On the night Hurricane Irma made landfall over Florida, I sat in my living room, sweating in the darkness, listening to the raging of the wind outside.
The wind came in waves: vast, pulsating, hurricane force gales, some upwards of a hundred miles per hour, crashing, heaving, and receding over our house like long curling swells over a rock in the ocean. It was a palpable wind, its sound so immense that you almost felt you could feel it from within the house. Outside, one heard the periodic, brittle crack of trees as they heeled over under the blasting force of the wind. And when one peeked outside- as I did several times, against my better judgment- one saw there in the maelstrom a broken but unending river of debris, swept up ineluctably by the unceasing waves of wind. For a moment, standing there on the back porch, I watched as the storm-stricken landscape was briefly illuminated, its contours revealed as a transformer burst in the distance.
I returned to the living room, which after several hours without power had become ungodly hot, and waited there anxiously, beads of sweat congealing over my forehead, listening silently to the sounds of the night.
None of this scene would’ve been particularly disturbing were it not for a peculiar fact: we were far inland, sixty miles from where the damage was supposed to be at its most severe, and yet we were still feeling the effects of a storm so massive that its total volume engulfed the entire state of Florida.
Sitting there in the swimming darkness, recalling the scenes that led to this moment over the past week and the fate which would soon befall my house, I was struck with an uncanny feeling: that in experiencing Hurricane Irma, I was witnessing a vision of the future.
Hurricane Irma was not, nor was it ever supposed to be, “the Big One.” Every year when the southeastern U.S. is struck by a major Hurricanes- and this is not a regular occurrence- a narrative paradigm begins to coalesce in peoples minds that categorizes that year by the most catastrophic storm it experienced: 2004 was Charlie. 2005, Katrina. 2012 went to Sandy. 2016 to Matthew.
2017 seemed like it had reached its climax with Harvey.
Floridians- and especially St. Augustinians- watched the events of Harvey with long sigh of guilty relief. The yearly Hurricane damage had been meted out to the United States- east Texas had been essentially destroyed- but it was imparted to another region of the country: not us. St. Augustine was still recovering from the shell shock of last year’s Hurricane Matthew, which scraped the north coast of Florida with such force that months passed before life resumed its normal rhythms, though the memory of that storm still loomed over the region, even a year after its landfall.
About a week after Texas’ Hurricane Harvey began fading from the news cycles- after a deluge of 24-hour aerial footage on CNN depicting all Houston inundated under a massive, shimmering, nearly contiguous lake of floodwater- something strange occurred.
I was in the back kitchen of the restaurant where I then worked at the time. A group of workers had conglomerated around the one of the cooks, who had drawn up the Weather Channel Radar on his phone during a midafternoon lull in business. And there it was: several torn rags of cottony cumulonimbus, simmering brightly off the Cape Verde Islands, the equatorial clouds magnetically coalescing into a sharp, counterclockwise swirl. The cooks sighed with an air of exasperation, their faces revealing a resigned hopelessness. Many were Haitian immigrants who had experienced such storms all too often. They were quick to issue their declamation: “There’s no point in doing anything,” they said with their brand of dark, fatalistic humor. “We’re already screwed.”
Most of us shrugged aside the potential danger of the storm. One day passed. The storm continued to develop. But as a few more days rolled by, those clouds on the radar became increasingly difficult to ignore. The storm was strengthening at an alarming rate: upgraded first a category 2, then to a 3, and then eventually to a 5. Hurricane Hunters clocked sustained windspeeds of 185 miles an hour. And the storm, like a swirling atmospheric cyst spit up from the bowels of the ocean, barreled towards the Caribbean in hypnotic slow motion, as if driven by the tantalizing and undeviating hand of fate.
Situated on nearly all the projected paths of the storm, no matter which way it went, lay the exposed peninsula of Florida.
All the state was cast into an immediate state of emergency- if not a legal one yet, then a mental one, a mass hysteria that swept millions of households with fears of dark visions the future held in store (though it was not long before the official state of emergency was declared either).
