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What Blows Around, Comes Around (Part 4)

So, if today is Saturday, then Hurricane Irma is eminent, and by the time this article airs, it may be knocking at my door. Because I’m writing this ahead of time (on Wednesday evening), I don’t actually know what’s coming, or what’s happening as this goes live. But according to forecasts, the odds of tropical storm force winds coming across Florida within the next few hours is somewhere between very high and certain, and that’s assuming that it’s not already here.

Whatever happens, there’s one thing I can probably guarantee: Based on what it’s done to the Lesser Antilles, and based on what it will probably do to the East Coast, “Irma,” which has replaced 2011’s Hurricane Irene on the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization’s naming list, will be a one-and-done (well, two-and-done if you count “Irma’s” last appearance in 1978). What does that mean? Simple, it means this:

Everyone who’s a big deal who comes to Florida comes here to retire. This includes old people, sports stars, and hurricanes.

When “Irma” gets to Florida, I’m sure she’s coming here to retire.

Unfortunately, that’s not a positive. My 2006 article, “What Blows Around, Comes Around” explains this retirement of hurricanes in detail.

The Politics of Weather

Every year that destructive hurricanes strike land, the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization receives a petition for name retirement.  Nations will submit the names of hurricanes that caused extensive damage or loss of life in their lands to the WMO Regional Association, with the hope that those names will be taken out of circulation.  Of the eight names that I mentioned in the last segment, all of them were submitted and approved for retirement, along with one more in 2005, a storm named “Stan.”

Retirement is issued to a storm when it becomes a topic of sorrow for the people affected.  I tend to think of it more as a way to make the storm legendary.  For example, who could forget the three-day old storm that struck Mississippi in 1969 named “Camille”?  She started out as nothing, blew up into a monster overnight, and leveled the Mississippi coast two days later.  She was just another blip on the radar until she made her mark, and then, like a phantom mistress, she was gone in the night.  But she left her mark on American history.  One storm, one name—both never to return again.

What of our recent copycat, “Katrina”?  Like “Camille,” she blew up out of nothing and charged for the northern Gulf Coast, causing untold death and destruction.  Sure, her name had been used before in the last round, in 1999, and once before way back in 1981, but she didn’t do anything but rain on Central America as a 40mph tropical storm in ‘99, or do anything but pass over the Haiti/Dominican Republic border in ‘81.  Now that she’s left her mark in history, would it make sense for her name to be used again?  Why should the memory of New Orleans or her significance in history be bastardized with a weak return in 2011?

I tend to get fascinated over the history of particular named storms.  Some people think I’m crazy for thinking this way, but here’s my logic: as a fiction writer, all characters have an identity.  That identity begins with a name.  Just as each of us began life not as a musician or a construction worker, but as a name, so a character must start his journey as a hero or a villain with a name.  Likewise, a hurricane must start its journey of passivity or aggression with a name.  The heroes, those hurricanes that don’t hit anyone, always return six years later (if they’re low enough on the list).  The villains, however, the ones that haunt our thoughts, are the ones that go down in history.  It becomes a fascination, then, to see which names of the new season become heroes, and which ones become villains.

Those of us who grow up with the uncertain dread of what might happen between June and November of each year get this sick little joy from sharing our name with a hurricane.  Though, I have yet to have my name on the list in any basin around the world (there are eight basins, I believe), I still wonder what a hurricane with my name could do.  Will it be a passive storm, sputtering out in the middle of the ocean where the winds of sheer destroy it?  Or will it be a history maker, a force so bad that it convinces a city to implement new ordinances to protect it from future damage of similar nature?  Will it be a wimpy storm like “Alex” (“Andrew’s” replacement), who tries every six years to make its mark, only to fail by circumstances of weak power and poor direction?  Or will it be a devastating storm like “Ivan” the terrible, who knocked a section of I-10 into a chasm; or “Wilma” the Flintstone, who ripped apart entire networks of telephone poles along Federal Highway between Boynton Beach and Lake Worth, singing the words: “yabba dabba doo,” which isn’t far off from the sound the howling wind makes, all the way to the beach on her first run?

Names are a big part of a hurricane’s existence, so it leaves me to wonder why it has to be up to the targeted nations to make the call about its future.  If it’s about death, destruction, insurance, or confusion (the last being a symptom of what might happen if the World Meteorological Organization were to rename a future storm “Camille” or “Andrew”), then why let the history makers return if the affected nations fail to submit a plea to retire it?

There are two names I think about every time I think about hurricane retirement: “Emily” and “Gordon.”

