Thursday, 30 October 2014

Rock Me Like a Hurricane (Trail of Cthulhu, Call of Cthulhu, All Flesh Must Be Eaten)

I've been out of action for over a week thanks to Hurricane Gonzalo, which hit us two weekends ago now. We lost power fairly quickly, but had it back within 24 hours. Telecommunication was more of a problem, as the pole went down during the storm and hasn't yet been replaced. We have a temp line coming in, but the least bit of bad weather will knock that out.

It occurs to me that a relatively small number of people have experienced a hurricane directly, and I thought I'd go over the sequence of events as they occur, with a discussion of what it might mean for a gaming group.

A hurricane is basically a high intensity tropical storm, with sustained winds of over 74 mph; a hurricane is categorized by the intensity of its winds, from 1 to 5. Gonzalo was a Cat 4 - sustained winds of over 130 mph - until it hit us, when it became a Cat 3, with something like 111 mph winds.

In the modern era, there's usually plenty of warning of a hurricane's approach. With Gonzalo, we first knew about it almost a week prior, when it was a tropical depression brewing down in the Caribbean. That gives you time to prepare, which in Bermuda usually means take in all the lawn furniture, move the boat - if you have one - to a safe anchorage in the lee of the projected storm winds, close up all the windows and put up shutters or plywood if need be, and lay in plenty of booze to keep you entertained.

Power's almost certain to go out, so you'll want candles or some other light source. I find candles slightly better than electric light sources, inasmuch as candles don't need to be recharged or use batteries. You don't know how long it will be before the lights come back on again, so you don't want to rely exclusively on a light source that consumes a lot of power or fuel. This also means you're likely to lose frozen food, so the day before the hit is the time to cook as much as possible. Stew's just as good cold as it is hot, after all, and bread or cakes will keep for a while. Expect to lose anything in the freezer or fridge. Lay in plenty of water, and run the taps as much as you can, filling buckets. Once the power goes, the only water you'll have to drink or cook with is the water you saved beforehand.

Briefly on the subject of cooking: the house I'm in uses gas, but a lot of people have switched to electric. That means you'll have no power to cook. There have been cases where people bring their BBQs inside the house to make burgers or what have you. That is a remarkably poor idea - almost Darwin Award worthy - but high risk of death by stupidity has never stopped anyone yet.

The storm will be making its presence felt for hours, if not days, before the hit, with cloudy skies and high winds. When it actually does hit, the chief difference you'll notice is in the intensity of the winds and the darkening sky. By that point you need to be indoors, in a solid structure. We build in stone here, nice thick walls, and most of our structures are low-lying. It's rare to see a building with more than one storey, and we seldom go in for large windows or walls of glass. This is why we seldom see catastrophic property damage here; no collapsed houses, and devastation is usually limited to trees and telephone poles. Bear in mind, Cat 3 is the same velocity as Katrina, which did such terrible damage to New Orleans. Historically there have been very few hurricane deaths here, and none during Gonzalo, though when it blew across the ocean and hit the UK it killed three people. However if you look at the cause of death and injury in the UK, it seems the majority were avoidable if only the victims had taken the storm seriously. All the dead were out and about, walking or driving somewhere; one man was repairing his van in 108mph winds. This is something people down here would never do.

The duration of the initial hit will probably be several hours, but there's usually no way to be certain. Hurricane behavior is, at best, erratic. However one phenomenon that is well known but which still takes people by surprise is the eye of the storm. This circular phenomena at the heart of the hurricane is marked by unnatural calm. All activity seems to have come to a complete stop, and were you to go outside and light a candle, you probably wouldn't see the flame flicker in the slightest as there's no breeze to trouble it. This is actually when the storm is at its most dangerous, because the calm lures people into a false sense of security. This is when many leave the safety of their homes and go out to have a look at the damage, even travel down to see their neighbors or check on the boat. However the eye is surrounded by a ring of winds called the eyewall, and this is where the storm is at its most intense. So long as you're in the eye itself, no problem, but the eye is constantly moving and you can never be sure when the eye will pass over and plunge you into the eyewall. If that happens when you're outside, you're probably dead; that, or very, very lucky to be alive. Gonzalo's eye lasted for somewhere between half to three quarters of an hour, and then the hurricane picked up again and hung on for a further four hours or so. It wasn't until one or two in the morning that the storm winds finally began to die away, as Gonzalo moved off shore.

