Writing Out the Storm
Humor helped prepare us for anything—except reality.
You can get a virtual version of anything these days. For example, the wind. There’s a website for that. It made the rounds during the run-up to Hurricane Irma. Called windy.com, it’s an interactive depiction of the Earth with a real-time representation of the globe’s prevailing winds superimposed by way of a ceaseless crawl of multicolored streams.
Which is exactly the sort of festive distraction you need when a 400-mile-wide, 150 mph blender is on the verge of slapping you upside the head. You’re grateful for the momentary illusion that you’re not groveling in your hovel with your sandbags, crouched over your already-depleted store of snack food. Instead, you're soaring high above it all in your own personal space station, mildly curious about whether or not the mountain winds in Kyrgyzstan are coming from the north this time of year.
What distinguishes a hurricane in the lineup of natural disasters is how long it keeps you in the waiting room. It’s the barnyard cat, you’re the mouse, and we’re going to be playing a little game of ping-pong here, that is until we’re not. One thing I came to appreciate during this latest Florida-weather can-we-just-get-this-thing-over–with siege was the global-village information and open-mike entertainment scene that materialized on the Web. It helped make the waiting a bit more bearable as long as your Internet connection held out. The reality of the storm took it from there.
Up until then, there was comedy galore. Much of it—if you’re an old hand at this, you knew this was coming—involved mocking the breathless TV newscasters. I was born and raised in the North, but when a hurricane hits I’m suddenly southern enough to find it hilarious when an on-the-scene Yankee stands in the whipping wind and says: “Just look at those palm fronds. And those coconuts! They could become dangerous projectiles!”
I couldn’t help but identify with the Facebook poster who noted that the spaghetti-strand storm charts representing the various Irma-itinerary options across the Florida peninsula reminded him of the anatomical renderings he noticed on the walls during his recent trip to the urologist.
When the weather “experts” keep showing you stuff like that, it’s like being bored in class: You revert to middle-school mode just to keep from going insane. After hearing the phrase “cone of uncertainty” for the zillionth time I began to address fellow captive-audience Internet sufferers as fellow coneheads.
Someone picked up the reference to the old Saturday Night Live skits about dorky aliens and posed a “Consume Mass Quantities” picture. Then somebody who had dumped all their lawn furniture in their swimming pool, thinking themselves storm-savvy for using that strategy to keep it from flying about, posted a picture of the furniture, which was teak, bobbing at the surface instead of sinking.
Meanwhile I was enjoying my status as a grizzled, fearless sea captain, prepared to go down with the ship, among geographically challenged friends up north. They couldn’t believe, in the midst of the mass exodus they were watching on television and the end-of-days coastal footage the networks were feeding them from points further south, that I was planning on weathering the storm at home.
“Mike—you’re a hero!” one of them wrote.
I certainly did not feel that way once the power went out, the Internet link disappeared, and I was alone with the storm, listening to all the sounds that a single-story, concrete-block structure can make once a hurricane finally makes its way to your door and proceeds, in waves, to test every side of your house, each in a different way. The rapping at the windows on one side was like handfuls of BB’s being thrown at them. The way they rattled on the other side made it sound as if the wind was about to yank them out of their frames. Meanwhile, bowling balls were being rolled across the roof. Other noises were coming from inside, or at least I thought they were, which was when I had a momentary chill of a presence, somebody’s in here, knowing logically that no one was there and the house was holding up fine. But then that logic was swept away, erased by all the howling.
Then came a lull that lasted long enough for me to remember what had been my favorite Facebook message of all, posted by fellow writer Jennie Hess.
It was a paragraph from a Zora Neale Hurston novel based on the celebrated author's experiences growing up in the historically black community of Eatonville in the 1920s. Hurston would use the last five words of the paragraph to serve as the novel’s title.
The passage depicts the fearfulness of the town’s residents as they weathered the wrath of a hurricane in an era when there was no filter between them and the real thing.
"The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in their shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God."