Riding Out Hurricane Irma with a 900-Page Book
Or: How to Survive a Clusterfuck of Hurricanes
We are under curfew. The etymology of the word takes us back to cuevrefeu (cover fire), a paternalistic act by local communities to warn all households it was time to bank their hearths. Too many homes could be destroyed in a village should someone fail to cover their fires. While one house might burn down, it was sure to take others with it in an age before fire engines and hoses.
Orange County, where we are taking shelter from Hurricane Irma, has declared a curfew. For the next 24 hours, no one is allowed out of their houses, an attempt by the government to keep those with a death wish from endangering those who would be forced to rescue them. What it means is that until 6 pm. Monday night, we must ride out the storm.
For the longest time—through my early elementary grades—I loved the biography section of the library, especially any books that detailed the lives of the kings and queens of England. I was entranced by the Tudors: Henry VIII and his six wives, and Henry’s daughter with Anne Boleyn—Elizabeth Tudor.
I had a friend who also loved that material, and when we went over to each other’s houses after school we would lie on the floor and draw pictures of Elizabeth and Henry’s wives. As seven-year-olds, we studied their dresses and finery, and then spent hours drawing women and then designing our own dresses for them to wear.
We imagined our lives back at court, the dresses we would wear, but we also pictured ourselves as Elizabeth, riding off to the south of England to inspire our troops to face down the Spanish Armada.
The legend is that the Armada was wrecked during massive storms that turned galleons into matchsticks. Some saw it as God’s judgment that the Protestant Queen of England was meant to prevail in the war of religion.
For days, the Weather Channel has cast most of Florida in a “cone of uncertainty.” What this has meant for my partner and me, who live in “Evacuation Zone A,” the most vulnerable to the lashings of a hurricane, is that we were under mandatory evacuation. We live on a barrier island attached to the mainland of Florida by narrow bridges. If one fails to leave the island by the deadline, it will be to find that all bridges have been closed and you are now trapped where you are. If disaster befalls you, even something unrelated to a hurricane such as a heart attack, you are on your own until the bridges reopen.
The biggest problem was that as Irma shifted path, thus changing the shape of that uncertainty cone, it became near impossible to determine where to evacuate to. Three days before the hurricane was set to hit this area, I had spent a fruitless night trying to reserve a hotel room anywhere in the states of Alabama or Georgia. Both states’ motels and hotels had no vacancies. One local hotel that did have a room refused to accommodate us because they could not accommodate our cats.
Next, we considered driving up to Charlotte, North Carolina to stay with friends. But the constant warnings of freeways turned to parking lots with panicked evacuees, plus the difficulty of finding gasoline combined to convince us that driving north wasn’t the way to go, either.
So, despite the fact that Orlando is in the middle of the projected zone of the hurricane, we head there anyway. We have reached the point where we are damned if we stay, damned if we leave. But we are gambling that facing the power of a hurricane in the center of a landmass is less risky than the possibility of being drowned by the power of the Atlantic Ocean.
My aunt and uncle are snowbirds, although they are more like Arctic terns. Each year, they travel back and forth between England and Florida, sitting out the hot glop of an Orlando summer by returning to England. Their house has withstood previous hurricanes and it’s the safest place we can find to seek sanctuary from the storm. The only small drawback is that both the internet and cable have been turned off, meaning that we will have to rely on our smart phones to keep track of the storm. On a tiny screen, we can stream hurricane information coming from the Weather Channel. We worry that hurricane winds may take down towers, leaving us with no contact with outside. But, for now, our safety is dependent on the information that we can glean from our 4×2 inch screens.
We packed up our house and our belongings. We picked up boxes of books and other valuables and placed them on top of desks, tables, counters. We knew that living 300 yards from the beach meant that any kind of significant ocean surge would fill the house with water. We were betting, however, that the flood level would not rise above the three feet of the tops of tables.
