LETTER FROM KEY WEST
W A I T IN G F O R T H E H U R R I C A N E
Galeforce winds, unsettling weather forecasts, heavy rain; we hole up.
W E L L , IT C AM E
and breathed on us and then went away. The hurricane, I mean — the latest one in this summ er’s long alphabet. We’d got to L. This one’s name was Lilli. They call them by men’s and women’s names alternately these days, to be fair, to underline the fact th a t ran d om d e s t r u c t i o n c an be wrought by winds of either sex. Would Lilli really bring the end of Key West as we know it?
You get a few days to prepare for the destruction that may come. On the Tuesday and Wednesday of that week in mid-October, the weather forecasts began getting serious. Here, i t ’s the ones that come up from the Yucatan peninsula that you have to take seriously. The ones from Africa usually turn north before they hit land on this side of the Atlantic, and this year their p a t te rn has been to avoid Florida and go north, shearing the coast of the C a ro lin as. Over and over again, we’ve watched the whirling white ball on the w eather reports turn and drift northw ard like a slow comet, trailing its tail. We’ve sighed with relief and opened up our storm shutters and begun going about normal business again.
But not with Lilli. Suddenly everyone was talking about the same thing. We all filled our plastic water containers and went to the stores for emergency rations, batteries and candles. These are the things the radio announcements tell you to buy. You’re supposed to fill your bathtubs with water and bring in all your garden furniture. Then you sit and wait.
First thing we notice, the bugs are all coming indoors.
Storm at Sea. p h o t o g r a p h b y e r n s t h a a s /m a g n u m
T hey’ve been doing it for days, ac tu a lly , organizing their migrations, making sure they’re out of the storm. The kitchen is full of ants, there a re lizards in the sittingroom, a frog in the bath. All the term ites are on the move, marching their long convoys down door-frames and across lintels. O u r house is alive with bugs. The feral cats are holed up underneath it; I can h e a r th em sc u t t l in g . We a re n ’t the only ones taking shelter here.
We take it in turns to bike to the grocery store and get in essentials. These turn out to be tins of the kind of food I never eat. Maybe, when disaster threatens, you should get in the things you particularly like — croissants, m angos, pesto, mozzarella — the trea t foods th a t are what you’d want to have for your last mouthful before the roof fell on your head or you were carried out to sea on a tidal wave. But we buy sensible things like baked beans, dried milk, canned fruit. Expedition food. W a r - t im e food. THE HURRICANE, a small red do t on the com puter screen like the mark of an infectious disease, is moving up from the Yucatan to ju s t south of Cuba. I t ’s heading north-west a t five miles an hour, with seventy mile an hour winds. It increases to ninety. I t ’s a category one hurricane. I t ’s raining hard. We stay in the centre of the house and drink coffee. I t ’s quite cosy. We don’t have to do anything else but wait and listen to weather reports on the crackling marine radio that tells us about high tide and low tide and the heights of seas both inside and outside the reef. The rain falls hard, but there’s no wind yet. We think o f the places where our roof might leak.
11.30 on Thursday, Lilli is still south of Cuba. Tomorrow, we hear, she will be eighty miles south of here in the early afternoon and will either continue on her present course and hit us head-on, or turn east and go towards the Bahamas. T here’s a cold front moving down from the north, which may turn her if it gets here in time. The rain falls off and then stops. The streets are full of floodwater.
O u r neighbour who works at the airport tell us there are queues of people on standby, trying to get out. Tourists have been told to go. Everyone who’s got a relation anywhere else is getting on the plane. T h e re ’s ju s t one road out of here, and I wouldn’t want to be on it in a high wind, let alone a hurricane.
Friday morning, Lilli has crossed th e sou th -w estern corner of Cuba. The wind is up to 110 and is over the ocean, a hundred miles south of here. We hear about landslides in C uba and houses being blown into the sea.
But then we hear the storm has turned east. She’s going to the Bahamas after all. Here, the state of emergency is off. Disaster has been put off till another day, or year. I wake at five the following morning, with a stom achache, feeling cold. Cold? In Key West?
Ah, i t ’s the cold front, that stopped Lilli’s progress north and saved us. It must be only about sixty degrees. I go into the kitchen and make porridge, out of some atavistic sense that porridge is the thing to make, even though this is the tropics and we’re only ju s t a couple of degrees off the T ropic of Capricorn, and a hurricane has been and huffed and puffed but did not blow our house down.
THEN THE SUN came out. T he sky was a blameless, p e r f e c t b lu e . E v e r y th in g green was gleaming with water and growing by the minute. T he hibiscus flowers in our back yard were rushing out. T he streets dried fast. The tourists had gone. The streets were empty of traffic. The ocean was blue and green again, the horizon visible, a pure line. I t felt like a new world, scrubbed clean and swept of fear.
Living here on this tiny rock, we are reminded again and again ju s t how vulnerable we are. We live at sea level in matchboard houses, with nothing to protect us against these storms, if they come. So you either run, or hole up. I ’m a holer upper by temperam ent, I realize. At least that way you get to see how beautiful things are. #
Rosalind Brackenbury is a poet and novelist.
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