Four Feet High
The ‘What Ifs’ Of Hurricane Fiona
By Chris Oakley
Adapted from material originally posted at the Alternatehistory.com message board
Summary: In the previous five parts of this series, we recapped the actual sequence of events regarding Hurricane Fiona, then sketched out possible alternative scenarios for how things might have been different if A) Evan Hidalgo had managed to avoid the video scandal that ultimately wrecked his political career; B) the hurricane had made landfall in southern Florida as it had originally been predicted to do; C) the Galveston fire and police departments had had better communications equipment at the time Fiona struck; D)Haiti hadn’t been hit by the storm; or E)the hurricane had made landfall near New Orleans when it reached the US. In this final installment, we’ll hear various perspectives on the tantalizing question of how the past two-plus decades might have been altered if Fiona had never happened at all.
Like a storm cloud, one tormenting question has hung over the islands of the Caribbean and the southern United States for almost a quarter-century: what if the Category 5 monster known as Hurricane Fiona had never come to be? What if the fearsome storm that ravaged Haiti, eastern Cuba, and Texas and was indirectly responsible for ending at least two political careers had petered out while still in the tropical storm or tropical depression stage?
Those questions are of particular interest to the residents of Galveston and Houston, two cities whose economy and psyche even now are still being affected by Fiona’s rampage. It was, after all, an overwhelming frustration with the slowness of post-Fiona rebuilding efforts that ultimately drove the NFL’s Texans and MLB’s Astros to relocate elsewhere and killed NHL efforts to place an expansion team in the Houston area.1 Houston Post sportswriter Mark Vogele may have put it best when he wrote in a feature article commemorating the ten- year anniversary of Fiona: "They might as well have dropped an H-bomb on Minute Maid Park and Reliant Stadium."2
Just as quarrels with Robert Moses drove Walter O’Malley to transplant the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in the late 1950s, impatience over the sluggish pace of post-storm recovery efforts drove Astros ownership to pull up stakes and resettle the team in Hilton Head, South Carolina at the end of the 2029 season. The following year, the Texans would leave town to become the Los Angeles Waves. On top of that the NHL, which prior to Fiona had considered awarding an expansion team to Houston for the 2030-31 season, changed its plans as a result of the storm and gave Kansas City the nod instead.3
Since then the NBA’s Rockets have stood out as the last bastion of pro sports in a city that once boasted a lively professional scene; the same month that Houston’s NHL bid collapsed, the city’s MLS and World Team Tennis franchises both filed for bankruptcy. As for Houston’s collegiate and scholastic sports communities, their wounds run almost as deep; to cite one example, Rice University and the University of Houston have a combined total of just three NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball tournament appearances since 2029-- and been eliminated in the first round in two of those appearances.
"The irony is," says a now-retired Vogele, "that the sports scene in this city was exciting in a way it hadn’t been for a long time before Fiona came along and killed it." He may be exaggerating, but only slightly; at the time Fiona hit the Texas coast, the Astros were on track for a third consecutive National League pennant, the Texans had made the AFC playoffs for the first time in franchise history, and the Rockets were NBA league champions for the fifth time. On the scholastic front, the city’s largest public high school was coming off a highly successful run in the state school football playoffs and its top private school was a state scholastic basketball champion; Rice had won the NIT college basketball tournament and the University of Houston was rebounding from five consecutive losing seasons to become an NCAA tournament contender once again.
Fiona shattered this world, and the impact is still being felt almost a quarter-century later-- indeed, the troubles of Houston’s sports culture can from some perspectives be taken as a microcosm for the city’s troubles as a whole. Immediately following Fiona, unemployment in Houston shot up to 60% and is still hovering in the high 40s today; major businesses only started coming back to the downtown area in the late 2030s and smaller companies have avoided the city like the plague lest a Fiona-type hurricane wipe them out as it did away with so many of their brethren in 2028.
The situation is even worse in Galveston, where more than half the city’s population still lives below the federal poverty line and even those that don’t find it extremely difficult to make ends meet. Unemployment there has consistently averaged 50% or more since 2031, and the city’s homeless population is nearly double what it was in the two decades before Fiona tore the city apart. Despite the best efforts of the local administration to turn things around, the city is still hemorrhaging jobs and residents; the 2040 federal census revealed a 45% population decrease in Galveston in the first five years following the hurricane.
