From the time we are old enough to feel the wind against our cheeks, we’re told how this invisible force shapes our world. A gentle breeze over time can reshape a dune as large as Jockey’s Ridge and a Category 5 hurricane could flatten it.
I grew up on stories about wind. Hurricane Hazel, though I wasn’t born at the time, ripped up houses as far as two hours inland where we lived. My grandmother’s name was Hazel, and hearing the stories, I was fascinated that she’d had a whole storm named for her, though there was nothing the least bit stormy about her nature. (Her sister, Beulah, would get her own named storm in 1967.)
There was the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962, when my father drove the not-yet-5 me through country roads to my grandparents’ house in what would be one of the worst recorded nor’easters on the East Coast. It was raining when we left home, and by the time we hit Gates County an hour north, the ice-covered telephone poles leaned into the snowy woods, taking the power with it. We sat with my aunt, uncle and cousins, visiting from Germany, warming ourselves by a pot belly stove on the second floor of the house.
When researching my book about Nags Head’s history in 2000, I turned to the storms, finding a 100-year-old woman who had survived the Hurricane of 1933. Pregnant, she waded in waist-high water to the house next door and sent her husband back to their house for something dry to wear. “The only thing he brought back was a cocktail dress,” she told me.
I don’t know why, but weather is a crucial character in the stories we tell. Stormy weather and summer breezes, heat waves and purple rain all have been put to tune. And from “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” to “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” authors have used weather as a literary device. (The 1941 novel “Storm” led in part to hurricanes being named in 1953, at first for women.)
Even Mark Twain, who thought weather got in the way of the story, wrote in “The American Claimant,” that though “Weather is necessary to a narrative of human experience,” there would be no weather in his book. He directed his readers who would miss the weather to find it in the back of the book, where it is out of the way.
But I’m hypnotized by it, from the first moments “The Wizard of Oz” to the final scenes in “Twister.”
My husband and I were in Surf City with my daughter, son-in-law and grandson Henry as Florence swirled far out in the Atlantic. My Georgia-born daughter channeled her best Scarlett O’Hara, vowing to think about it tomorrow. As a caution, my husband moved his sailboat docked in New Bern, moving it across the Neuse River to a boatyard and safety.
Tomorrow — and reality — came, and we helped the kids prepare their house, pulling in deck furniture and bolting on hurricane shutters and taking pictures of the house. As we drove away from the beach that afternoon, I took in the scene, wondering what would be left of it when we returned.
And then ol’ Flo slapped the front door open and sat down for a good long visit. And while she stayed, we kept watch over the television, where local news crews fought the wind and rain. I followed Twitter feeds of journalists on the ground searched the rising waters for the human story that always surfaces during storms. We marveled at the miracles, watching video of people and pets being rescued by the Coast Guard or by perfect strangers driving down flooded streets in fishing boats.
More than two weeks later, the storm is barely a mention on the national news, a soundbite and a flicker of dead fish on the highway.
But reality dares to differ: Florence left a devastating calling card. Homes filled with sludge, some still covered in water so high that may never be lived in again. Block after block of trees and mattresses and refrigerators lining the streets — whole lives reduced to piles of trash on the side of the road. Thirty-six families have empty places at their tables. Vast culverts gape open roads like wounds, cutting off whole towns, still. It may be months before we understand how vast and deep the injuries Florence inflicted lay.
Though thousands live in devastation, we were lucky this time. Surf City, though battered, still stands. Friends are safe and cleaning out and the boat is in dry dock. In the mean time, we do what we can. Sending money, food, diapers, time, waiting to see how next we can help.