At home in a storm's wake

The scenes of recovery after Irma, still unfolding, have a fraught grace, and memories of the storm are raw.

A BOAT sits on what used to be a house following Hurricane Irma in Big Pine Key, Florida. (photo credit: CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS)
A BOAT sits on what used to be a house following Hurricane Irma in Big Pine Key, Florida.
Whatever the clichés about South Florida, the requiems for plundered wetlands and the bemoaning of development’s impact, people will keep coming here to live, and they’ll become frontiersmen when it comes to surviving hurricanes. That means calling home a state where, in its post-storm delirium, flattened mobile home parks are resurrected; new construction resumes its creep along the shore; the business of restoration booms; tourists, like supplicants, seek the beaches in greater numbers and our marriage with nature grows more perverse.
The scenes of recovery after Irma, still unfolding, have a fraught grace, and memories of the storm are raw. Our electrical grids blew apart like so much lace. Men in helmets operated on frayed power lines. Wooden electrical poles leaned into houses, trees cleaved roofs and cranes dangled over human life. For days I heard the generators all around me – a loud, droning refusal to be Zen about this, to go without cable, cold beer or life itself. For the elderly and frail among us, the lack of a generator means a heat-accelerated death.
After Irma passed, the powerless took to their cars – we’re often in our cars down here – in a hunt for bags of ice, or to listen for updates on the boil-water orders and curfew times in our cities. Supermarkets were among the first businesses to reopen, and they became harshly lit cathedrals of middle-class refuge. In many of them, whole families were sprawled on cool floors. Phones charged in every available outlet, cables hanging like IV drips. The ice cases were empty. With my family, I bought the few cold drinks I could find and looked for a free outlet. There was none. For creatures of optimal living, a sense of dispossession comes easily.
We went to our local beach in Hollywood – the coast that millions fled. The bars and cafes were shuttered.
Stranded tourists played in the churning surf, the sea still unsettled. We walked toward the water with the other recent evacuees, sobered by the sight of an ocean where storms like Irma breed. Shop owners had scrawled taunts on wooden planks nailed to doors: “Irmageddon” and “Bring It On.”
We got word a local rabbi and his wife had opened their generator-powered home to anyone of any creed needing a place to cool off, or get a cold drink. I saw myself accepting bottled lemonade and wilting on the couch of kind strangers, but our nagging guilt as unaffiliated Jews prevailed, and we vowed instead to join a synagogue once and for all, at some future point, after this too had passed.
At yet another supermarket, we plugged into the news and followed the count of the dead – the man who fell two stories putting up shutters; the car accidents; the heart attacks; carbon monoxide poisonings; the elderly who sweltered to death in a nursing home. Parts of the Keys were in shreds. Those who fled to Orlando, Naples, the Georgia coast, only to have Irma stalk them there, now migrated home. I looked up from my screen to see that the shoppers were restored to themselves, carts bulging like packed mules. Where we sat, an enclosed corner with tables and outlets, the calm felt auspicious.
We learned the malls were reopening, and we could shop there again or at least circle around the bright possibilities.
(An elderly widower I once met used to do just that – walk the malls – after he’d watched his dying wife be pulled from their wrecked car.) Sure enough we went and saw Irma refugees charging phones and laptops. They slept in lounge chairs and sat in food courts. Malls too had become places of anonymous communion.
In some homes, the shutters are still on and will be for weeks – relics of effort and exhaustion. Inevitably, we’ll brace for the next storm, perhaps next year – sealing off all we have, even ourselves, behind metal, sandbags and duct tape. Wherever we’re holed up, and while there’s power, we’ll watch CNN weathermen predict our destruction.
We’ll break into our hurricane food reserves before the first gusts. And we’ll entertain our bored kids.
Most people are resigned to this ritual, and alert to it.
It’s part of living with nature’s constant encroachment in South Florida. Lizards will hatch in the bathrooms.
Ducks will cross the roads and stop traffic. Monk parrots will shriek from the trees. And scandalized palmetto bugs will run for cover every time a light is switched on.
More ominously in this theater of climate change, the ocean will rise and erode. The wind will rage. And our most solid moorings will either hold or not, just as the governor sends his bleakest prayers.
Back home, the lights came on three days after the storm. My nine-year-old son danced, briefly, before it was time to rake more leaves, clear breakage. Some homes still remained half-entombed. Large trucks, rusted pickups and construction loaders lumbered through the streets like the mastodons that once roamed here. Live oaks lay in sculptural fragments on the ground. The wind had stripped away most of a funeral home’s small billboard, leaving only the words “Casket Included.”
For those of us spared real devastation – like the deadly flooding in Houston or flattened homes in Puerto Rico – it was more the work of reclamation than survival that unfolded. And it was a comforting tableau – the organized frenzy of men and women hauling the state out of this disruption. Even high-end restaurateurs held free cookouts – lobster and lamb shanks – for the poor and hungry forced more deeply into poverty after each storm.
In the meantime, children in the neighborhood scoured the debris – washed up coral, a slab of someone’s private dock, a branch shaped like antlers, a pair of unscathed Ray-Ban sunglasses. They read actual books that no one assigned.
From the perch of an intact house, they’ll remember the days after Irma as a way of life. No power, no school, no mandated routines. At home, we woke with the natural light and slept when it wasn’t long gone. The heat outside, inside, was strong enough to induce birth. The only choice was to get used to it and note the slightest breeze.
And, without a city’s electrical glare blanching the night skies, to see the stars and be in real darkness.
The author is a freelance writer in Hollywood, Florida.