“Emily” had been making appearances every six years since she was first introduced in 1981.  Like “Frances,” she showed up over and over again, trying to make her mark on someone, but just couldn’t muster up the right ingredients.  In 2005, “Emily” finally performed the tasks necessary to be considered for retirement.  Just as “Frances” finally made her mark in 2004 (after nearly ten attempts since the ‘60s), “Emily” made her mark last season.  She was a Category 5 storm that, like “Wilma,” smacked into the Yucatan Peninsula as a Category 4 storm, stirred up trouble all over Mexico, and went out, finally, in a blaze of glory.  In a year full of hurricane insanity, she was a star.  But of the six hurricanes to wreck the Atlantic Basin, she was the only one slighted for retirement consideration.

“Gordon” was the name to replace “Gilbert,” when “Gilbert caused enough damage to come off the list in 1988.  “Gordon” made his first appearance in 1994 as a minimal hurricane, but one that dumped waves of rain on the mountains of Haiti; one that ultimately killed more than eleven hundred people.  This same storm later moved into South Florida as a tropical storm and tried to kill me when I was on my way to work, when I was getting tailgated by a florescent green car carrier on I-95, when I later hydroplaned off the exit ramp into Palm Beach Gardens and landed in a ditch at the bottom of the bend, where no one, not even the police officer who saw me struggling, offered to help me out.

Both of these storms were prime candidates for retirement in those years, but were overlooked for one reason: politics.

“Emily” was passed over in 2005, allegedly because her damage, though extensive, was minimal compared to what “Wilma” did to that same region three months later.  Even though Florida could’ve used the same excuse to slight “Frances” in favor of “Jeanne,” who hit the same exact area three weeks later, the state chose to bury them both into the history books once and for all, for they both sucked.  Mexico didn’t take that road, however.  The nation chose to favor the latter storm, as if only one could take the honor.

“Gordon” was passed over in 1994, simply because Haiti had bigger problems than hurricanes to deal with that year.  There was a political coup happening that took top priority with its government, which “Gordon,” as bad as it was, could not steal away.  So when it came time for the nations’ vote on their retirement nominees, “Gordon” was not to be seen.  Incidentally, no one in 1994 came off the list, as “Gordon” was the only bad boy of the bunch.  Now, in 2006, “Gordon” had since returned, but so far has yet to impress anyone with his fury.

This brings about my question: why wait for a nation to submit a name?  Shouldn’t there be an in-house panel at the World Meteorological Organization who can retire noteworthy hurricanes without national outcry?  Historically, notable storms have been submitted for retirement, but only by those nations that had nothing else going on that year.  In the case of these two storms, which by all rights and purposes should’ve made the list for their respective years, it would have benefited the Atlantic and the hurricanes’ victims had the WMO just taken the reigns away from the political institutions that were responsible for making the call.  Then, “Emily” could receive her justice, and “Gordon,” the storm that nearly killed me, would never again have to haunt me with another appearance.  Chalk up another victory for politics.

For Reference

For a full history of all tropical storms and hurricanes, including the ones mentioned in this essay, as well as information about naming systems, how hurricanes work, etc., visit the Weather Underground at www.wunderground.com or the National Hurricane Center at www.nhc.noaa.gov for all the resources you could ever need.  The first site stays current, with weather blogs written by experts that outline the potential for a storm, while the latter, though more official, tends to lag in information by a year or more.  They’re great places to visit if you’re in a panic over a storm.  You can also look up hurricanes through Google if you’re feeling really ambitious.

(end of “What Blows Around, Comes Around”)

Back to the present (2017), I hope those of you who are reading this are staying out of harm’s way. For me, I’m probably in the middle of it because I’ve got nowhere better to go. But my house is sturdy. Hopefully. But, if the people of Texas who went through Harvey (another storm likely to retire this year) are of any inspiration, then I can say that no matter how soft or hard this storm might be, we can still get through it if we stick together and don’t complain too much.

That said, if this storm does stay on its current track (as of Wednesday’s predictions, which is all I have at the time of this writing), then I’ll be without power for a few days, and I won’t be quick to answer any comments posted here. But, if you are one of the people in the path of this storm, and if you haven’t been through one like it before, and if you somehow found a way to read this (it’s 2017, so you’re probably on your fully powered smartphone, something we didn’t have in 2005), remember that the aftermath of a hurricane is generally very quiet, and you’ll suddenly find yourself able to think again, which isn’t so bad.

And, if you are in the storm’s path tonight, good luck. Hoping for the best for me, too.

