Everybody’s talking about the Hurricane.
At around this time last year we were on high alert for Hurricane Matthew. That one missed us at the last minute.
After every close call we just wipe our brow with a nervous chuckle and start making jokes like we were foolish to be so worried in the first place. In a dour moment we’ll say that our luck can only hold out so long.
Everybody nods, and then forgets.
It isn’t until the week of the storm’s arrival that people start prepping in earnest.
The way you know it’s about to happen is you’ll go to a café in the morning, a few stores during the day, and then a bar in the evening and at each place you went you’ll have heard people talking in bemused voices about how scary it is. “You see what they’re saying it’ll do to Cuba?”
The parking lot at every grocery store is overcrowded. Every couple hours, the lot gets tighter. People are agitated and scared. Everybody just wants it to be over. They start yelling. They try to navigate shopping carts through the traffic and occasionally there’s a bump or a crash. People get out of their cars to shout, get in each other’s faces. Normally we all look away when this happens, mind our business, everybody wondering if this’ll be the guy who pulls a gun. There’s a sense of solidarity about the chaos, though, so strangers get involved, “break it up” and “come on come on” and “keep it moving”.
By and large, people don’t get really mean until after the storm.
On Facebook it’s the only thing anybody talks about. Some are joking and some are asking questions about where to get supplies and others just need a platform to speculate about the damage to come. Nobody outright says they’re afraid but it’s scrawled between every line.
Folks compare what they paid for water and how long they waited for gas.
On the Tuesday night before the storm I hosted the fourth free screening for Thousand Movie Project. Showed It (1990). Nearly 70 people showed up, everybody palpably nervous but sitting together over tea and beer, the lights gone dim, munching on candy, laughing. By the end of It’s 3.5-hour runtime, 40 people were still watching.
In my effort to watch every movie in the Thousand Movie Project I’m up to 1943, America’s involvement in World War II, and I’m seeing how, back then, Americans conceptualized and coped, in film, with their fears about the war. They watched inspiring battle pictures and musicals, comedies – the movies of the 1940s are spirited and hopeful.
Looking at the crowd of 60-odd people gathered here on Tuesday night to see a campy old horror movie, making a concerted effort to enjoy themselves, I got a stronger sense of what it must have been like for those audiences of the 1940s, trying to have a good time and just not think, for a couple hours, about the horrors outside.
After the screening, at 11 pm, I went to three different gas stations. Each one had handwritten signs taped to all 24 pumps saying they were out of gas. At the third one I decided to give it a shot. Pulled up, slid my card through the reader, unhooked the nozzle and put it in the gas tank.
Filled right to the top. Not sure why the gas stations are all lying about being empty, but the next day is when the lines start stretching out for blocks.
At work today, the Wednesday before Irma’s Saturday-night landfall, they send us home early but first we spend the shift unplugging all the computers and wrapping them in plastic. Then the microwave. Everybody’s in a decent mood. Probably just happy to not be doing the same old office work.
The standard goodbye, no matter who you’re talking to: “Stay safe.”
Last year a colleague talked about his checking account sitting in the double digits as Hurricane Matthew approached. “Can’t buy water, can’t get plywood, canned food – nothing. Gotta fill up my tank to get home and then what? What am I supposed to do if this gets bad?”
A rhetorical question addressed to the whole room, which had fallen silent.
The kitchen always ends up clean before a storm. Everything is in its place: bagged food, canned food, the meats. Bottled water. Battery-powered lanterns and flashlights, the batteries themselves, medicine.
We live on a busy street but two days before the storm it goes quiet. Around the drug store and grocery it’s all chaos and honking and fighting, nervous jokes, emphatic waving, hustling, well wishes.
Everywhere else it’s quiet.
After work, wrapping all those computers, I stop for a beer at a nearby bar.
One of the regulars, M., is pouring her heart onto the bar tender’s feet about the stresses of prepping for the storm. That she’s fighting with her husband, her sons are agitated, the stress is causing everybody to tense up and lash out. The tender, with a hip on the bar and arms folded, just nods. Everybody understands.
M. pays her tab, gets up to leave.
Bar tender calls after her: “We’re doing Bingo tonight, in case you need to get away.”
M., opening the door, pausing, “You know it’s a dark day when Bingo sounds like it might actually be nice.”
Everyone’s watching the coverage, waiting. We talk so much about how Hurricane Andrew tore Miami apart in 1992, how the city’s history can be divided into Before & After, and animations are going viral about how Irma’s basically twice as big as Andrew was, and stronger.
We lose power at 3 a.m. on Saturday. The air conditioner was down at 68 so, keeping the doors closed as best we can, the house stays cool for the rest of the day. It’s tedious, everybody’s nervous, and there’s a mix between wanting the hours to pass and wanting to hold onto them. Thinking maybe this is the last semblance of normalcy we’ll have for a long time. The walls all standing, our belongings in tact…
The storm comes in at 2 a.m. But it’s changed course. The storm’s drifted westward from every projection of the past few days, which had her running straight up through the heart of the state. It’s basically just a tropical storm now. It hits us until about 3 p.m., peaking at noon, windspeed around 80 mph at the worst. Around there. I’m reading in the living room, with shutters drawn and a view of the hedges being thrashed about by the wind and by sheets of rain that look white, they’re so thin, coming in from the side like slaps. It’s quiet in the house and, with the windows shuttered up, it’s hard to get a sense of what kinda damage is being done to the property.
We go outside at around 4 p.m. and look around. The hedge is twisted and crooked wherever it isn’t torn up. The trees that still have leaves have very few and many of the trees are turned over in the street, with flattened Stop signs underneath, the roots clawing skyward like ugly fingers. Traffic lights dangle from their chords at weirdly slackened angles and powerlines lay in the street. The storm hasn’t totally passed, and the sun’s about to set anyway, so few people leave their houses to appraise the damage just yet. Nothing we can do about it right now anyway.
Just before total dark, while everybody in the neighborhood is inside and preparing for bed, we get the thinnest peak of purple behind parting clouds. Then darkness.
At dawn I get up and take my dog out into the backyard for the first time in a couple days. The sky is still navy blue, full sun is still a half hour away, but you can see the extent of the damage pretty well. Just how many trees have fallen and how they’ve smashed the waist-high coral walls that divide some of the houses from the sidewalk. Chainlink fences all twisted skyward like dead cockroaches’ legs. None of the street signs are standing tall: most are lust bent over, tilted, but a few of them are laying flat in the grass. Everybody’s lawn is ruined and there’s a breeze left over from yesterday’s wind and it brushes leaves lazily down the street.
Back inside, on the patio, I have breakfast with my dad and my dog and once the sun’s up high, around 8:30 in the morning, we hear the first chainsaw cough, cough, sputter, grumble.
By 10 a.m., there’s a symphony.
The next few days are hot and sweaty and people get agitated, crowding in the parking lots at Panera and Starbucks and Publix to steal some wifi, let people on Facebook know that they’re safe even though everybody’s safe. The storm barely hit us.
The Keys, on the other hand, are destroyed.
The roads are still a mess. There are cops at every intersection to keep things flowing and, for the most part, to forbid left turns. The popular idea is that, come Thanksgiving, everything will be back to normal.
We’re supposed to get electricity back on Tuesday, nine days after losing it, but in the meantime I’ve been able to take my things to cafes and bars and get some work done. Beginning today, Thousand Movie Project posts are back to the normal schedule. Monday and Thursday mornings, around 10 a.m.
Thanks for following along.