If you live on an island, or on the coast, or are facing the dirty side of a monster hurricane, stop reading this blog post – disregard its stories and sentiments entirely.
Like in Puerto Rico.
Hurricane David, Folly Beach, SC
Sand in my swimsuit, sinuses salt-water scoured, wet hanks of bangs too heavy to brush off my face, I squinted against the adamant rain and wind. There was nothing to see but gray – sky, sea, shoreline, even my waterlogged companions faded to gray in the color-sucking mist.
My mother and her father had taught me how to body surf – how to fight through the breakers, how to float up and down in the rolling ocean, just past the violent ruffles of seawater that broke in a sandy white crash and rushed to throw themselves against the shore. I knew to wait for the pull of the perfect wave, judging by feel instead of sight, because a swell that looked huge might have no power underneath. A good wave for riding has a backwards pull, an almost-hollow suck, as if for a tiny human moment the ocean is holding Her breath. This powerful absence, the hesitation of the ocean’s heartbeat, indicates a wave with enough energy to propel the human body across the surface of the ocean.
I’d been swimming since I was three, in the neighborhood pool of my trailer park, in the placid canals of Key Largo and Islamorada, in the sweet, sublime surf of the Gulf of Mexico south of Tallahassee, in the deep freshwater lakes surrounding Walt Disney World, and finally, epically, in the powerful Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, where my mother’s family were from. I was eight years old and I could swim like a beast. I knew what the slick pull of a riptide felt like and how to handle one. I knew what to do when a wave tumbled you end-over-gritty-end and would not let you surface to breathe. I knew that water doesn’t drown you, panic does.
And I knew there was nothing worse than a disappointing wave – kicking hard to get in front of it only to have it crest and dissipate.
But there are no bad waves in a hurricane. There is nothing but power, and purpose, and an energy that’s easy and addictive.
This is where I come from.
The Benefits of Hurricanes
Humans have fucked up our coasts. We overbuild in flood zones and pave over necessary green space. We cut down benevolent trees (we think they are our enemies in hurricanes) that act as water pumps and help prevent flooding.
Our inadequate septic systems and obsession with pesticides and fertilizers pollute the waters we need to eat and drink from. Need to play in. Need for spiritual communion, emotional wellbeing, and mental health.
We’ve drained and developed wetlands that act as important barriers against storms and breeding grounds for fish and other wild creatures we need in our ecosystems.
Because we cannot stop burning fossil fuel or even agree on human-caused climate change, we are caught in a vicious cycle of weird, dangerous weather that includes both stronger storms and brutal droughts.
But hurricanes can help. They break up red tides and pump oxygen into the oceans. They bring rainfall to areas stricken by drought. They distribute heat between the equator and the polls and help balance the temperatures of our planet. And they restore nutrients and sediments to our barrier islands (at the same time as they nibble away at them).
Read more, and read the story of researchers flying into a hurricane:
My Crazy Florida Family
On that long-ago September day the weather was rough, but the rain was warm and the sea was perfect for body-surfing. The three of us – my favorite cousin, my grandfather, and I – had overruled my grandmother’s common sense. This was our beach vacation, and the storm was not going to stop us.
And it was superlative. Every wave carried us far, flung us, flipped us; the ocean coughed us up shouting with a glee you could barely hear over the horizontal wind.
By the time we were safe inside the beige bunker of our condo, toweling off with my grandmother’s tsk-tsks as our soundtrack, our electricity still intact, the radio was announcing that Hurricane David was passing over Folly Beach.
Eight-years-old was a long time ago, and after the triple-gut-punch of Harvey, Irma, and Maria, I asked my mother if it was really possible my grandfather had taken us swimming in hurricane-tossed waters.
Maybe it was the days leading up to it, she said. I can’t imagine he would have taken you and Shannon out during an actual hurricane.
