MIAMI — Before the storm hit, the fear seeped in, poisonous and sometimes paralyzing.
It flowed from the TV, a nonstop drone of dire warnings and lurid graphics and terrifying images from ravaged islands. It dominated Floridians’ Facebook feeds — telegraphic reports and play-by-play accounts from friends and family who were packing up, hauling out or hunkering down.
The fear that mounted over a hundred hours as Hurricane Irma churned toward South Florida was no new emotion. People in Florida go through some lesser version of this drill nearly every year around this time, and Americans weren’t exactly confronting this storm from a place of utter serenity.
Irma follows Harvey, which rattled the nation’s fourth-largest city with record rains and devastating flooding. Wildfires are raging out west. Mexico’s biggest earthquake in a century killed dozens this week. Hurricane Jose is nearing Category 5 status and is taking aim at the same Caribbean islands Irma just flattened.
All this at a time when nuclear war with North Korea is the stuff of daily conversation in Washington. A new president has part of the nation worried about instability and another part frazzled about the other chunk’s worries. Anxiety has surpassed depression as the most common mental-health concern for American college students, a study in 2016 by Pennsylvania State University asserted.
Fear is in the water these days, spread with a new and viral efficiency on social media into everyone’s homes and everyone’s pockets at all hours, every day. There are so many fears and faux fears making people jittery that it has taken a special effort to get some Americans to pay proper attention to Irma, a storm whose danger is obvious to the naked eye.
Irma, as Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) has repeatedly warned in ever-stronger terms, is a killer, a monster, something to flee from. In a country going through a particularly untrusting phase, anyone with any remaining shred of authority about storms ratcheted up the rhetoric this weekend in an effort to get people to listen up and evacuate. Politicians, police, weathercasters — all tried to find the words to communicate urgency without going over the line to hysteria. The mission was to get people just scared enough to act, without driving them to panic.
Scott issued new evacuation orders and tossed in a passage about his grandchildren: “My goal is I don’t want to lose a life,” he said. “We all have families. . . . My family’s been blessed with a lot of grandkids, and I want them to be safe.”
But in the cacophony of the final hours before landfall, not every voice was calming or clear. On the radio, Rush Limbaugh earlier in the week argued that the storm was being hyped for mercenary reasons — megastorms win huge audiences for the news media, pumping up profits: “These storms, once they actually hit, are never as strong as they’re reported,” Limbaugh said, describing TV graphics that “have been created to make it look like the ocean’s having an exorcism, just getting rid of the devil here in the form of this hurricane, this bright red stuff.”
On the Internet, Alex Jones gave his Infowars audience one more conspiracy theory to consider: the notion that “globalists” and scientists eager to prove that climate change is wreaking havoc with the world might somehow be manipulating the weather. After all, he said, wasn’t it strange that Irma and Harvey arrived just as a Hollywood movie, “Geostorm,” about the government altering the weather, is about to premiere?
“Now, I’m not saying Irma is geoengineered, but there is geoengineering going on secretly in the United States,” Jones said. “Right on time with these superstorms, we have the new film. . . . Isn’t that just perfect timing? . . . This is starting to get suspicious.”
Back on planet Earth, in Miami’s Little Havana section, Eugene Cruz wasn’t going anywhere. In his 79 years on this orb, he has had a gun pointed at him, been thrown in jail multiple times for opposing the Castro regime in Cuba and served in the U.S. Army during Vietnam. He has known fear, and he has seen hurricanes, and he has concluded that they deserve the hype.
“Every time I know it’s going to be a hurricane, I am scared,” he said. “I don’t show it, but I am scared.”
In 1944, when he was a little kid, a hurricane hit Cuba and Cruz evacuated with his mother to his grandmother’s solid brick house in Havana. The storm collapsed the house, and then there was calm. The family stepped into their yard, thinking the danger had passed. But they were only in the storm’s eye. Twenty minutes later, the family stood unprotected in hurricane-force winds. They narrowly escaped into a school bus.
“I was just a boy,” Cruz said Friday, sitting in a Cuban bakery on Miami’s Calle Ocho. “That house, that house I stayed in, it disappeared. I just saw it disappear.”
