I’ve always loved severe storms, having grown up in south Florida where hurricanes were annual events. The neighborhood became flooded, and we were cautioned not to go out afterwards, in case there were loose electrical wires down in the streets. I imagined the flooded roads swarming with black electric eels, and was duly scared, though some of the reckless kids would ride their bikes through the submerged pavements, coasting with their legs straight out, tires cutting through and spraying waves.
Indoors, during the storm, we were safe from fallen trees whose branches were on the ground and roots were exposed to the sky. I’d drape a table with a sheet to make a haven, and ferried toys to safety in a shoebox train. The sound effects were monumental: rattling jalousies, creaking roof, scraping branches, the crack and boom of thunder. The bathtubs were filled with drinking water. When the electricity died, we had flashlights. The phone and TV no longer worked, so we listened to a crackly radio, with its alarmist cautions and weather-speak. The next day school was closed.
During Irene’s visit, last weekend, weatherpersons were kept busy tracking the storm’s progress up the east coast. The TV projected what looked like flying ninja stars, or those lethal-looking symbols for biomedical waste. “The bay will meet the ocean in this one,” a wary bystander told an anchorman, who held a mic under his nose. I awaited its arrival at a window.
In the interminable lull, I hazarded out for more supplies: canned dogfood, batteries, tinned sardines. I passed a woman in a hurry who was telling her cellphone, “Eighty-five-mile-an-hour winds they’re predicting.”
The river was jade-gray. Dragon-tooth clouds marched across a sky of a different shade of white. A huge cruise ship slipped by, a silent behemoth like the encroaching storm. Large, silent, moving objects are often ominous: the shark circling in the water; the stealth bomber circling in the sky; the panther turning and turning in a narrowing gyre before the crouch to pounce. The breeze’s predatory breath, meanwhile, had been increasing incrementally into rage. In the park, a Chinese man was calmly doing Tai Chi, a lone figure dwarfed by overpowering nature in a landscape-scroll, or dwarfed by the thought-vortices in his own mind. I thought of Leonardo’s drawings of winds and tides.
For most of the night I stayed up to watch the lashing rain and the rioting, mane-tossed trees. By next morning, the storm was over. There were no lakes of electric eels, just an aftermath of remnant winds and a mess of leaves on macadam. There was a different kind of stillness now, without threat. And that evening, under a spectacular sunset, some little boats with shark-tooth sails ventured out.