Barbuda and Antigua were the first islands to be hit. The storm, screaming, voluminous, and ungodly huge, had swept over them in the nighttime with sustained winds little different than those recorded on its approach far out in the ocean. They hardly stood a chance. Come morning, communication with the islands had virtually gone dark- almost no phone calls, videos, or messaging came in from those battered communities- though when connection was finally reestablished, what came out was a panorama of destruction almost apocalyptic in its proportions. Nearly 95% of all buildings had suffered catastrophic damage, and were now unlivable. All water and electric systems were gone, and before recording equipment caved in, the last winds were clocked at 180 mph.
The storm, unharried by its collision with the islands, barreled on.
The majority of gas stations, now being overflowed with nonstop lines of people escaping South Florida, had seen their fuel reserves sucked dry.
Uneasy crowds of homeowners numbering in the thousands now began hording into Walmarts, Targets, and Home Depots, stripping the shelves within days of any and all items that might be considered useful for withstanding the hurricane: water cases, soup cans, dry food, plywood boards for sheeting up the windows against the winds.
The most haunting aspect about the week before the storm, however, was neither the empty gas stations nor the oceans of people crowding angrily into stores. It was the feeling that we as a state were experiencing a sort of modern, Biblical exodus. Millions of people who lived in the southern half of the state- from Key West to Fort Lauderdale- had been clogging the highways in traffic jams stretching hundreds of miles long in a frantic flight to seek shelter to the north. It was a mass evacuation eerily redolent of apocalyptic scenes from the Old Testament, a human migration that, in terms of the sheer volume of people being displaced, was little different from similar waves now periodically convulsing out of the Middle East.
In the week before the Hurricane made landfall, business was slow in the restaurant where I worked. September was already the slow season, but still, there was a notably fewer amount of people coming in than usual.
The night I left St. Augustine, I sat leaning against the bar of my work, polishing and re-polishing the same wineglasses to pass the time, listening to opera music play out on rewind over the vast, empty, impeccably clean restaurant: a place that normally would normally be serving hundreds of guest but that was now overwhelmed with an eerie silence. After several hours of waiting, I was finally seated with one of the few tables we catered to that night. I asked the couple how they were doing today.
“Things could be better,” the old man said, a handsome, Brazilian fifty-something with a reminiscing, bittersweet air over him. He asked if he could have some of the house wine.
“No,” he said. “We’ll just go for the bottle.”
Struggling to pull the cork from the wine bottle, and eager to break the silence between us, I asked what had brought them to St. Augustine.
“Miami,” he said. “We’re coming from Miami.”
“I see,” I said. “I hope you’re-“
“Yes,” he interjected suddenly, impatient but not malicious. He had obviously had to answer the same question many times over the past week. “Thank you. I hope the house is fine as well.”
Finally breaking the cork free, I poured an ovalesque sliver of the wine into his glass so he could taste it before buying it.
“Well I hope the best for everything down at your home down there,” I said, filling the glass. “I know it won’t be easy.”
The old man, reminiscent, ponderous, closed his eyes for a brief moment as he swirled, sniffed, and took a drink. He held the wine there in his mouth for a moment: savoring a taste he knew would not last.
“I appreciate it,” he said, finally opening his eyes. “But it is going to be chaos.”
Later that night, after my shift had ended, my remaining roommate and I (the third had already evacuated) rushed to stow all the valuable items in our house as high as we could off the ground, where the reach of the coming floodwaters would hopefully be unable to touch them.
The forced evacuation of the island would begin the following day, the bridges to the mainland cut off and emergency services terminated, and because the traffic chugging northward had been so horrible that past week, we knew that if we were to leave we would have to make our escape that night.
Piling all the articles that didn’t already fit into our cars atop our beds, which we had propped up on cinder blocks, we combed through the house searching for anything valuable that lay beneath the invisible mental cordon which we’d each imagined would be the waterlines highest point in the coming storm surge.