Neither of us knew quite what to think – my grandfather was a practical, responsible provider, but in his heart of hearts he was a madman who planned to swim across the Atlantic Ocean in the wake of giant ships headed to Europe with supplies for the Allies in World War II. His most infamous story was about body surfing in a hurricane at Charleston’s Battery Park, meeting a wave larger than even he could handle, gasping, grasping, desperate to grab anything at all to keep him from being swept out to sea. He found an anchor, something solid to hold onto, and when the wave receded he was death-gripping the metal gunstock of the soldier at the top of a monument, floating on a 10-foot storm surge.
He had a tiny sail boat we took out on the overly placid lake near his home, but it was only truly fun in the frisky breezes at the beginning of a storm, lightning and the metal mast be damned.
Years into his retirement he and I hiked four miles to the top of a waterfall out West while my grandmother prayed us safe in the trailhead parking lot and tried to decide when to call the park rangers and paramedics. He had chest pains, but he never let on.
On his death bed in Lake Placid, Florida, he and I watched CNN footage of crazy Conchs throwing themselves into the waves off of Card Sound Bridge during Hurricane Wilma. He smiled around his oxygen mask and met my eyes. I knew he wanted to be there, and I smiled back because that was what I loved about him the most.
This is where I come from.
Did the Hurricanes Change, or Did We?
When did we as a society start to fear hurricanes so? When did they become so frightening? Did the hurricanes change, or did we?
The first hurricane I was ever afraid of was Gilbert, a category five monster who killed hundreds in Jamaica, destroyed half the structures in Cancun, and then threatened to ravage Galveston, Texas. It was just weeks after I moved into the freshman dorm for college at Texas A&M’s marine-studies branch in the fall of 1988.
My friends and I thrived on the epic drama – we whispered “the eye is 40 miles across” and “the winds are more than 175 mph” to each other every five minutes, we made weepy phone calls home to our families, and we skipped biology lab to pack everything we couldn’t live without into my Toyota hatchback to flee the storm.
I remember locking the door to my second-story dorm room, certain I would never see it again. It would be smashed and scoured by Gilbert’s mighty winds. What if the entire campus washed away in the brutish storm surge, where would we go to college then?
Gilbert missed Galveston and Houston. The landfall missed Texas altogether, although eventually it spawned tornadoes that killed three near Dallas.
I was hunkered inland, awaiting near-catastrophe with 17-year-old-away-from-home-for-the-first-time glee. But we didn’t get rain, or wind, or any sign of a storm whatsoever.
I got a B in Biology Lab because I couldn’t make up the experiment I missed. But I couldn’t really blame that on Gilbert, could I?
My mother still remembers my pitiful phone call home before fleeing from Hurricane Gilbert. My mother remembers everything – she is the only human I know of whose memory is superior to mine, and she has lived through hurricanes in Charleston, Miami, Tallahassee, and even on Long Island, New York. And so I asked her when we got so scared of hurricanes. Was it the 24 hour news psycho-cycle that did it? Are we just over-adrenalized, weak-ass snowflakes? Or is it an intelligent fear response to increasingly larger, more dangerous storms?
Was it Andrew, I asked her, that made us scared of hurricanes? Because the only reason Andrew was a problem was tepid building codes and South Florida corruption.
I think it was actually Kate, she said. We were without electricity for a week. A few people lost their houses. Our neighbors across the street woke up when a huge pine tree crushed their roof and almost hit their daughter in her bed. Up until then, hurricanes had always been fun.
Hurricanes Are Unpredictable
I get frustrated when smart people believe in a hurricane track a week before the storm is projected to make landfall. In my experience, hurricanes rarely go where they are supposed to.
Hurricane Jerry forced me to flee my New Orleans birthday party when he headed for the Big Easy. Instead, he squatted in the Gulf of Mexico and then hauled ass for Texas – chasing me, it seemed, lurking offshore, my weirdo hurricane stalker.
I took the last ferry from Bolivar Peninsula to Galveston Island less than two hours before Jerry landed. I will never forget watching the bow waves break over my car; I will always taste the salt of that wild water somewhere in my own body.
