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Who is in control?

| August 31, 2005 12:00 AM

When I attended college in Oklahoma, my newly found western friends would wonder how I could live on the East Coast, which was occasionally pounded by hurricanes.

My answer was inadequate to most of my interrogators: We didn't think much of it. After all, it was only the occasional storm that really battered Long Island. Most of the time people and structures along the Atlantic beaches, a short distance away, took the brunt of the storm. Something about living in harm's way.

Which is what we all do. It's just in the West it seems as if people are more cognizant of the weather every day. Just like the landscape, and the sky, weather out here can be just as big as what just happened to the Gulf Coast with Hurricane Katrina.

Think about the 1996-1997 time period when we felt the brunt of force of Mother Nature in terms of snow, mud, flood and a heckuva big blow. That was one of the wildest weather stretches seen anywhere. You could push back the date to 1994 when a dry lightning storm in mid-August ignited 200 fires and left the Kootenai National Forest looking like something from Dante's Inferno.

There are really few places in the West, and for that matter the country, that escape the natural fury of the planet's weather. We like to brag about our wonderful four seasons but in reality that presents four different potential weather extremes and because we are so far north those extremes can come at any time of the year. Remember, what we consider normal or average weather is an average of those extremes.

When I lived in Colorado, I saw softball-sized hail in Fort Collins, pea-sized hail pile up nearly a foot deep on highways north of Greeley, wind gusts exceeding 100 miles an hour from a Chinook blow trailers over in the Longmont area. I remember the 12 inches of rain that fell over the Big Thompson Canyon sending a 19-foot wall of water downstream clearing out everything in front of it in the popular canyon. One hundred and forty-five people were killed and more than $45 million in property damage realized by the time the waters subsided.

I saw temperatures on the West Slope of Colorado drop to as low as 71 below zero in one night and watched as Gunnison suffered through more than 30 days of below zero weather. When it warmed to a balmy 18 above, co-eds on the nearby college campus were sunbathing in bikinis and pack boots.

Back in New York, where I lived year-round for the first 18 years of my life, I remember deep snow, bad hurricanes, wild thunderstorms and 81 inches of rain the year I graduated from high school.

Getting back to Oklahoma, I remember many a spring night that first year in college when tornadoes spawned warnings for us to take shelter and in the morning we learned several twisters had set down in the surrounding landscape — at once. It wasn't long before I was telling my Okie friends I'd take a hurricane over a tornado any day, or night. You can see the hurricane coming.

Once driving down Interstate 25 in southern New Mexico I watched a thunderstorm hit a mountain range to the east and shortly afterward, while crossing a dry stream bed — on a bridge — there was a fast moving wall of mud coming toward me.

But I'm not sure anything has caught my attention like the dry lightning storm of August 1994 right here in Lincoln County.

One of the differences away from the coasts is that the population is more sparse and when the weather tries to squash us, there are fewer of us in the way. Unlike Florida, the Carolinas or the Gulf Coast states. And especially in California. Of course, that is changing in the interior West in such places as Denver, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and even Spokane, which suffered through a catastrophic wildfire on its edges more than 10 years ago.

We can only hope people make good choices in building and rebuilding because social, economic and political tendencies lead us to bad choices. You have to wonder how we do survive. Often through the generosity of others.

Contributions to the victims of Katrina may be sent to the local American Red Cross chapter or to the American Red Cross, P. O. Box 37243, Washington, DC 20013. Internet users can make a secure online contribution by visiting www.redcross.org. — Roger Morris