OCTOBER 17, 2012
Relief-block print from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
THE DISAPPEARANCE of lizards and mosquitoes is the first sign of the coming storm in Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica. In their stead, he writes, other creatures “sought the open: land-crabs wandered about aimlessly, angrily twiddling their claws, and the ground seemed almost alive with red ants and cockroaches.” Thunder starts murmuring in the distance. The murmuring gives way to a clatter. In tropical latitudes, Hughes writes, “a thunderstorm is not a remote affair up in the sky […] but is all round you. […] the thunder seems to proceed from violent explosions in your own very core.” The storm in question is unfolding over the West Indies estate of an English family, the Bas-Thorntons. But the house and humans seem like chess pieces on an upset board as Hughes describes the escalating storm. Lightning blasts are so frequent and intense that they provide almost unbroken illumination. The shutters bulge until the rain comes pouring “like the sea into a sinking ship.” The wind flattens bushes, snatches pictures off the walls, and causes branches to leap upward, swirling through the sky. Hughes writes that the gusts, “to push against,” are “more like a solid block than a current of air.”
Hughes’s detached lyricism brilliantly serves the nature of a hurricane. To depict such an event at the level of human emotion is to lose its hugeness and ferocity — and its apathy to the lives in its midst. “Hurricane” derives from Juracan or Yuracan, a colonial phonetization of the Taino and Maya god of tropical cyclones and other forces of nature. In Hughes’s 1929 novel, the word does not appear until after the storm has pulped the vegetation and splintered the Bas-Thornton house into matchwood. Surveying the leveled landscape, Mr. Thornton is awed that air had done this. Before the advent of warning and monitoring systems in hurricane-prone areas, a stolid summer day could swiftly be transformed by a ferocious storm, a reality Hughes depicts with tight-ratcheted menace.
Tropical cyclones are part of the rhythm of life on the tropical coastlines of the Caribbean Basin and northwestern Pacific — their ravages part of the collective memory, the preparations for them part of a yearly rhythm. But this acceptance of storms belies the pain their destruction causes, and the particular ways nature defeats a human tendency to assume that what we have today we will have tomorrow. Various rituals in these regions call for appeasement and intercession: in a tiny village in southwestern Japan at the height of typhoon season women in black-sashed kimonos and men in straw-stranded hats dance a path around the sea. Catholic bishops and priests in Southern Louisiana recite hurricane season prayers: “The Sea of Galilee obeyed your order and returned to its former quietude. You are still the Master of land and sea. We live in the shadow of a danger over which we have no control…”
Since the advent of oceanic navigation and trade, people have been drawn to storm-beset coastlines. The discord between a desire for stability and the very real possibility of destruction is intractable. Chronicles of hurricanes from before the mid-twentieth century are often epics of under-preparation: pre-dawn drownings in unexpected floodwaters, overturned ships, the boundaries of cities beat back by the sea. Our own era of “disaster response,” satellite imagery (first used in 1960), and improved flood control adds its own risks and ironies — the metrological subchapter of the great drama of modernity, where medicine and technology lengthen and protect more lives while steepening the drop between what is within our control and what is not. Perhaps at the summit of human achievement, communities vulnerable to earthquakes and hurricanes will be effectively insulated from their effects. But for the present and the foreseeable future, manmade protective measures make more fraught the tug-of-war between stoicism, acquired resilience, and the chill, pervasive pain of loss.
About six and a half years ago, I climbed a darkened stairway to Darrel and Denise Kensey’s apartment in the Iberville public housing project in the New Orleans neighborhood of Tremé. The front door was still off its hinges from when officials broke it down to check for bodies. Candles lit the room while incense warded off the reek of ammonia. The Kenseys had used the ammonia to kill the thick mold which blossomed throughout their apartment in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Six months before, they had been among the thousands stranded amid rising water: four and a half hours after the harsh Category Three storm made landfall, the first levee broke. More than 50 levees in New Orleans’s notoriously out-dated system suffered breaches or were overtopped, most notoriously in the Lower 9th Ward, where an overturned barge broke through the levee and the sudden explosion of water and metal crushed or flattened thousands of houses. In Tremé, on relatively high ground, Darrel Kensey stood at his kitchen window on the second floor watching water gradually cover his truck. After days of rising water and paralyzed official response, he and Denise were rescued by a friend with a boat and taken to the overwhelmed convention center, an evacuation point a mile and a half away. They boarded a bus which took them to Little Rock, Arkansas. Friends and family were scattered to Mississippi, Texas, and other parts of Louisiana.
