Saturday, August 28, 2004

3,2,1 liftoff

The other morning I woke up in a reverie of trees. Their former canopies, now strewn at our feet like the flowers of Dante’s Matelda, reveal a whole shitload of stars up there, nearer bei Gott to we for the anomalous absence of Florida Power and Light. We see racked clouds in Mexican sunsets where once stood thick barriers of Florida oaks, palms, pines, mangroves.

There is something cartoonish about major acts of Nature. I was talking with Eddie yesterday, who pronounces his name Iddie. He’s from Tennessee, had a small boat repair business that morphed into an auto hauling concern. The 'Cane hurled an old unfixed-up boat from his former life over four of his proud tractor trailers and into the Chrysler LeBaron he’d just about gotten to the point of being ready to proudly sell. In one toss he’s out a $34,000 boat and a $4,000 car, both uninsured.

Like many around Charlotte County, Eddie awaited Hurricane Charley in his home. He watched as the wind in front of the Eye torqued his pool cage to an acute leftward angle. Then a calm blue sky appeared and summer returned for about three and a half minutes. Then the winds swung round the other way and didn’t bother bending the cage to the right. Flicked it out of view like a bit of lint instead. As Eddie was taking that in, his neighbor’s entire roof, a new-fangled design held altogether by some gluey tarry shingleshit, lifted in one piece into the air, rode about 20 yards downwind, and dropped onto a small grove of orange trees. Whereupon he retired to a closet.

Dennis and Liz, a couple in their late 60s, listened from a bathroom to the deconstruction of their home right on Charlotte Harbor. Invariably people liken hurricane impact to being in a train that’s shaking, rattling and roaring at 100 mph. Dennis, a burly guy, used himself as a prop to keep the wooden bathroom door closed. For 45 minutes he applied every ounce of pressure to that door, as winds tore off the roof, mangled the pool cage, and noisily played with the innards of their home. After the Eye’s brief calm, he resumed the position. Days later, his upper body still ached.

Down the same street, Joel, 54, also stayed in his home on the water, with his beloved dog, Kamca. Kamca had recently undergone a costly chemotherapy that Joel willingly spent for her, but would not have bothered with had it been his own cancer. He remembers how a few weeks ago she was jumping around like a puppy, seemingly recovered. Since the storm Joel has had nightmares full of the sounds of rattletrap freight trains. Two days ago, on the advice of his vet, Joel put Kamca to sleep – kidney failure, the vet said. But Joel and the vet knew, she'd lost her desire to live.

We were less vividly affected. Our house is not on the water, but near enough that when we heard the neighborhood was being evacuated and that the storm was now heading straight for us, we moved up the road about five miles, to a small house full of people, kids and dogs, with a flimsy back porch on which Flo, the unflappable owner and grandmother of many of the kids, was grilling burgers and hot dogs. We sat around various TVs watching the storm as though it were a NASCAR event.

We still have electric poles instead of underground wiring, and we could hear one power transformer after another explode with a brisk popping sound. The pops came closer and faster, then all at once the house was empty of TV noise, the hum of the fridge, the lights, the music. For a moment, the progress of the storm was unmediated. The flimsy back porch swayed a little as the winds pushed the trees to the right. I kept thinking about that hot grill. In a back bedroom, two younger kids sat silent, nauseated. Then Jesse, 14, switched on a tiny battery powered TV and we resumed our spectator status. A tree fell. Without advance notice there was the calm Eye, then more winds, but never high enough to touch a threshold of terror. Sooner than we expected, the rear end of “Charley” had waddled off towards Arcadia and Orlando. We walked out into a landscape whose scale of ruin belied our modest notions of what had just come over us.

Some large trees stood like the venerable Squarepants, Bobless, or with their crowns hanging by a thread, like botched victims of Robespierre’s guillotine. Others were cracked in half, and landed across roads, or on roofs, or on cars. The more we saw, the more we saw our own experience as fluke, a grace of the storm’s capricious architecture.

Later we drove to our neighborhood, which had suffered much greater damage than the one we’d resorted to. Roads were impassable, so we walked down to our homes. Miki’s had a large tree on the roof, another larger one down in the yard, but was dry inside. Flo's daughter's home had roof damage, a couple of broken windows and water damage. Mine had a corner caved in, trusses blown off, collapsed ceilings, water damage and a new snowfall of attic insulation. A spear of red wood from a small house across the street had, with deadly accuracy, shot through a small window and impaled a lampshade next to my bed. My backyard was an unrecognizable mulch of other people’s roofs, pool cages, and our old, old oaks, providers through many summers of stooped, gnarled shade.

We can rebuild. There will be, has already been, the usual nonsense science of insurance adjusters – the stories you hear. But we have homes, properties, capable of being reconstructed. This is something, quite a bit really, compared with those living in trailer parks whose “mobile” or “manufactured” homes wouldn’t fetch $4 on eBay. So today’s news of FEMA’s solution to the homeless problem seems a tad disconcerting:

CHARLOTTE COUNTY -- Federal officials plan to house hundreds of families displaced by the hurricane in mobile homes and trailers on county-owned property near the county jail.

The 92-acre site near I-75 and Airport Road could accommodate up to 800 mobile homes or travel trailers. Sarasota Herald Tribune
This certainly qualifies as a solution, getting people out of shelters, out of their cars, out of other people’s homes. Only, this hurricane season hasn’t peaked yet. That comes in September, and hurricane activity continues through the end of November.

Permit a minor detour here. When Jeb Bush first spoke of the effects of Hurricane Charley, he did not speak of it as an act of Nature, but rather as a manifestation of the will of God:

Jeb Bush spent much of the day with storm victims in Charlotte County.

"You can't plan for the unforeseen," the governor said. "God doesn't follow the linear directions of computer models.”
(International Herald Tribune)


It is indeed comforting to have political leaders who are on such terms with the Almighty.

Now, the FEMA bookies might think lightning won’t strike twice, but in fact it can and does with some frequency here. Placing Florida residents into a densely aggregated trailer park could, in the event of another strong storm, turn FEMA’s solution into something more like the Final Solution. It's one low-maintenance way to alleviate the social burdens of poverty and homelessness. At which point, with all the sanctimony of homegrown Republican piety, Mr. Bush will ponder the mysterious yet Calvinistically vindicated ways of God to men, and, (beggin' yr pardon, Guv!) get on with the main order of the Lord's business: jiggering the November election in good faith.

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