I am a child of the Gulf Coast, a place where 1 in 12 Atlantic Basin hurricanes comes ashore. I remember reading that statistic, referring to the Florida panhandle, at some point in my adolescence. I viewed it as a badge of importance at a time when I carefully plotted out the track of threatening storms and watched the Weather Channel three hours a day for six months of the year. However, for most of my childhood, the hurricanes stayed away. The year we lived in North Carolina, one came close to Pensacola, but I wasn’t there. There were a few other close calls and near misses, but I never actually experienced the full force of a hurricane until Erin rolled ashore a couple of weeks before I was due to begin my senior year of high school. Huddled into the living room of my house, listening to the trees cracking outside, I couldn’t help but feel like the hurricane was sent to punish me for my selfish behavior. By the time Opal rolled through town a month later, I was convinced that I must be a very wicked creature and that once again, I was singularly responsible for the potential devastation of a hundred thousand human lives.
Hurricanes are like that. We personify them, so we have irrational relationships to them. They become part of our identity. I have been obsessed with natural disasters of all kinds, earthquakes, volcanoes, or tsunamis, for most of my life. Perhaps in some strange way, the ultimate power of nature gives me comfort in knowing that the self-invented stresses of my own life bear less relevance. But something about hurricanes, we who have known them, we relate to them in an entirely more personal way. We treat them as we would an abusive lover. We write them Dear John letters spray-painted on the plywood boards of our abandoned homes – “Katrina – Go Away…” Yet, we are the ones that flee them, taking only our most essential possessions. Naturally, as any abusive lover would be, they are angry that we have left them. They retaliate against us, by taking our most treasured possessions, the things that we believed gave us our identity. We are sad that they took so much from us. We feel lost and alone. We don’t know how to rebuild again. We are frightened that if we do rebuild, then another one will come and take it all away again.
I tried to explain this once several years ago to a boy that I dated in college. One night, after a French film, I remember crying as I related what hurricanes meant to me, as if I was recounting some tumultuous relationship from the past. Being from the West, he was caught off guard by this reaction that I had to a simple weather phenomenon. He tried to comfort me, unsure of what to say.
Now, even though I have been far removed from the Gulf Coast for some time, I still have this emotional tie to storms. Yes, I sometimes have family and friends in harms way. Fortunately, my sister Melissa just made it through Ike with no detrimental effects. Even more for me in times when I do not have a family member who may specifically be harmed, it is a love for place. I no longer physically reside in the Gulf Coast, but I love the place that made me who I am. I defy any person or storm who threatens to change it, who taunts my sense of home. I said earlier that we grow angry with a storm that takes our possessions as their act of defiance, feeling that they have taken away our identity. That actually isn’t the case. It isn’t our belongings that we ultimately care so passionately about. It is that sense of home, of recognition of place. That is what we fear is destroyed. And in regard to our identity, we find that we didn’t lose it when our material possessions, our old pictures get washed away in the storm surge, but rather, that we find it in how we react and confront the personal devastation that we may feel in that moment.
And that is what it always has been for me. Those moments of devastation are the moments of when I am reminded of who I am and what I can overcome. And sometimes, even just that reminder, from a thousand miles away is enough.