With that moment banging around in his head all these decades later, Cruz couldn’t help but feel anxious. But he’s staying put, not out of bravado but for lack of good options.
He figures he has a healthy attitude toward fear. The political vitriol of 2017? He’s from Cuba; he’s seen worse. Violence and extremism? He’s already survived Cuban officials pointing a gun to the back of his head.
He’ll stay with relatives in Hialeah, with cabinets stocked with food and water and with God by his side. “I’ve been through many hurricanes, and it’s always up to the man upstairs,” he said.
Cruz put Irma in the context of a long life of traumas and risks. Many Americans seem to have trouble doing that these days, according to Sasha Abramsky, author of "Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream."
“We’re becoming a culture that exaggerates fear,” Abramsky said. “We’re predisposed to fear things that are actually less likely to happen.”
Americans, Abramsky argues, have developed a warped gauge for measuring danger. The fault lies in part with the media — the movie that makes a generation of people afraid of shark attacks at the beach when mosquito-borne disease is far more common, or the news accounts that make us more fearful of plane crashes than the vastly greater danger of car crashes.
But he said politicians also play a role in twisting perceptions of danger. “The right wing has been very good at generating fear about terrorism, Muslim immigrants or young black criminals,” Abramsky said. “On the left, they generate fear about climate change. We’re going to have hurricanes with or without climate change, but they portray these storms like they are all to do with climate change.”
Every society goes through cycles of fear, often alternating with periods of relative optimism. Political leadership can jack up fear or restore hope. President Franklin D. Roosevelt took a depression-scarred country and told people that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." After Watergate and years of frightening inflation, President Ronald Reagan persuaded the country that "it's morning again in America."
But for many politicians, it’s easier to bring people together with fear. “In a way,” Abramsky said, “fear provides a sense of community. If I have a bunch of fears myself, I have an anxiety disorder. But if my wife and friends and neighbors share those fears, suddenly we have a community of fear.”
In Florida this week, anxiety over Irma has created instant community, bringing strangers, neighbors and families together in common concern and common flight.
In the affluent gated community of Kings Bay, at the southern tip of Coral Gables just a couple of blocks from Biscayne Bay, attorney Peter Berlowe, 47, prepared to leave, going from one evacuation zone right into another one — but nonetheless to a safer place.
His late father, who worked in hurricane safety engineering, had picked a home on what passes for high ground in South Florida, a spot in Pinecrest at 32 feet above sea level. His mother still lives there, and Berlowe took his family there because “help can’t come to you in water. There’s a good chance you could die.”
Irma added a hefty dose of anxiety at a time when “there’s a lot of stress on a lot of people,” Berlowe said. “I’m in an interracial marriage. My wife’s black; I’m white. She’s Catholic; I’m Jewish. We feel the stress every day from politics and race relations. I think this is the 1930s repeating itself . . . a bad time for freedom and things that people hold dear.”
The hurricane, he said, “is another stress in life. But we are strong people.”
Suzy and George Burstein fled from the home they had rebuilt after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. "It's so much stress, it's a little crazy," said Suzy, 58, who runs the special education program at an elementary school in the Kendall section of suburban Miami.
For 14 hours, the Bursteins shared the turnpike with several hundred thousand new friends, finally reaching Gainesville, where their daughter Tori and son Jeremy are students at the University of Florida. The trip, which usually takes six hours, gave the couple plenty of time to think about fear.
“The drive up was so hard, so bad,” Suzy said. “We kept snapping at each other. I was on my last nerve. It gets to be too much.”
There’s the storm, but so much more.
“I worry about North Korea and everything else that’s going on in the world,” she said. “I’ve gained a lot of weight in the past six months, since right about the time of the election, I guess. I still can’t believe that happened, that he got elected.”
George watches CNN all day. Suzy comes home and turns it off.
“I can’t control it,” she said, “so I try not to think about it. I like to think that there are good people in the world, and that everything will work out. I worry about what I can control, like the safety of my children. I guess it’s denial, but that’s how I handle it. That, and also by eating.”
Fisher reported from Washington. Joel Achenbach in Miami and Lori Rozsa in Gainesville, Fla., contributed to this report.