Six months later, the Kenseys returned for the first time to work temporary carnival season jobs: Denise at Harrah’s casino, and Darrel at a restaurant (a cub reporter, I was covering “the first Mardi Gras after Hurricane Katrina”). The Kenseys did not expect the city to restore power and water service any time soon. After the holiday week, they intended to return to Little Rock, which Darrel sometimes slipped and referred to as home. I asked whether they would ultimately come back to New Orleans. The Kenseys explained that though they wanted to come back, they would wait until the following summer’s hurricane season to decide. “We have to be sure the levees are going to stay,” Darrel said. “I don’t think anyone’s decided about coming back.”
This fragile, suspended mood — eyes fastened on coming hurricane seasons — was common among the New Orleanians I spoke to that year. The prospect of permanent displacement was impossible for many to contemplate; so was staking a future on a place that could be lost again.
In the seven years since, the floodlines have gradually but decisively faded away. Many residents have returned; city government is improving. In New Orleans’s most vibrant neighborhoods, it is impossible to find traces of Katrina, while in those not entirely reconstituted, the storm’s effects blur into new and pre-existing blight. The poverty rate has returned to its pre-Katrina level, but these numbers conceal shifts throughout the region. Texas license plates remain ubiquitous in black middle and working class neighborhoods. Many residents still have one foot in New Orleans and one in places like Houston where they evacuated after Katrina. The pain and apprehension that linger from the 2005 storm rose quickly to the surface this August. Hurricane Isaac turned west from its original course to Florida and Mobile and threatened to slam the coast near New Orleans seven years to the hour from Katrina’s landfall.
I returned to the Iberville homes a day and a half before Isaac hit. In coming years, the Iberville will be converted to mixed-income housing under an Obama program, part of the long post-Katrina shake-up of the city’s poor. Some doors and windows of the squat brick buildings were sealed with the metal barricades that kept scavengers and then residents from their apartments after Katrina; others were sealed with fresh plywood. In preparation for Hurricane Isaac, representatives for Mitch Landrieu, the new mayor, had placed glossy pamphlets in the doors of units about voluntary evacuations, a measure directly informed by the catastrophic official failures during Katrina.
I crossed the quiet courtyard: many residents had taken city-provided buses to Baton Rouge after Isaac first swerved toward New Orleans. On the north side of the complex, Faynell Thomas was carrying plastic containers of water to her friend Cynthia Jordan. “I wish I never came back!” Thomas said bitterly. “If I leave again, I’m not coming back.” (Some of these quotes and descriptions originally appeared in The Guardian.) She waited three years to return from Texas, only returning after Gustav, the 2008 storm which threatened New Orleans but ultimately caused little damage. She had not evacuated because her 17-year-old son was in a nearby hospital with a gunshot wound to the head.
I view the pre-Isaac swirl of worried suppositions and mistrust I encountered in the Iberville as a matter less of Louisiana’s legendary poverty than of the hard-earned intuition that comes when disasters threaten those at the social margins in disproportionate and unforeseen ways. The day after Isaac hit, I visited tiny rural, Cajun Braithwaite, less than 20 miles downriver from New Orleans. The night before, floodwaters had rushed through doors and windows. Clots of residents were trapped on rooftops as waters submerged the houses. Residents with boats tried to save their neighbors. A man and a woman drowned in their kitchen. It has not yet been proven but is likely that an unintended consequence of strengthening the levees around New Orleans (which emerged fairly unscathed) was worse flooding in the areas outside federal levee protection, such as Braithwaite. Now officials were preparing to puncture the levee to drain the built-up water. “This was all planned,” Randy Seibert, a tall builder said conspiratorially to a group of local men at the end of Highway 39, where many Braithwaite residents had gathered. The sun beat down on the dry road; on the other side of the levee ridge, what had been a canal now looked like a lake.
Residents whose houses were submerged are girding themselves for the insurance process; the continual debate about expanding the region’s levees is taking on contentious tones. But outrage, pain, and controversy can obscure deeper narratives in a region continually reshaped by these storms. At the Baytown Nature Center on the Texas coast, there is a display case in the park administration office showing items unearthed during a recent hurricane: a worn football, bowling pins, dog figurines, old Dr. Pepper longnecks. These relics are from before 1983, when Hurricane Alicia leveled the exclusive subdivision at the site. The area is now being restored to wetlands, the contentious legal battles that followed the storm in the eighties forgotten. Pink bathroom tile is sometimes visible through the marsh grasses.
