Four Feet High & Rising:
The ‘What Ifs’ Of Hurricane Fiona
By Chris Oakley
(Adapted from material originally posted at
the Alternatehistory.com message boards)
It was the worst storm to hit the continental United States since Hurricane Katrina. It tore the heart out of two major US cities, wrecked at least a dozen offshore refineries, crippled fishing in the Gulf of Mexico for almost a year, and caused disruption in the region’s maritime economy the effects of which are still being felt more than 15 years later. On an international scale it diverted the White House’s attention from the Southeast Asian chemical weapons crisis; set the stage for the Cuban cholera epidemics of the 2030s; touched off mass panic throughout the whole Caribbean Basin; and exacerbated the already rather grave internal troubles of early 21st century Haiti.
It also swung the outcome of several state and federal elections in the US, cost one state governor his job, and hurt Mexico’s shipping economy at a time when the Mexican people could least afford such a setback. Indeed, Hurricane Fiona planted the seeds for many of the troubles which plague North America and the Caribbean as we approach the year 2050.
But events didn’t necessarily have to play out the way they did; as any weatherman can attest, hurricanes are notoriously unpredictable. There were dozens of points at which the story of Fiona could have been changed, and this series will attempt to examine some of the most important ones...
....but before that we should review the historical background to the actual chain of events surrounding the hurricane. Even before Fiona hit the Texas Gulf coast in the summer of 2028, President William R. Murchinson was facing a host of problems at home and abroad. Attempts to resolve a diplomatic feud between Vietnam and Cambodia were going nowhere as each side accused the other of gathering chemical weapons stockpiles in preparation for war; in Haiti, a nation where outbreaks of civil unrest often seem to be as common as grains of sand, yet another wave of anti-government violence was in full swing; and in Cuba cracks were finally beginning to show in the facade of stability and prosperity which the late Fidel Castro had long been using to conceal the true nature of his repressive regime. On the domestic front, one of Murchinson’s proteges, Texas governor Evan Hidalgo, was in the throes of a career-threatening scandal after Hidalgo’s chief urban planning advisor was caught on video accepting a bribe from one of the state’s largest building contractors.
The storm that would eventually morph into Hurricane Fiona was born on June 15th, 2028 as a tropical depression 300 miles due south of Bermuda; over the next 36 hours it would grow into a full-fledged tropical storm, and by the time it reached the coast of Haiti on June 17th it had already reached Category 3 hurricane status. Once it reached Haiti it tore that unlucky island apart, flooding every one of its major cities and paralyzing its national government to a degree unprecedented even by Haitian standards. The next day Fiona swept through the eastern tip of Cuba, leaving thousands without fresh water or power and even briefly endangering the safety of personnel at the American naval base in Guantanamo Bay.
As Fiona left Cuba and crossed the Florida Straits, conventional wisdom held that the hurricane would make landfall on the southern Florida coast and barrel through the Carolinas before finally giving out somewhere Virginia. It was a prediction that turned out to be tragically wrong-- the storm instead swung west towards the Gulf of Mexico on a track towards Texas.
To its credit, the Hidalgo administration swung into action the second it was confirmed that the storm would make landfall near Galveston. But because of a series of communication snafus, most of Galveston’s residents were still inside the city waiting to be evacuated when Fiona made landfall just before 1:15 in the afternoon on June 21st; the upshot of this was 500 people would be killed and 20,000 injured or gone missing as the hurricane battered the city’s downtown area, leaving behind an estimated $49 billion in property damages and creating floods on a scale rivaling that of the 1900 hurricane.
Further inland, then-Houston mayor Stuart Draper proved himself to be ahead of the curve where Fiona was concerned; as soon as the hurricane’s westward turn towards the Gulf of Mexico was confirmed he’d quickly begun a precautionary evacuation of his city’s residents to safer ground elsewhere. By the time Fiona reached the outskirts of Houston just after midnight on June 22nd, 90% of its population had already fled and many of the rest were being bused out courtesy of the Texas National Guard. For those who couldn’t evacuate Draper, a survivor of Hurricane Katrina, had set up emergency bunkers to keep them safe.
Nonetheless, Fiona still wrought terrible destruction as she passed through the downtown Houston area; many of the city’s most well-known landmarks, like the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts and Reliant Stadium, were leveled by the storm before it left the city just after 4:30 AM. Houston’s largest suburb, Katy, sustained major damage as well; nearly a hundred residential buildings were destroyed by Fiona as she passed through on a northwesterly track toward the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
By the time the eye of the hurricane reached the outskirts of Fort Worth on June 23rd, Fiona had diminished from the Category 5 monster that ripped Galveston apart to a mere Category 3 storm; the next day it was downgraded back to a tropical storm, limping to its demise somewhere in Arkansas. It finally dissipated about thirty miles west of Texarkana mid-afternoon on June 25th, leaving behind totals of $71 billion in property damage and 800-plus people dead with 1500 more either injured or missing.
