Faith in the Hurricane

by Robert P. Barsanti

Hurricane Harvey | Nantucket EssayAnother hurricane has missed us; it slipped away to the south and east. It spun the fish and darkened the sunrise, but it passed on its one-way trip to Ireland without so much as a sprinkle. Nobody noticed but the surfers.

In Madaket, where the waves come into shore in long Hawaiian curls, four young men got morning rides on the monsters, while an energetic young woman, armed with three cameras, took pictures. The northwesterly wind blew into the face of the wave and the camera got many great shots from the beach. They were remarkable, not so much for the waves the surfers rode into the beach, but for the waves they missed. Caught and smashed in the brown water, the surfers popped back up and paddled back out through the storm. The waves are their playground and the hurricane is the best playdate they have had since the last storm missed. Days from now, those pictures will flash up on Facebook, fill laptop screens, and, perhaps, grace a magazine.

The surfers are true believers in a very American creed. They have faith in their own ability to solve the calculus of the breaking wave with their feet. They have faith that the ocean, in one half-conceived flip of her wrist, won’t crack their necks on her pebbly sand. Finally, they have faith in the mandala of their lives. This storm will be like a dozen others, this wave will be like the hundred others, and this day be like the thousands that went before it. Let it be boring and predictable and end with a cold beer, a nice pillow, and a dry bed. Let this ride be like all the others. Let us paddle out in the Fields of the Lord. Eddie would go.

Jim Cantore and the rest of the folks at the Weather Channel see another hurricane on the horizon. As I write this, Irma is currently spinning the fish to the east of the Leeward Islands. The scientists have looked into their computers and see a major hurricane, with winds up to 150 miles an hour, coming ashore somewhere on the East Coast some time over this weekend. Still, the early computer models carom the storm over the Chesapeake and into New England.

We have had a tremendous amount of luck in missing storms in my experience. Irene, Earl, Sandy, and Arthur came glancing by, spending their sublime power on other beaches and towns. I would rather watch the power of the ocean in my TV than in my back window. On TV, I can change the channel and see where Guy Fieri is tonight.

The smart people think it will miss.

And after it does, we will drain the tub, put extra batteries and beer away, and pick up the fallen branches in the yard. The more intrepid will fish for the random bonefish that got caught up in the swirl; the less intrepid will look for swans. Then the puddles will drain, the waves will eventually recede, and life will continue. The smart ones say that is what always happens.

I once thought I was smart. Then I kept locking my keys in the car. Smart people should be able to anticipate the future; they should be surfers standing on a wave. They should have an algorithm that models out all of the options and picks the most likely. That algorithm should prevent them from locking their keys in the car. After I looked into the driver’s side window at my keys, winking gleefully from the ignition switch, I knew that I had no such algorithm. I keep getting boiled by the wave.

Instead, I know that I am a stupid person. A stupid person is ready for the unexpected and the painful, because it has happened so often in the past. And I have been pecked to death by black swans. Stupid people keep an extra pair of pants in the car, a twenty-dollar bill in their socks, and an extra key in their briefcase. They know, as I know, that the stupidest thing is the surest thing.

So many smart people have been hard at work on this island. They have poured tons of sand over the Sankaty Bluff in order to stabilize it and keep the long brown waves from reaching up, pulling down a Hedge Funder’s dream, and drowning it in the ocean. They have suspended thousands of houses on the off-island electrical grid, propped them up on a sewer system, and guarded them with four or five elderly fire trucks. And in their wisdom, the universe has rewarded them and filled their off-island bank accounts.

Yet, we live in a confounding moment, beset by political and meteorological storms. Harvey grew from a tropical storm to a major hurricane in thirty-six hours, then dumped more than four feet of water on Houston. The smart people filled the marshes, built on the barrier islands, and paved the prairie. Then a hurricane, in its sublime wisdom, befuddled them. It sent oil men to shelters and kayaks to highways. The weathermen had no words.

We live in a time beyond history, beyond precedents, beyond analogues. The ice is melting, the hills are burning, and the cities are flooding. The past may still be prologue, or it may be a comfortable myth we tell our children when the wind howls and the tide rises. Yesterday is now tomorrow’s dream. Most of us lead deluded lives. We know how smart we are, how informed we are by our phones, and how predictable the world is to our algorithms.

We believe that today will be like yesterday, as will tomorrow. We see our lives as the surfers do, believing that skill and faith will make the ocean orderly and safe.

The hurricane never hits the island; it always misses.