In Hurricane Season
Old Florida hands (and there are some, even in this new, garish, flattest and most rootless of states) measure out their lives in hurricane names. They remember particular angles of attack, depths of flooding, wind velocities and force measurements, destructiveness in dollar amounts. I can see objects being pushed illustratively around a bar-room table. It’s a form of higher geekishness, each man (and of course they’re usually men) his own survivalist. It’s one of those occasional bits of Floridiana that remind me that people were never actually meant to live here, and that being here converts you into a leathery, eccentric kind of specialist, something like the ‘old sailor,/Drunk and asleep in his boots’ of Stevens’s poem, who ‘Catches tigers/In red weather’.
I may have been here or partly here a long time – Gainesville or, as it’s become known, the I-75 corridor – but I’m a relative newcomer to ‘hurricane season’. Perhaps eight or nine years, and this is my first real one. Ordinarily, being this far north and bang inland would mean you’d just catch the feeble tail end of something. This time, though, Irma was all over the state, like injudicious Marmite on a buttered toast finger. I imagine people fleeing from South Florida getting here, and carrying on fleeing. A kind of triple jump, from Miami to Tampa, Tampa to Gainesville, Gainesville to points north, or even out of state.
Things in America aspire to the condition of wars or sporting events. These tend to be over-prepared, wildly partisan/patriotic and preferably one-sided. They begin as an expensive orgy of logistics and end as a pretext for snacking. An acceptable default-mode is concerted panic. Things go better if there is an opponent around on whom to focus. This morning, on the radio, I thought I heard about Burma going on to attack Alabama and Georgia; I was perplexed; I always double-take on ‘Georgia’ anyway. Of course I misheard ‘Irma’. Still, the malign intentionality of the alien invader is there (the ‘eye-wall,’ the wanton speeding up and slowing down, the treacherous changes of direction), and the need, of course, for self-defence on the part of those innocents under attack. Bottled water disappeared from the shops here days ago; 60 per cent of the gas stations were dry.
On Friday, I think it was, there was so much traffic on the roads, I was surprised not to see more traffic policemen; the university primly closed down; it was a perfectly blameless day. We got bored. The storm was stalling on us; what was it still doing in Cuba/the Upper Keys/Marco Island? It refused to cross the horizon of expectation, and set foot on our home turf. The radio had cancelled its normal programme, and had gone into a sort of permanent by-election mode lasting days. The only thing missing was martial music. Saturday was grey all day, and rained powerfully, splashily, whitely. Sometimes you do feel it’s the tropics. One or two of my neighbours boarded up their windows; some had sandbags laid out. I stabled my bicycles. Even as the wind got up, a team of tree-surgeons took down one neighbourhood tree, then another, calling up and down in twangy voices.
Inevitably, by a kind of meteorological Sod’s Law, the thing finally caught up with us at night on Sunday. (Last year’s Hermine hit us at night, too.) I had the wall radio on (largely to test that the electricity remained on), made sure I had battery radio, glasses (why – I only need them to read) and matches to hand, kept getting up to look around. My neighbours’ white security lights underlit the palmettoes and bushes tossing between us; a kind of flying wet black gleam. And of course warm as a dog’s tongue. I did the householder’s prowl; at one end I could hear the wind, at the other, see columns of white water pouring off the roof. The radio kept going; almost more than weather details, you got updates about the numbers now without electricity, from trees and limbs falling on the lines. Everything is sooner or later computed in dollars. I saw lightning flickering at about one o’clock, and then a metallic green sky, the colour of a mint chocolate wrapper. I thought it might be the Southern Lights, or something. Later, I was told, it was probably a transformer.
By this stage, I was so played out from boredom and nerves that I was asleep from three to six, which was mostly when the hurricane (or now ‘tropical storm’?) was doing its business. If I’d had a spare mattress, I might have gone and slept in the corridor (‘an internal room’) as the tornadophobes on the radio advised. It was still dark when I got up, still blowing, still raining. One of the neighbours’ trees lay across the whole yard, forty, fifty feet, a lurchy laurel-oak festooned with strangler-figs and something making footlong beans. It seemed to be amorously nuzzling up against the door and the windows everywhere (the house is L-shaped). When it was light, it felt like there was a dead elephant outside, ten feet high, occupying all available space, an illustration of the concept ‘sideways’. The house was intact, though it felt vaguely submerged; if the tree had fainted into my arms, I could hardly have laid it out anywhere with more care or considerateness.
Life is binary. Yes or no, up or down, hit or miss. The odds are changing. Not even America can carry on losing a city a week, now Houston, now Miami (or Jacksonville?), and then making its ritual short-term displays of solidarity or generosity (and Melania’s heels). It seems completely absurd to deny global warming or climate change, in Florida as much as Bangladesh. Politics has got into everything, but they try and tell you, oh no, this is still weather. Governors and presidents would rather talk about the weather. It looks like many more years ahead of innocence, outrage and moving on for the people of America: doing the immemorial covered wagon thing, bundling into their cars with all their bits and bobs, and driving to shelters or friends or hotels up the highway. Only the storms seem to know about the highways too, now. Their names have got our numbers.