Growing up in southeastern Virginia, hurricane season was always a time of excitement for me as a kid. Hurricane season was summer’s last hurrah before back-to-school season. It was the surging conclusion to countless days of sweltering heat, countless days at the pool and beach, countless Slurpees, and countless mosquito bites. Hurricane season offered one last chance for real summer drama before it was back to the usual routine.
The backyard of our family home tapered off into a marshy Chesapeake Bay inlet so the prospect of a storm always seemed personal. Would the waters that provided the backdrop for so many gorgeous sunrises and afternoons outdoors really turn on us? It was hard to imagine. If the backyard had a personality of its own, it was a benevolent one. But of course it was clear that the storms (with their quaint, outmoded names like Hugo and Bonnie) had personalities too, and it was arguable that those personalities were not so benevolent. They were certainly fickle and feckless, dying down then speeding back up, making strange last-minute turns, and never quite behaving as predicted.
Disaster preparation is a funny thing. My parents rarely watched TV, but in hurricane season, the TV was on for hours on end, excited meteorologists waving their arms as swirling neon hurricane clouds danced on loop behind them. Mom and Dad would stock up on groceries and bring in lawn furniture and potted plants (my contribution: cutting out pictures of colorful hurricane models from the local paper to paste into a collage), but our preparation usually ended there. One year, my mother swaddled all our old family photo albums in layers of trash bags while we kids regarded her with skepticism. We never boarded our windows, or bought bottled water, or extra batteries or canned food. And we never left.
We were lucky. More often than not, the Carolinas would absorb the worst of the big storm coming our way, leaving the Hampton Roads area drenched but essentially unscathed. The photo albums never did get ruined as my mom had worried. But at the end of every summer, the deadly flirtation would start up again — and as I got older, I started to find the whole ritual of hurricane-watching more and more nerve-wracking. How long could our good luck hold out? Statistically, we were due for a doozy of a storm. All it would take is one little swerve, and low-lying Poquoson would be a trashed puddle.
I was away at college in 2003 when Hurricane Isabel took that tell-tale swerve we’d been waiting for. The reported cost of the damage for the city was almost $100 million dollars, and the devastation visibly changed the landscape of the town. Our backyard alone lost eleven trees, and half our dock washed away. Afterwards, state and federal grants paid for entire neighborhoods to lift their homes onto cinder blocks. Eight years later, Hurricane Irene’s trajectory has me thinking about Isabel and worrying about whether it’s my hometown’s turn to take a hit again. As I write, the two people have already been killed in Virginia by trees falling through windows (one the Hampton Roads area) and 70,000 people are without power on the Peninsula alone.
As for New York City, it’s hard to say what’s in store. I’m in the camp of unbelievers having trouble picturing a serious impact here, though between the mandatory mass evacuations, the MTA’s historic shutdown, and a predicted power outage for much of lower Manhattan, it’s apparent city officials (who should know about these things) are bracing for the worst. Then again, given the strange weather NYC has seen this year — a spree of blizzards, a heat wave, record-breaking rains just a few weeks ago, and last-week’s earthquake — oversized hurricane damage wouldn’t come as a big surprise to me either. As I packed up for another hotel room for the weekend, courtesy of my office, the rain had stopped in Queens. The old man across the street who always sits sentry on the steps of his building in his wheelchair was at his usual post, checking his watch. Storm time yet?
photo: Hurricane Irene as seen from space, via NASA