To their credit, local and federal disaster relief agencies worked with great efficiency in trying to help the survivors of Hurricane Fiona pick up the pieces in the storm’s aftermath. Indeed, within 12 hours after Fiona left Houston the much-maligned Federal Emergency Management Agency(FEMA), which had been criticized in the past for its bumbling responses to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Odetta in 2017, already had damage assessment teams on the ground. It was at the state level that the machinery of disaster recovery broke down-- Governor Hidalgo, who ironically had first been into office on a platform of making Texas state government more responsive to public needs, watched his administration’s attempts to aid those whose lives had been shattered by Fiona drown in a sea of red tape. At a time when his entire political future was in jeopardy, such problems were the last thing Hidalgo needed.
And it hardly helped his prestige-- or his blood pressure1 --much when a Dallas Morning Herald poll taken one month after the storm indicated that at least 30% of Texas citizens felt he should resign from office for what they perceived as his inability to cope with the chaos wrought by Fiona. President Murchison, who saw his hopes for winning a second term in the White House slipping away if the dynamic and media-savvy Hidalgo were not able to campaign on his behalf in the Southwest, quickly flexed his political muscles on Hidalgo’s behalf in a media blitz meant to turn the tide of public opinion back in Hidalgo’s favor.
Unfortunately for both men, Murchison’s efforts backfired. The Texas Republican Party seized on the commander-in-chief’s actions as proof that Hidalgo, who they’d never liked much in the first place, was a tool of outsiders; the national GOP exploited them to brand Murchison as an out-of-touch egoist more concerned with feathering his own ideological nest than with helping the survivors of Fiona or defusing the Vietnam-Cambodia border time bomb. With his power base steadily eroding, Hidalgo soon found himself with no choice but to wave the white flag; in October of 2028 he resigned, leaving his lieutenant governor Stan Reardon to finish out the rest of his term.
One month later President Murchison was voted out of office in the worst electoral shellacking an incumbent US president had taken since Ronald Reagan decimated Jimmy Carter in 1980. He lost 40 of the 50 states to GOP challenger and Iraq War hero Dylan Greenwood. Adding insult to injury, the most decisive vote against Murchison came in his home state, which went 5-1 in Greenwood’s favor. For all practical purposes, Hurricane Fiona handed the White House back to the Republicans.
It is at this point that we should turn to the first ‘what if’ scenario regarding the storm: What if Governor Hidalgo hadn’t been under the cloud of the video scandal when Fiona made landfall? It was, in the immortal words of the Duke of Wellington, a "near run thing" that the video which terminated Hidalgo’s political career saw the light of day in the first place; the amateur who shot it was an absent-minded person who had a chronic habit of misplacing important as well as trivial things, and shortly after making the fateful tape he forgot about his camera for nearly a week before finally remembering to retrieve it from his closet so he could bring it to a Dallas TV news director.
Had it taken longer for him to remember it, or had he failed to remember it all, the video scandal would have been little more than a footnote in American political history. Chances are good that Hidalgo could have won a second term as governor of Texas; at the very least Hidalgo’s challengers would have had a very hard fight on their hands to get him out of the executive mansion in Austin. But even if he had won re-election, however, there’s no guarantee he could have avoided the immigration troubles that plagued his successors; indeed, most political experts argue he might have had to resign anyway, citing an earlier scandal over his teenage membership in the far-left activist group Solamente Nostoros2 as evidence that he would have found it difficult, if not impossible, to cope with border control issues in the post-Fiona era.
There are those, of course, who say it would have made little or no difference at all when or even if the tape surfaced. Such people argue that Hidalgo’s own personal shortcomings would have eventually torpedoed his political career; while at first blush that may seem like a cynical attitude to take, it reflects to some extent the disillusionment that overtook Hidalgo’s administration during his final months in office.
In the next chapter of this series we’ll look at how the United States might have been affected if the experts’ original predictions had turned out to be right and Hurricane Fiona had hit Florida.
To Be Continued...
1 Governor Hidalgo had a family history of hypertension dating back at least two generations; some say it may have gone back five.
2 A Hispanic radical organization whose names translates as “Only Ourselves”; this group advocates the forced expulsion of all non-Hispanics from Texas. Governor Hidalgo’s membership in this organization,