MAXWELL:  The companions left in a storm’s path

9/30/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


At 2:30 last Friday morning, I joined thousands of other Hurricane Georges refugees heading north on Interstate 75. The house I rent on Coquina Key, a tiny island near downtown St. Petersburg, is in a mandatory evacuation zone.

My destination was Gainesville. All the while driving, as I read the counties of the license plates _ Monroe, Dade, Collier, Lee, Charlotte, Sarasota, Manatee, Pinellas, Hillsborough _ I felt a sense of dread and impending loss. The National Hurricane Center had Georges coming close enough to the Tampa Bay area to seriously damage structures and cause widespread flooding.

At Wildwood, where I-75 and the turnpike merge, I stopped for coffee. Hundreds of people milled near the gas pumps, talking about Georges and what they had left behind.

Again, I felt dread and loss. I had been forced to abandon my most precious possessions: my books. I imagined my roof flying off, windows popping out, sheets of rain blowing, tons of water submerging Coquina Key. I could see my books, many of them first editions _ wet, swollen, discolored _ floating in the streets.

Thinking of these awful images, I had turned myself into an existential mess. I could see myself returning to a wasteland: trees uprooted, houses and businesses flattened, cars upturned like giant insects, power lines entwined like so much spaghetti _ my books nowhere to be seen.

Standing there in that dark parking lot among fellow travelers, I was tempted to return to St. Petersburg to lord over my books, especially my Judaica and Middle East collections. I was distracted, however, by the beautiful white Dodge pickup pulling a sailboat. Itparked alongside my Blazer. It had a Collier County license plate. The driver, a tall man, was alone.

I asked him if he was hauling the boat to safety. He said that he was. Where was his family? I asked, and was surprised when he said that his wife, two sons and dog had stayed behind in Naples to ride out the storm. How could he leave his family? I did not ask. His affairs were none of my business.

But I suddenly realized that Georges had given all of us, refugees on I-75, cause to sort out our priorities, to identify the most important things in our lives. I surveyed the belongings that others had in their vehicles. In the semi-darkness, I saw many cardboard boxes and plastic bags stuffed with what seemed to be personal papers. I guessed that one of four vehicles carried at least one pet _ a dog, a cat or a bird. I saw a python in a cage.

Then, I thought of myself. What had I brought along? What was the most important stuff in my life? My cargo was simple: I had put the video of my daughter’s first birthday party, family photographs, my Marine Corps yearbook and my renter’s insurance policy in a Winn-Dixie bag.

I had brought none of my books, believing that I would lose them all. Each book is special to me; neither is more important than another. Lose one. Lose them all. I had resigned myself to returning to a hole in my life that could not be refilled.

“You can buy more books,” a colleague had said the day before.

“I guess so,” I replied out of courtesy. Deep down, I knew better. To lose my books, thousands of them, is to have my reason for rising each morning taken away.

Staring at that sailboat in the parking lot, I slowly became less critical of its owner, a man who had left his family behind. Like him, I place great value on the things that bring me pleasure. For me, books are not inanimate objects. Each is the total of its author at a given moment, a living record of a human life. My books are, well, my companions.

In Gainesville, I followed Georges’ progress. When meteorologists announced that it would bypass Pinellas and Hillsborough, I drove to the local Barnes & Noble and browsed. I felt hopeful.

The next morning, I drove back to St. Petersburg. My house was intact. My books were as I had left them.

I, a Florida native who has been through several hurricanes, went straight to a book and read about one of nature’s most destructive forces. “A hurricane,” the book noted, “is called a willy-willy in Australia, a cyclone in the Indian Ocean region, a typhoon in the western Pacific Ocean, a baguio in the Philippines. Hurricane is derived from the American Indian word “huracan,’ meaning the “evil spirit.’ ”

Now that everything is back to normal, I intend to start a new collection of books. I am going to start reading about hurricanes. For as certain as the sun rises in the east, I have not seen my last huracan.