I’m twelve feet away from the northern eyewall of Hurricane Irma. Seated behind floor to ceiling panes of glass that can’t be thick enough. “Are they thick enough?” I wonder while staring at the murderous velocity of rain and wind that just a few steps away would lift me whole and launch me into the lake, a tree or another house. With death defying, tornadic ferocity the wind drives rain sideways in every direction at once. I hear tree trunks and limbs snapping like firecrackers off in the distance.
There’s still running water, but the electricity went off hours ago. There’s no internet. Comcast has opened up thousands of free WiFi hotspots for anyone whose service is down. You can log on for two hours at a time. Two hours at a time in the teeth of an historic maelstrom. I enter a username and password and hit a fucking pay wall. Comcastic!
The changes in air pressure are making my ears pop as the wind lives up to its cliché; it really does sound like a freight train. 130, 140 miles per hour but still not the Cat-5 death dealer that scoured 100% of Barbuda’s housing stock down to its concrete foundations. Not the 185 miles per hour that would take paint off a car, put the car in a hole and blow the hole away. This isn’t that, but it’s impossible to say exactly how fortunate I am beyond the fact I’m still sitting here watching the world get ripped apart.
I’m glad I boarded up my house and came to my in-law’s ground floor condo 20 minutes northeast. In a storm 600 miles wide that’s a difference without a distinction but this condo is better built and stronger than my tract home constructed in 1976 by contractors on acid. I’ve moved to the kitchen, away from the glass, where I’ve paired off a peanut butter and honey sandwich against a muscular Cabernet/Zin/Sarah blend. I’m out of milk.
Suddenly the wind dies down and the rain stops. We’re in the eye. I step outside. I’m told there’s blue sky in the center of a hurricane, but not in this one. Irma’s core is deck plate gray and the driveway is a carpet of leaves, branches and uprooted trunks making the way impassable. What’s the difference? I’m not going anywhere anyway. The southern half of the eyewall is coming. I snap some pictures and go back inside. The wind picks up fast and the rain with it. My cats have slept through the whole thing. One in the master bedroom and two others, a mother and her adult spawn spooned into an indistinguishable pile of warm fur on my bed in the guest room. I wish I could be that cool and follow their lead. The howling begins and once again I hear tree trunks snapping.
If my in-law’s home suffered cosmetic damage, my own home was a different matter. Driving south along main arteries through intersections of cockeyed traffic lights, blacked out and dangling, I finally made it to the badly flooded stretch of road that is the only way in or out of my neighborhood. I drove through sheet flow up to my doors and managed to get through to my street and driveway. The front yard was strewn with pieces of other people’s houses, tree limbs and branches: the back yard the same, only under water. Mature shade trees split down the middle and a one story aluminum pool cage now a twisted skeleton of support and cross beams, half thrown up on my roof while the rest lies in and around my pool at strange angles as if gravity hadn’t quite finished its conversation.
The wooden front door gave way under protest, swollen as it was against the jam. I was greeted with the thick, warmishly fetid organic musk of a diaper pail. Irma had blown water into my house through every conceivable fissure and crevice a house built in 1976 invariably has. The baseboards and sheet rock had wicked up the puddled sweat like a sponge, expanding and separating from each other. Everything twelve inches off the deck will have to be cut out and replaced; every square inch of tile, every grout line, will have to be painstakingly scrubbed with soap and bleach. Somehow my paperback copy of Antonia Juhasz’ great work, The Tyranny of Oil sits bloated and destroyed on the bedroom floor. How ironic.
The $120 in cash and credit cards in my pocket are worthless. There is nowhere to spend money. No supermarkets selling food, no gas stations selling gas, no hardware stores selling tools or propane. People everywhere are living off stockpiled meat, water, beer and soda stored in ice chests and everyone seems to have their grills fired up. Checking to see how others close by are doing, one kindly offers 5 gallons of gas when I tell him I’m down to a quarter tank. Another offers a grilled sausage on a hot dog roll. I’m a vegetarian, but not today. Yet another provides a half loaf of sliced bread and cold Gator-Aide. Everyone has been hit hard, so these spontaneous acts of proximal kindness are meaningful, unexpected and palpable. In the coming days, waiting for power to be restored, much generosity and cooperation was on offer in this working class neighborhood. Far more than any expressed or received from family or friends of long standing with the means to do more, something – or anything. And I know why this is so.
