“I built my house to withstand a category 5 hurricane. So, I wanted to see if it could.”
So my friend Brad explained when someone asked what he was thinking when he decided to stay on Dog Island on Oct. 18, 2018 knowing that Hurricane Michael — category 5 — with sustained winds of 161 miles per hour was barreling through the Gulf headed right at the island. Brad didn’t know the specific wind speed, but he did know it was going to be a big one.
I remember that I had this image of what it must have looked like that night as 6-foot 8 Brad perched way up in the crow’s nest at the top of his island home to get the best view possible through the four sides of the windows. The ancient mariner came to mind, hands glued to the wheel of the ship as sheets of rain pierced his skin like bullets.
Michael passed a mere 35 miles west of the island in route to destroying Mexico Beach like it had been hit by a nuclear bomb. Brad watched it all night long I imagine — fascinated.
Brad is one of the most talented artists I know. Somewhere down in the mix must be the seeds of inspiration — or desperation — for what it takes to produce great art or why anyone would choose to experience almost certain water-born death in the form of a category 5 storm. Both are enigmas to me.
So that was the context as Christina and I nervously waited in our island home about 30 yards from the ocean, as what would later become Hurricane Sally slowly crept up through the Gulf of Mexico. It wasn’t a hurricane yet, and the winds were no more than 50 miles per hour. But I remembered how slow, lazy storms can quickly turn into crazed powerful major storms in the warm waters of the Gulf. No one can predict the path of any hurricane for sure.
Friends called. Can you move our vehicles to higher ground for the storm surge? “Sure, but no one is expecting any storm surge of any size” I replied, “and last night was supposed to be the surge night.” So, I moved their golf cart anyway. Their truck wouldn’t start — dead battery.
We gathered that night with friends for dinner, then afterward for a game of Rummikub which seemed to last for hours. Outside, the rain poured. Curtains of water interspersed with strong gusts of warm sea air that, from time to time, howled and made power lines hum. We talked about kids, about water systems, about how long the storm would last, and about who had plans for what doctors in Tallahassee or back in Oviedo.
We were supposed to go home the next morning, but when we woke up, the wind was gusting to 45 miles per hour and the ocean seemed to grow blacker and more powerful. We had crossed the bay a couple days earlier and the return trip to the island had been hard — really nerve-bending, deeply threatening hard and I knew without a doubt that the bay would have been much worse now. We stayed, but I still assured friends that there would be no surge; it was past. This storm had no gas in its tank.
Late in the afternoon, we went down to the harbor to check the boat. The docks were underwater by then and we stared in shock. What was going on? The storm by now had passed. It still wasn’t a hurricane, and it has missed us by at least 200 miles. Sustained winds were only in the 40s.
The grass air strip was now just a giant pool of water. There was no decking in sight; it was under almost 2 feet of water now. The moored boats seemed to be staying in place by magic. I knew they were still there, just under several feet of saltwater at this point. What was going on?
That night we ate again with our island friends — this time at Glenda’s house — and became lost in that conversation that occurs when old friends spend time with each other. We all feel the moment and each other’s place. Time has crept up upon us all, especially our children whom we all know and watch over in our own ways.
Later I check on the docks and am shocked by their condition. I am especially unhappy with my completely wrong assumption about the tidal surge. This storm is barely a storm though. This surge even though it has surprised us is still no more than a few feet. What would it be like if this storm were the real thing — with those 150-mile-an-hour winds and an 8 to 10-foot tidal surge? I think of Brad and his crow’s nest and shudder.
I feel like we’ll be able to make it across the bay tomorrow. The winds will probably be at least 25 miles an hour. That is no fun at all and I know it. But how could this crazy guy stand in that crow’s nest and calmly experience near 200-mile-per-hour wind and know that the very ground under him is in play and just experience the moment, calmly and with anticipation? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll ask him the next time I see him. Maybe it has something to do with expectations. I just don’t know.
“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale
a tale of a fateful trip,
that started from this tropic port,
aboard this tiny ship”
“Change” is the mark of our times now. Each of us has expected a three-hour trip and encountered instead, an endless stormy sea that threatens us with no end in sight. I want to say, “Think of Brad and that crow’s nest and be calm.” I’m not sure what else we can do. He would probably tell us to do that. And then go off and paint great art. But, don’t we all paint great art, in our own way, when we embrace our own moments — and each other’s lives?