Stripping the house bare in preparation for the storm was an eerie feeling. After of nearly an hour of aimless circling we realized that we had prepared the house as much as we possibly could; tomorrow morning, the landlord would barricade the doors with caulk and sandbags and then leave with his own family. All else after that would be left to fate.
We stared at the empty house, with all the furniture stacked atop the one couch designated for sacrifice, all our valuables stacked atop our raised beds, and talked for a moment about the future:
Last year, Hurricane Matthew had filled the house with three and a half feet of water, rendering the house unlivable and the renters at the time homeless; it would be six months before they lived in the house again. Would the same fate befall us? We checked the radar on our phones one last time. On it, the vortex of red swirled unabated over the eastern Caribbean, nearly all the projections of its path shooting directly towards Florida.
“Maybe it won’t hit us,” I suggested meekly, not really believing myself. There was a silence, and without saying anything more we locked the door and began our drive southwards to Orlando.
We had rejected the opportunity to go north with our other roommate, to Alabama. Instead, we would go south, to my mom’s house in Central Florida.
The image of a Biblical-style exodus became clear that night when, accelerating onto the I-95 ramp south towards Orlando, we saw the line of cars, hundreds of them, thousands more beyond our sight, lined up in an unending river of blurred yellow headlights that stretched as far as the eye could see. The molasses movement of the bumper-to-bumper traffic stood in stark contrast with the highways empty southbound side, on which we were driving. On the other side of the median, hardly a single car was traveling faster than five miles an hour.
Over the past few years I had been reading with increasing frequency about the growth of a new class of global “climate refugees,” people displaced- either temporarily or permanently- by the vicious storms and rising water levels induced by the violent, Anthropocentric assault on the Earth- that unsettling phenomenon we call Global Warming.
The first climate refugees had trickled out of the Maldives, the South Pacific islands, the marshes of Louisiana. But here they were now, flowing out en masse before our very eyes, close to several million South Floridians escaping the potential destruction that would be meted out to their homes by Hurricane Irma. We watched in hypnotic fascination at the river of cars unraveling with endless abandon towards the dark night horizon. The clock in my car read two AM: strangely, it was the most crowded I’d seen that highway in my entire life.
Following a brief stopover in my dad’s hometown the following morning (in which we had to wade through an ever more apprehensive, shouting crowd of homeowners that flooded Lowe’s at its predawn opening hour, themselves buying the last remnants of plywood to barricade their homes against the storm), we finally made it to in Orlando, where nearly all stores lie stripped clean of their supplies.
That Friday afternoon in Orlando was bright, clean, clear. My roommate and I helped my little brother prepare the house for the concussion of the coming storm- stacking all the potted plants under the cover of the porch, removing any objects near windows that could become windblown projectiles- we settled into my house and, with little else to do, waited.
The following day, before the storm would make its nighttime landfall, the entire city of Orlando was placed on de facto lockdown. The majority of stores were closed. The streets lay empty. Out of boredom the three of us- my roommate, my brother, and I- combed the town of all the stores remaining open before we ourselves would be barred from driving with the coming of the police-mandated 7 P.M. curfew.
At Walgreens, the only store closely evocative of a grocery store that still remained open, the shelves lay eerily empty, stripped by the crowds of all useful supplies. And at Wawa, the only gas station remaining open, we groped through a heaving crowd of anxious people that seemed exorbitantly oversized for such a small establishment.
In that store, where paranoia had driven this last wave of people to buy yet more supplies, there was not a single conversation that didn’t revolve over the massive storm currently careening towards our homes, deriving its newfound strength over the hot waters of the Florida straits after grinding a path of destruction along Cuba’s northern coastline. Memories of Charlie, of Jeanne and Francis- those storms which wrecked central Florida in my childhood- intermingled in soundbites with the evocations of last years Matthew, of Texas’ recent Harvey. For the longest time, people assumed such storms were normally restricted to happening once or twice every ten years: after all, most Floridians dryly joked in the decade following 2004-2005 that there would never be more storms like there had been in that particular season.