This is our second time evacuating. Last year, Matthew made a bullseye out of the area of the eastern Florida coast where we moved to nearly two years ago. Our neighborhood saw significant damage—lots of lost roofs and downed trees. Every business on the beach highway had its sign destroyed—over a thousand businesses up and down A1A in our immediate area.
I packed clothes for a few days, grabbing anything was clean. But I spent most of my time judging which books to bring with me. I opted for about three dozen, most of them connected to the work I do as a book reviewer. I took one book to read for pleasure, the 900-plus pages of an advance copy of Ken Follett’s A Column of Fire. I knew that the book was the third in Follett’s “Kingsbridge” series, his huge doorstop novels about the Middle Ages. That was my chosen period for study in graduate school, and I had enjoyed Follett’s previous two novels. His research for the books had been so good that one well-known Medieval historian assigned the first book in his survey class as a supplement so his students might learn how those enormous cathedrals found throughout Europe were built.
I threw Follett in with the other books, promising myself I would spend some time reading for pleasure while trying to get work done.
Dusk on Saturday, a Great Horned Owl broke the suburban darkness with its call. Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo hoooooooo. For the past couple of weeks, a cluster of dragonflies back home have occupied our front yard at home, and I notice they’re here, too. I wondered how such intricate creatures ended up with the most pedestrian of collective nouns.
Other animals and birds here have poetic collective nouns. Most of us know that it’s a “murder” of crows and a “parliament” of owls, but down here, I’ve learned that I live among sedges of bitterns, a flamboyance of flamingoes, a congregation of plovers, and a mustering of storks—when they’re sitting in trees. When they fly, storks become a phalanx. Learning these names has helped me to feel less alien here in Florida, where even after nearly two years, I’m still the outsider.
Does a collective noun exist for a line of hurricanes that had started in the Atlantic Basin? Harvey. Irma. And Jose was right behind Irma and threatening the islands that had already been destroyed. If I were in charge, I know what I would call them: a clusterfuck of hurricanes.
As the dark settles over us, the winds begin to pick up. What had been a cooling breeze earlier in the day has become more adamant by 8 pm. The doors rattle in in the battering wind. Lights inside the house flicker, but stay lit.
Inside my book, which I began Friday night, Follett has cast a wide net, placing characters in the midst of religious conflicts of the second half of the 16th century in England, Scotland, France, and the Spanish Netherlands. (Spain “owned” the Netherlands as territory through the 16th century.)
I feel at home. These conflicts were central to my dissertation research. While my research was based in Italy, and allowed me to spend a glorious summer in the Florentine archives, as a European historian, I had to know about these wars for my field.
By 9 pm rain marches in rows, the striking of an army’s worth of boots loud on the roof and across the deck. The wind, meanwhile, has begun its howling. No longer sounding like something gentle and soothing. Now the sound is like that of Banshees, keening and moaning as they fly past the house. At one point, I take my phone to the door to begin to record what is going on outside, but when I open the door, I am blasted by a line of rain and wind that drenches the hallway and drives me back. I capture about ten seconds of howling, but decide that it’s my last attempt to film what is happening.
In the 16th century, after Luther and Calvin had published their treatises, and Henry VIII had declared himself head of his church in order to push through his divorce, the doctrinal wars between Catholics and Protestants turned into punishing, brutal wars of bodies. Outside of Germany, the religion of the monarch became the official religion of its country. In England, where Henry VIII’s children were divided in their doctrinal allegiances, as each ascended the throne after the death of the childless sibling, people were expected to be religious allegiance.
Follett explains that in the 16th century, the difference in doctrines was referred to as “policy.” Those who changed their minds about God with each change of monarch became known as “politicians.” Even in that time, despite the nobleness of Aristotelian Politics that intellectuals struggled with, common people found politicians to have no integrity, no real backbone when it came to sticking to a cause.