Chronicles of hurricane-prone regions tend to be strange mixtures of nostalgia, war stories, and amnesia. The same dramas are repeated each generation, the plots gradually shifted but not fundamentally altered by the ways residents and institutions adapt to the effects of storms. After Katrina, the Times-Picayune printed a nineteenth-century map of New Orleans next to a map of Katrina flooding: the areas that flooded the most had been sparsely inhabited in the nineteenth century. “I always say, if you learned lessons from Katrina, you didn’t know too much before,” Windell Curole, general manager of the South Lafourche levee district, told me. In a 2010 report, he compared the post-Katrina focus on super strong levees to placing a passenger in a tank to protect from a car accident, and presciently noted that communities outside New Orleans were under protected. In Curole’s own parish, the population has gradually moved within the bounds of a levee system, creeping farther from the coast. Thibodaux, the largest city in Lafourche Parish, is 32 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Close to the coast lie specters of the parish’s past, such as the disappeared Cheniere Caminada, leveled during a brutal 1893 storm. That hurricane’s 135 mph winds and 15 foot tidal surge killed 2,000 people on the Gulf coast, including half the community of Cheniere.
The violence of hurricanes fascinates, but the intimations of human impermanence stirred up by this violence are the most haunting. If Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica is a favorite hurricane novel, my true favorite does not contain an actual storm: rather, its treatment of desire and mortality is directly influenced by the 1893 hurricane that battered Cheniere Caminada. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening was written in the shadow of this storm and centers on Grande Isle and Cheniere, where she had spent time a decade and a half before they were destroyed.
Chopin lived in Louisiana between the ages of 19 and 32 while married to a Creole cotton trader. But she only began to write after her husband died of malaria and she returned to her native St. Louis with their six children. The Awakening, which Chopin began in 1898, is her best and best-known book. Disparaged upon its publication for centering on a sensual, headstrong woman who is uninterested in her children and gradually falls away from her husband, The Awakening has since become a modern classic for its subtle portrayal of Edna Pontellier, whose inner life begins its transformation during a summer on Grande Isle. Edna falls in love with a young bachelor, Robert, and discovers her own nascent agency. Knowledge that the region the novel described had been destroyed must have loomed in the minds of contemporary readers, many of whom had only heard of Grande Isle and Cheniere Caminada in accounts of the 1893 hurricane. (Imagine a novel set in a still-vibrant Lower 9th Ward packed with houses, children playing on the streets.) As Barbara Ewell and Pamela Menke have pointed out, and as Amanda Kocis discusses at some length in an unpublished academic paper on the novel, Chopin’s own sense of loss doubtless informed The Awakening’s finely rendered emotional world. The novel’s pages whisper that loss heightens desire, that individual freedom is fragile.
For all the book’s implicit criticisms of marriage, religion, and the social conventions that have anesthetized Edna, Chopin offers her protagonist no simple refuge in nature or sexuality. Previously afraid of water, while on the coast Edna learns to relish swimming and love the sea. But the novel continually implies that, however innate or seductive, a departure from the moorings of convention is perilous:
Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her. This may seem like a ponderous weight of wisdom to descend upon the soul of a young woman of twenty-eight — perhaps more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is usually pleased to vouchsafe to any woman.
But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!
The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation.
The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.
This passage comes early in the book. The lines about the voice of the sea are echoed during the novel’s ending, as is an early metaphor comparing the foamy waves to coiling serpents. To imagine Chopin writing The Awakening in St. Louis, aware that the world she was describing had been wiped away, is more than a little spooky. Edna spends a season in New Orleans yearning for the coast and for Robert. At the novel’s end, he comes back and then jilts her, seemingly unnerved by her growing self-sufficiency. Edna then returns by herself to Grande Isle in the dreamlike final passage, where the island does not seem to exist entirely in the present.
Edna finds her faded swimsuit hanging on its accustomed peg. At the shore, there is “no living thing in sight” except “a bird with a broken wing […] reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water.” She takes off her swimsuit and feels “like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known.” She enters the sea and takes long, sweeping strokes in the chill, deep water. Nature gives, and nature takes away. Edna swims farther and farther out, giving herself to forces beyond her control.