The Seduction and Destruction of Hurricanes

“Don’t be afraid. It’s all gonna be alright.” My mother’s voice shook despite her best efforts to comfort me as gale-force winds rocked our house’s foundations. Oaks and pines—some over one hundred years old—crashed to the ground throughout our yard, threatening to crush the very house we huddled within. I buried my face in a pillow but found no escape from the deafening roars of thunder that followed the blinding lightning strikes. At five years old, I feared that the world was coming to an end, that God or Jesus or whoever ran the heavens would inevitably destroy us. The year was 1995. The hurricane was Opal. Ironically, Opal bore the same name as my birthstone, clamoring through the Southern states during my birth month of October. I grasp these connections to remember the category 4 terror who still haunts my nightmares and obsessions.

Hurricanes have a unique way of forcing Southerners to remember their mortality. We give them names, watching with trepidation as they grow from a tropical depression to a tropical storm to a category 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 hurricane. Ask anyone from a Southern coastal state about which storm was the fiercest and a slew of names come up in memoriam: Andrew, Opal, Katrina, Matthew, Harvey, Irma … the list continues. Floridians throw parties to welcome them. Louisianans dubbed the “Hurricane cocktail” after them. Like the storm itself, the alcoholic concoction is known for wreaking the same havoc as its stormy namesake: natural disasters. Dark humor is their preferred shelter. But, more than cultural anecdotes, hurricanes show us our personal insignificance alongside our ability to underestimate and destroy ourselves. They serve as a mirror showing us how we treat and judge each other.

Nearly ten years after Opal, Katrina ripped Louisiana and Mississippi to shreds, wrapping her jaws around their coastal towns with little mercy. As with many powerful hurricanes before Katrina, weather stations warned civilians to evacuate the areas in the path of the violent category 5 storm. But, like Katrina’s predecessors, too much of the population stayed to weather the storm. Over 50 levee breaches and the government’s intentional ignorance caused irreparable flood damage to the neighborhoods, homes, and other structures within areas of the coastal lower classes to crumble.

“Indeed, Katrina became the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history,” asserts Douglas Brinkley for Smithsonian Magazine. “The city’s flood walls were exposed as ugly monuments to shoddy engineering.”

Thus, the flood that swallowed the city caused the majority of destruction and death, placing politics and Southern financial priorities in the spotlight.

In 2015, the death toll was still an estimate, ranging from 1,200 upwards to 2,000, according to Carl Bialik’s article for FiveThirtyFive. Ignorant of the situation, some of my own friends and family members blamed the death toll on refusal or inability to evacuate. Yet, many Louisianans weathered through numerous hurricanes. In lower class areas, many civilians could not afford to evacuate. Spike Lee’s extensive documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, showcases New Orleans’ rich cultural influence over African American culture, Louisiana, and the South. It depicts the political fallout that rose from the ashes. Despite Katrina’s destruction, she brought to light issues previously banished to the shadows. What about black people? What about the South’s poor? The ugly truth was that our country’s leaders failed them miserably. The Louisiana government failed them by not ensuring the levees had proper maintenance in structural updates. The Federal government gave more of a damn about how to allot monetary resources than providing for its citizens left in want of homes, food, clothing, and fresh water. Lee’s in-depth exposé shows its audience just how little these demographics matter.

From the wake of Katrina’s destruction rose poetry, literature, and art that showcased the sheer power of nature and the resilience of the individuals who survived. Jesmyn Ward’s novel, Salvage the Bones, offers a magnetic read in which the heroine likens her own female power to Katrina like a Greek goddess. As Katrina gathers strength, so does she. Here, the age-old Southern tradition of our existence mirroring that of nature comes full circle. Like Ward’s heroine, we can learn from and find hope in even the most volatile situations. Patricia Smith also gives Katrina a dominant personality of her own in her poem, “Katrina:”

“I was birthed restless and elsewhere
gut dragging and bulging with ball lightning, slush,

I was bitch-monikered, hipped, I hefted
a whip rain, a swirling sheet of grit.”

From these examples, readers notice that Mother Nature indeed creates leading ladies like Katrina to put us in our place, to remind us of our faults, and to show us how we slight one another.

One of the next hurricanes in the legacy, Irma, dug her fangs into the Southern states in September 2017—12 years after Katrina and 22 years after Opal. A category 5 hurricane, many noted that she shared the same name as the German goddess of war. Once again, a tempest showed us our flaws. The 175 mph winds decimated Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, and the Caribbean Islands, leaving over 1 million without power. Too often, Americans think of these islands merely as places for vacation—not as homes to its people with jobs, families, and households to maintain. As with Katrina, Irma’s violence came ashore during a presidency known for its lack of competence and compassion for anything that doesn’t feed its ego. As Irma’s strength died coming inland into Georgia, she left me wondering how we receive the artful lessons from our tempestuous temptresses. Our “thoughts and prayers” do little to rebuild Mother Nature’s destruction without action backing them. From Opal to Irma, the savage lessons are clear. We only have a matter of time until it is us who need more than the thoughts and prayers of our cohorts—no matter where we live.