Atop the IRE Financial Building on Dixie Highway in Coral Gables, Florida, Max Mayfield and I sat one midsummer afternoon before a bank of computer terminals, watching information gush cybernetically into the National Hurricane Center. The data flowed in from land stations, ships, aircraft, radar, buoys at sea; it sprinkled down from helium balloons and geostationary satellites into the Cadillac of supercomputer animation systems, McIDAS (for Man-computer Interactive Data Access System). On the screen we were looking at, the North Atlantic was expressing itself in a language of heat, pressure, and motion, and McIDAS was translating this biospheric oratory into data-generated pictures, images we could enhance to our heart’s content. Were we watching a hurricane form? We didn’t know yet. What was certain was that the season of volatility had begun, an anxious time meteorologically and also psychically — a time when people along the Gulf of Mexico, the Eastern seaboard, and, to the south, on the islands of the Caribbean live in real fear of being visited by sudden, violent catastrophe.
A hurricane is the Atlantic (and northeast Pacific) version of a tropical cyclone. Because warm water is the essential ingredient of hurricanes, these storms tend to originate in relatively quiet, equatorial waters. For the most part, they are a major factor only in the western Pacific, where they are called typhoons; in the Indian Ocean, where they are simply called cyclones; and in the warmer waters of the North Atlantic, where they derive their name from the Carib Indian word huracan, “big wind.” Although it is not known precisely why hurricanes form, forecasters such as Mayfield do know that these whirlwind fevers that cool our overheated planet develop from smaller tropical storms that whip up in the doldrums west of the Cape Verde Islands.
On the computer’s large screen, a sequence of schematic riffs — elongated inverted Vs, representations of low-pressure zones — staggered out across the doldrums, where, from late June through mid-November each year, the north-inclined sun brews the indigo surface waters beyond 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Above the water, trade winds that have whipped off the coast of northwest Africa tangle with those blowing up from the southern hemisphere. These convulsing and contradictory winds agitate the heat-sponsored Atlantic anger, urging it toward the surface and into a vaporous rage.
Mayfield, pointing to the screen, called my attention to how, within one of the low-pressure troughs, the July sun had simmered the surface waters enough for moisture-laden air to quicken its rise; it was being sucked up into clouds. He switched McIDAS to its time-lapse satellite picture loop and highlighted the thermal properties of the increasingly unstable storm: warm cores of luminous reds, oranges, yellows; mantles of refreshing greens and blues where rain was falling. New data threaded into the machine. The moisture-rich trough we were observing bloomed splatters of aspiration, graphic popcorn — thunderstorms. What was previously a tropical disturbance, with lazy 8- to 18-mile-an-hour winds, had intensified. Vertical columns of scattered cumulus — puffs of steam updrafted off the ocean, cooling into rain as they expanded — had coalesced, swollen together, to create a tropical depression, their combined winds (up to 38 mph) declaring a fragile confederation.
While the prevailing winds carried the storm from east to west/northwest, the west-to-east rotation of the earth rubbed against the storm with a soft friction, like a flywheel or a gear set perpendicular to the heaped plate of the weather system, causing it to slowly spin counterclockwise in a spiral twist. This was one of the signs that a sizable tropical storm might be stewing. Known as Coriolis, or deflecting, force, the earth’s rotation also inspires the ocean currents to circulate, redistributing the heat accumulated in warm tropical waters. In the weather system we’d been monitoring on McIDAS, the clouds had assembled into an inward-turning pattern, a merry-go-round of brisk winds and rainsqualls, and the system’s isobars — lines of equal pressure — formed awkward concentric rings, like an asymmetrical onion. (The closer the isobars are packed together, the fiercer the speed of the winds.) Now, if a vortex deepened at the center of the storm and if the clouds walled up into an eye, forming a chimney for evaporating water to be sucked heavenward off the ocean — if these things happened, we’d have a hurricane: a massive, self-sustaining heat engine, siphoning excess warmth out of the ocean and taking it on a parabolic ride west and north, its intention to balance the earth’s heat budget, spreading around the surplus at cooler latitudes. A well-developed hurricane is able to maintain its whirling, feverish tantrum because warm, moist air, as it condenses, releases latent heat — an explosive fuel.
Hurricanes, tropical cyclones everywhere in the world, are by far the worst storms in nature’s portfolio. Full-blown hurricanes are typically one hundred times larger than a thunderstorm; every minute they release energy equivalent to a hydrogen bomb. A hurricane’s nearly inconceivable force is perhaps easier to grasp if converted to a measurement of electrical power: An estimated 16 trillion kilowatts are produced by a hurricane in a single day. At such a rate, about an hour of hurricane energy would be sufficient to supply all the electric power generated in the United States during the course of a year.
About 90 percent of a hurricane’s energy is continuously converted as the water vapor vacuumed up through the hurricane’s eye expands at higher altitudes, chills, and then condenses into rain, which falls in buckets, barrels, tanker-loads: An average hurricane precipitates approximately 2 billion tons of water a day. Only in the matter of wind speed is a hurricane outdone by other weather systems. Hurricane winds begin, on the Beaufort scale, at a feeble 74 miles an hour and rarely exceed 150. Very weak tornadoes clock at 40 mph; more likely, they twist at between 200 and 300 mph, with maximum wind speeds said to approach the speed of sound (761.6 mph).