Was something changing now? It was strange that two devastating storms would strike two years in a row- without mentioning the fact that these storms came with a simultaneous slew of equally catastrophic storms in other regions of the U.S.
Listening to the conversations in that Wawa, it seemed that consciousness regarding these storms was coming, if only for a moment, to the same conclusion that scientific research had been screaming to America about for decades: that the increasing ferocity of these storms and the anthropocentric assault on the planet were both intimately interlinked. Global Warming was hard do disprove when it could be felt viscerally, in moments like this, under the ominous shadow of an approaching megastorm.
Overhead, the thickening layer of white-grey clouds that had begun to congeal earlier that morning drowned out the last, remaining thin rays of sunlight. A light, misty rain began to fall. Soon, like a cold glaucoma dimming away the daylight, the sky above fell gray.
An hour before the police curfew, the three of us, along with some old friends from back home, decided to go on the golf course. Against the advice of our parents, who with each minute of online updates of the storms development became increasingly despondent and convinced of the curfews logicality, we set out on the already flooded 18-holer that formed the second half our neighborhood, where there now stood several vast, interconnected lakes of steadily expanding floodwater that in some places, alarmingly, already ran two to three feet deep.
Walking shirtless out over the flooding green plains, the now whiteout roar of the rain slowly continuing to intensify, we were stopped at an intersection with the road by a patrolling policewoman, who warned through the megaphone of her cruiser that we were both trespassing on private property and breaking the curfew, which had recently fallen into effect. In a moment of feigned defeat, we temporarily started walking home, until, seeing that she had sped out of sight, we promptly turned around and continued on across the plains.
Sprinting towards the shapeless fields of silver floodwater now rapidly inundating the golf course, we tried with only minimal amounts of success to skimboard across the waters surface; when we grew tired of that, we sprinted up and over the artificial teeing hills, sliding down with wild abandon over their slick, grassy flanks.
But all around us, the hurricane continued in its slow, inexorable intensification. After an hour or so, standing up against the wind- which now pulsated across the golf course in vast, billowing waves that set the trees to violent thrashing and sent vicious textures shooting over the surface of the waters- became a notably difficult task. The rain felt less like the misty downpour we’d experienced with the outer bands of the storm earlier that morning than a painful spray of continuously stinging pellets, blowing in nearly sideways with the force of the wind. The atmosphere felt less evocative of another storm now than it did of an actual hurricane. As we deliberated for a moment over the growing roar of the storm, my brother received a call: it was our mom.
Several tornados had already ripped through the area, she said, and were still spiraling in our direction as we spoke. Very quickly, the wind now overwhelming in its strength, we decided it high time to get back home.
Standing with water dripping from our soaked clothes at the foot of our mother’s bed, we listened to our immobilized mother berate us hysterically for close to half an hour over our ill-fated decision to go out in such conditions. As we stood there, the TV along the wall behind us blared with a live feed of the Weather Channel of an anxiously-moving weatherman gestured over a radar map of Florida as he sought to emphasize the danger of this storm, especially the several spinoff tornadoes now ripping across the eastern part of the county, near University Boulevard, where we lived; as we listened to my mother slowly blow off steam and slip from a state of agitated worry to exhaustion, we listened to the billowing roar against the wind against the house.
As evening fell we found ourselves each alone in each of our separate spaces in the house. Two hours would pass before the power would go out, flaring out in a sudden flash that gave way to a seamless and overwhelming dark.
Without electricity powering the A/C, the interior temperature of the house ineluctably rose to equalize with that outside, becoming ungodly hot and muggy. And the wind and rain continued to roar, to grow in their strength, to thrash in ever-greater intensity at the walls of the house.
It was a sleepless night. While the others dozed off to the tune of their own boredom, I sat there and contemplated memories from the past few years, the images coming back to me like submerged bubbles wobbling slowly towards the surface of the water.
