August 27, 2011

Waiting for Irene

I had just turned eleven years old when Hurricane Donna roared through south Florida.  I am told I was born during a hurricane but the 1950s saw no storms of any consequence in Miami.  All that changed on September 9, 1960 when the monstrous Category 4 storm slammed into the Florida Keys, went into the Gulf of Mexico, then stalled and came back across the state (eventually wreaking havoc in New York and New England).  Miami saw ten inches of rain and sustained, hurricane-force winds for nearly 24 hours.

When the storm had passed, I went outside to see a changed world.  Fifty-foot Casurinas (Australian pines) lay across my street like a plank road.  My yard lost a massive Terminalia catappa (tropical almond) and the tops of an avocado and mango tree.  Foliage was stripped from most shrubs.  It was the first time I had ever seen nature’s fury at its worst and it left a lasting impression.

Irene's track as on 11 a.m. on
Saturday morning.  It's down to a
Category 1 hurricane
But it was the kind of impression that eleven-year-old boys are most likely to have; namely, that this was really neat.  We had no electricity for days and my sister and I were charged with the cleanup not only of our yard but that of an elderly neighbor.  School was postponed for a week and, even afterward, there were still yards in my neighborhood where entire trees lay uprooted.

Miami would see several more hurricanes over the next five years, though none like Donna.  As I grew, I came to see hurricanes in a different light: pointlessly destructive and obstacles to pursuing more pleasurable activities.  One, Gloria, came through eastern New England in the mid-1980s.  We lived at the time on a street that was dense with trees and above-ground power lines.  Our electricity was out for nine days and we lost everything in our large freezer.  That experience snuffed out any remaining excitement about tropical storms.

A few days ago, Irene was
predicted to pass right
over us as a much
stronger storm.
As this is written, Hurricane Irene is lashing the Outer Banks of North Carolina and had drawn a bead on New York City, Connecticut and Massachusetts.  Although it will be a minimal force hurricane when it arrives tomorrow, we will be in the northeast quadrant of the storm where the wind and the rain are concentrated.  At least that’s an improvement from Wednesday, when Irene was expected to make landfall in New England as a Category 3 storm and the eye was predicted to pass directly over us.

Yesterday, Betty and I walked the gardens, making note of what needed to be done.  The hosta flowers are nearly spent and so they were cut off, which will give the wind less surface area to damage the hosta leaves close to the ground.  Several large hydrangea were trimmed, obelisks laid on their side and plastic pots collected to go to the transfer station today.  Deck furniture was removed and plans made to relocate the plants on the screen porch, deck and driveway.

This morning, I began the process of bringing containers either up close to the house or, in the case of lightweight pots made from foam or containers with fragile plants or flowers, into the garage.  There they will huddle until after the storm passes.  We stripped the vegetable garden of everything that was remotely pickable.

So, the thrill of seeing trees uprooted has long passed.  Now, it is a dispassionate process of preparation so as to minimize damage to the things we have worked hard to create.  The telephone, cable and electrical wiring in our neighborhood is all underground and we are just off a main street that will likely be a high priority for restoration of power in the event of an outage.  I worry about two trees – both oaks – that could cause damage if they fell in the storm (and it is my experience that trees always fall in the direction of the nearest house).   There is a handsome stand of Kirengeshoma palmata (Japanese wax bells) that are about to display their brief annual bloom.  I suspect that this year, what you see in the accompanying photo, taken a few minutes ago, is all there will be for 2011.
This is our stand of Kirengeshoma palmata as it
appeared today, about to bloom.  I'll show the 'after'
photo on Monday.

A bad storm will put a premature seasonal end to the gardens that surround out house and that would be a shame.  But we can’t stand with blankets in front of dozens of shrubs or perennials.  Nature is going to deliver us a tropical storm.  All we can do is prepare, wait it out, and then put things back where they belong.

And this is the outer sidewalk bed
as of Saturday afternoon.  On Monday
you'll see the storm's handiwork.
But there is one tie that goes back to Donna 51 years ago.  One of my strongest recollections of that storm was opening the hurricane awning that covered our front door and picture window (it was opened and sealed from inside the house).  The first thing I saw was the remnants of a row of purple bougainviella that had lined the sidewalk leading to our front door.  The shrubs had been stripped bare of every leaf, flower and bracht; the remaining stems tangled and broken.  This year, our five bougainviella, which spend the summer in hanging pots on our screen porch, have come inside to their 'winter quarters'.  Come Monday morning, they will look just as fresh as they do today.

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