Professor Marta Vasquez, chair of economic sciences at the University of Texas in San Antonio, has spent the past fifteen-odd years constructing a computer model of what Houston and Galveston would be like today had they never been afflicted by Hurricane Fiona. Her conclusion, which will come as little surprise to anyone who lived in those cities prior to 2028, is that they both would be among the most prosperous cities in the state and the country-- possibly even the world.
"Houston and Galveston were poised to become the top economic growth cities in the Southwest before Fiona hit." Professor Vasquez says, showing a collection of magazine, Internet, and newspaper articles from the early and mid-2020s touting both cities as hotbeds for a surge of economic growth lasting well into the second half of the twenty-first century. "Galveston in particular was starting to emerge as a hub of alternative fuel development efforts in America… the hurricane set those efforts back by at least five or ten years."
What would Texas be like now if two of its most important urban areas had been spared Fiona’s anger? "Economically speaking," Vasquez answers, "it would probably be the second-most prosperous state in US right about now. I seem to remember the mayor of Galveston was trying to land an MLS club for the city before Fiona....that would have been a huge shot in the arm for Galveston and the state if he could have made it work."
Not surprisingly, Tim Hudson disagrees with the notion that his former boss could have succeeded in bringing an MLS franchise to Galveston with or without the hurricane. However, he is in complete accord with Professor Vasquez on one point; Fiona cheated Texas out of what could have been one of the greatest economic booms in the state’s history. "Can you imagine the kind of tourist crowds that we’d be getting right now?" he says, surveying the Galveston skyline from his front porch. "We’d have more visitors than anybody west of the Missisippi except maybe LA."
If that sounds like an exaggeration, it’s only a very slight one; Galveston did indeed have a fairly solid tourism industry going prior to the hurricane, an industry which only now is starting to recover from the blows inflicted on it by Fiona. The expense of cleaning up the aftermath of the storm impacted on Galveston’s municipal budget to the point where the city’s tourism bureau was forced to shut down for 18 months after the hurricane. A US Commerce Department survey of the Galveston area taken in 2039 estimates that had Hurricane Fiona not hit the city in 2028, Galveston and its suburbs would have made as much as $430 billion in revenue from tourism.
Since the death of Fidel Castro and the subsequent collapse of the Marxist dictatorship he once headed, Cuba has been a country struggling socially and economically to achieve some measure of post-Communist prosperity. Hurricane Fiona didn’t in any wise make this task easier; indeed, it complicated the job to a considerable degree and exacerbated the domestic political turmoil the country suffered in the early years of post-Communist rule. But would things have been this bad if the hurricane had never touched the island?
One man well-suited to grapple with this thorny topic is Reynaldo Mendes, the now-retired former economic minister who had the rather unenviable task of trying to create the foundations for a post-Castro Cuban economy from the ruins of the Communist regime’s demise. He’s written five books on the subject, four of which have been translated into English and published in the United States.
"We still would have had a great many problems, yes," says Mendes, "but it is doubtful they would be quite as serious if the hurricane hadn’t struck our island." Remembering a visit he took to a tourist resort on Cuba’s eastern tip shortly after the storm left the island, he observes: "So much prosperity was lost in those days....Fiona took our economic health and stomped on it like it was a bug. The moment I first saw what the hurricane had done to the hotel, I wanted to cry. That hotel represented Cuba’s best hope for quickly lifting herself up from the hardship she had known in the first few years after the Castros fell from power."
He’s not alone in that assessment; a Cuban Economic Ministry study published last fall concludes that had the island not been struck by Hurricane Fiona, tourism revenues between 2028 and 2037 would have been at least 40% higher than they were in real life. Even with the economic boom the island has been starting to enjoy of late, the average Cuban citizen still has a hard time making ends meet in the post-Fiona years.
However, Cuba is relatively well-off compared to Haiti; as has been previously mentioned in this series, Hurricane Fiona left the luckless Haitian people in a state of misery and near-anarchy which still plagues them even now. The island has spent most of the past fifteen-plus years in a state of near-perpetual civil war; not only are various political factions waging attacks on each other and what passes for a Haitian national government, but armed gangs run what might be called ‘shadow kingdoms’ in the poorest parts of the island.
