- Tornadoes were the weather danger where I grew up. Illinois’ flat country is like that perfectly made bed that your dog just has to mess up—irresistible to tornadoes. When the sky turned that weird greenish color and the pre-thunderstorm humidity crackled, we turned on the weather radio and more often than not, heard there was a tornado watch. We watched, in that case, continuing to go about our daily tasks, perhaps bringing in the horses and feeding them early so we didn’t have to do it in the lashing rain. If there was a warning for our county, we piled into the closet under the stairs, the only windowless room in our house. Contrary to popular belief, not all Midwest houses have basements; in some counties, the water level is so high that you’re just building a room for floods. Though I saw many funnel clouds over the years, that tornado never came, and I was grateful.
- Hurricane Irma just hit Florida and Georgia, and it was too soon after the terrible images from Houston’s post-Harvey flooding had chiseled themselves into my brain. I moved up to Memphis from Tampa two years ago, and I still have dozens of friends there. I went into ultra-worry mode. The storm was huge, it was historic, it was destructive, it would be a category 5 that covered the entire state of Florida! The news folks and the weather folks all spoke with exclamation points all the time! Everyone, whether in the path or not, posted preparation advice tips on social media! Sometimes those tips were false, debunked on national tv, but it didn’t matter! Everyone was supposed to be running around exhausting themselves and preparing because preparation was the only way to control the uncontrollable! And I couldn’t look away. Now, it’s not a transistor radio but an onslaught of electronics—tv, computers, cell phones—all shouting, unlike the calm, corn-accented voices of the local radio announcers I grew up hearing.
- The hurricane was more frightening to me, I finally realized as I told a Florida friend I would have left the state after the first forecast, my pets safely in tow, because there was so much lead-up time. It echoed the feeling I’ve had since Trump was elected: a national disaster was rolling in, putting millions in danger, and I was all but helpless. All that shouting only mirrored my inner voices, the ones that had been telling me to flee since the 2016 presidential election. Waking, as soon as I oriented myself, I felt the urge to leave in my bones and muscles. For the first few months, I looked at overseas jobs online, wishing I was qualified for any of them. I read up on European countries, pouring over the lists ranking countries by education, political liberalness, commitment to sustainability. When it became clear that it would not be practical to leave—no jobs beckoned, and even my husband’s native England required incoming non-English spouses to prove expected income—I got a prescription to Xanax and tried to redirect that urge to flee.
- So all I could do while Hurricane Irma inched closer to people I loved was offer to listen. I sure as hell couldn’t tell them what to do—join the awful traffic on the roads out or stay, board up the windows or go to a shelter, indulge in fear or flip the weather the bird. They had to actually face these decisions. I knew what I’d have done—but that didn’t matter at all. My job was to deal with my nightmares, or more accurately my daydreams of catastrophe. I’ve had them since I can remember, these vivid play-by-play visions of things going wrong, people getting hurt. I think most people get them, though hopefully not all. My job was to shut up, and keep shutting up. I checked in on people I cared about, told them I was glad to hear about their preparations and that I was thinking of them. I laughed when they made jokes (“We’re totally prepared: Cheetos and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups!” or “I may or may not have made a significant offering to Thor, God of Thunder, this morning”) and refrained from asking what they’d done specifically, or reassuring them that it would “all be ok.” I didn’t know whether it would, and neither did they, and that was the worst part of it. Not knowing.
- When the hurricane hit Florida, we were having the most beautiful days of early fall here in Memphis. 70s during the day, 50s at night, and clear skies. It was such a contrast to my obsession with the hurricane that I felt like the outdoors was slightly unreal, like I might actually still be sleeping. I only felt awake when I was watching CNN or looking at social media. It was so backwards it hurt.
- My friends made it through just fine. They were, for the most part, so exhausted from the build-up that they slept through much of the worst of it. They were brave and funny and thoughtful, even in the midst of their own fear, because they posted on social media when they could to let the rest of the us know that they were fine. I know my friends were lucky, and there were people who were not so lucky. The Florida Keys are devastated in ways that are only just now being reported. People lost cars, trees fell on houses, and in Florida, insurance policies carry very high deductibles for hurricane damage. My friends lost money, and they lost sleep, and some are joking that they gained weight through stress-eating, but they didn’t lose their lives.
- I miss my friends, my writing community. I miss the beach. I wish I could live in Tampa, and I hope to do so again someday. I know I was lucky not to be there for Irma, or for the hurricanes to come. I know the sea level is rising, and Florida is in particular danger. I don’t know how to resolve the ways my heart is pulled by love—my husband here in Memphis, most of my friends in Tampa, my family and roots in central Illinois. I suppose this is what it means to be human: to love and yearn, to connect and reconnect, to be torn in both time and place. To go through storms both literal and metaphorical with those you love, whether you’re physically with them or not.
Categories: Katie's Voice