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Powerless in the path of Hurricane Irma

On the morning of September 11, I awoke to the news that my family was safe. Two days before, Hurricane Irma was a category 3 storm expected to reach 4 or 5 by the time it hit Tampa Bay. The eye spun over the north coast of Cuba. Irma had already flattened several islands in the Caribbean and would proceed directly up the west coast of Florida, reaching Naples before 8 p.m. on Sunday, and Homosassa, north of Tampa Bay, twelve hours later. My family and friends would weather it overnight. I watched the outer bands of the storm sweep over the Keys in the animated model. The mayor of Miami imposed a 7 p.m. curfew.

It was wide as Texas and twice as big Hurricane Andrew, which in 1992 decimated entire neighborhoods of Miami, directly claiming no less than fifteen lives. Watching Irma’s approach, those of us who were living in Florida when Andrew hit exchanged memories of seeing it on TV. Aerial shots of destroyed suburbs, grey like disintegrating newspapers. Irma’s cone of uncertainty resembled a bloodstain.

People downloaded books on their Kindles, stocked their garages full of Zephyrhills bottles, and braced for their lives to be destroyed.

The psychic on Fifth Avenue North in St. Petersburg boarded up her windows. For days, locals sucked the supermarkets dry of provisions, and the hardware stores of plywood, and the gas stations of gas. Cars lined up around the corner when they saw a tanker; tankers were streaming in. People downloaded books on their Kindles, and walkie talkie apps to their smartphones, and were taking strangers into their guest bedrooms, and stocking their garages full of Zephyrhills bottles, filling bathtubs so they could still brush their teeth without plumbing. They braced for their lives to be destroyed.

Never in fifty years of living in the Sunshine State had my mother seen anything like it. She’s a county commissioner, so was not evacuating. Most of the people I love in Florida had chosen to stay. My oldest and closest friends were staying. Outsiders shook their heads in bewilderment.

My father stayed because my grandmother stayed. She’s immobile in a nursing home, a stroke victim who cannot use the toilet on her own. The night before, I’d dreamt I was drying her off in a bathroom. She was naked and much younger. Her skin was still firm, but turning red and purple, as if she’d died.

My aunt stayed because she lives slightly inland, a bit more elevated, away from the barrier islands, which were expected to drown in eight-foot storm surges. The thing you need to fear is flooding, not wind. Fear coral snakes and alligators in the streets mixing with sewage.

My other aunt lives further south, in Venice, in a manufactured home—a mobile home will do nothing to protect you against 155 mph winds. I didn’t know why she was staying. She’s Southern Baptist, so maybe she’d prayed about it. My cousin, her daughter, had decided to “ride it out.”

“I’m anxious and worried about our family and loved ones back home,” a friend posted on Facebook. Her family had evacuated with two young children. “I feel we left our house vulnerable, as we were not able to locate wood to board up the windows. I have knots in my stomach and a vice grip around my heart . . . There’s a guilt for leaving that looms over.”

Fear sometimes feels like sadness. It’s a premonition of loss, the anticipation of grief as a small dose. I was glued to the news for days, expecting the worst. A woman at the Wyoming residency where I’m staying told me proudly over dinner that she’d seen on the news the storm was turning east. It would be pummeling Vero Beach instead of St. Petersburg. This was Wednesday; the storm would make landfall Sunday. I thanked her for caring. But no one predicts the future.

On Sunday, I located a livestreaming video of a traffic circle on Clearwater Beach, near my parents’ home. When I began watching, I was one of five hundred. Later in the day, nearer to the time when the storm would hit, we had swelled to seven hundred.

Once wind speeds reached 30 mph, first-responders stopped braving the streets to save people. I texted my parents to ask if they had hidden an axe in the attic in case they needed to escape to the roof. “We only use it for hatchet murders,” my mother joked. “It’s a tool. You can also use it for escaping a flooded house,” I responded. “Don’t worry about us,” said my dad. “Go write your book.” I felt calmer.

By eight o’clock, there were fifteen hundred of us with our eyes trained on Clearwater Beach. Other live feeds boasted ten thousand. A storm is beautiful. Its will and its power. Its destruction and its spiral. A storm is perfect order coupled with randomness. Irma wasn’t aiming for Mar-a-Lago anymore, or Betsy DeVos’s family compound on Vero Beach—this had nothing to do with justice. It was coming for my family. This was a fact of nature.