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Cover Image: Pixabay

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What Blows Around, Comes Around (Part 3)

With Hurricane Irma moving closer and closer, tensions are undoubtedly rising throughout the southern East Coast. But Florida is no stranger to hurricanes, nor is it a stranger to bad hurricanes, and just as Hurricane Irma is similar to last year’s Hurricane Matthew in path and in hype, it’s no stranger to hurricanes that share basic qualities to other high-profilers that have recently preceded it.

In the third section of my 2006 article “What Blows Around, Comes Around,” I break down the characteristics of Florida’s last major hurricane hit, Hurricane Wilma, and how it relates to other hurricanes of its era. It’s easy to see that we can learn from anything, yet we can’t know everything.

The Familiarity of “Wilma”

On the morning of October 24, 2005, Hurricane Wilma, a major storm that chose to use my town as her exit point into the Atlantic, became the eighth hurricane to hit or pass Florida in two seasons.  Ironically, she had something in common with each of the first seven:

Like “Rita,” she passed through a narrow channel of water, before heading for open waters where she would later pick up steam to smash against her targeted coastline; “Rita” picking Texas, while “Wilma” picked us.  She, like “Rita,” also inundated the Keys.

Like “Katrina,” she surprised the world (or at least our section of it) when she suddenly transformed from a nobody to a reckless Category 5 storm, taunting her targets with unknown destruction.  She also shared the history board with “Katrina” in that “Katrina” set the “costliest storm” record at over $80 million dollars, while “Wilma” set the “most intense hurricane” record when she dropped to 882mb, which would’ve made her a nightmare over the Caribbean.  Also, like “Katrina” and “Rita,” she was a 2005 Category 5 storm that had the letter “A” ending her name.

Like “Dennis,” she set a time record for earliest something.  For “Dennis,” he was the earliest Category 4 formation and strike in the Atlantic Basin’s history.  For “Wilma,” she was the earliest formation of the twenty-first storm (which only happened one other time in recorded history).  Her formation also marked the first time that the seasonal naming chart had been exhausted.  This was a thrill to me, because I’ve always wanted to know what happened if a twenty-second storm formed and there were no more names to label it.  Now I know.  “Alpha” came about while “Wilma” blitzed the Yucatan.

Like “Jeanne,” she became the reckless youngest daughter of her family (family being major storms of a season), and proved once and for all that she would not be forgotten.  Also, like “Jeanne” she dilly-dallied in a faraway place before making the turn to strike South Florida, and blazed a trail for the coast, jumping from a Category 2 to a Category 3 at the last possible minute before landfall.  Also, like “Jeanne,” she confirmed to Floridians that hurricanes were nature’s way of harassing us.

Like “Ivan,” she left Floridians lingering with dread as we wondered where the Category 5 storm would go, and what it would do when it got there.  Also, like “Ivan,” she set a personal record, where “Ivan” became the southernmost tropical storm formation in Atlantic history, while “Wilma” became the fastest drop in pressure (she lost 100mb in 24 hours, which is also nearly a world record).

Like “Frances,” she was a massive storm that lumbered about for so long that she pummeled her first target for three days.  Though “Wilma” shot over South Florida in less than five hours, she hammered the Yucatan Peninsula as a Category 4 storm for an entire weekend.  “Frances,” though only a Category 2 at the time, did the same thing to us the year before—on a weekend.

Finally, like “Charley,” she surprised the National Hurricane Center, and the citizens of South Florida, when she significantly increased in speed at a critical time.  While “Charley” leapt from a Category 2 to a Category 4 about two hours before landfall, “Wilma” leapt from a tropical storm to a Category 5 about two days out from the Yucatan.  This made life ominous for South Florida when the National Hurricane Center said she was coming for us next, and that her navigation around the cliffs of the Yucatan would decide whether she hit us with Category 2 strength or Category 5 strength.  Also, like “Charley,” she swung into South Florida from the west coast between Naples and Ft. Myers, before making a beeline straight for my house, previously in Altamonte Springs, this time in Lake Worth.

(Part 4 tomorrow)

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Cover Image: Pixabay

What Blows Around, Comes Around (Part 2)

Childhood memories are some of the most precious things we store in our human central processing units, called brains. As we get older and more cynical toward the world, we cherish more the fondness of revisiting that time or place that once kept our joy, like amusement parks on a warm, summer day, or a snowy mountain on a warm, summer day (it could happen in high places), or in the middle of a bakery where our favorite pies are made.