Nevertheless, the Labor Day hurricane that struck the Florida Keys in 1935, the most prodigious tropical cyclone on record in the United States, manufactured winds in excess of 200 mph, rendering the night air a blur of effervescent fire. The sandy topsoil of the Keys had been blasted airborne off its coral foundation; the quartz particles collided with each other, discharging electricity. Without shelter, anything alive in the middle of such a scourge didn’t stay alive for long.
“Several people were sandblasted to death,” Mayfield told me — well, not with relish, but clearly the details intrigued him. Mayfield’s a former Oklahoma weather nut who, “being smart enough to learn calculus and dumb enough to work the midnight shift,” fit right in as a hurricane specialist at the NHC. “They just found their shoes and belt buckles,” he said, their existence nicked away, molecule by molecule, and zipped into the atmosphere.
Mayfield went to his files for a photograph, shot years ago in the aftermath of a Caribbean hurricane. A 1- by 3-inch pine board, maybe 10 feet long, had been speared dead center through the trunk of a palm tree — a trick customarily regarded as the signature of a tornado. Then again, tornadoes often run in savage packs on the fringe of hurricanes, taking advantage of the unstable conditions. Hurricane Beulah (1967) whisked up 115 of them. In 1969, more than one hundred tornadoes paved the route inland for Hurricane Camille. Her winds, estimated at 190 mph, brought ashore 8 inches of rain and tides more than 20 feet above normal, decimating towns; 256 people died.
Hurricane winds also bear responsibility for some of the tallest waves known on Earth, frequently lashing open-ocean swells to heights of 40 to 50 feet. “I am more afraid of West Indian hurricanes than I am of the entire Spanish Navy,” confessed President William McKinley at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, acknowledging the truth that throughout history weather had sent more ships to the bottom than warfare. Thus, in 1898, a hurricane-warning network was established in the West Indies by a federal Weather Bureau itself only eight years old.
Even in the hurricane’s eye — the beguilingly serene oculus of the storm, a core sample of a quiet sunny day — all is awry. As winds and enormous bands of rain clouds spiral inward and wall up into a monstrous chimney-like tower of weather, air pressure plummets to its nadir, shaving the full weight of gravity by 70 pounds per square foot for each inch subtracted from the barometer. During 1988’s Hurricane Gilbert, which registered the all-time lowest sea-level barometric reading for this hemisphere, roughly 280 pounds of air pressure vanished up the eye. In this unbearable lightness, eardrums strain and pop; capillaries swell, bringing to the mouth, some victims say, a taste of blood. It is a vortex so ravenous the sea itself lifts upward, creating a blister on the surface some 5 to 15 feet above the already exaggerated tide — with Camille it was 25 feet! — and hauling the dome ashore in a storm surge so abrupt its victims are swallowed like a biblical army, trapped in the middle of joining seas. Beach houses are there and then gone. Buildings lose their structural integrity and collapse within minutes. People hunker down in emergency shelters, or drown.
Before leaving the center that afternoon, I asked Mayfield to put a price tag on the damage should a major Camille-like hurricane strike southern Florida today. He quoted the figure everybody’s using to communicate the seriousness of such an event — $10 billion, minimum.
And the chances of such a strike? Mayfield would rather not think about it. “There’s been so much development on the United States coast,” he said. “People are not going to believe the destruction.”
During hurricane season, the promiscuous, overheated North Atlantic gives birth to a tropical disturbance every three to five days, from eighty to one hundred a season. Not a big deal. The one we had in sight thanks to McIDAS decayed within twenty-four hours, guillotined by the fair, dry weather kingdom known as the Bermuda high. But of every ten tropical disturbances, one exhibits the sporting desire for fame, puts its foot down on the accelerator, and matures into a tropical storm, its winds reaching 39 to 73 mph. It earns a chummy name, becomes an object of attention, a personality. On average, each year six of these rising stars become celebrities — become hurricanes — by virtue of their furious tenacity, in their spectacular lust (or hatred) for heat. In the secret lives of storms, heat is everything. In their public lives, all is cold, cruel destruction.
The western Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean basin — they have sculpted my private map of place; they have shaped an outline of happiness on both the outer world and inner self. These are my territories, where I live and have lived, where I prefer to be — the coastline from Delaware to Venezuela, and all the islands peppered in between. Regardless of their vital differences, they form an entity that constitutes my native range, a geographical house — a wondrous mansion, really, its thousand rooms tied one to another by broad corridors and sweeping stairways of wind and ocean current. On a perfect October day, the right breeze blowing from the south, I can stand on the shore at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and smell breakfast cooking in the West Indies.
For the white man and the black man, this is the old part of the New World, its quincentennial anniversary just around the corner, a swath of the hemisphere colonized by the wind and endowed by history and nature with a singular personality found by many outsiders to be languidly perverse, even threatening, though not without its colorful, sun-dazed charms. It is, in fact, a personality defined by hurricanes. Earthquakes, by comparison, are sloppy accidents; tornadoes, nihilistic lone gunmen. But hurricanes are something else, visceral paradoxes echoing the symbiotic dynamics of the macrocosm, both good and bad, dry and wet, cold and hot — rapacious organisms but also law-abiding citizens of the universe. And, as such, the geographical house I call home is bound, in perpetuity, to a contract with disaster, payment due on a regular basis; its inhabitants both resigned to and fascinated by the brutality of their ever-continuing education in economics and love — catastrophe’s two most illuminating lessons. These coastlines, these islands — it’s as if each year they are entered into a ruthless lottery, and the losers — maybe one or two, maybe the entire bunch — get a divine thrashing.
