What a lifelong Floridian understands about hurricanes

wWe are at Lowe’s to buy plants, but all the signs posted around the garden center talk about propane cylinders and the impending hurricane. ONE PER CUSTOMER, someone scribbled with black marker. My girlfriend and I just returned to Orlando after spending two years in Miami and, before that, six months in Las Vegas for a residency that almost exactly coincided with the start of the pandemic. Before that, my roots had slipped snugly and deep into Orlando’s soil. It is a pleasure to come home, but as usual it is a pleasure tinged with pain. Our things are still in the boxes and the eye of Hurricane Ian is pointed straight at us. Let’s start with a couple of new plants, draped across the back seat like a wild green mermaid’s hair. We won’t put them out yet. They will have to live in the house with us for the duration of the storm.

I was just setting up the courtyard. There are strips of Edison bulbs, lights hanging around the planters, and the heavy-duty plastic chairs I bought to sit around a brand new hearth. Everything has to go inside the garage, including a floor umbrella I bought on a whim, one that allows for the perfect amount of shade when I sit outside writing or enjoying a beer. It takes twice as long to take everything apart to assemble. I watch the courtyard return to its natural state. There is an abundance of kudzu, potato vines, tree branches dripping with Spanish moss. It seems we have never been there. This is what Florida does, perhaps. It recovers, again and again. He wants to be wild. But I still want to sit there and go wild.

We should buy water, I say, at Publix. It’s the Saturday before Ian lands, even though it’s still projected as a tropical depression. “Anchor” is an interesting choice of words here, I know, one that I use as a Floridian all my life that has withstood my fair share of storms. I talk about preparing for hurricanes with my non-Floridian girlfriend, who is nervous, but I try to make everything look manageable. Here are the steps, I say, listing items on my fingers as we walk the increasingly crowded aisles of the grocery store. Water, batteries, odorless candles. Stable foods on the shelf. Chex Mix is ​​on sale, buy one, get one for free, so I’ll get two family size bags. I’ve only ever participated in hurricane preparation the way many Central Florida residents do, which is to joke that it’s a good excuse to throw a party.

Read more: Yes, climate change is worsening storms like Hurricane Ian

Let’s start a group chat with our friends so we can keep track of each other. We are scattered around the city, some of us in the north, some in the east, and none of us know which power will last longer and who will take it back first. Whoever has power in the house can host, let’s say. Those with electricity can provide water so that people can shower, eat and sit in the air conditioning. There can be food, beer, and company. The company is the most important part.

SMS from friends from all over. Advice from people who have also withstood other hurricanes, bigger ones like Katrina. My writer friend, Lauren, offers space if we have to leave, she says we are welcome to take her parents’ vacant house in Gainesville, that we can stay there while we wait to see what happens next. I send them my love. We’re fine here, I reply. But thank them for caring. It’s hard to know exactly what we’re going to need until it’s all over.

Maybe that’s the point that makes hurricanes so difficult. It is not known what will happen, so there is no way to prepare properly. It is not clear what the best or perhaps even worst scenario will be. There is only to watch and wait. There is the gaze into the cloudless blue sky and the understanding that in less than 24 hours it could be seething black with clouds, wind slamming against the oaks lining the yard, slamming bullet debris against the side of our new home. This place has so much natural lightI said with admiration when we took our first walk-through. Oh God, there are so many windows, I say once I learned of the storm coming, and I’m not thinking about the way the light comes in, but about the way that glass can break all at once. What to do if a window breaks, especially the one above? I have a tarp, but no ladder.

During Hurricane Irma in 2017, I huddled in the dark as the wind whipped into another home’s yard and listened to the crash of a giant tree as it freed itself from its mooring. The sound was so loud that I couldn’t figure out where it had actually hit. Against my best judgment, I pushed the front door and peered into the black as ink. All the power was off down the street, around the block, and there was no way to see what had happened. There was only noise. In the morning, I was able to go out and see that one of the large oaks in the meadow shared with our neighbor had chosen its path. In the flip of the coin of life, the tree had decided to slide right instead of left, crashing into my neighbor’s garage instead of breaking through my roof. Up and down the street, we said goodbye and asked who needed help: weapons to carry and lift deadwood, tools to cut them, trucks to drag them and take them away from our homes. Water, transported in children’s wagons. Whatever food we might share: foil-wrapped pizza rolls and chicken strips from our freezers cooked over the grated top of a brazier. We sweated and glowed in the Florida heat. We waited together.

Read more: Because Atlantic hurricanes are getting stronger faster than other storms

Before that, in 2004, Hurricane Charley wiped out the same neighborhood and cut down what looked like hundreds of beautiful old live oaks lining the streets of Central Florida. Following that, my grandfather climbed onto his roof and used the muscles he had gained from years of moving furniture to cut the big branches that had fallen on my grandparents’ house. He sweated and worked for hours on this, and a few nights later he succumbed to a huge heart attack while my grandmother was jerking off in bed. He had got up in the middle of the night to make a cold pack for her leg, which had bothered her for days. When he woke up later, still suffering, he found him in her chair next to her, already gone.

What do storms take away from us? What can be cut from the body of this place, or from ourselves, and we both still manage to exist? What is recovery?

This time, when the hurricane arrives, I’m in the new place with my girlfriend, ready as much as we can. My son, who I had when I was young enough to still be with my family, a teenager, is experiencing and experiencing his first hurricane alone. We talk on the phone while we still have power and cellular service, we write questions, we compare notes on the differences between this storm and the last ones that have crossed the area. Let’s look together at the weather data that is displayed every hour on the news. Everyone becomes an armchair person when there is a hurricane, I’m kidding, but I can tell my son takes it seriously.

Will this be worse? he asks. She can’t really remember the others who came before, when she was still young enough to think about the storm for him. A teenager over Hurricane Irma, more worried about the lack of the Internet at the time than about the biggest looming threat of a natural disaster. But now, as an adult himself, he wants to know: will this be worse?

They will all be worse. Each worse than the last, I believe, because our government is not doing enough to face the reality that our state is sinking into the ocean, that the climate is changing and changing and sliding into something wildly and completely unsustainable. But that’s not what I want to say to my son, who has so much life left inside him, so I think of Maggie Smith’s poem, the one about how life is short and our children need beauty. I say the storm will pass. I tell him that every storm comes after with the light. Not the rainbow, as I was taught by my evangelical parents – a beauty that comes with threads attached – but rather a brightness that could mean there are people out there looking for you. Community, that shining beacon, hands outstretched and ready to help you free yourself from any lasting damage.

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