But as each person was given a choice, they faced another “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” dilemma. Should they switch from being a Protestant to a Catholic or vice versa, they would save their bodies. But if their beliefs were genuine, they also believed that worshipping the wrong versioin of God would damn their souls to hell for their betrayal of their real beliefs. Many chose martyrdom rather than risk hell. Thus those who remained true became kindling for the “columns of fire” of Follett’s title.
Follett plunged me into the middle of this chaos, and made it possible for me to tune out the chaos outside.
I couldn’t sleep. At midnight, a new sound. Banging on the roof, loud enough to make me think giants were running sprints up there.
So I carried on reading, immersed myself further into the book, grateful I still had 300-plus pages to read. Follett not only writes about France and England. It is impossible to write about the two countries without the story of the exiled Scottish queen who should have been queen of France, except for her husband’s death at a young age. Mary, Queen of the Scots, lived in splendor at the French court. But Scotland, still a Catholic country led by Catholic nobles, called to her, promising that they would help her to not only rule Scotland, but to lead an army against her Protestant cousin, Elizabeth, and assume the English throne that many believed she had the more legitimate claim to. (Elizabeth’s birth by Anne Boleyn was considered by Catholics to be a bastard birth since Henry’s first wife, Katherine, had still been alive when he wed Anne.)
Elizabeth’s decision to execute Mary after capture and imprisonment set up the response from Spain, which now felt impelled to punish Elizabeth for executing an anointed queen, but also to quiet the English navy, which protected the merchant ships that harried Spanish ships coming from the New World in order to hijack the treasure. It was piracy, of course, but piracy that Elizabeth encouraged and rewarded when its captains brought back to England what they had stolen.
The area around Irma’s eye hit us about 3 am. I had reached the part of Follett’s book where he re-tells the story of the tiny English navy against the mighty Spanish Armada. Every English schoolchild knows the story, but Follett adds layers to the oft-told tale of an insurmountable navy that bore down on England. If the Spanish had succeeded in their quest to call England to heel, we had been told, they would have imposed Catholicism on the country and put to the sword and the pyre anyone who refused to convert. After all, the Spanish had done this to the nation’s Jews, expelling and killing Jews in 1492 for the crime of being Jewish.
Irma pounded the house. It seemed remarkable that windows had not bowed and shattered as winds topping 100 miles per hour slammed into the house. I struggle to describe the sounds coming from the roof. It would be cliché to describe it as having been trapped below a bowling alley, but the grinding sound reminds me of what I feel inside my forehead when my cluster headaches are at their worst. Bone-on-bone is what I feel. The sound in my head now—the real one—is of the sound of boulders rolling across bare rock. I wonder if the roof is being stripped away, whether what sounds like giants may be what it sounds like when the wind prises the roof’s deck away from the house.
All of the animals—our two dogs and two cats—have all arranged themselves as close to me as they can. One cat is on my belly, one down by my feet. Both dogs are on the carpet, laying up agains the couch where I’m reading.
I can’t imagine what the people who inhabited Florida long before white people arrived thought about these kinds of storms. The word “hurricane” is derived from juracan, a Caribe word. Liza Sabater argues that Juracan was “Mother Nature’s angry spirit,” and as this storm continues to thrash us, I recognize an ecosystem in distress.
I complete the book just after dawn. Even in summer, the sun doesn’t rise in Florida until after 6 am, and now, outside, the constant wind gusts have stopped. The rain has trickled to a mist. We have come through the storm. Perhaps most surprising, while more than half the state has lost power, on this street in Orlando, the power never faltered except for the flickering of lights.
Back where we live, our house has come through, too. Some of the fence has blown down (again); a gutter is gone, and we will discover that a bathroom window left open two inches has been enough to deposit mud, sand, and debris inside the house.
But through the long night of the storm, and the day-long decisions that bookended our choice to stay, to go, to return… I was curiously and wonderfully anchored by a doorstop novel which kept me both distracted and grounded. A book whose plots, characters, hopes and outcomes whirlwinded into something so suddenly personal: “Damned if I do. Damned if I don’t.”