Texas battered by Hurricane Harvey

Houston was flooded as had never seen before, and I heard an official saying ‘we had been told to evacuate, but how to evacuate 6.5 million people?’

Like many of us, I too have been following on television the terrible damage that cyclone Harvey has caused as it swept across the state of Texas, USA, over several days. In the American jargon, it ‘pommelled’ the country, beginning as a Class 4 hurricane with winds of 125 miles an hour. A cyclone of this magnitude had apparently not been seen for at least 12 years, and warnings went out for the inhabitants to brace themselves up for the catastrophe that was expected to happen. People were advised to move away to safer places, and to take precautionary measures that are standard for such events. Gradually the cyclone was scaled down to Class 1.

However, the major problem was the heavy rains that accompanied the hurricane, many areas receiving up to 60 inches in short periods. Roads and interstate highways became rivers and lakes, houses and cars were submerged, mobile homes and vehicles swept away in the currents to end up elsewhere, other buildings were deeply flooded. The city of Rockport was the most affected by the gale force winds, which flattened houses and other buildings into piles of rubble. No need to say that electric lines were ripped off, leaving tens of thousands of people without power. Transport, except boats and high wheeled vehicles used for rescue, came to a halt. People were being extracted from flooded houses, and a most disturbing scene was that of elderly people trapped in a nursing home where they were almost chest deep in water.

The capital city Houston was flooded as had never seen before, and I heard an official saying that ‘we had been told to evacuate, but how to evacuate 6.5 million people?’ Indeed, how do you do that!

Fortunately, though, there have been only a few deaths, unlike what happened when cyclone Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, when deaths numbered in the thousands. No cyclone of that sort had ever taken place in the US before, and they were totally unprepared for it. On the other side of the world currently in Bihar, India, flooding following rains (but no cyclone) has already resulted in over 500 deaths, and tens of thousands of people have had to be evacuated. And in Mumbai, for the past three days monsoon rains have caused their predictable, annual havoc and paralysed large areas of city life.

As we were talking among friends during our morning walk, we reflected that that we must consider ourselves really lucky in Mauritius not to have been troubled with any major cyclone for the past several years going. And overall in any case, unless God forbid there is an apocalyptic catastrophe, we are rather well prepared when it comes to cyclones, what with our well-honed warning system and our preparatory measures, and besides practically all houses are now made of bricks and concrete when building took off anew after the sinister experience of cyclones Alix and Carol in 1960.

As I looked at the desolate landscape left by Hurricane Harvey in different parts of Texas, I visualized what I had seen the next morning after the ‘eye’ of cyclone Carol had passed over the island the previous day. Grey sky, a deathly stillness in the air, blank stares in people’s eyes as they mutely and in shock surveyed the wreckage of what had once been precious belongings, trying to salvage bits and pieces from among the debris.

Unfortunately, in the US I think that most houses are like the ones that I have come across or spent time in when I visited. They are not of brick and concrete. Like our old colonial houses made of wooden wood and iron sheets, there they are made of wooden frames too. Partitions are made of light material covered with a sort of plastic stuff on either side. The cavity in between is filled with insulating material, which is foam-like, that retains heat in winter. Such houses cannot therefore stand the high winds of hurricanes, and crumble down under these circumstances. Besides, to say that the US is a huge country is a euphemism – but consequently the damage is extensive, covering for us island people unimaginably large areas.

Unfortunately, the ‘consolation’ that there have been only a few human victims is met with the reality of the thousands who have lost their habitats no less, and who face a long, painful haul before they can return – and that too if at all – to their status quo ante. For having similarly suffered in the past, let us remember them in our prayers and wish them bon courage.

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Lining up for ‘shawarma’

I’ve never had a ‘shawarma’, which I think can be described as ‘baguette fourée’ with chicken strips mixed with a combination of chopped greens and carrot, and perhaps some condiment added. But I have always been curious about the long queues whenever I have passed by a ‘shawarma point’, if I may put it this way. Especially when it’s situated at centre of town, and more so when there’s a cinema hall or some gambling facility nearby.

This point struck me last year in the festive season that begins, at least locally, in early December and lasts till at least the middle of January. That’s the time when there was a general feeling of morosity in the country which seemed to be confirmed since businesses were complaining that sales were significantly down, across the board. However, an exception was made for the food sector, for here not only was there no downturn, but it was quite the opposite, with crowds galore as people came out in large numbers to walk about, do window shopping, buy a minimum of gifts and, of course, enjoy food of all sorts. That’s when I noticed the long lines at the shawarma outlets, located at busy and easily accessible points.

The shawarma must be really yummy for people to be prepared to wait their turn so patiently. When their turn arrives, though, it does not take long before the customer has his share in his hand, as the server deftly and promptly scoops the ready mix of chicken and veggies (from the tray on which stands a rotating skewer with the marinaded chicken chunks cooking and periodically ‘shaven’ downwards), and fills it into a piece of baguette which is already cut open and is then put into a brown paper bag.

I believe the price is Rs 60-75 apiece, and with queues that must add up to hundreds in a day, I sometimes wonder whether the cost of long years of tough university education is really worth it at the end of the day… The return on investment is not guaranteed, there are years of waiting, with the spectre of prolonged unemployment or landing in a job that does not need the level of skill or education one has obtained being more of probability than possibility… But of course that is for individuals to decide, each one for his own.

If I have an issue with the outlets, it’s that the shawarma stand is open to the atmosphere, usually facing the road. Clearly, therefore, it is exposed to fumes and dust, and even indirectly the product must be to some extent impacted. It is a very simple matter for the vendor/proprietor to erect a glass or other transparent shield of an appropriate material which must surely be available nowadays. Perhaps the Ministry of Health and Quality of Life could look into that?

Possibly one day I will give the shawarma a try, but there’s a yuk factor that keeps surfacing whenever I think of doing so. It dates from the 1970s when we were looking for a lunch bite in a high street in central London after a shopping trip. We spotted a Wimpy bar, which was very common in those days and seemed to be convenient enough. We went in and ordered chicken burgers at the counter, and as we were handed them we were requested to help ourselves at the salad bar standing against the wall opposite the service counter and near the entrance.

We turned to do so, to take our fill of salad which was sliced carrots and beetroot, each vegetable lying in open containers that were sunk side by side in a low cabinet with an inclined metal top. We saw a waiter, nicely dressed in a white coat and white cap, wiping back into the containers (with a piece of rag) remnants of the veggies that lay on the metal surface, clearly dropped there inadvertently by previous customers as they served themselves. We quietly took our burgers and walked off. And that was for me the end of that kind of fare, to this day. Unfortunately, the memory of that incident keeps reverberating in my mind whenever I come across similar outlets, including the shawarma ones. Such is the human psyche, and I cannot help it. But who knows, maybe one day…

In any case, for the shawarma, it’s always business as usual, no downturn there!

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