Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Forces of Nature

Folks here in South Florida still talk about Hurricane Andrew, the last Category 5 storm to hit the U.S. That was over thirteen years ago. You hear people refer to events in terms of the storm; “We got married the year before Andrew,” or “Ever since Andrew….” It’s more a marker than 9/11 because it happened here and there are still reminders of it; parts of South Dade were never re-built. You can drive along stretches of US 1 between Miami and Homestead and see the empty pads where hundreds of mobile homes used to be. Many residents of Miami-Dade relocated north to Broward County and only now is Homestead, where most of the damage occurred, going through a building boom. Ironically, most of the new construction is east of US 1 where, should another hurricane come ashore, the most damage will happen again. The new construction may meet the strict building codes put in place after Andrew (so they say), but the land is still a flood plain. It gives you enormous respect for the power of nature, and every time I see the Weather Channel talk about a tropical depression forming in the Atlantic, I feel a tightening in my gut.

Since I moved back to Miami four years ago, I’ve been through seven hurricanes that either came close — one in 2001 (forgot the name); the four last year, Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne; and yesterday’s Rita, and one that actually hit: Katrina when it was just a Category 1. Those were nothing compared to Andrew or what Katrina came to be and what Rita is now becoming. There are still recovery efforts going on here from Katrina more that three weeks after it hit, and one of the reasons there wasn’t much damage from Rita here was because even with the wind gusts over 60 mph, there wasn’t much that was vulnerable to Rita that Katrina hadn’t disposed of; it can’t knock over a 100-year-old banyan tree twice. I spent most of yesterday morning watching the breathless television coverage and wondering if indeed we would get hit hard, but by the afternoon it was obvious we were going to be spared, and I turned on a movie. The knot in my stomach that had started on Monday morning finally became a dull ache when the TV stations went into their regular prime time schedule at eight last night. The feeling is still there; like a leg cramp, the aftereffects last longer than the event itself.

After every storm I get e-mails or phone calls from friends who live elsewhere asking me why I live in a place that is vulnerable to such violent weather. A lot of those friends live in places like Seattle, which is 100 miles from an active volcano, or Los Angeles, which awaits the Big One; take your pick — earthquake, wildfire, or mudslide. Truth be told, there aren’t too many places where you’re not at the mercy of some natural catastrophic event. Hurricanes happen from Florida to New England; Hurricane Donna trashed Sag Harbor, New York, in 1960 and Hurricane Hugo laid waste to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1989 after doing a number on the British West Indies, including the tiny island of Montserrat. (Poor Montserrat can’t catch a break. Six years after Hugo, their volcano erupted.) As Katrina and Rita demonstrated, the worst storms recently were barely warmed up when they passed through South Florida. The Southwest has drought and sandstorms and the Midwest gets tornadoes in the summer and blizzards in the winter, neither of which give you a week’s notice. Blizzards can do as much damage as a hurricane; they just do it in slow motion. I’ve lived in almost every part of the country where there’s some kind of natural danger, and while I would like to make it through a summer without worrying about a hurricane, I have yet to find a place where I’d want to live where I know I’ll be safe from it because there probably isn’t such a place — at least above ground.

My first play was a story about a group of young men on a wilderness expedition in the mountains of Colorado. One of the lessons they learned — to their peril — was that the wilderness not only doesn’t care about humanity, the wilderness doesn’t even know humanity exists. We are no more important to the wilderness than the dust mites on our bodies are to us, and there is nothing we can do about it. I suspect one of the reasons there was such a backlash against the bungled recovery effort response by the federal government to Hurricane Katrina is because we can’t strike back at the hurricane. There is no Osama bin Laden whipping up tropical depressions off the coast of Africa that we can exact revenge from. (Maybe if we invaded the Bahamas, though…) Humans hate the thought of something outside of our control or being at the mercy of forces that don’t respond to us. That, I suppose, would explain organized religion.

The feeling of relief was palpable here in South Florida today; once again we were spared the worst even as we were aware of what lies in store for others in the coming days. That relief, however, is still tinged with the dull ache that tomorrow morning or next week or next summer we will go through it again and there is nothing to be done. It is a reminder that we are, after all, rather insignificant, and that is the hardest hit of all.