The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In ‘The Displacements,’ a hurricane turns the rich into refugees

(Illustration by José L. Soto/The Washington Post, iStock images)
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Miami is booming. According to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, the cost of apartments is rising faster in and around the Magic City than anywhere else in the United States.

“In some desirable neighborhoods,” the Journal reports, “landlords are doubling the rent after a lease expires because they know transplants from the Northeast and West Coast are willing to pay that much more.”

Before loading your moving van, read “The Displacements,” by Bruce Holsinger. Yes, it’s just a novel, but Holsinger has built an apocalyptic plot on ground more secure than the foundations of many Miami homes. After all, considering the risks of hurricanes and floods driven by climate change, Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan economic think tank, called Miami “the most vulnerable major coastal city in the world.”

Of course, we’re tragically adept at discounting scientific projections about storm surges and deaths per 100,000, particularly if those surges cause the deaths of people we never meet. But Holsinger brings the cost of climate change home — home to McMansions in Coral Gables, Fla. The folks in this wealthy community imagine that tornadoes hit only trailer homes and that if the weather turns nasty for a spell, they can always decamp to their cottages in Michigan.

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In the opening pages of “The Displacements,” set just a few years in the future, a squall starts brewing off the coast of Gambia in West Africa. It converges with another storm and then a third. Influenced by random fluctuations of water temperature and convection flow, these storms “fuse and collide” and then begin to spin, forming a tropical depression that finally gathers enough strength to earn a name.

Meet Luna, the world’s first Category 6 hurricane, “the one the climatologists have been warning us about for twenty years.” Holsinger describes the hurricane’s approach as if the storm is a dragon made of water. Luna soars across the Atlantic, she pauses to feed, she gives Miami Beach “a casual swat.” And then she strikes without mercy. “She gnaws highway and road,” he writes, “flaying skyscrapers, eviscerating offices and conference rooms and lobbies. Tall buildings twist and buckle. The guts of civilization swarm and fly.”

As this monster lingers over the South, the Dow plunges 20,000 points, chemical plants vomit their toxins into the nation’s water supply, the insurance market implodes, and millions of Americans see their homes washed away.

I gripped the covers of this book as though it might be blown from my hands. Indeed, the disaster that “The Displacements” whips up isn’t just powerful enough to smear Miami off the map; it’s powerful enough to wipe away our naive confidence that such a disaster isn’t coming for us.

To break through our well-buttressed denial, Holsinger introduces us to Daphne, the mother of two children and the step-mom of a disgruntled teen who recently dropped out of Stanford. Daphne would like to concentrate more on her work as a ceramic artist, but her husband, a hotshot surgeon, has a way of discounting her ambitions.

We meet this wealthy family, with its neatly contained tensions, during preparations for a gallery showing and a birthday party. But then the sky darkens, and the Florida governor issues an evacuation order. While her husband rushes to see what he can do at the hospital, Daphne grabs the kids and flees north. “Miami has weathered dozens of hurricanes over the decades,” she thinks. “They will check into a hotel, wait out the storm, and return the day after tomorrow.”

Oh, Daphne. . . .

She doesn’t know it, but she and her children are setting off on a wet version of “The Grapes of Wrath,” with the Joads’ Hudson sedan replaced by a Honda Odyssey. (Holsinger’s novel even comes with its own version of Steinbeck’s intercalary chapters.) Everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Soon, Daphne can’t reach her husband! She can’t find her purse!! SHE CAN’T USE HER CREDIT CARDS!!! (If “The Displacements” doesn’t encourage you to take climate change more seriously, it will at least inspire you to check your spouse’s bank statements more carefully.)

Out of gas, out of money, out of cellphone power, Daphne and her kids are reduced to trudging along with the unwashed masses in “a climate-induced diaspora.” Their destination is one of the nation’s 18 megashelters — vast tent cities that function as relief centers or concentration camps, depending on the rumors.

“Twenty-four hours ago I was a wealthy surgeon’s wife leaving my huge house with three kids and a dog in a hybrid SUV,” she thinks. “Now I’m a sweating, penniless refugee dragging a wheelie bag up a rural road.”

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In case you missed the point here, Daphne’s thoughts drift back to a book club meeting when she and her friends discussed a nonfiction bestseller about climate change. “What stood out at the time was the admonitions about the leveling effects of warming even in the short term, the author’s sense,” Daphne recalls, “of how surprisingly soon the crisis would start to engulf even the privileged, the well sheltered, the smugly oblivious.”

If Holsinger is as subtle as a category 6 hurricane, he also twists his novel around a strange tension: While mocking the elitism that marks our national response to natural disasters, he’s also exploiting that elitism for dramatic effect. This is, after all, a work of suburban horror carefully engineered to scratch the anxieties of upper-middle-class White readers. As “The Displacements” slows down and sinks into the frustrations of life in a massive relief camp, the story recalls the Houston Astrodome after Katrina — except that here we witness what one character sardonically labels a “catastrophe of whiteness.” In such self-conscious moments, “The Displacements” feels as though it’s deconstructing itself, challenging not just Daphne’s privilege but its own.

What unfolds inside the camp develops into a microcosm of the country’s divisions exacerbated by racial prejudice, illegal drugs and concealed weapons. And Holsinger offers incisive speculation about the way such an existential crisis might reshape our political rhetoric and create a new class of “undeserving” refugees to disdain and cut off.

Yet, for all its panoramic vision of our future national hellscape — Hieronymus Bosch, but moist — “The disps” stays focused on the intimate details of Daphne’s family life after the hurricane rips away every possible support. As befits her starring role in this meteorological melodrama, she will discover strength she never knew she possessed. Others in her circle will be reduced to rubble.

The weather is turning. Start prepping now.

Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.

The Displacements

By Bruce Holsinger

Riverhead. 448 pp. $27

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