Storms, Survival, and Stories

Houston’s Buffalo Bayou after  Hurricane Harvey

Matt Lanza, forecast meteorologist for Houston’s Cheniere Energy, shares responsibilities with Eric Berger for Space City Weather, a blog dedicated to providing the greater Houston area with what Matt and Eric like to call “accurate, hype-free forecasts.”

Before and during Hurricane Harvey, their blog and social media postings served as excellent sources of information, making a complex system understandable even as they refused to engage in histrionics.

Only after the hurricane’s departure did the toll of providing that information become clear. Writing for Space City Weather, Matt included these comments in a post titled “My Harvey Story”:

Weather models constantly indicated risks for 30, 40, or 50 inches of rain in high confidence fashion somewhere between Beaumont and Victoria. I couldn’t comprehend that amount of water in such a short time. How do you reconcile a patently absurd forecast with the reality that it’s probably going to verify?
We’d see messages from people wondering if they should just leave. I got emails from co-workers, worried about losing their homes on the coast near Port Aransas. What do you tell people? How do you express this?
As the event unfolded it got harder and harder to do. Seeing pictures of devastation, getting text messages from family who live nowhere near a bayou and still took water into their home, getting messages from friends who worried about water coming into their apartments, I came close to breaking down on Sunday morning, completely.
I’ve never felt so heartsick and helpless in my life. Disasters which had, for all my life to this point, been mostly impersonal, finally became real, raw, and very personal.

Matt and his wife Denise were fortunate. Their home didn’t flood, and their property losses were minimal. But for Matt, haunted by other, less tangible losses, the struggles continued:

Somewhere along the line [Hurricane] Gloria ignited a passion for meteorology… As I sit here 32 years later, I openly wonder if a rain-laden hurricane in Texas is what extinguishes it.
Do I still love weather? I guess so, but if we’re really being honest here, I don’t know right now. I honestly think I’m not going to be able to sleep now when it’s raining. There’s no rain gentle enough that will allow me to drift off to sleep in peace. Maybe that “fear” of rain will disappear with time… But I do wonder where my passion for weather goes from here.

And then, tucked into the middle of his reflective paragraphs, there is the simple statement: “I have survivor’s guilt.”

I understand Matt’s feelings. After Hurricane Ike in 2008, I produced a few blog entries, but the joy of writing, the sense of unfettered creativity, the easy flow of words, disappeared. Ideas came to mind, but nothing seemed worth the sustained effort a coherent piece of writing requires.

Like the Lanzas, I had emerged from a terrible storm unbelievably blessed, with my home and business secure. Even the stray kitty I worried over had survived, and a camphor tree I’d planted lost hardly a leaf.

With my possessions intact, no permanent financial losses, and power restored, Hurricane Ike had left me essentially free of problems.

And that, in the end, became the problem.

Despite the sheetrock I knocked out, the supplies I furnished, and the contributions I made, every time I sat down to write, paralysis overtook me.

It seemed selfish to be sitting at a desk while only five miles away ice, water, and food were being handed out. There seemed no way to justify spending hours engrossed in reading and thought while others struggled to find showers or a job. What good could come, I wondered, from a story, an essay,  or a poem for people left with nothing but a tent, a cot and a void in their soul so deep it seemed impossible to fill?

The paralysis lingered.

In the end, it was a friend’s quite different experience that helped me untie the knots. Scheduled to be in New York City on September 11, 2001, he had remained at home because of a cancelled meeting. As he put it:

I never felt relief, or gratitude for having been unbelievably lucky.  I was consumed with guilt, feeling consigned to live forever in the shadow of those who died, unable to make amends.

As he later learned, his sense of isolation, numbness, and helplessness is common to people who escape a disaster which seriously affects others. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 are only one example. Train wrecks, building fires, robbery attempts, refinery explosions, mass murders, or natural disasters of every sort can trigger the same reaction. 

The arbitrary nature of such events makes survivors especially vulnerable to stunned disbelief and guilt. One house survives, while a neighbor’s does not.  A concertgoer survives, but his friends do not. Asking, “Why?” is natural, but there are no answers.

While survivor’s guilt isn’t identical to clinical depression, many of the same remedies are proposed by those familiar with the syndrome. They advise talking about the event, nurturing a sense of safety and stability, and returning to usual routines as soon as possible.

Challenging irrational thoughts is especially important, as is focusing on personal strengths, and taking action wherever possible.

After Ike, I heard that final piece of perfectly reasonable advice as a bit of an accusation. Having been raised to believe that actions speak louder than words, the aphorism’s truth appeared self-evident.

