The Cone of Uncertainty
If I had known I would be digging graves in my backyard, I would have evacuated for the hurricane.
We did what everyone does when a hurricane catches the attention of meteorologists; we waited and watched and didn’t get too concerned until about five days before predicted landfall. Hurricane Florence had bull’s-eyed our two-stoplight fishing village community, and she was a beast. We bought water and water and waffle-cut potato chips and almonds and cashews and caseloads of Coke Zeros; and then we bought more water, and, when the store ran out of water, we bought cranberry juice and various Gatorades; oh, and my favorite: beef jerky – the sausage kind and teriyakied or peppered or both – and soup: Chicken with Whole Grain Pasta Noodle, Grilled Chicken & Sausage Gumbo, Chicken & Cheese Enchilada, Creamy Chicken Alfredo with Pasta, and we bought chicken in a can; and when the store resupplied water, we bought a few more gallons just to be on the safe side. We bought batteries and a radio, candles, and first aid kits. We had spent over five-hundred dollars on a shopping list that would make an end-of-the-world-conspiracy theorist proud.
The storm was predicted to hit as a category 4, maybe even a category 5. Even when the eyewall was predicted to hit our house just a couple of days before landfall, even when mandatory evacuations were issued for the barrier islands, even after all my family members had pleaded with us to “Get out,” “Don’t play with your life,” my mother yammered; and then, even after a mandatory evacuation was issued for all of Pender County, my county, we were going to stay, ride it out, and take the chance that the meteorologists, for all their technical savvy and scientific accuracy, were ultimately handicapped by the cone of uncertainty.
The day before the storm hit was a checklist of last minute preparations: I mowed the yard, removed everything outside not rooted in the ground: the bird feeders and bird baths, potted plants, benches, trellises; we moved everything off the back porch and stuffed our garage full, hoisted mattresses in front of windows, put sandbags in front of doors, and, when we ran out of sandbags, I stacked bags of potting soil alongside the sandbags. I froze gallons of water, filled the bathtubs, washed all the laundry. My wife wrote the home address and names of our dogs on their bellies with a red Sharpie.
The clouds thicken, and the sky roared like a turbine cranking up enough torque to unleash a rider of the apocalypse. Florence was nearing and there was no escaping it now. Even if the gas stations had gas, they were closed. Even if we changed our minds and decided to leave, how far could we go before we ran out of fuel? The time to evacuate was past. We had made our choice.
Around ten o’clock at night, the power flickered. Then it flickered again. It had certainly been windy out. Not hurricane windy, but more than just your summertime breeziness. The power quivered one last time, then darkness. An incredible absence of light. We went to bed to get a few hours of sleep before Florence knocked on the door.
I’ve been through hurricanes before. I don’t know how many, four or five, maybe. But they were all geriatric hurricanes whose ump had long ago dissipated. When Florence deteriorated from a heavy-weight champ to a gait-disordered category one, I was disappointed. And then, on Friday morning when I woke up only to realize that I had slept through the worst of the storm, ugh. All that for nothing. I looked out every window. Everything seemed fine except for the toppled-over front yard tree, which is maybe fifteen feet tall and more of a lawn ornament than a tree. A porta-potty had tumbled down the street and landed in my neighbor’s yard.
A friend from another state texted me.
Hey friend… you safe?
This is a sad hurricane.
Oh man. Sad Sad Sad.
I’ve had thunderstorms worse than this.
You know how much money I spent on this
It rained all day Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. But it wasn’t really rain. It was 8 trillion gallons of water separated into bullet-shaped drops being fired by hurricane and tropical storm force winds. According to the talking voice on our battery-operated radio, it was dumping as much as five inches an hour at times. We tried driving around in my truck. Friday we made it to the highway, only to discover powerlines and power poles down and lying in the road. Saturday, the water turned the main road outside the neighborhood into a river. Sunday, we couldn’t drive more than five houses away.
This sad hurricane had turned into a three day deluge, baptizing low-lying lands with an unnecessary submersion.
Monday, glorious Monday, the clouds slightly parted, slightly. A dove was sent out from the ark; and the dove came back…and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf. But just because the dove found an olive branch didn’t mean the crisis was over. It was still raining on Monday, just every now and then it stopped. The dogs, for their part, decided it was still too wet to go for walks. But we leashed them up anyway and dragged them out of the house. Roofing shingles were scattered along the streets like autumn leaves. Some houses had bare spots on the roof that went all the way to plywood. Every house lost trees. Flower gardens had been washed away. The shrubs lost nearly all their leaves and waved in the wind like limp skeletons. Everything seemed to be cosmetic damage. But as we were walking our dogs, our neighbors started walking their dogs too. They told a different story.
Roofs were breached. Water had rained in houses. Ceilings inside of many houses either sagged under the weight of water or had collapsed altogether. Carpet and floors will have to be ripped out, they said. Some houses would have to be gutted to the studs. One person said his upstairs bedroom was missing.
Things were bad in the neighborhood but the Coast Guard rescue helicopters flying overhead told yet another story. Somewhere else people were being airlifted away from their homes. Somewhere else water didn’t just leak through ceilings and ruin drywall but came through walls, through windows and doors. Water not only came from the ceiling down but from the floor up. Somewhere else people were losing everything, even their lives.
Angela and I continued to walk our dogs, talking with our neighbors telling them the only thing we could say, “I’m sorry. What can we do?” Thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers were an unhelpful sentiment.