I do not mean to imply, however, that hurricanes are a game of cosmic chance. Over the past century, from Maine to Texas, not a single mile of coastline has been spared a visit from these storms; nor will any stretch of the coast be spared in the century to come — 100 percent guaranteed.
life’s a beach, bumper stickers joke, but the pun belies the demographic fact that the shore has evolved beyond its mythological role in the national perception of the good life, one’s just reward measured in two-week packets. It’s not simply where America relaxes; it’s where we live. As of 1990, one of every two Americans resides within 50 miles of a coastline — participating, then, in the delicate coastal ecosystem; enjoying, altering, polluting. About 70 million of us live in the 364 coastal counties along the Eastern seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico. It turns out that the Beach Boys, twenty-five years ago, were oracles of population distribution. “If everybody had a notion,” they jubilated. As it happened, everybody did. The center peeled toward the edges, as if a centrifugal force and an amphibious yearning ruled our national disposition.
In August 1986, my wife and I moved to Hatteras, one of the long barrier islands of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the last great stretch of unspoiled sandy coastline left in the East. Crossing over the Currituck bridge from the mainland, we stopped north of Kitty Hawk to overnight with friends at their beach cottage in Southern Shores. We were fed homemade crab cakes with margaritas, wrapped in temperate sea breezes, and put to bed. In the morning I awoke to a hangover, which was anticipated, and a hurricane, which was not. When we had retired for the evening, Charley was only a rumor of a storm, a weather system with an identity crisis somewhere off the coast of South Carolina. But he’d moved north and grown, and now here he was, a flamboyant upstart bearing down on us.
We were grudgingly titillated; our lives were being complicated, but in a seductive way. The radio offered halfhearted advice to evacuate, not worth considering. We were moving in, not out. It was Sunday morning: The four of us wanted the newspaper, something to eat. We happily ventured outdoors, cocking our shoulders against the rising wind. Charley’s eye was still 90 miles or so to the south, below Ocracoke Island, entering Pamlico Sound, granting us a three- to five-hour grace period before the upper banks — Nags Head, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills — would be aswirl in nastiness.
Pro-development county commissioners along the coast are habitually reluctant to call for evacuations. The average hurricane forecast made twenty-four hours in advance has a margin of error of more than a hundred miles; to implement a National Hurricane Center warning costs about $150,000 to $200,000 per coastal mile. County budget officers cringe, the Chamber of Commerce is vocal in its opposition, highway patrolmen are overwhelmed. Resort owners scream, exasperated vacationers demand their money back; longtime residents swear they won’t budge — we stayed in ’63, in ’73, whenever, they grouse, and it wasn’t so bad.
As it was, ferry service from Ocracoke Island to the mainland had been suspended. Ferries that had been evacuating people from the north end of Ocracoke to Hatteras Island would discontinue service at 11:30 a.m. The National Park Service had ordered campgrounds cleared on both islands, and the county had recommended that anyone in an area prone to flooding — virtually the entire Outer Banks — or living in a mobile home should move to shelter. This was the peak of the tourist season, when the weekend population of the fragile ribbon of sand dunes, marsh, and maritime forests that form the Banks bloat up beyond 150,000 persons. (Hatteras Island’s permanent residents number around 4,800.) Traffic from Ocracoke and Hatteras crawled slowly north on Highway 12 toward South Nags Head, Highway 12 eventually leading to the only way to drive off the Banks.
By 10 a.m., as we climbed into our host’s car, Charley’s first rainband sliced by. At the northern end of the 158 bypass, traffic bottle-necked as thousands of vehicles jockeyed to escape the island over the Currituck bridge. The jam snaked bumper to bumper to the southern terminus of the route, where it again bottlenecked at the Nags Head–Manteo causeway. We detoured two blocks east to the ocean and discovered that the café on the landward end of the Avalon Fishing Pier was open for business. The rain blew in a car-wash effect around the entrance to the pier, falling up, down, and sideways as we dashed through it.
Inside, the pier house rolled like a ship at sea, pitching and shuddering; rain clattered against the windows like a spray of gravel. I felt too punk to eat and, during a lull, went outside to marvel at the waves thundering ashore, their crests scouring the floor of the pier. In the spindrift I found a golf tee, a tetracycline prescription bottle issued in El Paso, a high-heeled shoe, a welding mask, fluorescent light tubes inexplicably intact, dozens of pink tampon inserters, and everywhere limp flowers of garbage. Hurricanes are slobs: They not only make trash out of a coastline; they haul it in and dump it as well.
Charley had gathered forward speed and was trudging up the back-bay waters by the time we left the pier at noon. Gale-force winds demanded our driver’s keen attention. The 158 bypass remained gridlocked, inching forward, the inbound lanes wide open across the bridges, reserved for emergency vehicles. And there the islands’ weekend visitors would sit, storm-wracked, until midafternoon, by which time however much of Charley that was coming our way was full upon us. It wasn’t much — as long as you were safely indoors. Not everyone was. Charley killed somebody. The Nags Head–Manteo causeway had flooded, and a local businesswoman, trying to get off the island, had lost sight of the pavement and driven into a canal.