Words weren’t going to patch a roof, or feed a child.  Metaphors couldn’t produce ice or water, and cooking up pithy paragraphs certainly wouldn’t transform a single MRE into a gourmet meal. Similes don’t scrape sand off roads, and even the most well-written chapter rarely captures the chaos of utter destruction.

Entangled in these thoughts and exhausted by the struggle to escape their pull, I found release in the form of a quotation from the author Ingrid Bengis:

 Words are a form of action, capable of producing change.

Thinking more clearly than I had for days, I asked myself, “What can words do?” Somewhat astonished, I watched my list grow as I reminded myself that words can console and hearten; strengthen a spirit; clarify  vision, and enliven hope. When necessary, words challenge or confront, describing  realities we prefer to ignore with sharpness and clarity.

Words can sting a conscience, or soothe a heart.  Words help to create community in the midst of chaos.  Most importantly, words humanize, breaking down barriers that inevitably arise between the lucky and the unlucky, between victims and survivors.

Eventually, I heard a powerful plea on behalf of words from a true storm survivor: a man living in his truck and tent on a Galveston beach. Like others who chose that way of coping, he had his reasons. When I asked why he hadn’t gone to a shelter, he said,

“You’re never sure what you can do and what you can’t do.  And it’s depressing, being shoved into a place with a bunch of people you don’t know,  having to look at that mess all the time.”

Out here, I got the waves, and the moon and the stars are pretty, and there ain’t nobody to bother me. At night, it’s real peaceful. I just lay here, and kind of think. If I get real bored or lonesome or nervous, I tell myself stories.”

So it is. Despite our slightly naive trust in the permanence of our homes, our friends, our jobs, and our health, each of us lives as a sojourner: strangers in a strange land, creatures destined to be stripped by time and fate of youth, power, and pride as surely as natural events strip communities of structures and possessions.

When that time comes, we need words. We need stories to sketch a vision of the future, and poems to hold the scattered remnants of the past. We need blankets of words to wrap around cherished memories, and baskets of seed-words to sow for hope.

There always will be people convinced words don’t matter, just as there are people who believe writing is frivolous — rather like origami, or learning to make puff pastry.

But writers and storytellers, playwrights and poets know a deeper truth. Human beings are creatures of language, and crafters of words. Words give birth to our hopes and attend the death of our dreams. Words lead us through the mazes of life, and sanctify our struggles. When the world we know is destroyed, words help us reclaim our humanity, even as we rebuild our lives.

Words are a form of action, but they are far more than a tool, capable of producing change. They are a wellspring of life.

To speak, to write, to dare to utter a word in the shimmering, moonstruck darkness is human. And when the darkness is complete; when the moon has set and the stars have gone; when there is only the silence and waves of loneliness and grief, the world needs its writers, its wordsmiths, and its ordinary speakers to tell their stories — offering them as gifts for those whose own words have been silenced by the vicissitudes of life.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

Surviving the Guilt, Reclaiming the Gift

Sometimes, we don’t have a choice about whom we entertain.

I don’t remember making a call and I surely didn’t send out invitations, but suddenly a new problem has come to visit.    Sitting cross-legged at the corner of my mind, riffling through my thoughts like so much junk mail and looking for all the world like a bored ingénue who’s misplaced her nail file, my problem doesn’t seem inclined to leave.  So, it’s time to set aside the social niceties, and cope with this uninvited guest.

My problem is a sudden inability to write.  Since Hurricane Ike, I’ve produced a few blogs,  including one or two that pleased me very much. But the joy of writing, the sense of unfettered creativity, the easy flow of words simply has stopped. Ideas continue to pile up in my head, notes get jotted and beautiful, fragile phrases flit through my mind like clouds of rare verbal butterflies, but none of them lands on my paper.

The experience is passing strange.

For someone whose home experienced the eye of a hurricane, I’m unbelievably blessed.  My house is secure, and my business will survive.  While I’m getting things back on an even keel, my mother not only is being cared for, she’s rather enjoying herself on an extended midwestern “vacation”.   The stray kitty I worried over survived the storm perfectly well with some help from the neighbors, and the camphor tree I planted and love lost hardly a leaf.

My possessions are intact, including a little antique china collection I fuss over every hurricane season.  I experienced no financial losses because of the storm, apart from evacuation expense,  loss of income and the need to throw out a refrigerator-full of food.  My flowers are blooming and my bills are paid.  In the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, I have no problems.

And that, it seems, is the problem.  Continue reading