Genesis of a story: Hurricane Irma

Hurricane Irma track
Hurricane Irma’s path as presented by NOAA

When I tell people that the book I’m working on during my Creative Pinellas grant is about global warming, leaving home, and fighting against an oppressive government, they say, “Wow, that’s complex.” But the story was inspired by a very straightforward event: Hurricane Irma.

Irma was my first hurricane, less than a year after I moved to St. Petersburg after 10 years in the Washington, D.C. area. I thought I was ready. I had water, I had granola bars, I had batteries for the flashlight and the radio. Easy, right?

That was until Irma did a jig all over the Caribbean and her path changed seemingly every five hours. The storm was declared a hurricane far out in the Atlantic on September 1, giving us 10 slow-motion days of nonstop weather reports. While I played it cool, documents in plastic zip bags, a “go bag” and cat carriers ready to go at a moment’s notice, the sense of panic was overwhelming.

I didn’t think I was panicking. But I thought everyone around me was. I watched the near-constant weather updates. I waited in a long line for sandbags. I fielded calls and texts from well-meaning family and friends who wanted me to get on the next flight out of Tampa, not realizing how clogged the roads would be or that flights were already getting cancelled.

That panic seeps into your every waking moment, even if you don’t show it. On the Saturday before the storm arrived, I was awoken early by a phone call from my friend whose family had implicitly agreed to adopt me through the storm.

She skipped the hellos. “We have to go,” she said.

And we did, even though Irma ended up zagging east just enough so that the worst of it did not pass over us. But the night of the storm and the days after left me with a sense of wonder, awe at the destruction wind and water could cause, the sense of helplessness that can overcome the most pragmatic of people.  

That Saturday before the storm stuck with me, and from it was born the opening line of Sea Level: “When the water reached the end of the driveway, our mother told us it was time to go.”

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