Just eleven months before, in September 1985, Hurricane Gloria had charged toward the upper banks wielding 130-mph winds, prompting the Pentagon to assure North Carolina governor James Martin that hundreds of “body bags and tags” were being readied to accommodate the expected casualties. As it happened, the storm lost intensity before reaching the island and had diminished to Category 1 (74–95 mph) by the time it briefly focused its Cyclops eye on Cape Hatteras. Still, the attending winds — gusting over 100 mph — were no one’s idea of comfort. After Charley many local residents were shocked, fearful, ready to speak out.
“We can continue to allow the mass stacking of people on our narrow strip of sand and one day have the distinction of having the greatest loss of life from a hurricane,” a Nags Head resident wrote to the local paper, expressing not community opinion but rather the greatest source of community dissension, “or we can call a halt to more building until we can guarantee evacuation to our visitors and permanent residents.”
Of course, there was no moratorium on building; quite the contrary. And two years passed before the county figured out it required more than sixteen hours’ “clearance time” to get people off the Banks and that even minimal hurricanes would flood vast portions of the region, closing most roads, including miles of the vital mainland corridors. A plan called Decision Arc — a mandatory evacuation system — was adopted. Based on the estimated arrival time — say 6 p.m. tomorrow — of gale-force winds, which make travel nightmarish, emergency management coordinators count backward sixteen hours, and when that moment arrives they sound the alarm. Once the alarm is sounded, everybody’s got to go, or so it is written.
If islanders were easily spooked, if tourists weren’t pawns to curiosity, if more than a few surviving old-timers knew the merciless heart of an unforgiving storm, perhaps that would be all there was to it. More than any other response, though, there’s always been a sense of routine to bad storms on the Outer Banks. All hurricanes, a local historian named Ben Dixon MacNeill wrote in 1956, are expected to pass off Cape Hatteras, grazing on the warmth of the Gulf Stream. Islanders just don’t believe the worst could happen to them.
It seldom has. Hatteras hasn’t been walloped by a Category 3 hurricane (111- to 130-mph winds; 8- to 12-foot storm surge) since 1944; it’s never known the unrelenting assault of a Category 4 (131- to 155-mph winds; 12- to 18-foot storm surge) or the total defeat of a Category 5 (156+-mph winds; 18+-foot storm surge) goliath, at least not since 1871, when accurate records began being kept. The closest call came in October 1954, when Hurricane Hazel, a “mild” Category 4 storm, demolished neighbors to the island’s south. The Weather Service filed this report:
Wind-driven tides devastated the immediate oceanfront from the South Carolina line to Cape Lookout. All traces of civilization on that portion of the waterfront were practically annihilated. Grass-covered dunes some 10 to 20 feet high and behind which beach homes had been built in a continuous line five miles long simply disappeared, dunes, houses, and all. The paved roadway along which the houses were built was . . . washed away (or) buried beneath several feet of sand. Of the 357 buildings which existed on Long Beach, 352 were totally destroyed and the other five damaged.
For North Carolinians on the Banks, as for most people who live in the path of nature’s more harmful ways, hurricanes will mean nothing until they mean everything. Like death, a hurricane is a looming abstraction impacted deep within the inscrutable storm of existence. Only when the threat is palpable must you prepare; only when the hurricane comes will you truly know it.
It’s understandable that many of the scientists and support staff at the National Hurricane Center have never experienced a hurricane firsthand, Mayfield included. They spend the hurricane season duly occupied, concerned not with the matter of what it’s like but with whether it will develop and where it will head. Most days it’s business as usual — numbers crunch, images intensify and fade. But once a storm is anthropomorphized with a name (alphabetical lists alternating men’s and women’s names are established beforehand in a six-year cycle, then reused), things change around the office, the mood takes a commensurate swing up. With raison d’être comes passion; there’s an aesthetic leap forward, especially as the eye — Earth’s most startling metaphor for itself — blossoms. It’s complicated, this love — not the militarist’s infatuation with firepower but the absolute embrace of mechanism and methodology dazzled into transcendent moments by a natural phenomenon — ordered chaos — that appears to flirt across a subjective threshold. Is the storm alive? Can it be understood?
Such was the sense of things around the NHC in September 1988, when Hurricane Gilbert, a gigantic brawler, began punching out lights across the Caribbean in contention for the storm-of-the-century title. Once the NHC’s storm-track projections targeted Galveston, Texas, as the most likely place for landfall, I hopped a plane for Texas.
