Last week, its name was Floyd. It took a slightly different journey across the Atlantic, but for those of us who were directly in Hurricane Andrew's path in 1992, Floyd was hauntingly familiar. In an instant, all the terror and helplessness flooded back, the naked vulnerability, the breathless panic. Here was a storm as big as Texas, an angry swirl of wind and lightning, a tornado to the hundredth power. And it had us in its sights.
Seven years ago, forecasters assured us that Andrew would turn away. A brightly colored track showed it brushing the South Florida coast before making a northwest curve, steered by upper-level highs or a dip in the jet stream. In my 30 years in Florida, I'd never suffered a direct hit from a hurricane. But I boarded up as usual, and all evening my wife and I sat in the dark watching the big storm on television as it spun toward us like the ragged blade of a buzz saw.
The forecasters seemed confident. Their wind charts and vapor loops and sophisticated computer models all suggested the same thing--we would get strong gusts and a good dose of rain, and then this inconvenience would shift north to harass some less fortunate souls. So I went to bed that night, sore from my labor and convinced that it was wasted effort, that the storm would be deflected by forces I barely understood.
But the forecasters were wrong. It didn't turn. As Andrew passed over the warm waters of the Gulf Stream just east of Miami around midnight, the storm strengthened to a Category 4, with winds of nearly 150 miles an hour. The rising winds woke me. When I switched on the television, I went numb. Andrew was heading directly for South Florida. In fact, the eye of the storm was roaring toward the shoreline only a few miles from my home.
Suddenly, there was an enormous crash outside. Peering around the plywood, I saw that the graceful Indian rosewood tree that shaded a large portion of the yard had been knocked flat. And Andrew had not yet come ashore. At 3:15 a.m., the power went off. I remember the time so precisely because all the clocks in our house were frozen on that number for the three and a half weeks until the electricity was restored. For the next three hours, in the utter darkness, we patrolled the house, looking for signs of damage. All around the neighborhood, electric transformers exploded high up on poles and sent bursts of eerie blue light radiating around the edges of the plywood. The wind rose to such a pitch that it was no longer simply noise, but a vibration that rattled the marrow and made breathing an act of will.
In the midst of the tumult we heard a popping sound like muffled gunfire. Shingles were flying off the roof, one by one. And then the water started coming in, trickles at first. We put buckets under every leak until we'd used them all, as well as the pots and pans, then we simply gave up on all but the largest gushes. The ceiling in the bedroom began to buckle and sag. When I was nearly overcome by the fatigue of terror, I leaned against an interior wall but found that it was shuddering so hard that I was bounced away. Underfoot, the floor was shifting, and the deepening low pressure gave us a sinking sensation, as if the airplane we were strapped into was in a fatal dive. Later I would find an exterior door shaken so hard that all the screws had worked loose. When I opened it, the brass hardware fell to the ground. It had been hanging by a thread--the same thread that our lives had been suspended on without our knowing. For a single breach is all it takes to destroy a house.
That's what happened to our neighbors across the street. Their front door blew in, the second story was flooded with wind, and the walls exploded. (There are no basements here, no way to anchor yourself.) Luckily, the husband and wife and three young children had retreated to the ground floor, which is where we found them the next morning. They were huddled in the bathroom with a mattress pressed to the door, knee-deep in water and completely unaware that they no longer had a second story.
We had all gone to bed the night before in modern America, and we stepped out the next morning into a wilderness. Houses destroyed, cars crushed, roads impassable. Our lush neighborhood devastated, with hardly a tree standing. Not a leaf in sight. The mangoes gone, the wispy Australian pines crushed, the avocado trees broken in half. Some oaks survived, a gumbo limbo or two. Fences gone. No street signs. No mailboxes. We were anonymous, stripped of our numbers, left to our own meager survival skills. A group of people who had barely known each other, but who now were totally dependent upon the talents of their neighbors.
There was the neighbor who had a neat system for siphoning gas to run the generators. The neighbor who jury-rigged the well pumps. The ones who were expert with a chain saw or could mix a good margarita. We propped each other up emotionally, giving what comfort we could in raw moments of anguish and grief. In those next few weeks, a dozen of us forged a bond as deep as any I have ever known. We are beyond friends. We are fellow survivors. Seven years later, these are still the people I most want to have as my neighbors in good weather and bad.
So when Floyd began to gather strength, we shared a common sentiment. Call it pre-traumatic stress syndrome. Call it dread. But we made our jokes and went about our business, putting up the shutters, storing up supplies, far better prepared than the last time in all the physical ways, but a great deal more vulnerable emotionally. Because we know the cycle. We know what awaits when the next one comes ashore. The hours of terror as all the unsecured debris for miles around become missiles. We know the aftermath. The weeks of stupefying heat, the ceaseless snarl of generators and chain saws and helicopters flying overhead. We have seen our houses fill with ticks, who before the storm had lived harmlessly in the high branches. We know what it is like to lust for ice and a hot shower, and then to live for years without a bit of shade.
Years ago, I was in Los Angeles during a 6.2 earthquake. I raced down from my hotel room and joined the other guests in the lobby. "Go back to your rooms," the manager instructed us. "It's all over now." How did he know that? Did he have a hot line to the tectonic plates? But we did as he said, and, indeed, it was over except for some fairly heavy-duty cleanup and bridge reconstruction. It was all so sudden--a disaster without an attention span. So appropriate for California, and so different from a hurricane.
Hurricanes grow like good stories. They start out innocently, gradually taking shape. When their pressure drops low enough and their spinning form becomes discernible, they are given the name by which we will know them forever: Floyd, Gert, Andrew, Gloria, David, Opal, Hugo. Then we begin to pay attention. Our hairs prickle. We see them moving toward us. We see the counterforces coming from the west, forces that may or may not nudge the storm this way or that. It is a drama in which timing becomes everything. Will the jet stream dive deep enough? Will it happen in time? That is the nature of dread. The slowly gathering suspense, the tension-mounting worry. In that way these storms are not like tornadoes or earthquakes, which hit so quickly there is little time for trepidation. Hurricanes tick forward, giving us both the luxury and the curse of time to prepare.
Last week, the forecasters were right. The jet stream trough arrived in the final seconds and Floyd veered mercifully away from us. I wonder why we don't name these saving troughs. But the deep relief I felt was fleeting, for our deliverance spelled disaster farther up the coast. And because I knew what awaited them there, and what may yet await me this season or the next, I can find little joy in my good fortune.
James Hall's latest novel is "Body Language" (St. Martin's Press).