Puzzling The Storms

Puzzling The Storms

When Hurricane Carol hit the Northeast coastline in 1954, I was five years old. My sister was 13. Our house was a sturdy one, built for sea captains and their wives and families in an historical courtyard of similar wooden three-story structures, erected on serious foundations to withstand just such storms and harsh winters.

I would be starting school this year, but in those days, school did not begin until after Labor Day, and we were still in summer mode. There were sprinkles of sand in most of my shoes, fresh from long walks by the shore.

No one in our courtyard had a garage, and so each family parked their car in front of their home in this horseshoe courtyard, shaded by massive oak and maple trees that had stood solidly for years. They had seemed to me to be indestructible.

My mother was generally prepared for disaster, having met with many in her life. Forecast or no forecast, she always had candles, bottled water and food on hand in case nuclear war might break out without warning. Flashlights were always available for the middle of the night when I often threw up from too much of one thing or another, and my mother or father had to get to me quickly. There was always a stockpile of food, and even if not our favorites, we knew we could survive.

A screen capture from the archive of the Herald-Tribune in New Bedford, Mass., shows the devastation of Hurricane Carol in 1954.

A screen capture from the archive of the Herald-Tribune (Sarasota, Fla.) shows the devastation of Hurricane Carol in 1954 in an AP Archive photo.

Hurricane Carol was an adventure I will never forget. I still have the picture book that was published afterward to record the damage. All the trees in our courtyard fell on top of the cars and smashed them quite thoroughly, with the exception of ours. I sat mesmerized on the window seat with my sister, watching them topple, shouting with glee as sidewalks were pulled right out of the ground by tempestuous gales of wind, roaring so loudly that my sister and I would run in fear from the windows to the basement for safety—and then right back to the windows again. This was the most exciting day I’d ever had. Loss, injury, starvation, and most of all death, were not possibilities in my immature experience. And since my father told us that we were on a hill and perfectly safe, the howling winds and rushing rain were thrilling. Cozy inside by the candlelight, my sister and I clasped hands, laughed and screamed, I somewhat bolstered by the confidence in my father’s reassurances.

About a week later, after much of the debris had been removed from the roads, my father drove me over to the beach to assess the damage. I can still see the destruction of the homes that lined the water, smashed beyond repair, my father said. “But most of them will rebuild,” he said. “They always do.” This made me feel not quite so sad.

But actually, my father was wrong. In many cases, people could not afford to rebuild and did not even have insurance. Thus the matter was settled by economics. New Bedford’s heyday had long evaporated. The times of whaling and Moby Dick, along with the textile mills, ultimately did not survive any more than the most vulnerable beach property.

Seeking heaven, finding disruption

The next hurricane that affected me deeply was Hurricane Andrew. My Aunt Kathie had found heaven in Homestead, Fla., after working for most of her life as a secretary for the City of New York. In her old age, she sat and listened to the birds and fed the squirrels. She had never been more at peace, and having suffered with Dissociative Disorder for a good part of her life, this sleepy Florida town was the perfect paradise for her – until Andrew. As she drove to her cousin’s house for safety, her “paradise” was swept away, leaving soggy family photograph albums that she would never recover. In an apartment she rented afterward, she neglected to use her oxygen one night, and I can only hope she was finally able to find a paradise that would never betray her.

Hurricane Sandy was the next in line to bring disaster close to home. My brother-in-law’s house on the canal in Freeport, N.Y., was completely flooded. In fact, his whole neighborhood was evacuated and demolished. These people were fortunate. They had places to go and could stay in homes with friends and family. Although it was enormously disruptive to their lives and well-beings, they did not have to stand in painfully long lines for food and water. And as much as I try to put myself in the shoes of the folks living way out in the hinterlands of Puerto Rico, when I think of trying to get daily prescription medications, my head starts to swim. This erases all the fun and excitement from my five-year-old Hurricane Carol experience.

Pondering cruelty

Nature can be devastatingly cruel, but not as cruel as human beings can intentionally manage to be to one another. After three raging hurricanes, as if Mother Nature had nothing at all to teach us, a man with a stockpile of weapons took matters into his own hands and rained bullets down on a crowd of country music lovers. Where and what is the sense in this? In a lifetime dedicated to the study of human beings, human emotions, motivations and mental illness, I find myself no closer to a credible answer.

Perhaps the only plausible explanation is waves and cycles, yin and yang, an ethical president followed by one without a moral compass. Since we don’t, as a species, seem to learn much from experience, we have to struggle through Groundhog Day over and over and over again. When gun legislation did not happen after the mass shooting of children in Newtown, Conn., what could any of us expect? And who in their right mind could believe that Trump, in his 70s, would suddenly change his behavior once elected? He would become “presidential.” Right!

If only I were able to answer my own questions. But there is peace in accepting that I will go to dust and wind and waves without the answers. Even though love may be all you really need, it is not within our natures to be content, or even satisfied, with all that we do have.

And so I struggle, along with the rest of the world, to ride out the waves, as turbulent as they can sometimes be, hoping for some calm to regain my strength. For in fact, this is the nature of man and of life. Once we ride out these disasters, we are often able to appreciate more of what is good in this world. Unfortunately, these feelings do not seem to be sustainable. More unfortunately, we do not all survive to experience this kind of renewal. This is the most unfortunate, because not one of us will make it out of here alive.

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