Aboard the flight, conversation was as you might expect. “Those eyes,” the fellow sitting in front of me said, “they can get big,” 5 to 25 miles wide. “There are birds in there, trapped, being pushed along, thousands of miles.” He had meditated on the meaning of this and found it to be a wonder. He was an Air Force meteorologist, it turned out, and had flown hurricane hunters — reconnaissance planes equipped as flying laboratories and sent up by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to collect firsthand evidence of a storm’s intensity, speed, and direction. I had talked sometime before with a pilot of a hurricane hunter at the NHC, and he’d vividly described for me his encounter with an unwanted thrill — flying into the eye of a Pacific typhoon. The plane burst through the wall of the eve at 10,000 feet. Three seconds later, the altimeter read 5,500 feet. Yeah, he had told me, his eyes hard and bright, straight down, 4,500 feet, like dropping off a cliff. One out of every fifteen penetrations you get the living crap kicked out of you. But the pilot left no doubt that the kick was worth it, the way he talked: Busting into the eye at 10,000 feet, there was a fishbowl effect, the marbled walls towering up to 50,000 or 60,000 feet in brilliant sunshine, beautifully cantilevered, so that you might actually think, he enthused, you’re sitting in Yankee Stadium.
On our approach to Houston Intercontinental Airport, I looked south across an endless gauze sheet of cirrocumulus, parchment thin, reflecting a platinum haze onto the city. Where the coastline should have been — Houston is only about 45 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico — white seams of corn-rowed altocumulus fed in from the distance, and, farther off, a brocade of pea-sized thunderheads had been stitched along the hemline of infinity. Beyond that were lavender and violet symptoms of bruising, and an eerie sense of substance without an accompanying sense of form. It was breathtakingly surreal, that sky.
Inside the terminal I discovered that during the flight Gilbert’s expected travel plans had been revised, shifted farther south toward Corpus Christi. I rented a car and made for San Antonio, hoping to convince an old friend, a retired sea captain and veteran of countless blows by the name of Tay Maltsberger, to come along. The Houston radio stations were obsessed with reports of price gouging — plywood being the favored material of extortion. As I neared San Antonio, I tuned in to a local meteorologist, a twanging, slaphappy country boy named Judd. “Hurricanes are a pleasure to watch and a pleasure to be a part of,” Judd crowed. “Stay tuned. We’ll continue to have a lot of fun.”
Captain Tay himself was ready for a break in the ordinary. He packed a seabag, I parked my rental car in his driveway — I had been forced to sign an agreement with the leasing company, promising to pay for any storm damage incurred — and we boarded his Detroit dinosaur, a vintage Lincoln Continental low-rider, decrepit but trustworthy and solid, as fine a storm car as you could ask for, and proceeded south on Interstate 37, headed for Corpus Christi. Judd was back on the radio, delighted that soon the coastal rivers would be running in both directions, as storm tides battled upstream. Past the city limits, we became the sole proprietors of the southbound lanes. Across the median, steady traffic turtled north, family heirlooms strapped to roof carriers. It was my dream highway, the highway of my adolescence, speeding to the beach on an empty road.
Captain Tay, a nomad of the tropics for most of his life, recalled for me with scant affection the hurricanes he’d endured: Flossie in ’55 in New Orleans. Grade in ’59. What’s-her-name in ’63, while he was renovating an estate house in Antigua. He had tied himself to a tree before the storm hit, thinking such intimate investigation of the forthcoming event was harmonious with his style of life. I asked how it was.
“Wet. Stupid. Horrible.” The incentive was to see, but the rain blew with such acrimonious volume he might as well have been underwater with his eyes shut.
By 6 p.m., Captain Tay and I were 40 miles north of the Gulf Coast. Gilbert’s projected landfall was now off toward Brownsville, which meant that Corpus Christi, situated in the front right quadrant of the hurricane’s track, would take the brunt of the impact — the highest winds and tides — as the spinning buzz saw of the storm bit into the coast. Squalls were visible to the southwest; on cue, we were raked by an enfilade of furious rain. We listened to Corpus Christi radio announce that so far the evacuation had been orderly but was getting frantic. Winds were gusting at 35 mph; radio listeners were advised not to evacuate if the winds increased.
Northbound traffic had thinned to a trickle; southbound, it was only us. Something we never even saw blew into our windshield and cracked it. Resisted by gingery winds, we entered a city seemingly abandoned to its emergency services. Not immediately evident, though, were the 250,000 residents who had opted to stay put — an underclass with nowhere to run, along with the normal mix of diehards, vigilantes loading up tor looters, flakes only now figuring out something was amiss, small businessmen with no margin of absolution, the machos and the indifferent, the partyers and the windsurfers. Everybody else in town was part of an impromptu reunion of samurai media correspondents. Waterfront parking lots were crammed with humming Skylink units — RVs and panel trucks toting satellite dishes, converted into traveling production booths for microwave transmission, poised to beam the disaster back home to Wichita or Atlanta or Montreal.
A pretty sunset graced the Gulf of Mexico: a royal mountain range of cumulus fanned by luminous golden valleys of failing light; a disembodied rainbow sprouting tenuous legs. An overpowering aroma of churned seawater, deliciously ominous, ventilated the humid city. Cars promenaded merrily down Bayshore Drive, their occupants rubbernecking the sailboat garden being planted with haste in the park between the road and the hotels, the boats craned out of their slips at the municipal marina and lodged keel-first in trenches dug with a backhoe. It was Thursday night. Landfall was scheduled for Friday daylight, probably late morning. By this time tomorrow, I thought, those boats will have made use of the storm surge to check themselves into a room at the nearby Sheraton. Captain Tay and I found a vacancy in the Holiday Inn at the backside of town and fell asleep, expecting the storm to wake us.
