She went to UC-Irvine. In 1993, a wildfire came within a couple of hundred yards of her student-housing apartment; the next year was the Northridge earthquake. When she left Irvine with her doctorate and her husband, Robbie, she said that it was a relief to get out of Southern California: She was tired of having to call the whole family every few months and assure us that she wasn't dead.
She and Rob were moving east. They'd gotten teaching jobs near Orlando. In Florida.
As you can imagine, those phone calls have been flying again. Charley was still a Category 2 hurricane when it hit Oviedo. It didn't create the kind of destruction it had near the coast, but lots of trees went down, and lots of stuff got blown away--including a bunch of shingles from Steph and Rob's roof. Thereafter, rainwater poured into an upstairs bedroom, the one belonging to Lara, 3, one of their two dangerously cute preschoolers. But they didn't lose services until a few days later, when the electricity went out and stayed out for four days. All the food in the fridge and freezer rotted, of course, but the worst thing was the heat. Houses in Florida are now built for air-conditioning and are unbearable without it: Cross-ventilation and other old-fashioned arrangements for hot weather are outmoded, things of the past. The kids didn't mind, but Rob and Steph became so sleep deprived that the family started spending the nights in Steph's classroom at the high school where she teaches.
And did I mention that Rob's parents, Bob and Margaret Boerth, live in Punta Gorda? Yes, they do, and they've had to evacuate twice to Steph and Rob's. Charley followed them right up the highway: Steph said that they recognized the towns in the radio disaster reports because they'd passed through them on their trips to and from the coast. When Bob and Margaret returned, they still had a house, but no yard, water or power.
Then came news of Francis, which at first was on a track straight to Orlando. At this point, Steph, a notably calm person, became frantic. Fortunately, it turned and wallowed around in the Bahamas and was just a big storm by the time it reached them. No more real damage was done.
Then, of course, came rumors of Ivan, "a much more organized storm than you'd expect from down by the equator," Rob told me. He explained that when it comes to hurricanes, organization is not a good thing.
We've all become junior weathermen. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's national hurricane page has become my new online obsession. I cannot recommend the discussion, the charts and the infinitely suggestive probabilities page too highly.
Then came Ivan, which veered west and spared most of the parts of Florida that were hit hardest by the previous two storms. But in the early days, Bob and Margaret had to evacuate Punta Gorda again. (No matter what the storm does, inland is safer.) The kids were thrilled to see their grandparents again so soon, but the adults all wish that everything was different. Last week, Steph and Rob managed to get an estimate for the roof on their regular three-bedroom house--$9,000. And although the insurance adjuster did come by, they haven't heard from him. No one but Chad and Lara is what you'd call happy right now.
I have a question: What do the hurricanes mean for the coming election? Florida, after all, is a wholly owned Bush demesne, currently home to what--5 million unhappy people? (Yes, seeing your governor handing out water bottles is nice. But it doesn't put your house back together, does it?) And they're not likely to be much cheerier come Nov. 2. By then, they will have found that their policies are not what they were, thanks to relaxed state regulations. They still won't have any shade. I remember reading a piece about how miserable people still were a year or so after Hurricane Andrew ripped up South Florida. One resident said that no one had had sex since the storm came through.
My guess is that Floridians are now less likely to vote Bush than they were. Of course, blaming the president or his brother for the state's horrible luck makes no sense at all, but given the hay the administration has made from unthinking lust for vengeance--42 percent of the population still blames Saddam Hussein for Sept. 11--what could be more fitting?
There's another force that will surely operate in the minds of the state's many devout voters--and, in fact, in the minds of literal Bible-believers everywhere: How can they not see the Hand of God in what's been happening? No one owns the wind and rain but Yahweh; great storms are the classic sign of his wrath. Aren't folks bound to ask themselves, "Why is God angry with Florida?" And worse, "Doesn't God want George W. Bush to be president any more?"
My husband, who grew up in the Deep South says no, those people only interpret things biblically when it works out right for them. Still, I mentioned my theory to Steph the last time we talked. She laughed hollowly and said that'd be nice to think. Then she went back to calling roofers.