Saturday, October 29, 2005

Oops, I underestimated Wilma

This time I was overconfident, I'm afraid. My pre-storm Wilma post below was too lackadaisical and incautious. But I like to sound off, so I did, fully anticipating watching yet another tropical storm or hurricane get everyone here all keyed up for nothing much, as has happened many times in recent years. Last year's Jeanne and especially Frances got my attention more than usual, but did little damage other than mess up a few screens and topple a big ficus. But this time I erred badly, not believing Wilma could get pushed by a cold front clear across South Florida as a category three and really blast us in the southeast eyewall. There for awhile our turbulence reached over a hundred miles per hour, tore up our screens but left our frame and house undamaged, and of course toppled another obligatory huge ficus. But our place is one of the luckier ones and least affected. Many neighbors lost parts of roofs, twisted off screen rooms, and other damage similar to tornado strength expectation. Wilma was a major hurricane at category three and did major harm, but a category four or five clears whole neighborhoods down to the slabs and kills many people. We had under two dozen fatalities statewide, mostly from trees falling on drivers and those foolish enough to venture out during the storm, or run generators inside their garages or houses.

I won't write here about experiencing the storm itself because I've done that already on, my other blogsite.

But the aftermath is always worse than during the storm itself. During the hurricane, one hunkers down and just prays and hopes to physically survive. But there's another, possibly more difficult struggle to survive both physically and psychologically in the storm's aftermath. After a couple of days, people get desperate to recover their power, their food, water, and ice supplies, their phone, internet, cable, fuel, and other familiar conveniences we think enable our very survival. For me, the hardest part is standing in long lines as the stores reopen, and playing the driving game to find available gas without running out of what fuel I have in the tank. But I'm not typical. A natural worrier, I tend to overstock everything beforehand and never fail to board up before it's too late, move the cars away from anticipated falling trees and heavy tiles, secure all loose patio and lawn items, etc. And I fill our tanks before the general panic sets in and the buying frenzy starts. I stock up on batteries, propane, portable radios and handheld tv's, even the internet-capable phone I can use if nothing else works (till the celltowers themselves shut down after about twelve hours--they run on batteries also, or generators which themselves run out of fuel).

This time we were truly incommunicado. The backups to our backups failed to work; the infrastructure itself was basically destroyed as power substations blew out all over the place and the grid failed. For once we actually needed to use the supplies we'd always hoarded, and it's a good thing we'd overprepared before.

I don't know what it is about these storms that makes them seem to have a vengeful mind of their own. They always seem to sneak up on us from the Caribbean and Lower Gulf instead of coasting gently across the Atlantic under the steering bulge of high pressure known as the Bermuda High. They usually come from Cape Verde, rolling off the African coast like so many bowling balls, circling the Atlantic Basin usually northward in a wicked curve and smacking North Carolina, missing Florida entirely. That's the typical pattern and the one we were used to, till this season. We always feel sorry for the North Carolina folks but glad it hit them and not us, and that's our usual attitude toward whomever else gets in the paths of these storms--until New Orleans got hit by Katrina. That affected us. That was too much bad news for one region to bear. With Wilma forming and possibly headed for New Orleans like Katrina did and Rita almost did, I spoke with many who said they'd rather Wilma came here than hit NOLA with another big one this year. We were more used to them and more prepared. Without levees to flood us (except at Lake Okeechobee) we could probably handle a hit better.

Well, we got our chance to show off, didn't we.

These storms are vengeful. And the worst of them seem to seek out the biggest population centers to include in their stike path. Wilma was really greedy; she didn't cross our peninsula in a nice lateral swipe but swept in at Naples just low enough to mess up the Keys for the umpteenth time this year, blew across the Everglades and smacked right into northeast Broward County where we live, then curved right up the coastal communities: Boca Raton, West Palm Beach, all the way up to Ft. Pierce and Vero Beach again. Six million without power, just like that. FPL promised to get us all back online by November 22.

Well, we're thankful it wasn't worse, thankful to be safe and not too badly shaken, thankful for our family who sent down food and water and a chainsaw to clear up our debris, thankful we're beginning to return to normal little by little each day. The local, state, and federal authorities know how to bring us back from the brink with scary efficiency, and they do a fantastic job overall. I think there's an in-your-face attitude we have when storms strike us; we'll show you guys in the rest of the country how to cope, by golly. Nobody mopes around down here. Everyone works like a bee tirelessly to clean up and recover, and people basically even help each other. Our neighbors on both sides let us share their generator power and keep our fridge cold. The newspaper never missed an issue, even though its flooded presses made it necessary to print the paper in Orlando and ship it down here. Maybe our cockiness finally caught up with us this time, but I suppose we won't learn very much that will change our behavior. We aren't chastened, I'm afraid. We won't change. Foolishly, we are almost confrontational even to Mother Nature, and almost dare her to do her damndest; we can take it and bounce back fast. It's not wise, but it's the way we are here.

