This is the first in a series of short essays by Elliott Freeman about the hurricanes of summer.
Jim Cantore is an albatross, but so am I.
If you see Jim Cantore (or me, in the world of this metaphor) in your city or town, it’s probably time to leave. Here’s how it happened in 2005: my mother turned on the Weather Channel and, upon seeing Jim Cantore–bald, sunglass’d, and windbreaker’d–in front of the Treasure Bay Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi, wound herself up for one hell of a cuss. It was time to evacuate.
(In reality, the time to evacuate should have been the day before; many people recognize the perilous omen that is Jim Cantore and the streets were justifiably clogged.)
I should back up: basically, I’m beginning to think that bad weather is just sexually attracted to me. Which is fine, I guess: statistically, someone or something had to be, but in a kinder, gentler world, it wouldn’t be storms. I’ve been through dozens of hurricanes–most of them the minor inconveniences of a Gulf South upbringing, but a few of them more protracted and notable in their impact. I’ve gone for months without power in the southern summer sun (and weeks without power in northern snow; for my money, I say that Robert Frost is right on and the apocalypse is definitely better off with fire than ice). I’ve spent unreasonable amounts of time with close relatives in strange, cramped quarters because of these storms.
And I’m still not sure what they mean, except to say that I still feel a certain sickening glee at the prospect of Big Bad Weather–the way a child does, implicitly understanding the freedom that undergirds all destruction, the way an interruption into the everyday–no matter how terrible–can send ripples throughout a place and a life.
As a child growing up in the southernmost bits of the Gulf South, I had odd predilections. Not animal-torture odd (I’ve met those people), but still a bit unsettling: specifically, I collected safety stuff. One Christmas–a particularly happy Christmas–I remember receiving a bumper crop: a fire extinguisher, a smoke detector (it promptly replaced the star on the mini-Christmas Tree I kept in my room, because I was five and smoke detectors were awesome), and a hurricane tracking map.
They’re already antiques–not much call for tracking maps now when you can find the latest version on any website worth its salt–but back then, hurricane tracking maps were stacked up at the counters of every drug store on the Coast. I would pin up a new one above my bed each summer and make infrequent, sometimes even random, markings in colored pencil or marker, tracking this storm or that storm as it wandered its way into the Gulf.
Because I was young, I couldn’t really understand the problems a hurricane posed–I only saw the rain and the wind and the newness of them, the way they swept up all the little things like work and school. They were exciting in the way that Christmas was exciting: an interruption in the routine.
So, I would watch each storm with anticipation, with expectation: it’ll turn, I told my brothers, imagining that if I just stared long enough at the map that I could will one to the Coast when it was so clearly about to pull a loop-de-loop over Florida. Because storms could turn and even did turn, it was easy to invest my odd little hopes into any given hurricane.
I suspect that anyone who’s ever lived on or near the Coast knows the strange, addictive quality that the Weather Channel has during hurricane season. These are storms with variables: speed, direction, pressure, intensity. Every half hour, there could be some new morsel of data, some new evidence of either danger or safety.
As each approaches the land, there are the obligatory shots of correspondents in windbreakers. Look: she’s on the beach and the sky is light gray, and no one is around. Look: the wind is picking up, the sky darkening, the streets abandoned. Look: Jim Cantore leans into a gust, more wind in the mic than words; branches, cats, and stray signs blow past him. If we did not see them, slanting and soaked, we would not believe that hurricanes are wet.
I’ve seen what happens to a home after a real hurricane: even when a house is still standing, water massages itself into every crevice. I’ve waded through the soaked and moldering skeletons of homes–my own, and those of dear friends. And it makes me feel sick that I would ever find these storms exciting, interesting.
But I still do.
Maybe being a writer is the same as being an opportunist.
More B&G Summer
Photo via Mallory at Flickr