We live in a realm of hungry ghosts, a trance state mistaken for normative, acceptable – even civil – society. But it’s not a society, in the strictest sense, as there is so little that is social about it. It’s an economic construct marked by disregard, disdain, incivility utterly drained of unity, community or any sense of individual obligation to the whole or the other. No matter how much one has, insatiable hunger for more persists. A mind where spaciousness is emptiness; an inversion of abundance into a perception of scarcity and lack. A Dickensian box where those working for scraps live in an ahistorical matrix deprived of the vocabulary to even describe their reality while those that have real wealth live in a richly textured movie starring themselves in a mythological place where they are generous, compassionate, deserving, loving and kind. It is an abattoir. An extremely violent gun culture of dog loving infantile grandiosity.
The ballet of my neighbor Juan and his two chainsaws makes me sorry I didn’t record it. He owns a landscaping business, and he and his crews had been working their asses off since dawn clearing downed trees in a gated community near my open neighborhood. It was getting on sunset when he came over offering to chop up the last eight feet of a fifty foot shade tree blasted from its moorings in my back yard. It was an unbelievably kind gesture after the kind of day I’m sure he had. I watched him cut the trunk and lower limbs into a pile of manageable chunks inside of about 20 minutes. It would have taken me at least an hour if I knew how to do it without killing myself. All he wanted was a cold beer. The next day I brought him a case.
It made me think about the current administration’s repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and the millions of Latinos deported by President Obama. I grew saddened and furious. In the wake of Hurricane Irma in SW Florida, the road back from neighborhoods turned medieval under tons of fallen trees is being led by thousands of undocumented Mexicans, Hondurans and Guatemalans with chainsaws. The next time I hear anyone slandering Latinos in any way, especially with the canard that they’re “taking our jobs”, I will step up to them and publicly shame them. I will describe them and, if practical, strangle them while I whisper in their fucking ear.
As of this writing I’ve had my power back for 6 days. Six days of hot showers, fresh laundry and air conditioning. There are still thousands without power in homes inundated with water that has nowhere to go in the super-saturated soil of SW Florida. Overpriced slumlord shit boxes and the homes of retirees on or near the Imperial River less than a mile from my house now experience tidal flow in their kitchens. I turned back from paying my water bill in person when confronted with a quarter mile sheet flow of indeterminate depth blocking the road between me and their office. This is a major disaster I’m in the middle of and yet I’m one of the fortunate ones. Had Irma tracked a bit further west sucking up water and energy instead of making landfall in Collier County when and where it did, this disaster could easily have been a much worse and wider catastrophe. The 10 to 15 feet of predicted storm surge did not happen in the Gulf Coast city of Naples, although they received more than their fair share of flooding and wind borne destruction. That city will virtually bounce back. Naples on the Gulf contains more private wealth than Beverly Hills and Jackson Hole combined. They have little need for government assistance there. They never did. For them government is an impediment.
East Naples, where the sprawling 55 years old and up trailer park communities are located, jammed with elderly folk on low fixed income living side by side with undocumented aliens is another story. The undocumented get to live in what’s left of their condemned trailers with the stench of standing water and sewage in the air – ineligible for federal assistance. Immokalee, FL, still further east where Oaxaca meets Port-au-Prince, covered brilliantly in the tome Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt co-authored by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, is still another poor, traumatized sacrifice zone. And few are discussing, far less writing, much about Everglades City, an hour’s drive south of Naples where it took FEMA five days to get on the ground there. Storm surge and wind have wiped that city off the map; its residents wallow in muck and filth with nowhere to live and nowhere to go.
Irma struck Collier and Lee Counties on Sunday, September 10th. According to an article in the Naples Daily News of September 19th about the situation in Everglades City:
The scores of volunteers who have set up in the city handing out food, water and clothes along with Federal, state and local medical providers was a far cry from the almost-deserted scene in the city for the first week following the storm.
Residents had been left mostly on their own, spending hours each day working in the mud and sludge, often barefoot or in flip-flops, trying to salvage what was left of their homes.
In Everglades City and surrounding communities struck with 10 feet of storm surge, a man scraped his leg picking up a piece of aluminum debris on Monday, the day after Irma passed. His wife put a Band-Aid on it and by Friday a raging bacterial infection had attacked his vital organs, threatening renal failure and the doctors amputated his leg. The mayor’s mother is in the hospital fighting an infection. Full time medical assistance from the County only began on Sunday, seven full days after Irma. According to the same article, health officials administered only 80 tetanus shots to residents before running out of supplies.
