N. MIAMI BEACH — “Too corny,” I can just hear my editor say. Surely we can do better in a memoir of a close brush with Hurricane Frances than some derivative musing about the fragility of life. What happened to the young man who achieved notoriety by roasting a stentorian Rabbi for “bringing a rich tonality to his banality and a wide latitude to his platitudes”? Has he sold out, joined the clique of the cliché?
No, but Fate has spoken. As King Solomon assures us in Ecclesiastes, everything has a time and a season. In the season of corn, plant corn. However foreign it feels, if the Creator has spared me, I must celebrate His ruth amid the alien corn. So fragility of life it is. Sometimes a writer’s job is to get it trite.
HURRICANE FRANCES WAS A telegraphed punch. By Thursday morning it had settled on the course that it would follow until landfall on Saturday night. Just a few weeks earlier, Charley had ridden a late lurch into a swath of Western Florida that had hardly seen him coming. A goodly portion of his devastation was owing to this float-like-a-butterfly-sting-like-a-bee head fake. Not Frances; she showed a fairer complexion.
We were told by forecasters that she would come ashore somewhere between Jupiter and Vero Beach in central Florida. Hurricane winds, 75 mph and over, would extend a few miles south, as well. Then the next concentric circle, with tropical storm winds of 50 to 75 mph, would radiate further out, going as far south as the northern end of Broward County, just below Boca Raton. I live 30 miles south of there in North Miami Beach, Miami itself another fifteen miles away. Our expected fallout would consist of winds that do not rate tropical storm status.
But we were warned: never underestimate those 40 mph winds. Perhaps resentful of not making the grade, they often leave the meanest signature. Down here the name of choice for these nasties is “squalls”; I suppose they make the squaws squeal.
My neighbors and I agreed that we must stand together in time of peril. “Levy en masse,” I said, and then spent 15 minutes reassuring Mr. Levy that he need not attend Mass. One for all and all for one, sans the muskets. Off we went to market, to join the frenzied emptying of shelves in anticipation of a five-year siege. Everyone was patient, no jerky beefs, as they waited on long queues to pay for their beef jerky. Suddenly the manic Miami citizen was practicing City Zen. The calm before the storm.
SO WE SAT, HUNKERED in our bunkers, shuddering behind our shutters, through the balance of Thursday and all of Friday. The folks along the coastline had been evacuated and were off seeking long-lost relatives in Louisiana (“Marty Grass? No one here by that name”). Denizens of low-lying areas, susceptible to flooding, were cleared out, as well. They slunk off somewhere, perhaps in search of the moral high ground.
But we of the sturdy homes and the higher elevations, we who live three miles inland and can’t tell a beach from a sandbox, were left to our own devices. As the hours tick by, the illusions dissipate, seeping off into the same pit where confidence drowned that time you were slapped down by a real girl named Frances. You realize that all your fending for yourself does not add up to much defending. Your puny human maximum notwithstanding, when the gusts come your gusto will not save you. What you need, pal, is Providence, so that your road will remain an island.
She came on Saturday, and the weekly Bible reading in every synagogue in the world was “Cursed you are in the city and cursed you are in the field… because you did not serve… with joy and a good heart when you had plenty of everything.” The rains pelted and the winds surged, but we counted on the safety of our homes.
I never heard the giant tree crack; the neighbor kid did. I heard only the heart-stopping whoosh as it sucked all the air out of my backyard in its downward careen. Suddenly, there it was, right up against my window, cheery as a hedge and comfortable as an old friend.
A physicist could lay out a hundred different alternative scenarios. It could have fallen southward and destroyed my parked car. Southeastward would take down the fence. Due east would bring the roof of the house crashing down on my head. A sharp northeast, down go the power and phone lines. Instead, a stunning feat of divine engineering brought it down nor’nor’east, to snuggle right up against the back wall of the house, sparing car, fence, home and utility lines.
AND SO IT GOES. If it’s Tuesday it must be time to seek out my friendly insurance agent. My backyard no longer exists as a visible entity; every inch is literally littered with tree detritus. It looks enough like Sherwood Forest that I can hope for an adjuster like Robin Hood.
Fortunately my power is on; it never faltered. One block west, three blocks south, people were fumbling through their houses by candlelight, food rotting in overstocked refrigerators. Beef jerky for dinner after all. As of this writing early Tuesday, 40,000 of my Dade County neighbors had no power, 150,000 in Broward, the next county northward. And in Palm Beach County, the one after that, the tropical storm winds and rains have left a half-million people powerless.
Which brings us back to the fragility of life: it’s all about being powerless. We are powerless always; only now and then does it sink in a little.p>
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