There is, however, a strange phenomenon even down here that moderates people's behavior after shared disasters. I call it "disaster manners," in which we tend to treat each other just a wee bit more courteously than normal. I saw it after 9/11, and I've seen it after every hurricane. We don't confront each other in stores and intersections as much, don't honk each other into insanity at burned-out traffic light corners quite as much, don't crowd and cheat and steal each other's stuff quite as much after we go through a shared disaster. It's like a timeout on rudeness. But I'm sure that as the power returns, stores reopen, supplies abound again and life returns to "normal," our usual brazenness and chutspah will return, our chip-on-the-shoulder behavior, our petty parochialism and basic unfriendliness will return to full strength, and our "disaster manners" won't be seen again till the next blow.

Under all the bravado, however, is a sense of shock and depression for many. I talked to a neighbor today who said he cried when he lost his favorite big tree in front of his corner home, and was just so depressed. There's real grief, no doubt about it; it's in people's eyes, on their faces. They still smile, but sadly. We got hammered. Not as bad as New Orleans, but pretty bad. I don't think I'll see many easy smiles or hear the usual bad jokes around here for quite some time. I think we're undergoing the sequence of genuine grief, whether we admit it or not. We prided ourselves on the beauty and attractions of our region which drew visitors from all over the world, and now much of it has been devastated. All our false bravado can't fix that; only time and patient recovery efforts. And to tell the truth, I think maybe we could even benefit from a little humility and reconsider the things that really matter.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

wilma-schwilma, la-di-da

If I don't have time to blog now, I never will. Wilma spins on the tip of Cancun poised to be picked up by the jet stream and slung at us like a slingshot tomorrow or Monday. Hey, okay. Let's get it over with. We're as ready as we'll ever be here in South Florida. Let's just go on and savor the new record we've now set with the nonthreatening Tropical Storm Alpha off Puerto Rico, having run out of alphabetical storm names for the first time in history.

This morning while I watched my neighbor across the street cover his windows with sheets of plywood, I mowed and trimmed my yard. That's a pretty stupid hurricane preparation, but it made me feel good. I like to have a tidy lawn before things get messy. It's a psych thing, like my wife's compulsion to clean and tidy up the house before we go on a trip so that we won't return to a messy house. But it's okay to live in. Some people take fine robes and slippers to motels with them so they won't be embarassed if there's a fire in the night and they have to step outside. Heaven forbid they'd be turned out clad only in their pajamas! And heaven forbid a hurricane would approach our property if it weren't properly mowed and trimmed. What sort of homeowners would we be!

As with several other storms this season, Barb's off again on Monday with school cancelled. I doubt my college classes will meet either; Wilma's due here late Monday. We've stocked up our supplies: the drinking water, the batteries, the flashlights and extra foods, the games to play if the power goes out, the backup power converter so I can shave with my Norelco from the car battery if I must, and charge the portable appliances like our cellphones. After twelve hurricanes here since June, we know the drill, and it's hard to get very pumped up for it yet again.

I think we're beginning to think of these dangers as a normal part of living here. not that unusual. As the Chambers of Commerce and Realty agents will insist, South Florida is really quite a pleasant place to live, after all--oh, except for that one little matter of the no-longer-so-occasional hurricanes which come through and try to destroy everything we have and kill us. Otherwise, it's quite nice. And pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

a blog is very like a rope/tree/brush/house

Remember the fable about the blind men trying to describe an elephant? The first touches the animal's leg and proclaims an elephant is like a tree. The second handles the trunk and proclaims a rope. The third, the tail/brush. The fourth, the side/wall.

That's what blogging seems to be, if we read what others say it is. There seem to be as many definitions as there are bloggers. But whatever it is, it's still something that is available today that has added an important dimension to my daily awareness and enjoyment, not possible until very recent times. I haven't figured it out yet and don't claim to understand it in depth, and I'm curious why that is. If I'm not blogging on any number of trial host sites (I try to stay with the free trials as much as I can), I'm probably thinking about it. It is fascinating. I think about it constantly. It's unlike any other forum for expression I've encountered before.

There's something organic about blogging, I think. What I'm writing now isn't anything like what I started out to write last June, when I thought of blogging as simply an alternative journal to my longhand one of thirty-plus years. Initially I thought it would be a place to discuss writing, my first love, with other shy journalers. As it has turned out, though, it has become more of a place to test whatever ideas and interests cross my mind, whatever their topic. And it surprises me what I find to say, and what others say who read it, most of whom write their own that I read also. I don't have the sense that we're a community of writers, and we're certainly not shy. I have the sense, however, that we do share something. Maybe its our common fascination with the medium itself, the wonder at its potential and ease, its instant communication worldwide, and its total, marvelous freedom not even to be found in print publication.

Blogging takes on a life of its own, and a shape of its own, partly because the writer knows it is read by others--and sometimes commented on by others. It's not the same as an ongoing chat or message board, exactly; but it does, due to its self-monitoring and its own directories and engines, have an interactivity that channels and invites its posts, tempts the inclusion of keywords, and prods postings at regular times so that it doesn't languish. It seems to need to breathe to thrive, and each post gives it a new breath.

Each site and each host has its own adherents and members who develop a unique identity, and each blog has its own focus and character. I'm amazed how much individual creativity I've found even in the few hundred I've visited, and there are legions of others. It seems unbounded, limitless.

I like to understand things and to categorize things; and to do that, I seek clear definitions. But with so much variety and imagination out there--most of it engaging and valid-- what, exactly, is a blog? I wonder. Perhaps it is very like a rope, tree, brush, house....