Having learned nothing from Katrina, the stench of neo-liberalism’s 40 year death march across America and the world has seeped like carbon monoxide into every gear of the machine we live in. Capital and its wholly-owned subsidiary, government, can no longer respond effectively to crisis. This is the fossilization and atrophy of end-stage capitalism, a violent socio-economic bifurcation describing a zombie state eating its own with nothing on the horizon to replace it. “American politics”, as Dr. Manuel Garcia, Jr. aptly puts it, “is how money talks to itself”.
The indiscriminate savagery of Irma is about far more than this unemployed writer’s freezer full of rotted food, shredded roof line and collapsed pool cage. The path of Irma draws upward into bas-relief the majority of American society’s precarious decline into an irreconcilable cultural and economic abysm. Radical social change is coming, but not until many hundreds of thousands, likely millions, of American lives are lost. Not on the romantic front lines of populist revolt at the barricades, but as the unheralded, withering, long term consequence of declining standards of living.
Profound social ferment and revolutionary social restructuring is inevitable, but it will not simply emerge as the result of what it must and has always been – an impulse from the street. It will also be coincident with a top line driven reconfiguration of titanic pools of capital beginning, perhaps, with the structures of power that have more money than anyone outside of international drug cartels, the fossil fuel juggernaut or the military industrial complex – the insurance industry. Say what you may about them, but insurance is perhaps the greatest civilizing force in mankind’s entire meteoric footnote. Without insurance to mitigate against risk, your brand new crane manufactured in South Korea designed to lift cargo out of the holds of container ships in the Port of Los Angeles never gets shipped trans-Pacific to the buyer. A bank holding a mortgage note on a single family home in SW Florida will insist the owner carry Home Owner’s Insurance and Flood Insurance to mitigate the risk of an unlikely, but catastrophic event. Like, say, a hurricane.
The question is this: As anthropogenic climate change throws actuarial calculations out the window and the profitable business of hedging anomalous risk becomes an open ended economic implosion of the rare turned commonplace, how many $150 billion dollar hits do you suppose global insurance consortia and their reinsurers remain willing and able to take? My guess is not many. Insurance companies have been generating very public warnings of climate change since at least the mid 1990’s. When elephants do battle, only the grass suffers, but it will be interesting to see how the insurance industry responds to paying the crippling freight for the fossil fuel industry and how that might contribute toward progressive realignments.
As weak carriers fold, risk portfolios redistribute into stronger hands. Policy deductibles rise insurmountably and covered percentages over and above that drop leaving only the rich able to self-insure and the masses of life long premium payers left with payouts insufficient to make them whole. Does an utterly sclerotic government lost in a miasma of climate change denial step in to assume a role the private sector no longer deems profitable? That seems unlikely as well.
At the civilizational fork where far too many obscenely stupid, venal and greedy annihilists are in charge, what will it take to rip the zombie’s head off the deep state? Hurricanes Andrew, Charlie, Wilma, Katrina, Harvey, Irma and perhaps Maria haven’t seemed to do the trick. Likewise, eight geriatrics warehoused in a for-profit Hollywood, FL nursing home dying of heat exhaustion when the air conditioning went out caused little more than a momentary stir in the media when the hook became the location of the human dumping ground – right across the street from a Level-1 trauma center.
As we all enter the leading edge of a largely irreversible negative feedback loop of a warming planet, the strength and frequency of hurricanes seems likely to increase. What happens when they’re all Cat-3 or Cat-4 when they make landfall? How will capital and government respond?
The only dialect worth exploring is this: Russia and China are committed to a $20 trillion/20 year plan to build out continental networks of high speed rail to swiftly transport raw materials, finished goods and people as part of the One Belt One Road initiative, together with new, modern port systems to pull up hundreds of millions of people out of penury as part of the next industrial age of man. America spends a trillion dollars a year on bombs, death and dismemberment. One of these plans has a future. The other does not.
As a low, slow flying entourage of military aircraft containing the Governor of Florida, an exonerated plunderer owing his fortune to an historic Medicare fraud, and the President, who learned his ethics at the knee caps of Roy Cohen, flew by just east of my house, I took cold comfort as I swept dank pools of bacteria rich sludge out of my garage.