In “Slaughterhouse Five,” Kurt Vonnegut describes the hell of surviving the firebombing of Dresden (In Slaughterhouse Number 5. Sorry if that’s a spoiler), then emerging the next morning. Billy Pilgrim is surrounded by manmade destruction on a nearly incomprehensible scale. In the middle of this hellscape…
…a bird starts singing.
In the middle of death and devastation, life reasserts itself.
I live in South Florida and Hurricane Irma came through last weekend. The winds picked up on Saturday, getting stronger through the day and the main event lasted most of Sunday. I could hear hollow booms from time to time. I knew my home was well-positioned for winds coming from ESE (home is in a condo building on the WNW side) and the household had taken steps to prepare.
Before the storm hit, as we were clearing the porch, I was watching the Muscovy ducks and white ibis that hang out in the canal behind the house. The water level had been lowered in anticipation of heavy rain and the birds were probing for worms and bugs. I wondered where they’d go for shelter, whether they’d be able to survive a Category 4 hurricane.
Once the wind started, I put up a pretty good show of being cool and brave for those around me. And for myself. In the wisdom of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Whistle a Happy Tune, putting on the performance convinced me, too. It seemed like the winds wouldn’t stop increasing, that the water level in the canal behind the house wouldn’t stop rising, one more good gust hitting a palm tree would bring it down.
Let me tell you, it was a long damn weekend. And the nights were worse. No quietly whirring fans to block the noise of the wind. The dark seemed even darker. But I could see the silhouettes of trees under assault from 80 mile an hour gusts. I could hear thunder. Lightning flashed. With no power, I was keeping my phone off to save battery. We had been getting tornado warnings, flash flood warnings, lightning strike warnings, but with the phone off, I wouldn’t hear or see them. Sleep was fitful.
I had had a chorus of people on social media telling me to evacuate, and when it became clear that I wouldn’t, telling me to check in and be safe. Every few hours, I’d turn on the phone and post, starting with “I’m still okay,” describing the conditions, and finishing with “I still have gummy bears.” (I’d started a running joke about gummy bears being among necessary hurricane supplies. More than a few people agreed). One of the last posts, when the winds really did start to ease, I reported that the gummy bears were gone. There were expressions of sympathy.
The winds died down. The rains stopped. We still didn’t have power, and it was cooler outside than in. My roommate and I ventured out to see the damage. Huge trees had fallen into some of the other buildings in the neighborhood, crashing through porches, landing on roofs. Here was the source of those booms I’d heard. These buildings faced directly into the storm and many units had tattered or missing screens. No golfers were out on the course; too much debris.
We were lucky. Our electricity was out for 36 hours. The internet was fully functional a day later. I wouldn’t call it PTSD, but as I’ve been working, I’ve heard a deep “thrum” and checked the trees to see if the winds have returned. They haven’t; it’s the fan. I know they haven’t, but I still check the trees to be sure.
Tonight, 3 days later, I went to the store to pick up a few things and I stood in the parking lot for a moment. It was a normal September night, warm, humid, pink and orange sunset. The frantic energy was gone. It was quiet. But for the leaf litter and branches on the ground, you wouldn’t know what had gone on.
The morning after the storm, I looked at the canal. And had my own Slaughterhouse Five moment. Amid the downed branches on the other side of the canal, there were the Muscovy ducks and white ibis.
Life reasserts itself.