I rode out Hurricane Kate in a one-room tarpaper shack my friend and I nailed together in northern Florida, near Quincy. We weren't engineers, much less carpenters, and the house was constructed of heart-pine planks and two-by-fours recycled from old tobacco barns. We were kids scoffing at a capitalist society, living our back-to-the-land dreams.
First came rain and then wind and after nightfall the roaring; outside, trees moaned and thrashed and trembled. Even 70 miles inland, there was little reprieve that long night, only more dumping rain and howling wind.
When morning came, we wandered the dripping woods, examining trees -- grown oaks and hickories -- that had crashed to the ground, roots and all. When they fell they left craters in the ground. There's nothing about Florida, Carl Hiassen said, that a good hurricane won't fix. Except its beautiful old trees.
Hurricane Hugo, 1989
When Hugo slammed through South Carolina in 1989, it ripped through the extensive longleaf pine forests of Francis Marion National Forest like a mighty weed-whacker. In one night it felled a billion board feet of timber and destroyed three-fourths of the endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers there. They went from 477 colonies to 100.
With wind-gusts up to 147 miles per hour, Hugo affected a larger area and destroyed more trees than any natural catastrophe in the United States, including the Yellowstone fires of 1988 and the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens.
Fifteen years later scientists learned that ecosystems heal more rapidly from natural disasters than human-caused ones. In the openings created by Hugo, seeds sprouted. Some got 30 feet tall in fifteen years. Artificial nesting cavities for the woodpeckers raised populations to pre-Hugo levels.
Hurricane Andrew, 1992
I wasn’t in this hurricane. I had recently returned from six months in South America. I took a job speaking Spanish for the Florida Department of Insurance, working the Andrew hotline. Thousands of houses were destroyed and insurance companies were folding. All day long, every day, I spoke to frantic people whose homes had been damaged or destroyed. Many were homeless. I tried to calm them, to help them, let them know the government would bail out insurance companies. I used the words I understand and I’m sorry a lot.
Hurricane Ivan, 2004
In September of 2004, while hurricane lilies popped up like frilly red flags in yards all over the South, Hurricane Ivan growled northwest through the Carribean with sobering wind speeds. On September 16 it made landfall on the Gulf Coast near Mobile. Winds had subsided to 125 miles an hour, driving a storm surge 16 feet deep.
The hurricane would pass over the only tract of old-growth longleaf pine remaining in the coastal plains of Alabama, near Flomaton, a 50-acre forest surrounded by cotton fields and planted pines, in which trees had been youngsters when the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Hours later, sixty percent of that forest was on the ground. "To lose any part of it is significant," said John Kush, ecologist on the Flomaton. "If we'd lost it all, I'd be seeking help mentally to deal with it.”
I am a forest activist. I have been especially vocal about the loss of the longleaf pine flatwoods, an ecosystem in which 99 percent of natural stands are gone. Less than one percent of old-growth remains. To oppose clearcutting is one thing; to protest a hurricane is to shake a fist at the sky. “Ivan reminds us that more and more we need to save what little wild lands we have left and make them functional," Kush said.
Four major storms pummeled Florida. The hurricanes threw buckets of water on my home in south Georgia, inches and inches. A big water oak at our farm, which held up one end of the clothesline, went down, unable with its sodden roots to withstand the forces of wind. Across the South, trees bore evidence of fury in their twisted crowns and broken limbs. Many were dead, boles snapped or rooted up. Old trees are where cavity-dwellers nest, where woodpeckers and nuthatches feed, where migrants rested. Out the window I see a hole.
Hurricane Michael, 2018
In the first hours after Hurricane Michael cannonballed Mexico Beach, Florida, video footage of residents riding it out shocked the whole country. Two weeks later, deep into cleanup, Michael's aftermath was even more sobering. I saw it for myself.
Along what tourism dubbed Florida's "Forgotten Coast," two-lane Highway 98 hugs Apalachicola Bay, offering wide vistas of mud flats, spartina marshes, and beaches. Driving from Tallahassee, I found the highway hurriedly patched with fill dirt and rough asphalt where hurricane surge swept aside rock abutments and undermined the pavement, then retreated, leaving the road in pieces. In some places both lanes were compromised.
Along 98 facing the bay are one-story family homes built in the 1960s and 70s, alongside newer, mammoth vacation homes on concrete stilts. Debris was scrambled along the roadside in piles of ruined appliances, furniture, soggy mattresses, wet carpets, sections of dock, broken boardwalk. Trunks and limbs of trees were piled here too, lots of trees. Everything was a mess. Sometimes the road was a tunnel passing through mountains of detritus.
I've seen many hurricanes. But by the time I reached the sawmill town of Port St. Joe, I knew that Michael was something different. A giant monster, something like Frankenstein, had gotten loose. Michael blew through dwellings as if they were made of paper. Every door and window was gone. The houses were emptied, cleaned out by swirling waters.
For all its malice, Michael was a compact storm. A tight little knot at its center wreaked wholesale damage, a new Category-5 kind of damage. The fireball of Michael's eye didn't cool once it devoured Mexico Beach and Port St. Joe but punched north up the Panhandle, remaining Category 3 into southwest Georgia. It was a bowling ball, a mighty razor, a fist.
On Sunday morning in Port St. Joe, with the Baptist Church roofless, its steeple folded and canted like a pointing finger, services were being held under a large white canopy in the parking lot. I parked. A woman and a small boy were pacing nearby. The woman smiled and waved as if she knew. She came over to say hello. Her grandson had grown weary of sitting in church, she explained. When I asked, she said her house was fine. It had a blue tarp on the roof too but it was liveable. It was good.
Across 98 under another white tent aid workers were starting to serve lunch. Two men and a woman picked up to-go boxes and walked away. Everybody seemed to be slowly getting used to a new reality. The word for that reality was "displacement." So many things were out of place.
People were not where they should be. Church was not. Boats were not at the marina but dashed on to high ground, some at the grocery as if parked there, one blocking the entrance to a realty. A ballcap hung from the broken limb of a tree. A pelican's wing hung useless. Dunes were in the ocean. The ocean was in the houses. A bathhouse was sideways in the dunes. Sand was on the boat ramp. Trees crushed houses they shaded. One house had come to rest on a tree. Road signs pointed in weird directions.
With climate destruction's twenty-year lag, this demolition was scheduled two decades ago. Even if we lower heat-trapping gas emissions today, twenty years from now we will be suffering. I can only imagine.
Hurricane season is upon us again. Soon the hurricane lilies will be popping up their red, spidery blooms. The storms are rising from the South, one by one, working their way through the alphabet of names. Some stay small. Some turn horrible. They are getting worse. They are coming.