Last weekend we had a hurricane. Kind of. We, more accurately, had the east side of a large, slow, and disorganized tropical storm that was mostly east side. Texas, across the Gulf, pining for water, got nothing while greedy Florida got as much as ten inches of rain in a single day.
We needed it though, so don’t look at us like that.
This is the time of year when the NHC gets shuffled into my open-daily bookmark folder in Firefox. When bottled water and plywood become precious commodities. When everyone here becomes a meterological expert, and can hmm and ahhh impressively over indeterminate blobs on a digital map of the central Atlantic that looks like it was drawn in Logo on an Atari in 1986. When newspapers and grocery stores give out flood zone maps (know your flood zone!) and blank storm-tracker maps that, I assume, somebody painstakingly uses to track storms, perhaps with a sextant.
It’s a thing we all put up with more or less willingly, or at least accept, because it isn’t blizzards or those scary Midwestern tornadoes or earthquakes. We pretend to be very tough about it. We pretend it ain’t no thang. And it ain’t, for certain definitions of thang, because when we think tornado we think Dorothy, and when we think earthquake we think Loma Prieta and that terrifying collapsed highway. Besides, we have to pretend we’re okay with it, to the benefit and/or detriment of everybody who isn’t.
We polish our stories — lost my power for a week — tree fell into the back of my house — floods up to the porch — couldn’t drive anywhere for days — and then the island was split in two — it washed the beach clear away — that time the bays met — we save the best ones up, collecting them like photographs, to share and show off when the skies are clear. Can you believe this shit I survived? we like to brag. Nature can’t do a thing to me.
On the other hand, sometimes it really isn’t a big thing, because the weather here all depends on whim or whimsy or butterflies in Beijing, and it is entirely possible to get more damage from a ninety-minute thunderstorm than a weekend’s non-hurricane. When “I’ve seen worse” means it’s not bad as long as the roads are clear, the toilet flushes, and the trees are still standing, you do get a little indifferent.
“It’s not even a hurricane? Whatever.”
I’d had plans, last weekend, to visit the local Thai Buddhist temple, Wat Tampa (which I am sure is the Easy Version of the name for Americans); I am neither Thai nor Buddhist, but they have a brilliant weekend market. The place is always packed to capacity, because they offer up an astonishing variety of food, and there is a market with arts and crafts and plants for sale, and it all happens down by the river under a glorious canopy of oak trees with signs in Thai nailed to them, and there are river-damp dogs and dry monks (both, I assume, belonging to the temple) ambling about doing their dogly or monkly things, whatever those may be.
An added bonus is that this temple and its Sunday market happen to be right across the street from a squat, red-bricked collection of buildings belonging to a Southern Baptist congregation, which only makes the loudly amiable multicultural mob that much more satisfying.
But I couldn’t go, because Debby, in the contrary and unpredictable manner of tropical storms since everywhere, zigged when it was expected to zag and we were forecast to get all the rain for the foreseeable future.
Some of my earliest memories are storm related. For Elena, in 1985 (I was three years old), we had to evacuate; as I understand most everyone on the Tampa peninsula did, because it all wound up flooded. We spent a few days sheltered up at USF, where I learned about Garbage Pail Kids and those little toys (do they still exist?) that you fill with water and then push buttons that use air jets to shoot basketballs and things around into little hoops. This was the eighties, mind; we had to stay amused somehow. My mother tells me that the psychology and education students enjoyed organizing playtime for the kids; I don’t remember that, but I do remember learning how to work a vending machine, which must have badly shocked my mother, who until that point had kept me fed on baked goods from the Tassajara bread book, milk delivered biweekly, wheat germ in everything, and absolutely no refined sugar.
There were several comparisons made between Debby and Elena, at various points, because like its predecessor, Debby decided to do the fun thing and park itself out in the Gulf, moving at a grand total of zero point zero zero two four of a mile an hour, while it spun rain-heavy bands up from the ocean and emptied them on previously dry land. Look back up at the NOAA graphic; hurricanes spin counterclockwise, so all of that red-yellow-mauve storm stuff inched its way up the state and bled rain as it went.
The newscasters got gleeful, the way they do when there’s something interesting going on. They bring up the red-flag graphics and expound on wind shear and rotation and tides, because for once they know everyone is listening carefully to what they have to say.