As we headed back to the house, I heard a high-pitched cry for help. And heard it again. It was coming from the bushes of a neighbors’ house, by the front porch. Meep, Meep, came the high-pitched call. Meep. Meep. I gave Angela the leash to my dog and started climbing though my neighbors’ bushes. A kitten, no more than a week old, with his eyes mostly still closed cried again, and again. Meep, meep. I knocked on the neighbors door but it was obvious that they had evacuated for the storm. So, I picked the soaked kitten up. As soon as I showed the kitten to Angela, I heard another meep from the bushes. The poor cries continued soliciting a greater effort for rescue. Finally I found the second kitten. Both were black, drenched, and filthy. With every meep, Walker Dog’s motherly instincts craned her head around and lifted her hound dog ears.
Neighbors abandoned their clean-up efforts to come to our house to help with the kittens. One brought cool whole milk. One person brought breast milk. One neighbor called her vet at home to see what could be done for the kittens. Angela cleaned them up, dried them off, and put them in a box with dry rags.
A couple hours later, the rain tapered off again and, out of boredom, we decided the dogs needed to go for another walk, a decision they were not too happy about. Angela had been dropping dabs of milk in the kittens’ mouth, when the kittens were not sleeping on top of each other. Then something occurred to me.
“What do you think the odds are that there are only two kittens?” I asked.
“I just thought the same thing,” Angela said. “It isn’t often a cat has just two kittens.”
“Yeah, there could be five or six of them. Maybe more.”
Angela turned her dog around and started walking in the opposite direction.
“Where are you going?”
“To see if there are others.”
Another meep could be heard as we approached the house. I rummaged around in the neighbors’ bushes again but found nothing. There was clearly at least one kitten left and the frantic meep, meep, begged us not to give up. Then it became clear why we couldn’t find the baby kitten. It was in the crawl space underneath the house behind perforated brick, and to make matters worse, the brick was covered with a chicken wire. The unabating meep, meep,fathered and mothered a parental helplessness. There was no way to reach the other kitten. But Angela was not so quickly deterred. I returned home with the dogs, and Angela marshaled every animal-loving neighbor to rescue the imprisoned kitten.
Middle aged women crawled and coiled around the bushes in the saturated mulch and mud. When the rain returned with a hurricane’s violence, they were undaunted. Meep. Meep. They couldn’t stop. There was no turning back. The kitten would be saved. The rescuers were slopped with the front-yard sludge, when finally, between the perforate brick and chicken wire, with a stick and a hose, the kitten was extracted like a dumpling between chop-sticks.
With all three kittens warming themselves together in their box, drinking as much milk as Angela could get in their bodies, it seemed unlikely they would survive. They were so small. Any two of them could fit in the palm of my hand. We guessed they were less than a week old and half of that life had been spent outside in a hurricane.
The kittens cried all night long, and Angela stayed up nursing them. At two o’clock, Angela woke me up.
“One of the kittens is dead,” she said. She put it in a brown bag, and I said I would bury it in the morning. When the sun came up, I dug a little hole and put the kitten in the ground. As soon as I was done, Angela opened the sliding glass door and said that another kitten had died. So I dug another hole. Two hours later, the third kitten surrendered its life.
Maybe focusing on the death of three kittens trivializes the death of millions of livestock and belittles the human suffering and loss of life by vaguely suggesting a comparison. Maybe writing about kittens dying in a hurricane is a macabre “human-interest” story that comes at the close of local news coverage: “Up Next, Animal Rescues, after these commercial messages.” Maybe.
But maybe dead kittens are best understood metaphorically as the truth we so easily deny. All we hear is Wilmington-Strong and resilience and perseverance, “we’ll get through this;” the politicians congratulate themselves for tirelessly working around the clock; the first responders are heroes and everyday people are unusually compassionate and patience, helping neighbors and donating money. All this is true and needs to be said. Positive reinforcement is a good and necessary thing.
But we also need people to say that it is okay to be broken. It is okay to not have a happy ending. It is okay to lose everything and be devasted by that loss. We love the “hash-tag” narrative of #strength. We love it so much that we unintentionally judge the weak and vulnerable, the broken and devastated as suffering some fault. In the face of what a hurricane can do, we are not a force of nature ourselves. We are more closely compared to helpless, mother-abandoned kittens.
I heard a Christian proclaim how good God was because his house was spared. He heaped loud cries of praise for the safety of his family and possessions. “God is good,” he declared. “God never abandons me.” He could have quoted Nahum: His way is in the whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet…The Lord is good, a stronghold in a day of trouble; he protects those who take refuge in him, even in a rushing flood.
This man’s neighbor suffered a collapsed roof, which made his house unlivable. This man could have quoted the Psalmist. But I, O Lord, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?... I suffer your terrors…they surround me like a flood all day long.
A destroyed house, a drowned man in a car, an elderly woman alone in a dark house without access to her medicine, if we should celebrate because it could have been worse, if I rejoice because I was spared, if this is the glory of God, count me out. Sometimes you need more than just faith. You need food and water, a house, electricity would be nice, showers, and a way to get your medications, and fresh clothes. Things do not always work out in the end. Houses flood, roads wash away, bridges crumble, coal ash causes catastrophic environmental problems, and at least one politician will deny human beings their own death. God is good, all the time. But remember the dead kittens. Remember the weak and the broken. Remember the one who can’t stomach another pithy optimist singing about grace and mercy and resilience when she has been given none. Remember those who find their voice in Jesus’ cry of dereliction. Why have you forsaken me?
I drove by a grocery store and saw two women holding up a sign. “Free Water,” it read. A church welcomed people for hot showers and coffee. A lady at a local shelter volunteered for the American Red Cross. A neighbor picked up shingles and repaired a roof for many of his neighbors. When God’s grace isn’t sufficient, we make donations and give our time and resources and invite neighbors in our house in God’s name. We can be sufficient for God.