Predictably, many of the worst of these gangs are run and financed by former secret police operatives of the deposed former dictator Jean-Michel Chevalier. When his regime collapsed in the wake of Fiona’s rampage through the island, such operatives turned to crime as a means of continuing the careers of torture, looting, and murder they had so zealously pursued under his rule; despite countless attempts to break up the gangs, they continue to operate wherever they please, and there is increasing sentiment both in Haiti and abroad that foreign intervention may once again be needed to restore law and order to the nation.
One of those seeking outside help to pull Haiti’s ruined society back together is Aristotle Cedras, a university professor and the the estranged younger brother of Chevalier’s right-hand man General Henri-Christophe Cedras. For more than a decade, Prof. Cedras has been keeping a running journal of Hurricane Fiona’s effects on the island, and its pages tell a heartbreaking store of an already bleak place becoming even bleaker. Much of this he blames on his brother the general, whom he has not seen or spoken to since Henri-Christophe fled Haiti along with Chevalier when Chevalier’s regime collapsed in 2029; the way the professor sees it, his brother’s harsh crackdowns on dissenters both before and after Fiona helped pour gasoline on a raging fire.
"It would have been so much easier to get justice for ourselves, to achieve a truly democratic government, if that infernal hurricane hadn’t come along and knocked everybody down." Professor Cedras is a highly excitable man, and as he propounds his views he makes animated motions with his hands, at one point literally banging his fist to underscore a point. "A lot of the evidence we could have used to hold Chevalier and his trained pet monkey4 accountable for what they did to this country was lost when the storm came through, and then when the riots started it was like pouring salt in the wound the way the secret police came and started cracking the heads of everybody who didn’t agree with Chevalier." His voice takes on a melancholy tone when he answers the question of what Haiti would be like today minus the damage inflicted by the storm: "I’m not saying this island would be a paradise by any means, mind you, but without Fiona tearing its way through here like a bull in a china shop we’d have stood a much better chance of getting on our own two feet economically as well as socially."
Walking past the overblown bronze statue of Jean-Michel Chevalier that still stands in downtown Port-au-Prince, Professor Cedras has to fight to stave off a crushing feeling of depression. "You know," he sighs, "I sometimes think he deliberately had that hurricane sent to Haiti just to make things miserable for everyone who didn’t bow down at his feet...he was like a spoiled child who breaks things when they don’t get their way."
Does he think Chevalier could have stayed in power beyond 2029 if the hurricane had never happened? "Not really. People hated him too much. If he hadn’t been put in jail for his crimes someone would have shot him, I wager..." Could Professor Cedras’ brother have taken over as ruler of Haiti if Chevalier had been killed or otherwise removed from office in a timeline without Fiona? "Difficult to say. A lot of the civilian politicians didn’t trust him, but he had the police and most of the army to back him up, at least for a while...it would have also taken a bit of luck." He doesn’t buy the idea of supernatural entities keeping the Chevalier statue from being torn down, but he does agree that its continuing presence accurately symbolizes the psychological scars Chevalier’s regime has left on his country.
We close our speculations, and this series, with an observation from former Texas lieutenant governor Stan Reardon that neatly if somewhat pessimistically sums up the emotional and psychological pain Hurricane Fiona inflicted on those who lived in the areas where it struck: "If there is a God, he must have been on vacation in June of 2028, because otherwise that stupid hurricane never would have shown up and the world would be in a lot better shape today."5
1The NBA’s Rockets might have left the city too had it not been for a Rice University alumni with deep pockets and a yen for basketball who ponied up close to $80 million of his own cash to expedite post-Fiona repairs on the Rockets’ home arena.
2Quoted from the article "The Day Houston Sports Died" in the June 21st, 2038 Houston Post.
3It marked the second time in NHL history Kansas City had been awarded a franchise; the first came in the mid-1970s.
4Professor Cedras’ unflattering nickname for his older brother…and incidentally, one of the more polite things the general’s critics have said about him.
5The author feels that Lt. Gov. Reardon’s views on God have become too cynical and has told him as much when they met at a Boston Museum of Science Q&A session about the hurricane. He agrees with Reardon, however, that the world would be a better place today if Fiona had never happened.