There wasn’t much damage to our tiny campus – some broken glass when the naughty Category 1 winds picked up rampant gravel and flung it, breaking the windows of three cars. The pool was full of debris, and the second floor of the windward side of the girls dorm was mini-flooded after a few hours of horizontal rain forced water under the seals of the sliding glass doors.
Jerry had diverged so wildly from the track humans made for him my college had made no preparations for handling his landfall. The storm hit us on Sunday night, and other than a cop or two in the campus cop shop, there was not a single staff member left to care for the roughly 900 of us who were unsupervised during the storm.
Ah, Texas, you libertarian playground.
We flew a man from the fourth floor of the co-ed dorm – attached a huge Army poncho to his wrists and ankles, put a rope around his waist, and watched him leap into the winds, a flying squirrel-maneuver that, miraculously, didn’t end in tragedy.
We raced each other on skate boards in the ground-floor breezeways with umbrellas pointed backwards until the cement was littered with their broken metal bones.
Surfers took their boards into the pool, balancing, bobbing, tuning their skills.
My friends and I ate cold chili and leftover birthday cake and learned how to jack water out of the water fountain after the electricity went off. We needed to make KoolAid so we had something to mix the rum into; the most basic boat drink of all.
Classes were cancelled the next day and we all slept off our hangovers in the sweet peace of a dark, still dorm, no hum and thrum and whir of that silly electricity to disturb our slumber. Thank God it was a cool October.
When we woke up we broke into the cafeteria and ate all the Captain Crunch we wanted until adult authority was restored.
And this is also where I come from.
Don’t Panic, Plan It
Less than a month ago, when Soon-to-be-Hurricane Nate snuck into the Gulf of Mexico, half a dozen well-meaning people asked me if my birthday beach weekend at St. George Island, Florida was ruined.
I could feel it – they wanted me to freak out and wring my hands.
They wanted to worry for me, panic with me. They wanted drama. They wanted to participate, even obliquely, in the 24-hour news pshyo-cycle.
And I understand that. Seventy-five people died in Florida in Hurricane Irma.
Of course, an average of 8.3 people a day die in Florida from traffic crashes alone. That’s just a little perspective for you – don’t get me started on diabetes, COPD, and other deaths that outlawing McDonald’s and cigarettes would prevent.
But as a hurricane veteran, I can tell you how to love a hurricane – have a sensible plan, prepare, follow it, and quit worrying. And if you wind up in a hurricane, sheltered safely inside, try to enjoy the energy, the magnificence, the beastly power of this force of nature.
These links can help:
- National Hurricane Center – maps to help you decide to flee or shelter, examples of emergency plans, and much more.
- Red Cross PDF – practical check lists of supplies and before and after to-do tasks.
- Broward County 10 Step Family Plan – Simple but thorough and easy to understand.
A Presence of Calm
I’m not here to invite you to a midnight swim in hurricane seas. There is a chance that I am unqualified to advise you on how to love a hurricane.
I am here to be a calming presence, the paramedic who never panics, able to be decisive and efficient during a life-threatening emergency.
In a hurricane, as in life, if you watch too much of the weather channel, you will feel the need to panic.
If you buy into the drama, you will feel the need to panic. And panic is a wave you do not want to ride.
Because water doesn’t drown you, panic does.
Not My Images
The image Florida Governor Bob Graham Cutting Away A Tree Limb Left Behind by Hurricane Kate is a photograph by Jerry Blankenship you can find on Florida Memory.
Flickr Commons Images:
All of the following images used in this blog post have the same CC license.
- Hurricane Ike – Galveston – Street Signs, by rhaaga
- Looking Out at Hurricane Irene, by The Shared Experience
- Irene, by Jerry Angelica
- Charleston – White Point Garden: Revolutionary War Monument – Defenders of Fort Moultrie, by Wally Gobetz
- After the Hurricane, by the Georgia National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Jerry Saslav
- Surfers Near Cherry Grove Pier in North Myrtle Beach During Hurricane Arthur, by Louis Keiner