Plans were canceled, five-alarm panics were considered and scrapped in place of two- or one-alarm panics, and the rain started. It started with rain, and then there was rain, and then there was more rain. The place to be was inside, with news feeds, or Twitter, or whatever you have; the alerts and warnings came fast and thick, the maps were unrecognizable, and local news was having a field day along with the new breed of citizen-journalists who go gallivanting out sans blinding yellow slicker to share what they see.
It rained some more, and I came to an alarming realization: I was out of coffee creamer. I am too impoverished and too unimportant to be picky about everything, but by god, I will be picky about my coffee (Cuban, strong, 60/40 cream to coffee, but non dairy because I’d like to keep it IN me) and black coffee, as my mother (who taught me these habits) says, is “just…. uncivilized!”
I kitted up well before I headed out, with my kicky spotted rainboots, and a blue fleece pullover (note to anyone who thinks Trayvon Martin was inappropriately dressed: anything but, we use hoodies for rain cover out here in Floridaland) and since my hair was pitching a spazfit from the humidity I just contained the tangles as best I could. And so attired in only the finest and passing-the-sniff-test Tropical Storm Couture, out I went. Into the car and the gale, for an alteration of the French Toast Emergency Run: instead of eggs, bread, and milk, it was coffee creamer, Italian bread, and pop-tarts. I don’t shop well before coffee.
The drive was easy, and the shopping itself was quiet; not too many people there, which was unsurprising. I knew the best roads to take there and back again, which doubled the miles and time, but that was okay, because taking the long way around beats the hell out of stalling when you’re axle-deep in floodwater. On my way out, I saw a woman who had the same rainboots as me; “Nice boots!” I told her, happily, with my arms full of bags and my hair full of crazy. She checked herself, looked down, then up at me, then down at my feet, grinned, and said, “Nice boots!” So things go in Hurricanelandia.
When asked, I waffle around and stare off into the middle distance and fiddle with whatever I have in my hands (most recently, chopsticks, and a much-abused pile of collegetown Chinese buffet food) before coming to the conclusion that, religiously, I fall into some category of pagan, animist or pantheist not polytheistic, and after that, if you keep asking (which prompted more shuffling of chopsticks and a lot of stuttering because I am not articulate with word thing sometimes) I’ll go on about how the European tradition doesn’t mean much here in the subtropics. Winter is when you relax, summer is when you’re on edge. (And also melting.) So it’s all a little backwards and very much its own thing, and you have to pay attention and learn stuff yourself. Which is Florida down to its limestone bones.
It is useful conversational and cultural shorthand to personify things, though — this is why we name hurricanes, after all — so when the storms are spinning in the saltwater what I like to say, or think, is that Juracán is on the move. Juracán is the — Spanishized (there has to be a proper word for this) — name for the Taino-Carib-Arawak deity of hurricanes and, of course, chaos; it may be related to the Mayan Huracan but I’m not sure. Most indigenous records didn’t survive the conquistadores, being that a verbal history only survives as long as speakers are there to tell it.
The thing to do with Juracán, then, is precisely what you should do with hurricanes anyway: keep yourself safe and don’t give it a reason to notice you. Nature is a wild, impersonal, and violent thing; I know this well, but it helps, sometimes to give a name to a thing, to ascribe behaviors to it that then help dictate which behaviors you use in response to get through it.
Once the rain ends, the fun starts, depending on where you are; you go out, take stock of the damage, and then if you have the flood and the watercraft, you bust out the canoes and kayaks. You drive around to rubberneck at the destruction, or watch it on television, sorry for the people who it hit but at the same time glad it didn’t hurt you. It’s nothing personal, in the path of a hurricane; had things been the other way around they’d feel the same. You don’t want it to hit you, most of all, but you still feel for the people who do get hurt.
Then you find ways to laugh about it, because that’s how we roll, and besides it wasn’t even a real hurricane, and then the Tampa Police Department posts informative graphics the next day…
Since I know you’d wonder, I asked if TPD has a procedure for gigantic beasties attacking. Here’s what they said:
“There is no procedure, but since they seem to be harmless (and we don’t have a jail cell large enough), we decided to let them be. They weren’t blocking traffic…haha”
Once you and yours are okay, there’s no point in panic — not unless you’re new to this, in which case you’ll get over it quickly. Assure that everyone is safe, then find the humor. Find the fun. Get the canoe or the kayak or the pool floats and get some new perspective on roads where you normally drive. Go wading down the road, catch fish with your bare hands in inland neighborhoods — a hurricane without damage can be a holiday, a break from normalcy, a chance for the unusual to happen.
The unusual is never far from happening around here, in any case.