Hurricane Katrina was one of the defining events in America’s modern history. It destroyed a city and showed us, for the second time in a few short years, that our oceanic isolation does not make us invulnerable to harm, and especially not invulnerable to the whims of nature. For some Americans, it was a rude wakeup – Oftentimes catastrophic weather seems relegated to international news (tsunamis never seem to hit Panama City Beach) and disaster movies (The Day After Tomorrow – style) rather than being a serious concern. Many of the most famous nature writers of yore wax eloquent on the virtues of nature, the beauty and grace of flowers and grass and peace and all that good stuff. For instance:
“I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.” – Walt Whitman
Good stuff. Maybe it’s misleading of me to use a Whitman quote (that guy really loved grass), but the point remains: we like our nature to either be tranquil and freeing (“Earth laughs in flowers” – Emerson) or spectacular to the point of absurdity (again, The Day After Tomorrow works here). So what happens when the weather comes along and threatens our day-to-day routine, our homes, and our livelihoods?
Hurricane-turned-“superstorm” Sandy has been thrashing the Northeastern U.S. for several days, and the scope of the damage is only now becoming fully apparent. Millions are without power, over 40 have died, and transportation has ground to a halt in our largest city. “All of us have been shocked by the force of Mother Nature,” the President told us yesterday, a statement that seems to echo the repeated naivete of mankind in the face of freakish weather.
Reading about the formation of Sandy (the combination of a high-pressure system, a low-pressure system, and a hurricane) brought to mind an eerily appropriate quote from a book by Sebastian Junger:
“Meteorologists see perfection in strange things, and the meshing of three completely independent weather systems to form a hundred-year event is one of them. My God, thought Case, this is the perfect storm.”
The comparisons between Sandy and the 1991 Nor’Easter now commonly known as “the perfect storm” have already been extensively made, but, apart from an attempt at interviewing Junger in hopes of obtaining a foreboding quote (which ended in failure, thankfully), little attention has actually been paid to The Perfect Storm. The story, familiar to many from the movie adaptation (nothing like George Clooney to spice up those boring books), is that of the Andrea Gail, a swordfishing boat and her crew lost at sea during the storm. The question raised in the very first pages of the book is one that extends beyond the impact of a single storm:
“How do men act in a sinking ship? Do they hold each other? Do they pass around the whiskey? Do they cry?”
Junger struggles with this question in his attempts to portray the last hours of six men through the scope of “creative nonfiction,” a genre that focuses on constructing a narrative from factual plot points and characters (other examples include Capote’s In Cold Blood or Michener’s The Source). The real power of the story is found in this struggle rather than in the ferocity of the storm, or even in the heroism of the pararescue personnel who rescue the crew of a downed Air National Guard helicopter. We can marvel at heroism or shudder at descriptions of the storm (NOAA buoys recorded waves up to 100 feet tall, that’s scary as shit), but nothing stirs the heart quite like the fear of pondering our own last moments. We are forced to acknowledge our own mortality in the face of circumstances beyond our control, and we are reminded of what is ultimately our individual frailty in the face of nature – It can be the journey-work of the stars, but it can be massive and indifferent, and we might do well to remember that before the storms lurch towards our population centers.
In other words, read a book and do some reflection. It’s good for you.