By Monday morning, 6.5 million Floridians had lost electricity. A friend posted on Facebook that he was concerned for his wife, whose health condition made it dangerous for her to be too long without it. As the week went on, Florida officials collected eight elderly people from a nursing home. They had died without air conditioning. At least two-thirds of homes in the Florida Keys and the Caribbean were reported to have been damaged by the storm; a quarter of homes in the Keys are uninhabitable; fourteen in the Keys have died. Estimates place the insurance costs for Irma at $20 to $65 billion dollars—this does not take into account that sixty percent of Miami residents do not have flood insurance. The financial and emotional toll of this storm is huge. And yet Rick Scott denies climate change. “I’m not a scientist,” he says. So ask a scientist.

Rush Limbaugh initially called Irma a liberal hoax before quietly fleeing his Palm Beach estate, all the while denying to his listeners that he was fleeing because of the storm, putting people’s lives in danger. This makes him a coward.

We were lucky. By the time Irma reached Tampa Bay, it had broken apart into a category 1. My parents’ house was spared; they were blocks away from an evacuation zone. Their trees lost some branches. They lost electricity, which they haven’t regained, as many others still haven’t.

“We’ve had worse storms,” says Trump, who suffered no consequences, and must not have asked any Bahamian about their experience.

Now we’re watching Hurricane Maria, one more in an already record-breaking hurricane season—an already apocalyptic season in the history of climate change, with stronger storms than we’ve ever seen before. Wildfires continue to eat through Montana, Oregon, California. The smoke blows down to this residency, flattening the sky, making us nauseous and wheezy. Two weeks ago, a monsoon in South Asia claimed over a thousand lives. This week, an 7.1 magnitude earthquake in Mexico toppled buildings and claimed hundreds more. We continue to build in places where we’re not supposed to be, driving pipelines through sacred lands, erecting hotels on shorelines as the water rises, farting our carbon into the atmosphere, refusing even to change our diets. The hubris of it is astounding. But not surprising. The human race will kill itself off. Earth will live on. It won’t even notice.

It’s a gift of human consciousness that we know we’re going to die, but a limitation that we don’t know how it will happen. It allows us to continue to live as if we’re immortal. To deny that death will come for us. I have sudden flashes of clarity—My death is inevitable—but push them aside, I have plenty of time left. I go on. Or perhaps we think we’ll be spared the worst version of it, the most painful and abject.

In the days before Irma, I read an account of a woman drowning in her attic during Hurricane Harvey. Her two young daughters drowned, too. She’d been told repeatedly by rescue workers not to go to the attic. She was told to go to the roof instead, where they could find her and air lift her to safety. She refused. She stayed in the attic even as the water filled it. She assumed someone would save her no matter what she did. That she still had time.

The stubbornness of our death denial will be what kills us.

This is how I felt in the face of Irma. I watched my family stay. I watched a friend take five chickens, two goats, three cats, and three humans into his home to save them from flooding. Others fled Florida but left their family pets tied to trees—believing perhaps, cruelly, that they weren’t vulnerable in the same ways we are—or perhaps believing that, like the woman in Texas, someone would save them. Another friend complained that her great grandparents were refusing to leave their unsecured home on the waterfront. The stubbornness of our death denial will be what kills us.

There were those who left because they have children, because their responsibility to the lives of others required that they take that course of action. And because they could; not everyone could. One friend rented a van and escaped with two daughters, two dogs, five cats, and her boyfriend. I read about a woman evacuating to Iowa with a tractor-trailer full of fifty-eight dogs from her pet store, as well as gasoline and kibble.

In the end, we are only so much in control of what others do. We try to be fair and trust in their ability to decide in everyone’s best interest. We hope they realize that nature is a great equalizer. That greed is pointless when we’re all just going to die. There was a moment when I feared my family would die.

As I watched Florida prepare for Irma, I felt also an overwhelming tenderness for my home state. I longed to fly there even as I encouraged others to leave. Part of me believed that going there, I could help. A superhero complex. Others would struggle, but I’d be the savior, because I’m immortal. Of course, I’m not. Nothing is. Not even Florida. Those who really love Florida know that we can only live in harmony with nature if we respect its dominance. We know that those who try to control it are already in its control. “With these forces nature rises up against us, magnificent, cruel, implacable,” says Freud. Nature was here long before we were. It will be here after we’re gone.