By the time you read this, all that will be left of Hurricane Ian will be wreckage, loss and grief.
I was floating in the Gulf of Mexico, in a good way, two weeks ago. We have a place there, on the beach, on a barrier island, at latitude 27.36798 degrees N, longitude -82.62578 degrees W. We were just beginning to hear about a new tropical depression that eventually became Ian, a meteorological thresher that shredded the southwest coast of Florida just days later. It made landfall near Fort Myers, an hour south of us, at latitude 26.64227 degrees N, longitude -81.86910 degrees W.
When you live on a barrier island in Florida you trade days in paradise for the knowledge that your home and your life are subject to rising tides and increasingly fierce storms. We all know that no one should ever have built on the barrier islands, but my hunch is, people will rebuild, and developers will put up ever-larger hotels and condos on the shoreline.
All the forecasts on Sept. 25 predicted that Tampa, up north, would be ground zero, but by the following day, we were the red-hot bulls-eye of the target zone. Our town issued a mandatory evacuation order and turned off all power and water to the island. We left our place a day before the storm hit, and drove to family in Fort Lauderdale. We’ve done this dance before. During Hurricane Katrina we were in Fort Lauderdale and had to evacuate to the west coast. Hurricane Sandy scattered us all over.
Early word is that our place on the beach is OK. The small shift in landfall saved us, but doomed our neighbors to the south. Our island still has no power or water. A sad note: The magical island of Captiva is flattened. The bridge from Fort Myers is in the Gulf.
I’ve been thinking about the 1948 movie “Key Largo,” with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. They are stranded in the Keys as a hurricane slams onshore. What I remember is the sense of menace, the thrum in the air as barometric pressure falls, the seas turn an ominous shade of green and the birds stop singing. The day we left our beach, it was like that. The humidity saturated the air. A dome of heat pressed down. The birds were gone.
I can only feel lucky. Many thousands of people have no place to sleep. Their belongings, their memories and their jobs have been blown away. Businesses just beginning to recover from Covid-19 losses are in ruins. I know it will get better, and people will rally, but we need to give ourselves a moment. This is yet another once-in-a-lifetime event, another “unprecedented” disaster.
It’s nice that the political players are grinding their teeth and trying to take the high ground, but don’t be fooled; politics rides these waves. Storms can be survived. More frightening is our current political cyclone. The stanchions of our democracy are also disappearing into deep troughs, and who knows if they can rise again?
Hurricane emergencies remind us that steady minds and steady hands at the wheel can help steer us through.
The supersized storms are increasing proof of the environmental crisis. How many 500-year storms do we need to survive before the anti-science refuseniks realize it may still be within our power to curb the emissions and toxins that affect our climate?
The hurricanes, the wildfires, our political divisions, the QAnon crazies and other GOP extremists all seem pulled into a tightening vortex, playing out here and now. A hurricane is an apt metaphor for the forces eroding our democracy. The cleanup effort on the ground in Florida will be monumental. I don’t know what it will take to right this listing ship of state.
For a weekly newspaper columnist, I have been in the right/wrong place many times in my career, able to offer firsthand observations. I was on a beach in New York watching the towers burn on 9/11. I was on a ship in the Arabian Sea on May 2, 2011, the night our military slid Osama bin Laden’s corpse into the water. I was out West last summer amid the wildfires and, two days ago, I was an hour away from ground zero of the storm of the century in Florida.
We all live in the cone of uncertainty. Today, we’re standing. We can offer a hand to those knocked down by the storm.
Copyright 2022 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.