The man on the CNN feed swaggered onstage before a jeering crowd of thousands, flanked by American flags and accompanied by the sound of “America the Beautiful.” Settling in centerstage at the podium, he begins his speech with a feigned deliberateness, but sensing the crowd has come for a show, he quickly veered off into one of his notorious, now world-famous rants. This time around, instead of Liberals or Mexicans or Muslims or Clinton, the punching bag was climate change.
“It’s all a hoax,” he began loudly, evoking a wild roar of applause from the audience. “Scientists, they’re having great fun with they’re little theories. A lot of money in their pockets. Not too good for American jobs, though,” -he wags his index finger disapprovingly- “Not too good for the economy.”
One would not have considered this scene a serious threat: but little over a year later, this very speaker who had denied the existence of climate change would become the most powerful man in the world, his hands at the helm of the perhaps the only country powerful enough to stop it.
Outside the house, the first brittle crack of a tree giving way under the pressure of the wind.
Another memory: sitting in high school one day, rifling through a stack of scientific articles to assemble a class project on climate change. A substitute teacher watching me work on the assignment asked me what the subject was about. I answered him honestly. He crossed his arms suddenly, laughing. “It’s all a hoax,” he said, strangely confident in the veracity of his belief. He proceeded to assault me with a aggressive litany of counterfactuals- i.e.. “There’s more ice this year in Antarctica since prehistoric times,” “The amount of snow now is greater than ever” “There’s more forest in America now than when Columbus came here”– soundbites clearly scraped up from FOX News, but that- disturbingly- were faithfully reiterated by millions of likeminded Americans.
One would not have considered this episode revelatory, portentous, or illustrative of any larger truths were it not for that very fact: that tens of millions of people bore the same conviction of that one substitute teacher, deaf to the findings of scientists and blind to the global ecological catastrophe in whose propagation, by their continuous denying of it, they were largely complicit.
As the storm raged outside the house, I recalled the memories from my own childhood, in 2004, when Florida was laid siege to by a back-to-back sequence of devastating hurricanes: Charlie, Francis, Ivan, Jeanne. Both my parents at the time lived, as they do now, far inland from the coast, where the danger of each storm was theoretically supposed to be at its least. But even within the state’s interior, the damage levels had reached astonishing levels. In my mother’s house, a massive oak tree had crushed my brother’s room, while at my father’s, a large uprooted from some distance torpedoed my stepsister’s room like a kamikaze dive-bomber, destroying it. At the elementary school that I would be attending the following year, the roof of the cafeteria was entirely ripped off by the winds.
But this, in retrospect, was all minimal compared to the damage inflicted upon the more populous coastal areas: there were not tens of dozens of deaths in our counties, nor were there houses swept away by the ocean, nor was there the sense that our lives had been utterly ruined. But other areas were not so lucky.
One of my friends in college had grown up on the Mississippi coast, and was there when Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005. And I remember how one night during our freshman year, in an unusually morose conversation, she recounted the story of that storm, which in its own way had become a unifying event that would forever divide the lives of all south Mississippians into a irrevocable split between the past and the present.
After visiting minor destruction upon South Florida, and quickly gaining strength over the soupy waters of the Gulf of Mexico, it became clear that Hurricane Katrina would make a direct landfall over Mississippi. And vacillating briefly on deciding what to do, her family made the last-minute decision to pack their bags and evacuate north to wait out the storm.
When they returned after the storm, the town they had once lived in had been wiped off the face of the planet. Not a single building was left standing. Their house had disappeared, swept away by the thirty-foot storm surge. The only thing remaining on their property was the concrete foundation of their disappeared house. To top it off, of the several dozen people who opted to not evacuate, none had survived.
Nothing in her life would be the same- as she said, people in the region soon acquired the tendency of referring to life events as either being “before Katrina” or “after Katrina.” Like many of the world’s climate refugees, pushed out of their homes by the ineluctable rise in sea levels coupled with the increasingly proportion of catastrophic storms, a sense of displacement would permeate her existence for years to come.