We hold photo albums and souvenirs of the past to keep the memories alive, and doing so seems to maintain most of us with pretty rational thought or action. But, when our memories are suddenly threatened by a force outside of our control, we may find that rationale chucked out the window, and our greatest panic may turn to our greatest sorrow. Such is the case when loss is inevitable.

The following story is a continuation of my 2006 article, “What Blows Around, Comes Around,” about the futile reality of holding on to fickle child memories during a catastrophic weather event.

To Shed a Tear

By eleven years old, I had grown accustomed to using my backyard shed as a training module for the things that a young boy pretends to train for.  The green tin storage chamber, with the broken doors and the eagle emblem nailed to the triangular white headpiece, stood tall as my friends and I used it for a number of faculties, including rain sheltering, target practice (squirt guns opened-fire on the eagle), and the home base for our epic neighborhood Hide and Seek games.  Though it claimed to be a run-of-the-mill tool shed—storing such things as my family’s lawnmower, toolboxes, rakes and shovels—my friends and I knew better.  With a grimy ladder pressed against an exterior wall, we’d occasionally climb to the top of the damaged roof to see how tough our guts were.  As far as I could remember, no one fell.

“Eagle Base,” as it was later christened for its role in our Hide and Seek games, stood tough against a number of elemental hazards, from common rainstorms to a couple incidents of hail.  With two large trees protecting each side and a number of object barriers including flowerpots and ladders lining its base, even the worst events, including the big March storm of 1993 (a monster weather maker that hit the entire east coast at once) couldn’t touch it.

The shed, though, didn’t stand without some opposition.  In 1979, during its early years of existence, it stood upright and fully formed.  Just as it had for the decades to follow, the little tin structure housed its tools with complete vigilance.  When the tools weren’t used, it protected them with closed doors, just as it was designed to do.  But not far into the second half of the year, it faced its first formidable opponent of its life: Hurricane David.  Though the storm was only a Category 1 at the time of its arrival, the reckless winds pounded those doors with iron fists, knocking them into submission.  By the time the storm passed, the doors were bent and pushed off their tracks, never again to close properly.

That incident could’ve disheartened the shed, but no, the youthful structure went on.  As the ‘80s approached and I became steadily more aware of the world (I was only three at the start of the decade), I began to discover its many uses as a “training center.”  From there, it became an important part of my life.

As the years passed, and my childhood transformed into adolescence, “Eagle Base” steadily transformed into a household utility center.  Although I hated yard work at the time, I still found myself scouring the hull for rakes and shovels on those weekends when my parents wanted me to pick up leaves or fallen oranges.  I wasn’t a fan of the structure in those times, because the grimy foundation became a reminder that going in meant having to take another shower later, which meant I was going to feel nasty in the meantime.  But even in my teenage grumbling, the shed stood tall.

Toward my adulthood, it transformed from a mere utility center to a shelter for cats during rainstorms.  Every once in awhile, a new stray would find its way to my front porch, coming from some undisclosed place up the street.  After hanging out for a while, deciding it would adopt us, the cat would then move to the backyard, where it would take up arms on the deck or under the clothesline.  During sunny days, the cats would roam fearlessly around the four corners of the backyard.  During rainy days, however, they’d disappear.  For the pregnant ones looking for a new home, the shed became a place to give birth and to keep the new litter dry.

More years passed, and more abuse befell it—including a tall object puncturing the roof from the inside, and a large hole wearing through the right wall—but it continued to stand, old but proud.  As I reached my twenties, the old “Eagle Base” became a centerpiece for an expanding garden, starting with the Schefflera to its left and a small palm tree to its right.  Though the trees made getting behind the shed difficult (with only a few feet of yard between the wall and the surrounding fences), they did so with aesthetic pleasure, making the wounded structure appear at rest.

In 2002, the Florida Holly along the back fence grew tangled, so much that it became a hazard.  During this summer and the one to follow, I found myself out there sawing away at its tree branches—the ones too high to make my reach comfortable.  The simple tasks of paring the tangled little beasts back, preventing the possibility of disaster striking our yard should another storm ever hit (which had been a rare thing since “Andrew” of 1992), turned into month-long projects.  Those projects, in turn, became annual events.  While all the trees in my yard became victims of the pole saw at one point or another, the dreaded Florida Holly became my bane—the thing that bled sawdust in waves, but never fell under control.  By 2003, we had to cut it down.

We thought we had done the yard a favor.  When the jumbled mess of a tree came down that year, we thought we had spared ourselves from future disaster.  As the last remnants of the Florida Holly went to the sidewalk, we thought we had ensured “Eagle Base’s” life to last for good.

