Third Sunday in the Season of Creation
Sunday, September 25th
In Central Florida, where I grew up, we track the passage of time using a meteorological zodiac that consists of named hurricanes instead of constellations. There’s the Year of Andrew, in which much of Miami was leveled by a single hurricane. The year of Floyd, when the interstates were congested with families evacuating inland — only to learn that the storm never hit. The Year of Charley, Frances, and Jeanne, which was Florida’s costliest and deadliest hurricane season to date, when Central Florida endured three devastating hurricanes over the course of a month. That was 2004, when I was a sophomore in high school. That summer I bore witness to the mysteries of God as evident in the unpredictable and uncontrollable power of storms.
That year, three hurricanes of swept diagonally across central Florida, and their their centers — that is, in hurricane speak, “the eye” — all passed over Orlando in the center of the state. My hometown sits just east of Orlando, on the Atlantic coast, and due to the nature of hurricane structure, we experienced some of the worst that the three hurricanes that year had to offer. Hurricanes are essentially massive swirling wind and rain storms. Bands of clouds rotate around the eye of the storm, and intensity increases the closer to the eye you get. The eye itself is actually calm and cloud-free. It is an open column of peace surrounded by a blustering rage. The eye wall is the apex of the storm’s intensity. Forming a barrier around the center of the storm, this is where the strongest winds and rain are typically felt. For all three hurricanes, my hometown was in the path of the eye wall.
Charley was the first storm to hit, and he hit hard and fast, striking over the course of a single evening. The intensity of Charley’s winds were his most distinguishing characteristic. They blew over power lines, causing our electricity to flicker off and on in the dark. In the morning we woke to a sunny, quiet day and discovered a pine tree had fallen and come to rest on the eaves of the back porch. Resetting back to normal was easy following Charley, owing mostly to the fact that he didn’t stay long.
Frances came quickly on the heels of Charley, making landfall during the first week of school. She moved much slower than Charley, and her winds were not as strong. Most of the devastation brought on by Frances was from the massive amount of rain that fell as Frances moved across the state. She was one of the slowest storms in memory, and every lingering hour she took to pass overhead she dropped more and more water. The ditches were overflowing, the lawns were flooding, the buried power lines were shorting out due to the water interfering with the electrical systems. We didn’t have power for several days after Frances finally left. School was cancelled while we waited for the outdoor campus to drain of all the excess water. We dragged our wind-beaten, water-logged bodies out of our homes and began the process of fixing all that had been undone by the two storms.
We didn’t have much time to reassemble before Jeanne hit, following the exact same path as Frances. Jeanne came three weeks later, and struck with the force of the last two storms combined: winds that tore the shingles off roofs, rain that flooded canals onto streets, all while lumbering slowly across the state in a way that prolonged the devastation. School was cancelled for over a week, and the electricity was out for almost as long. I remember days spent in the humid dark of the house as storm after storm blew through town. Out of boredom I would ride my bike through the gusts of wind and rain. I wandered the empty streets of my city in order to feel the rawness of nature. It was present in these storms, these moments when we are given too much of something, too fast. When we were without electricity, without security of shelter, without preservation of food — that is when we felt the most insignificant, the fragility of being human. The illusion of control with which we shape our planet is just that — an illusion. We have become planet-shapers, but we often forget that we can just as easily be shaped by the awesome forces of this planet.
After the storms had finally cleared and the days were cloudless, bright, and hot, people began to leave the humid confines of their homes and explore the new world that the storms had transported them to. Stores were closed. Traffic lights were dark. The rules of society that we were used to — that we had come to depend upon — were temporarily voided. In their place we had to rely on new rules of unspoken cooperation, generosity, and teamwork. We had to trust that in the absence of such society, there would be an abundance of humanity. As we shared in the fragility of being human, we extended the hands of compassion and support.
I took to the beach. I was not alone. People were wandering the ravaged dunes, surveying the erosion of the shoreline, waving metal detectors in search of Spanish gold and other treasures that might have washed up in the storm surge. In a peaceful, post-traumatic daze, I found myself before a house built on the dunes, half of which had tumbled down a sandy slope after the high waves of the storms beat at the earth until it crumbled. Part of the house still stood about fifteen feet up on the remaining portion of the dune — you could see into the living room, still whole and assembled. Strewn along the beach, however, were pieces of hardwood floor, drywall, and furniture. This house, this symbol of human achievement, had been destroyed by one of the strongest forces of nature. Memories of friends, family, and all other things that make us human were once held together by the walls now broken and scattered. The things that made up the life of a family — so solid in our myopic vision of being human — fallen to ruin by the longer arc of planetary time. When I see the uncontrollable power of a storm, I bear witness to the mysterious power in both the destructive and creative forces of God’s love. I marvel at the insignificance of human-made plans in the grand scope of powers greater than we possess. As we cause ourselves to stumble, we learn to pick ourselves back up. The power present in storms holds up a mirror to this tenuous existence, and blesses us with the gift of humility.