The immediate aftermath of the storm is usually marked by good weather. In our case it's been very sunny, and though the first day or so was still quite humid, since Gonzalo the temperature has dropped significantly.

Clean-up is a top priority. As you can imagine, downed trees and telephone poles need to be cleared as soon as possible, so the roads can be used, and there's often a significant period where, thanks to power outages or damage, traffic signals are out. Airport clearance is also a priority, and after Gonzalo flights were going to and from a day or so after the hurricane hit. As I write this, there's still plenty of mess out there, but mess is all it is; you can drive wherever you want, and the airport's at capacity again.  

Now, that's what happens to us here in Bermuda. Hurricanes are something we know about and expect; they turn up once every few years, do some damage, and go away again. We're relatively safe, because we know what to do, and we've built out of stone because we recognize the damage that a hurricane can do to anything built out of anything less robust. It helped a great deal that, for many years, we could quarry limestone here rather than get supplies from overseas.

In other jurisdictions they do more damage, often for environmental or architectural reasons. When Georges, a Cat 2, hit Haiti in 1998, it killed 400 people and left over a hundred thousand homeless, largely because extensive deforestation created an environment in which mudslides were likely after heavy rain. In 1935 Jérémie - so called because that town was devastated - claimed more than 2,000 Haitian lives, most of whom were peasants living in wooden houses, often in river valleys prone to flooding. Florida's 1920 property boom was abruptly halted by the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 which plunged the state into an early economic Depression, just before the 1929 Great Depression kicked off. Again, few buildings in Miami at that time were built to withstand hurricane force winds. There were no building codes back then; Miami soon invented some, and became the first city in the US to implement a city-wide building code. Even now, hurricane mitigation construction is still a bit of an arcane science in Florida, which seems incredible when you consider how often the state is hit by storms.

From an RPG perspective, a hurricane is a great way to change the landscape of the scenario. Do your players rely on electronic communications and the internet? Tough; it's gone now. No knowing when it's coming back. For the next few hours, driving anywhere or even leaving the house you're in is impossible. The players are pinned in place, helpless. There's no calling the authorities now, no hope of a rescue. If you, as Keeper, want to deliver a short, sharp shock, now's the time. It doesn't have to stop there, of course; hurricane clean-up usually takes weeks, and the aftereffects can be felt for months. Suppose the storm uncovers something best left hidden? Maybe a predator that would normally have kept itself hidden now has to change its habits after the destruction of its hunting ground, or a long-forgotten temple or tomb is discovered during the clean-up.

To my mind this best suits a Trail or Call of Cthulhu one-shot, perhaps one in which a disparate group of strangers find themselves trapped for the night, with no way out. But if you were to play with the concept it might also make a good All Flesh Must Be Eaten kick-off. There was an interesting episode of Law & Order that assumed an anthrax outbreak had occurred after flooding in New Orleans wiped out some experimental laboratories. Suppose a similar incident released the zombie virus, and now your hurricane clean-up team has to deal not just with flooded out families and disaster relief, but also the walking dead? Imagine how difficult it would be to contain an outbreak like that.

All Flesh has a fun mechanic called Spreading the Love, which basically describes how the zombie virus infects people, creating more zombies. What if, in this instance that the prospective zombie has to be immersed, maybe even drowned, in the same tainted water that created the first batch? Going further, what if this encourages the creation of a special zombie type, whose only function is to carry this tainted water in its own bloated belly?

That's it for me, for now. Talk soon!

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