In 2004, our sense of security proved false.

Hurricanes came and went throughout the last twenty-five years, none doing to the shed what “David” did in its early years.  Though the doors piled up in the corner, never again to be used in regular service, we’d return them to their tracks for the brief moments when strong winds were promised, and they would hold long enough to keep the contents inside safe.  Because no storm since 1979 packed a zephyr so fierce, we didn’t think any future storm would challenge it.  Placing the doors back on their tracks for the arrival of yet another storm seemed like a good idea.

Hurricane Frances, the second of four Florida storms that year, threatened to come into South Florida during the first weekend in September.  I had just returned home from my year in Altamonte Springs, having gotten through “Charley” just two weeks earlier, and now I had to stare this new monster in the eye.  The news promised a huge storm, but I just shrugged it off.  I came home, relaxed a couple of days, prepared for the hurricane, and then headed to my grandmother’s with my family to help her through the storm.  I didn’t even bother unpacking my stuff.

With family and two cats in tow, we made it to my grandmother’s condo, where we hung out in front of the TV for several hours, then sat in the dark as the power went out.  We stayed in that little unlit condo for three days.  “Frances” was not only huge; she was slow.

That was Friday.  We returned Monday, after an exhaustive ordeal of winds and heat, to explore the damage left to our home.  As usual, the house came through unscathed.  As usual, it boasted the expected fallen leaves and branches, with the occasional trash.  As usual, it didn’t seem like the storm had been that big of a deal.

Except, something was different than before.  This time, a new story befell our backyard:

As usual, the shed endured the onslaught of those 80mph winds.  For three days those winds blasted, but they weren’t enough for the tired old veteran to submit.  “Frances” kept howling, but the old tin structure kept resisting.  She whipped it with wind gusts reaching close to a hundred, but the creaks of sheet metal endured her wrath; the shed vibrating fiercely, but fighting with everything it had.  It was the fight of its life, but the old coot stood.

Finally, on the third day, “Frances” realized “Eagle Base” was winning the battle, just as it had won against “David” in its youth, and so she was scared.  She came here with a mission, refusing to leave it unfilled.  But sensing her time to win growing short, she knew she had to do something, something underhanded if the tide didn’t turn in her favor.  It was a bloody fight she refused to lose.

The tide didn’t turn, so “Frances” stopped fighting fair and hit “Eagle Base” below the belt.  She snapped a large branch off the Schefflera tree—the tree I didn’t cut—and used it as her weapon.  When we came home Monday, we saw the results of the battle.  It seemed, at last, that “Eagle Base” had met its match.

The branch had fallen on the roof, crushing the structure into a mangled mess.  Under the branch, heaps of tin lay in piles on the old rocky foundation, burying shelves and tools like the lost bodies of a fallen tower.  A cross-shaped foot made of brass, belonging to a rack or a chair, poked out from underneath the triangular white headpiece, spelling out the tragedy of the shed’s last stand.  With a layer of leaves covering it over its still grave, the last visible trace of the old glory of my childhood set nailed securely against the headpiece: the black eagle emblem, the signature of “Eagle Base,” unmoved, but clearly lost of its purpose.

Normally, I try not to weep over the loss of an inanimate object, especially not one that served primarily as a place to store a lawnmower.  But it was hard to hold back the sorrow of that day, a day where my childhood refuge lay fallen.  The last vestige of that old life was gone.

An old childhood friend of mine came over that day, to see how we all panned out.  The power was off, the place was a wreck, and there was nothing really to do but to clean up.  He came over anyway to hang out, and I showed him what had happened.  This childhood friend, a grown man in his mid-twenties, a man who never cries, a man who never lets water drench his back, stood there marveling.  All he could say was, “But that was base.  You can’t destroy base.”

And that day, this grown man who only had half the memories of this little green tin structure that I had, felt sorrow, too.

It was base.  It was “Eagle Base.”  And like all veterans of battle, it had to retire.

Now, in 2006, the old foundation serves as a backyard patio, complete with chairs, table, and pirate wine barrel.  The old eagle emblem that used to loom over the shed’s entrance like a sentry, now sets nailed to the wall next to my front door, where it greets all who choose to enter.  And, like a dead relative who had a colorful past, the old shed lives on in pictures and in memory, where now it can never be forgotten.  So now let us hold a moment of silence for this inanimate wonder that breathed life into my youth, which could only fall by slide of hand.

(Part 3 tomorrow)

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Cover Image: Pixabay

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