What I’ve Learned From a Life Filled With Hurricanes

9 minute read
Arnett is the author of the novels Mostly Dead Things and With Teeth

We’re at Lowe’s buying plants, but all the signs posted around the garden center are about propane tanks and the upcoming hurricane. ONE PER CUSTOMER, someone has scrawled in black marker. My girlfriend and I have just moved back to Orlando after spending two years in Miami and before that, six months in Las Vegas for a residency that coincided almost exactly with the start of the pandemic. Before all of that, my roots had slid snug and deep into the soil of Orlando. It is a pleasure to be back home, but as usual, it’s a pleasure tinged with pain. Our things are still sitting in boxes and Hurricane Ian’s eye is headed straight for us. We leave with a couple of new plants, draped over the back seat like wild green mermaid hair. We won’t put them outside just yet. They’ll have to live in the house with us for the duration of the storm.

I’d just set up the yard. There are swaths of Edison bulbs, lights strung around the planters, and the heavy-duty plastic chairs that I acquired for seating around a brand-new firepit. All of it must go inside the garage, including a free-standing umbrella that I bought on a whim, one that allows the perfect amount of shade when I sit outside to write or enjoy a beer. It takes twice as long to take everything down as it did to put it up. I watch the yard turn back to its natural state. There’s a wealth of kudzu, potato vines, tree branches dripping with Spanish moss. It looks like we were never there at all. That is what Florida does, maybe. It takes itself back, over and over again. It wants to be wild. But I still want to sit there and be wild with it.

We should buy water, I say, at Publix. It’s the Saturday before Ian is scheduled to make landfall – though it’s still projected as a tropical depression. “Still” is an interesting word choice here, I know, one that I employ as a lifelong Floridian who has weathered my fair share of storms. I talk about hurricane prep with my non-Floridian girlfriend, who is nervous, but I try to make everything seem manageable. Here are the steps, I say, listing items off on my fingers as we meander down the increasingly crowded aisles of the grocery store. Water, batteries, unscented candles. Shelf-stable food items. Chex Mix is on sale, buy one, get one free, so I grab two family-sized bags. I’ve only ever participated in hurricane prep in the way that many Central Floridians do, which is to joke that it’s a good excuse to have a party.

Read More: Yes, Climate Change Is Making Storms Like Hurricane Ian Worse

We start a group chat with our friends so we can keep track of each other. We are spread out around town, some of us North, some of us East, and none of us know whose power will last the longest and who will get theirs back first. Whoever’s home has power can host, we say. Whoever has power can provide water so people can shower and eat and sit in the air conditioning. There can be food and beer and company. Company is the most important part.

Friends text from all over. Advice from people who’ve weathered other hurricanes, too, larger ones like Katrina. My writer friend, Lauren, offers up space if we need to travel away, says we are welcome to take her parent’s unoccupied house in Gainesville, that we can stay there while we wait to see what will happen next. I send them my love. We’re fine here, I reply. But I thank them for worrying. It’s hard to know exactly what we’ll need until after it’s all over.

Perhaps that is the thing that makes hurricanes so difficult. There is no knowing what will occur so there is no way to adequately prepare. There is no understanding what will be the best-case scenario or maybe even the worst. There is just watching and waiting. There is looking up at the blue, cloudless sky and understanding that in less than 24 hours it could be roiling black with clouds, wind knocking into the oaks that line the backyard, slamming projectile debris into the side of our new home. This place has got so much natural light, I’d said admiringly when we did our first walk-through. Oh God, there are so many windows, I say once I learn of the incoming storm, and I’m thinking not about the way the light gets in, but the way that glass can break all at once. What to do if a window does break, especially one high up? I’ve got a tarp, but no ladder.

During Hurricane Irma in 2017, I hunkered down in the dark as the wind whipped around the yard of a different home and listened to the crash of a gigantic tree as it ripped free of its mooring. The sound was so loud I could not tell where it had actually hit. Against my better judgment, I pushed open the front door and peered into the inky black. All the power was off down the street, around the block, and there was no way to see what had happened. There was just noise. In the morning, I was able to walk outside and see that one of the large oaks from the shared lawn with our neighbor had chosen its own path. In the coin toss of life, the tree had decided to swipe right instead of left, crashing onto my neighbor’s garage instead of smashing through my roof. Up and down the street, we waved to each other and asked who needed help: arms to carry and lift dead branches, tools to cut them up, trucks to drag and haul them away from our homes. Water, carted in children’s wagons. Whatever food we could share: tinfoil-wrapped pizza rolls and chicken strips from our freezers cooked over the grated top of a firepit. We sweat and glistened in the Florida heat. We waited together.

Read More: Why Atlantic Hurricanes Are Getting Stronger Faster Than Other Storms

Before that, in 2004, Hurricane Charley swept the same neighborhood and culled what felt like hundreds of the beautiful old live oak trees that line the streets in Central Florida. In the aftermath of this, my grandfather climbed onto his roof and used the muscles he’d accrued from years of moving furniture to hack up the large branches that had fallen atop my grandparents’ home. He sweat and labored for hours over this, and a few nights later succumbed to a massive heart attack while my grandmother slept fitfully in the bed. He’d gotten up in the middle of the night to get her a cold compress for her leg, which had been bothering her for days. When she woke later on, still in pain, she found him in the chair beside her, already gone.

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

This time, when the hurricane comes, I’m in the new place with my girlfriend, as ready as we’re able. My son–who I had when I was young enough to still be with my own family, a teenager–is living and experiencing his first hurricane on his own. We talk on the phone while we still have power and cell service, texting questions, comparing notes about the differences between this storm and the last ones that have swung through the area. We look at the meteorological data together that’s displayed hourly on the news. Everyone becomes an armchair weather person whenever there’s a hurricane, I joke, but I can tell my son takes it seriously.

Will this one be worse? he asks. He can’t really remember the other ones that came before, when he was still young enough that I could think about the storm for him. A teenager for Hurricane Irma, more worried about a lack of internet at the time than the larger looming threat of natural disaster. But now, an adult himself, he wants to know: will this one be worse?

They’ll all be worse. Each one worse than the last, I think, because our government isn’t doing nearly enough to address the reality that our state is sinking into the ocean, that the climate is shifting and changing and sliding into something wildly and completely untenable. But that is not what I want to say to my son, who has so much life left in him, so I think about the poem by Maggie Smith, 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 with light afterward. Not the rainbow, like I was taught by my evangelical parents – a loveliness that comes with strings attached – but rather a brightness that could mean there are people out there searching for you. Community, that shining beacon, hands outstretched and ready to help free you from any lasting damage.

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