But it didn’t. Punctuality has never been a trait of hurricanes. Their winds pack a decibel level suggestive of a low-flying squadron of throttled-down jets; I awoke instead to a whispering sunrise and a relatively balmy day. Gilbert had hesitated, although, according to the NHC, he remained betrothed to Corpus Christi.
Indeed, shortly after 9 a.m. the city was treated to a vanguard squall. In the dining room of the waterfront Sheraton, commandeered by the media, a communal surge of adrenaline had the happy result of making a hotel breakfast interesting. Selected network underlings were ordered into their oilskins and sent outdoors to aim cameras at the turbulent Gulf. Technicians fussed over black trunks of expensive gear. News squads powwowed nervously: A United States city was about to be obliterated. Then, boom! The first rainband enveloped us, a deafening cataract that halted conversation as two inches of water came bucketing down.
The room cleared, the tribe advancing on the Emergency Operations Center in the basement of City Hall, where workers sandbagged the doors. Except for a handful of bums being polled by TV guys, downtown streets sat deserted, but out on Bayshore and Ocean drives, a busy day — a holiday — raveled and unraveled in sync with the weather. In the middle of an extended lull, lovers strolled, parents romped with young children, dogs exercised, joggers tucked their heads to brace against the occasional blast. Skateboarders invented spinnakers with plastic garbage bags and sailed the sidewalks. Citizens had flocked to the shoreline to welcome the tempest, and by noon, when the windsurfers struggled down the cliffs and into the boiling waves, sending up a cheer, Corpus Christi had itself a strangely wholesome county fair. Nobody seemed to have a clue what the hurricane was doing, but everybody loved it — and one another — so far.
By 2 p.m., Gilbert lay 260 miles south of Corpus Christi. Winds gusting to 50 mph rocked Captain Tay as he stood sentinel at McGee Beach, inhaling the raw, jungly smell of the atmosphere and growing nostalgic, watching the water whiten as his past blew up to him: He and I had both lived on the same island off the coast of Nicaragua when Hurricane Fifi corkscrewed past in ’74. Now the horizon turned mulberry black, street signs began to shake with poltergeists, the rains stampeded horizontally, and within the hour tropical-storm conditions prevailed. As promised by the mayor, police stationed along Shoreline Boulevard shooed sightseers indoors. Eleven emergency shelters filled up with believers.
It was nearly impossible to find storm information on the radio, except in Spanish. By midafternoon, though, with roads flooding and visibility less than a mile, we knew the storm had locked us in place, no matter what. Then came the news: The hurricane had declined to make the northward adjustment that had been so insistently predicted during the previous twenty-four hours. Instead, between 2 and 3 p.m., with winds of 120 mph, Gilbert plowed straight ahead into Mexico, more than 100 miles south of Brownsville, scattering tornadoes like a burst piñata.
A final onslaught of dense rain reduced visibility to zero. The local radio confirmed a tornado sighting. Captain Tay and I drove to a liquor store and bought a bottle from an exhausted cashier, his till fat with money. For us the storm was over, but for the countries further impoverished by $5 billion in damages, for the relatives of the dead in Jamaica and Mexico, for the hundreds of thousands of people left homeless and destitute, the storm would never be over.
“Florida needs a hurricane,” I often hear its citizens say, bemoaning the state’s overdevelopment, and perhaps if Hurricane Hugo could have been auctioned off, Miami or Tampa would have gotten Hugo, and his $7 billion mirror for soul-searching, instead of Charleston, South Carolina.
From September 16 to 22, 1989, Hurricane Hugo decimated the islands of Guadeloupe, Montserrat, St. Croix, St. John’s, and St. Thomas with 140-mph winds and peak gusts around 155 mph, then hammered Charleston and its surrounding low country (with the highest storm surge recorded anywhere on the East Coast in this century — 19.8 feet) and chewed up the Grand Strand of Myrtle Beach. Hugo’s notoriety was such that meteorologists retired his name from their lists, the first stateside hurricane to be inducted into ruination’s hall of fame since Camille in 1969.
But the language of catastrophe is depressingly uniform; profiles in terror are delivered in the voice of Everyman. One ravished community becomes all ravished communities; one mutilated environment easily resembles the next. Businesses and dwellings nowhere to be found; “beautiful white beach houses turned inside out and stacked 30 and 40 feet high”; roads undermined, sections of bridge collapsed; the toppled trees blanketing crushed cars, the ones left standing stripped entirely of their foliage, the infrastructure ruptured — no electricity, no water, no phones, no sewerage; survivors wandering like zombies through the wreckage; the pooled mud and oppressive heat and “sick yellow” sky; dozens of wild boars washed in from the barrier islands, floating dead at the water’s edge; the air rotten “because there were so many dead things around”; chain-link fences collaged with death, their mesh stuffed with birds. Not Hugo and Charleston, though the description fits, but Camille and Gulfport, Mississippi.
In her book Hatteras Journal, naturalist writer Jan DeBlieu recalled a friend’s ordeal during Hurricane Gloria in 1985. The man had remained in a house in Avon, a few miles north of Cape Hatteras, and taken notes as the storm swept ashore. No longer able to tolerate the shrillness of the wind, he had jammed tissue in his ears. The house droned with vibration; objects, like the refrigerator, walked themselves around. Waves began pounding the third-floor windows. He put on a life preserver and wrote; “I feel very much alone. House moving badly. Phone dead. House being blasted. Big boat hitting house. Wind won’t die. Can hear lumber cracking and breaking. House might go down. Helpless.” And finally, nine hours later: “It will subside.”
