the wind, is on its way.

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