This, then, was our vision of the future:
We walked out the next morning and examined the wreckage of our neighborhood, where massive trees blocked nearly all roadways and power lines lay tangled in messes along the roadside. All of it strange in the sunlight, as if we were witnessing a fever dream: a vision that endowed us with a revelation of all the darkness that was to come.
Three days later, we returned to the largely destroyed Anastasia Island, where the majority of people living in our neighborhood were busily recovering and reorganizing what few precious household items had escaped the waters grasp, the remaining refuse they threw out slowly accumulating on the streetside into shapeless mountains of overwhelming, apocalyptic looking garbage.
A foot of water had gotten inside our house, so a foot and a half had to be hacked away, to avoid contracting the cancerous mold that so-often develops in the insidious moisture of such environments. For nearly a month we would be unable to live in our homes; we each went our separate ways, each of us perfecting the peripatetic art of couchsurfing and living out of our cars.
Retrospectively, we got off easy. Though we couldn’t afford the luxury of moving to a new place entirely, as many others had done – two years of catastrophic hurricanes had understandably done in the morale of many residents- we were able to move back into our house within the year.
It is strange to reflect, nearly four months after the fact, that for all the damage inflicted on northeast Florida- Jacksonville had experienced its severest levels of riverine flooding seen in the past half century- none of it was the result of the storms direct impact. As a matter of fact, the storm had hardly made a direct collision with our part of the state in the first place; it made landfall nearly four hundred miles away, in the southern Everglades, and by that time its intensity had largely been drained after grinding with the northern coast of Cuba.
But it had grown so vast beforehand that even as its original intensity diminished, its reach was still enough to stretch out and engulf the entire state of Florida: seen from the silence of space, the ocean of stormclouds obscured nearly the entire American southeast. Hardly a county in the state had gone untouched, with most of the coastal regions, especially those on the Gulf, suffering crippling flooding. A majority of Florida’s thirty five million residents were left without a power grid to support them. And the flooding spread beyond the borders of our state, with Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina both experiencing unprecedented intrusions of the oceans into normally dry town squares and streets. Hurricane Irma was not the perfect storm concocted in the dark imaginations of apprehensive meteorologists- but it didn’t have to be. With the rising frequency of storms such as this, with their intensified mean strength and with the conglomeration of the majority of America’s population along the coastline, any storm like this, so long as it gained at least a minimal level of strength, had potential to be both devastating and deadly.
Less than a month had passed after Hurricane Irma struck Florida that another storm, a far greater and more dangerous specimen named Maria, drilled directly into Puerto Rico. It was a storm so bad that the world outside stopped for a moment and blinked, rubbing its eyes in unbelieving astonishment. We watched hypnotically as news reports began flowing out about the destroyed society Maria had left in its wake. In many ways, the catastrophe was so deep that the island had quite literally been delivered back to the Dark Ages: there was no electricity to run the hospitals, no running water to drink or keep the sewers running, no gas to drive or power generators; in the sweltering tropical heat cities wallowed hopelessly amidst growing piles of undisposed human waste and mountains of uncollected garbage.
That the Trump administration was so callous in its response to the suffering of Puerto Rico only made bitterer the fact that his government, through its connection to corporate oil interests propagating climate change, was largely culpable in the rise of superstorms such as Maria to begin with.
In light of all that had happened in Puerto Rico, everyone in the mainland U.S. who had been impacted by either Harvey or Irma was, despite all the catastrophes that accompanied that nonetheless monster storm, endowed with a sort of cosmic luck: we suffered damage, but at least our society hadn’t been razed.
That is, for this year, at least.
That’s nothing to say of next year. Nor is it any comforting insurance against the potential for what would come in 2020, 2030, 2040 or 2050. At this rate, chances are that we’ll be looking back 2017 with a certain tinge of nostalgia, a yearning for the calmer days when only three deadly hurricanes would hit on average every year.
It is not a world I’ll be pleased to be bringing kids into one day. But it is the world we have to live with. At this point, lest we change something in our catastrophic crusade to destroy the planet, the best we can do is barricade ourselves within our homes and wait out the coming of the next inevitable storm.