On Hatteras the consensus on Gloria was that the hurricane hadn’t wised anybody up, a sentiment underscored by Charley the following year. Development had boomed, if anything, after both storms, as if they had miraculously disaster-proofed the Outer Banks. By the time I left Hatteras in 1987, the island had its first ever liquor store and shopping mall. In 1986 canal lots west of Highway 12 sold for $15,000; by 1989 they were worth $65,000. The notion worked its way into the common viewpoint of old-time residents with modest incomes: It’d be nice if a real hurricane cleared this place out.
Jan DeBlieu herself had evacuated during Gloria, but she knew how her friends who stayed had suffered, she wasn’t naive about storms. A month before Hatteras itself was placed under the umbrella of Hugo’s hurricane warning, I had heard the bottom line from her one night at dinner.
“Saying that I want a major hurricane to hit the Outer Banks is, I suppose, grasping at straws,” she said. “But the environmental pressures, the overdevelopment, have to be reversed, and nothing seems to be working.” So . . . yes, DeBlieu wanted a hurricane to hit. Yes, she wanted major destruction. Yes, she admitted, as a radical ecologist she had to say that if there were deaths from the storm, that would be even better, more emphatic. “I don’t say these things lightly,” she added. The pattern of human involvement with the shoreline had to change, “even if it means people like me have to leave our property and go somewhere else; that we all admit the ecosystem of these islands is fragile and only meant to support the people who were here before modern development. You treat a dog dying of heartworms with arsenic. You drive a car differently after you wreck one.”
Hard medicine, this remedy of hurricanes. South Carolina had had to swallow it, and I wanted to see for myself how it had gone down. Nine months after Hugo rammed head-on into the coast I visited Charleston, driving up to North Carolina first for an orientation session with Orrin Pilkey, a coastal geologist who directs the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Duke University in Durham. Pilkey, a good-humored conservationist who enjoys stirring up trouble, has challenged — and in some cases has helped change — the way many state and local governments perceive the coast. His converts are widespread; he receives a lot of hate mail. If he were king, he likes to say, he’d bulldoze any building within 100 meters of the shoreline, consequently saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in insurance paybacks while ensuring that there’ll be beaches around for the nation’s grandchildren.
“Compared with the number of people who want to use the beach, the number who have built right next to it is very small,” Pilkey told me, “so the hell with them. There’s not much good you can say about these people. They build in a very dangerous place, they are responsible for the big expenditure of flood insurance, they make access to the beach difficult for the public, and they make the beach ugly.”
He cited an axiom of coastal geology, Dolan’s Dilemma: Whatever you do to a beach to protect yourself (creating artificial dunes, seawalls, groins) will bear responsibility for your eventual demise, since it undermines the beach’s natural ability to renourish itself. After the Big One comes, Pilkey’s confident that all states will refuse to allow people to rebuild on the beach after hurricanes.
The disaster Pilkey anticipates — and most hurricane experts agree with the scenario — will be a Category 4 or 5 storm that kills thousands in the Florida Keys or hits Pinellas County, filling Tampa Bay and blowing out the drawbridges. Hugo, mean as he was, was not a persuasive advocate of retreat.
Yet, as Pilkey saw it, South Carolina seemed to be “doing all the right things.” Not a single new seawall had been built since the storm; existing walls were condemned to a phase-out plan; and earlier legislation had reduced the likelihood of high-rise construction.
But even as we talked, the South Carolina state legislature was backing down from the high ground by loosening restrictions on property owners whose lots had been rendered unbuildable by the 1988 Beachfront Management Act. In addition, the legislature exempted Folly Beach — southeast of the city and starved for sand by the jetty protecting Charleston Harbor — from the act’s restrictions, basically freeing the Hugo-bashed peninsula to stabilize itself in whatever manner, however problematic, it found necessary and expedient.
Pilkey called Folly Beach the worst, most mismanaged beach in the Southeast, so there’s where I drove after I left him, making for the coast, picking up Highway 17, the coastal route, at Myrtle Beach and steering south toward Charleston. Though it had been almost a year since the storm, the road could still lead a traveler into a state of hurricane-induced sobriety. The working-class towns of McClellanville and Awendaw, situated directly north of Hugo’s eye, endured the worst — sustained winds estimated at 138 mph, peak gusts at 179 mph, a storm surge of 17 feet — and were the slowest to recover. McClellanville’s houses were still shells, the town’s streets ramparted with sickeningly tall mounds of rubble. People had been trapped in their houses here, their furniture floating around them. Then the houses themselves had come unmoored and floated. Mile after mile, the roadside of 17 was leveed with the vestiges of apocalypse: houses piled into splintered cones, bathtubs and toilets, appliances, sofas and chairs and mattresses, carpets and drywall and shingles — everything, the frame and the skin of the low country’s former self, all the mundane fixings and furnishings of life, resonating not tragedy as much as the dull hum of pathos.
