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Storm Damage

The eye wall of Hurricane Isabel moved fitfully through southeastern Virginia in the late afternoon hours of Thursday, September 18, 2003. She made landfall as a category two, weakening considerably in her approach to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. By the time she arrived in Norfolk she was at best a puny category one. Her much-anticipated arrival coincided with high tide, unleashing flood waters swollen by five inches of rain and a storm surge of seven feet. Our quiet residential neighborhood was briefly transformed into a canal city, as overflow from an otherwise staid inlet known as The Hague flanked the masonry of century-old houses that have withstood worse than this. Isabel’s rains were not nearly as drenching as those that have accompanied weaker coastal storm systems, Floyd for example. Her winds were not the stuff of hurricane legend—no Agnes, she. Most of us never saw gusts over 74 miles an hour, a fact that technically reduced Isabel to an overwrought tropical storm, a drama queen. In short, for all her bluster Isabel did not turn out to be “the big one” that residents had dreaded, discounted, or perversely wished for, prompting some to evacuate, others to do nothing, and most, like me, to make ready as if the messiah herself had appeared on the national weather radar.  

When I moved here thirteen years ago, I discovered that Norfolkians live intimately with water and accept its mercurial qualities. You won’t find them huddled in storm cellars during weather emergencies. Quite the contrary, folks in their hurricane finery could be seen in droves during the afternoon of Isabel’s immanent approach, some trolling the battered shorelines with small children, pets, and camcorders in bright yellow rain slickers and fashion flip-flops. At first, Isabel was a regional fiesta. But then trees started to fall--huge, ancient trees—and the partiers began to panic. With the windows shuttered, I peered out between the slats from my second story apartment as one intrepid SUV after another chugged slowly up the white-capped street in desperate search of shelter from the grand magnolias and hoary oaks that without warning or fanfare began keeling over, one after another, like drunken Fleet Commanders at a Tailhook convention. Five trees fell within view of my window: an oak crushed a Toyota Camry, flattening both its front tires; a sycamore blockaded the entrance to a private elementary school, bringing power lines down across a swing set; a magnolia was graciously caught by the eaves of a neighbor’s roof; two tall, lithe elms collapsed side by side only inches apart, a lover’s suicide, one suspects.  

Four days after Isabel, I went to have my teeth cleaned at the office of Dr. Vernon O’Berry. It was strangely humid for late September. The air was heavy with the smell of root rot from the craters that had been opened when pavement slabs were ripped out of the earth by the weight of falling trees. These violent eruptions were everywhere, as if we’d been carpet-bombed by disgruntled dendrologists. Elsewhere, rogue work crews had lined the streets with storm debris: timber blocks, plastic bags stuffed with tattered leaves, oversized branches, piles of unsalvageable rugs, busted wind chimes, swollen deck furniture. Isabel’s plunder.

When I arrived at the dentist’s office, my conversation with Manuela, the hygienist, was typical of the conversations I’d been having repeatedly since the storm. “You got power?” asked Manuela.

“Not yet. And you?”  

“Last night,” she said. “But I couldn’t believe this morning.”  

Manuela went on to tell me that she had awakened to discover that her $600 generator, which she and her husband bought in preparation for Isabel, had been stolen out of her yard. “They even took the extension cord,” she added disbelievingly, tipping my chair back with the foot pedal control.  

I closed my eyes, waiting for the steely click of her instruments against my incisors, but she was not finished. “That’s $600 out the window,” she explained, as if I somehow I had failed to understand her.  

Isabel was my first hurricane. It would be nice if all our first experiences had names to remember them by. If this were so, my first love affair would be called Buckminster. My first martini, Lucinda. Unlike them, Isabel overstayed her welcome. “This Isabel has become a full time job,” a colleague complained to me on the fifth day after the hurricane, as if he were grumbling about a colicky infant. “I am at least a week behind on this grant proposal.” The university had finally reopened and everyone was there to access their e-mail, bathe in fluorescent light, and find out how others had fared. I learned that a former colleague who is retired and caring for an 80-year-old husband with advanced prostate cancer lost her house when the Lafayette River filled it with fourteen inches of foul, primordial muck. She took this as a celestial sign that the time had come to consider the advantages of assisted living.  She claimed that Isabel left them no option, although her husband had threatened to commit suicide, insisting that he would die in that house and nowhere else.

The problem with Isabel was that her destructiveness seemed almost ludicrously disproportionate to her actual strength. In Virginia alone, 17 deaths were attributed to her. The causes varied: some drowned, including two Mennonites, a man and his daughter, who were swept away in their horse and buggy while crossing a bridge; several were killed by falling trees; one woman, who was indoors, was crushed when a tree cleaved her house; many were killed in car accidents, some crashing their automobiles into fallen trees, others skidding off the road into standing trees; in three separate incidents men died of heart attacks while cleaning up tree-debris after the storm; one man, along with his two dogs, was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning; an elderly woman without electricity fell down her basement stairs and was discovered dead by her husband in the middle of the night; one boy burned to death when the candle he and his mother were using for light set fire to the curtains.  

