Hurricane Irma. For days, it was all anyone could talk about. A huge hurricane, the strongest the Atlantic had seen in recorded history, induced fascination and hysteria across the United States. On the very first day that it was mentioned that there was a possibility the storm might hit us, yellow plastic bags that read “empty” hung on gas levers, gallons of water could no longer be found at the grocery stores and one had to go on a wild goose chase to find a hotel room that was available in the cities that were further inland. This was six days before the storm was even projected to hit the U.S. when spaghetti strings were going in every direction. By Thursday, even as the projections had begun to veer to the west, putting Charleston out of the cone, evacuation plans were the topic of every conversation and school was canceled from Friday through Tuesday. It was hard not to panic– if only because so many other people were panicking. The fact that the storm was projected to hit Florida first, where so many of our friends and family lived, brought a whole different level of fear as we worried about their safety, in addition to our own.
After days of anxiety, it finally arrived. Sunday night brought howling winds, and of course, our frightened children into our room. Despite the fact that the center of the hurricane was far away and heading away from us, we clearly saw intense effects of a tropical storm, which would only increase on Monday. We kept thinking, if this is what we are experiencing, how awful it must have been at the center of the storm, in Florida, in the Caribbean.
Every day I walk to the Charleston Battery, which is a walkway on the Charleston Harbor beside beautiful historic homes. As downtown Charleston is not much higher than sea-level, I knew that unless I wanted to walk in thigh-high sewage water, my only chance to walk on Monday would be in the morning, before the rain and storm surge, but during tropical storm force winds. With my sanity at risk, I decided to brave the storm.
I knew the winds were strong, but I was shocked when the wind gusts were so intense that they nearly pushed me into the street. I made my way to the Battery, a good mile and a half from my house and was surprised to see how high the swells were. Even before high tide, waves were cresting over the seawall, splashing water over the walkway. I should have been frightened, and yet, I found this encounter with the strength of Mother Nature enthralling, and strangely, spiritual and inspiring, reminiscent of the Rambam who speaks about knowing G-d through nature. Realizing however that it probably wasn’t so safe to stay there, I turned to leave and found myself staring over the seawall at two dolphins, swimming a few feet away from me. Usually, the dolphins and birds sense the storm and migrate to safer areas; here were two animals who were just as mystified by the power of the storm as I was.
Just one hour after I left, video footage showed waves crashing over the area where I had walked, with the walkway of the Battery flooded so that it was almost indistinguishable from the Harbor.
I got home just as the winds began to pick up and the first sirens indicating a tornado warning went off on my phone. A tornado warning means an actual tornado is on the ground in your general area and it is recommended to take cover in a room on the ground floor without windows. The only room that fit those criteria in our house was a bathroom which meant the six of us were crouched in the small room, with three of my children fighting over who got to sit in the bathtub. Nervously trying to listen for freight-train-like sounds outside, we realized how blessed we were to hear the sounds of children going stir-crazy, instead. We knew that other areas and communities had not been that fortunate.
The day was long, especially given that we had about three feet of water outside of our house locking us in. Many of our friends lost power and feared they would lose thousands of dollars in meat; they anxiously watching the quickly rising waters and worried their homes would flood. And yet, despite all the challenges, what our friends in Houston had been through and all that they had lost was at the forefront of our minds, and the predominant approach was that of perspective.
Aside from those who suffered flooding in their homes, the city of Charleston moved on quickly. The streets were drained of water, power was restored fairly quickly, and school was reopened on Wednesday. The storm was frightening but for many of us, we were grateful it had passed without much damage; for most, the anxiety preceding was worse than the storm itself.
We were familiar with this phenomenon as this was the second time in a year that we faced an intense storm. A year ago, Hurricane Matthew hit Charleston on Shabbat Shuva, and we stood afterward on Yom Kippur uttering the words of the ‘U’Netaneh Tokef,’ “Who will Live, Who Will Die, Who by Water and Who By Fire,” with a new awareness of what the words could mean. We thought of those very same words, we had uttered by rote on Rosh Hashanah, just a few days prior, when we did not know there was a hurricane headed towards us. The fear we had experienced as we awaited the storm reminded us of the very sobering thought of, who knows what this year could bring?
Watching projections of a monster hurricane barreling towards you, brings a sense of helplessness, of being like a deer in headlights. There is a fear of not knowing what will be, that you and your neighbors can face harm and the knowledge that while you can evacuate, you cannot escape the possibility of losing everything. There is an utter feeling of loss of control. It is a reminder that try as we might to control aspects of our lives, we really are not in control.
And now as Rosh Hashanah looms, I wonder, why do I not feel that same fear about the upcoming Yamim Noraim? For over a week, I panicked at a hurricane that had a chance of coming towards us and spent hours of precious time following projections– fancy scientific guesswork represented by spaghetti strings– that went from east to west. And yet, I know that with certainty that in a week and a half, I will stand before G-d with my sins, as evidence for the case to deny me life. An accounting of my actions will lead to a verdict, which will be written, and ten days from that, sealed. My year will be decided. Where is the fear? Rabbi Frand speaks about rabbis who used to faint at the mere word, “HaMelech” uttered on Rosh Hashanah. As anyone who has experienced a life-changing year can attest, going into Rosh Hashanah should be awe-inspiring and met with trepidation. Why don’t I feel like I’m about to face an event greater and more impactful than even a hurricane? Why am I not preparing for the Yamim Noraim with the same sense of urgency that I prepared for the storm?
These are my thoughts in the aftermath of the storm that are resounding in my head. Finally, after nearly a month of “trying to get into it,” but with daily life pulling me away, the words of the Machzor are beginning to beckon; the tunes of Rosh Hashanah entering my head.
I am not in any way suggesting that hurricanes hit the United States at this time of year to give us a message or to get us ready. I pray for everyone who was affected by the storms, especially our close friends in Houston who lost so much, and I pray that Jose and hurricanes starting with all other letters of the alphabet stay out to sea.
And yet, I do know that Irma, and certainly the panic preceding her, has given me something to think about.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.