The scarred logs that had been cut out of crushed roofs and stacked on the shoulder of the road foreshadowed the profoundly numbing sight of the blowdown in the Francis Marion National Forest. Some 70 percent of the trees in this 250,000-acre forest 30 miles north of Charleston were pushed over, snapped off, or cracked into perfect angles: You could drive for an hour and see nothing but a loblolly pine forest of triangles and amputated timber. (In the past year, the Forest Service has lost a considerable part of the surviving stand to a stress-related beetle infestation.) The astronomical blowdown had left behind the most dangerous wildfire potential the state has ever seen. “Even now, after seeing it every day for nine months,” forest ranger Erin Bronk told me, “we drive out there and can’t believe our eyes.” A national forest devastated.
Not so Charleston and the elite beach communities out on the barrier islands. There, as I discovered, the original storm surge had been chased by a three-stage surge of money: first, to repair the infrastructure; second, to clear the debris; and third, to rebuild in style — all stages expensive and all heavily subsidized by taxpayers through federal flood insurance and disaster assistance. The hurricane had been a catalyst for renewal, sure — renewal not of the environmental order (so much for deep ecology) but of the modern American’s way of life. What the storm did, according to Christopher Brooks, deputy director of the South Carolina Coastal Council, was destroy a lot of older, poorer construction on the coast. Hurricanes, it would follow, function as hard-to-please building inspectors, regulating the physical standards of growth without making definitive statements about growth’s right to persevere.
Charleston and its surrounding shorelines were prospering. “Overall,” said Brooks, who was trained as an economist, “I think we’ll come out ahead.” There was no fire sale — real-estate values had held. The city was chock-full of carpetbaggers — construction crews from Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Massachusetts; entrepreneurs pouring out of the woodwork. “I’ve never seen so many creative people with so many schemes,” a city government official told me. It was the proverbial triumph of the human spirit over adversity, but it was something less, something tawdry too, because there was so much money to be made. By the time the army of insurance claims adjusters — known in the trade as storm troopers — had burned out and retreated, construction-material costs had tripled and the boom was on.
Not long after reaching Folly Beach — if the worst beach on the southeastern coast, certainly the best named — I pulled over to help a vehicle stuck in the sand of a leveled, debris-strewn oceanfront lot and there met Jimmy Simmons, an ex-Marine with a Southerner’s childlike smile and lidded eyes.
“You lose your home here?” I asked.
“Naw,” he said. “Mine’s this one here next to it, still standing.”
He invited me in for a taste of Carolina hospitality — Coca-Cola and home cooking and shooting the bull. Inside, he introduced me to his wife — “This is Leona Helmsley; boy, she don’t let me get away with nothing” — to his grown-up daughter, and waved at his sunburned grandchildren, playing cards at the kitchen table. Out the front windows the view was of artificial dune, a rock seawall, a dying beach still littered with glass shards and chunks of concrete. Beyond was the magnificent, ever spellbinding ocean blue. We sat down and were served our Cokes. It was 102 degrees outside, but in Mr. Simmons’s unpretentious house I felt cool with a sense of belonging. One of those noisy card cheaters at the table could have been me, thirty years ago, savoring the best of times I had ever known with my family, in a rented cottage at Nags Head or Virginia Beach or Ocean City, Maryland.
I sat there and listened to Jimmy Simmons talk about Folly Beach, which he had been coming to since he was a kid, and about the hurricane:
“As far as the hurricane goes,” he began, “it’s going to improve Folly Beach 100 percent. It’s bringing a lot of people over here that’s got money. When money comes into an area, it improves, you know, everything improves. Yeah, taxes are going to go up. I pay taxes on two lots myself — I have one lot out there in the ocean, supposed to be a road between that one and the one I’m on.
“I think this hurricane relieved a lot of people’s minds,” he went on to say. “I’ve always been reluctant to put money into this house, thinking that the Big One was going to take it away, but I don’t feel that way anymore. We just finished getting the house back together, been working on it twelve hours a day. I always thought I was pretty tough, but after going around and looking at the town I said, I’ve had it, I don’t want to see anymore, I don’t want to hear anymore, I don’t even want to think about it. It was too much destruction. You close your mind to it.
“Things have changed in my lifetime, but I like it better now. You have the attitude I had twenty years ago. I felt like going out on the highway and putting up roadblocks to stop the growth. Then I ended putting up a shopping center here. Why should you and me sit here enjoying all this for ourselves? Other people are entitled to it, too.”
I am grateful to Mrs. Simmons for her fine cherry pie and to Jimmy Simmons for his fundamental decency, but we haven’t so much in common, finally, except good intentions and the fact that we can both boast of a long courtship with the coast. Yet he stayed on, and I’ve mostly fled. I envy him the sea outside his living room windows. I know, though, that if I lingered in a place like Folly Beach, or myriad other towns along the shore, I would become rich in hatred for the outrages so enthusiastically committed.
Orrin Pilkey had told me that a Hugo or a Camille would loop Hatteras Island right back to the 1920s, before the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed the artificial dune line that muffled the barrier island’s innate instability, making development possible.
Well, that’s great, I tell myself wistfully, but I wasn’t born then, I can’t travel back through time, even if the beach can. And as an American, I can no longer imagine a beach so pure and empty that I’m not somewhere on it, minding the blank horizon, waiting for the wind to rise, the storm to wake me — another fool, gambling it will never come.