Then there were the minor indignities, the most widespread of which was loss of power and all that tends to go with it: hot showers, refrigeration, home-cooking, and countless daily electronic rituals. One week after Isabel, approximately 175,000 residents of Tidewater, myself included, remained without electricity. Dominion Virginia Power assured customers that they were “working around the clock” with backup crews from Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Louisiana, Ohio, Georgia, Alabama, and Canada. Isabel may have been dull in hurricane terms, but the mess she made of the power grid was the worst in Dominion’s recorded history, “horrific,” as one dumbfounded utility spokesperson put it.

The city instituted a curfew for the first weekend following Isabel. Most residents, however, were disconnected from electronic news sources and blithely unaware of any restrictions. That Saturday, I attended a cookout sponsored by the International Graduate Student Organization--mostly students from Russia and the former Soviet republics--which recently began calling itself “Doctors without Visas.” An Uzbek chemist took over the grill, contending with the diverse cuts of thawing meat that we had managed to pool from our respective freezer compartments. Maybe it was the atmospheric tikki torches, or the battery-driven techno music, but a distinctly lawless current coursed through the party. Senior faculty danced ridiculously with their research assistants. A couple of recently-arrived students from Kiev spoke openly of their disappointment in the United States—so stupid its people, so bland its architecture—and recalled, with sweet nostalgia, the rolling blackouts of their socialist youth.

“We are restoring power to customers at a rate that is twice as fast as any previous restoration effort this company has ever mounted,” said Jimmy D. Staton, senior vice president of Dominion’s operations. Still, at day eight and counting, the slowness of the recovery effort became a scandal. The Richmond-based political commentator, Michael Graham, reported that Dominion Power had lied to the public about the intensity of their restoration efforts. They had forbidden linemen to work more than 12-hour shifts and, by their own admission, never really had crews “working around the clock.” Graham called upon Virginians to join him in expressing their outrage.  They responded by defending their utility and remaining silently stoic in the face of reports that power in some areas could remain out for weeks, maybe even a month longer. The problem, I then realized, was not Isabel. It was the south. I remembered a bumper sticker that I spotted not long after my arrival in Norfolk: “Shit Happens.” And I remarked on it during a lecture on regionalism, claiming that one would never see a bumper sticker like that up north because “shit” didn’t simply “happen” there. Up north, we understood that somebody caused shit to happen. And we can stop it from happening.

I became obsessed with the restoration project. Hit redial on my phone and you would be automatically connected to Dominion Power’s Customer Service line. “Please listen carefully as our menu has changed.” I demanded explanations. Understandably, health and safety facilities were the first priority in the restoration project. But after that, from what I could gather, retail centers and shopping malls, some with multi-screen movie complexes, were getting serviced. I imagined hordes of disheveled women and unshaven men storming the Regal Cineplex, desperate for tales of love and atonement. And I began to see the world as stratified in ways that defied my basest assumptions about the machinations of national entitlement: a low income housing project was restored before the mayor’s block. A part-time lecturer got power before the Provost. Prison inmates got it before the law-abiding. An idiot got it before a rocket scientist. And everyone got power before me. Some of them invited me over for a shower. I thanked them, but secretly marveled at their insensitivity. Others, I noticed, were experiencing “power guilt,” a condition marked by the inability to sustain eye contact with the powerless. Jo and Anna, a lesbian couple in library acquisitions, chose to embrace their status as have-nots, assuming, perhaps pre-maturely, that they would be among the last ten percent to be restored. “I hope you get your power back,” Jo said, as she packed her truck for visit to New Jersey. “But at the same time I hope you don’t. Just promise me one thing,” she asked. “If you do get it back, don’t e-mail me.” And two days later, when my power returned, I told nobody.  

“Shipwrecks are apropos of nothing.” You may recognize this as a line from Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” a story in which four men shipwrecked at sea are cognitively transformed by their recognition of nature’s indifference to their plight. The men are nameless; we know them only by their functions: the cook, the oiler, the Captain, the correspondent. They learn to think as one and they survive. And so it goes in American naturalism. But these days, as I slip dopily into the dream of having once stared into the abyss, I find myself thinking that the opposite is also true: shipwrecks, like hurricanes, are apropos of everything, to human consciousness itself, and to all the tools we have for tracking its melancholic wake. By naming hurricanes we acknowledge that they are never out of place while we remain exhilaratingly uprooted, a dislocation that is the constant shadow companion of our bright and fragile selves. It will take more than electricity to restore us to our ill-suited complacency: it will take the voluptuous powers of the imagination, new myths of loss and atonement. Mine begins like this: Once, I wished for an extraordinary storm. I longed for something that might vindicate the forecasters of great tides and lift me out of my daily trafficking across bridges, through tunnels, and along buoyant, boring waterways. I longed for it, and never learned its name.

Dana Heller is an English professor at Old Dominion. She has published several academic books and many critical essays, but she greatly enjoys producing creative non-fiction. She received an M.F.A. from Columbia.

Another version of this essay appeared on the German e-journal website “Seven Seas Magazine” in December 2003, under a different title.

Copyright © 2004 Dana Heller.