This article was originally published in the November 2018 Princeton Echo.
I used to have a little weather house that looked like an Alpine chalet. When the sun shined, the cheerful girl in a dress came out her door. But when rain was forecast, she vanished indoors and the little man appeared with his umbrella. That meant closing our windows and getting out our rain ponchos.
The modern weather house is the television. When bad weather is ahead, such as recently with Hurricanes Florence and Michael, the meteorologists appear on the screen, decked out in rain suits, waders, sou’westers, and of course gripping a huge microphone while they shout into the teeth of the wind.
Soon after I moved to America in 2012, it was announced that Hurricane Sandy was going to visit our neighborhood. On television I saw vivid multicolor images of the route she was going to take, the rainfall, the wind speed, and, above all, the scary eye, that mysterious black hole in the center of the storm. Yet it was still a beautiful October day. We sat outside in the sun. I could not imagine anything as violent as a hurricane. It seemed pointless to bring potted plants, badminton nets, and even our bird house inside. And was it really necessary to clear out the basement and store a supply of food?
With the recent Hurricane Florence, the impending violence was creepily and realistically predicted in an animation that I saw. The cartoon showed a weather girl standing in the middle of a square in a residential area. Nothing wrong. But then the water started rising — first above her waist, then above her head, and finally so high that it was lapping on the roofs of houses. It was obvious that there would be no defense against a calamity of this scale. But that message had not gotten through to a man I saw on another channel, futilely piling sandbags against his door.
When Florence began her devastating journey and the people in the Carolinas were full of fear and trembling in their homes and shelters, the weather women and weather men came out in full force. On all TV channels they were fighting the elements to bring optics to their work. I saw a reporter interrupt her reporting to rescue a dog from drowning. Without hesitating, as if she did this every day, she grabbed the dog and carried it to a safe place.
And yet, despite all the warnings, preparations, and meticulous reporting, there were once again deaths. Nature is not a sentimentalist. Preparations don’t matter. The saddest stories spent a day on the front page of the newspapers, on their way to the obituary pages. The other deaths eventually become statistics.
The misery that “my” Hurricane Sandy caused six years ago is still fresh in my memory. When I think of those days, I see a slim weather girl struggling to stand on a pier somewhere on the New Jersey coast, gripping a railing. As she shouted into the howling wind as loudly as she could, the waves smashed into the houses behind her. Meanwhile, water was rising in our cellar
Then suddenly our power went out. The TV turned black, the house darkened. The weather girl was gone. A week later the names of the dead from our area were printed in the newspaper. We are still numbed by the shock. Sometimes I dream about that weather girl. She is standing there, screaming into the storm. Then she is lifted up by the wind under her dress, and like another Mary Poppins, she rises spinning into the sky until she blows safely away.
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her bestselling memoir, “Charlotte,” was published last year in the United States. She can be contacted at piadejong.com.