In the Bahamas, there are more immigrants from Haiti than from all other countries combined. They make up perhaps 10 per cent of the population, which totals 400,000, but it’s hard to know for sure. Among their ranks are thousands of people born in the Bahamas to undocumented parents, who are effectively stateless: the Bahamas does not grant birthright citizenship. Merely to appear Haitian is to risk detention and deportation. A 2014 policy requires non-citizens to carry passports. According to rights groups, the police use the policy to harass and extort money from Haitian immigrants afraid of being deported. Round-ups and raids are frequent. Last year, the courts halted a government plan to raze Haitian shanty towns. Hurricane Dorian has accomplished what the government could not.
In Michel Faber’s novel The Book of Strange New Things (2014), a Christian missionary called Peter travels to a faraway planet called Oasis to spread the word of god to an earnest population of alien beings. While away, he receives emails from his wife, Bea, at home in the UK. As Peter feels increasingly settled in Oasis, Bea’s news from home takes a turn for the uncanny and ultimately terrifying. Britain and the Earth are in trouble: her messages lists a series of natural calamities across the globe, from freak weather to volcanic eruptions, to the complete disappearance of the Maldives into the Indian Ocean. ‘Stay where you are,’ Bea writes in her last message. I was forcefully reminded of Faber’s novel by recent events in Mexico and the Caribbean. The images coming out of Puerto Rico, where I was born and where my mother still lives, show an island that, more often than not beset by drought, is now drowning and on its knees. I want to go back, but I can’t go back, not while flights are cancelled and there is an indefinite curfew in place.
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’.