Every now and then, in a writer’s world, a strange confluence occurs when her work and her real life collide, and it’s difficult to remember what’s fiction and what’s fact.
I’m deep into the writing of my next novel. Normally, I don’t talk about what I’m writing because everything changes constantly right up until the minute the book is published, and this book has a loooooonnnnnggg way to go before I can even think of sending it to my agent for rounds of revision and then for eventual submission to publishers, never mind be published. However, I will tell you that the novel—at this point (it could change—I can’t emphasize this enough)—takes place in Miami Beach from 1909 until 1926. And anyone who knows anything about South Florida history knows that in 1926, “the Great Miami Hurricane” hit. (Hurricanes didn’t start receiving names until 1953 and originally they were only given female names. In 1978, male names were added to the mix.) So I’ve been reading extensively about the hurricane. Yet, with the threat of Irma and the recent destruction of Harvey, I feel as if I’m reading current events.
The scene I’m working on is in fact the hurricane scene. Often when I write at home I close my eyes (I don’t do this when I’m at the cafe, because it’s a bit odd to sit at a cafe with your eyes closed; I don’t want to scare the other customers). I do this so I can fully envision the scene, to try and feel, smell, experience what is happening. I have been living this hurricane for weeks now, my mind completely immersed in 1926 Miami Beach, so it’s disorienting to see the news and understand that it’s also happening in the world in 2017. The destruction in 1926 was tremendous. Much of the damage was done in the second half of the hurricane: When the eye passed over Miami Beach, many thought that the storm was over. In the eye of the storm, the winds quiet, the sun comes out, the rain stops. People went out to begin to repair things and get supplies, not realizing that the second half of the storm was about to bear down on them. Many were lost in the storm’s return.
I’ve been mildly obsessed with Zoo Miami, primarily because in my novel there’s an animal I need to care for during the hurricane, and it’s made me realize that there are an awful lot of animals that need caring for with Irma (and Harvey). What happens to the animals? My friend sent me this article, “What Zoos Do to Prepare for Natural Disasters,” which appeased me some, but now all I can picture is those poor terrified flamingos.
But really, I’m finding it so difficult to research the hurricane for my novel, because of shades of 2017 keep appearing. The one difference is the fact that today we have knowledge of what is to happen and the ability to learn what is going on. In the September 18, 1926, Miami Herald, the hurricane got a small front-page lefthand column. “Storm’s Edge Brings Strong Wind to Miami: Hurricane, Centering Near Nassau Has 150 Miles an Hour Speed.” An equally big headline on the right side of the page read, “Knife Hurled at Princess with Envoys,” about a knife thrown at Princess Louise of Sweden.
And then… silence. There was no newspaper on September 19.
The paper returned on September 20 and pretty much the entire paper (and the one on the 21st), which was printed at the facilities of the Palm Beach Post, was dedicated to the hurricane. Property damage in Miami—in 1926—was placed between $13,000,000 and $100,000,000. Martial law was declared. President Coolidge asked for aid. Lists of the dead filled the papers.
As you may remember, I am from South Florida. My elementary school was in the Coral Gables/Pinecrest area and I’m a proud graduate of Beach High (I’ve got Hi Tide Pride!). My parents still live in Miami Beach and my mom is a professor at the New World School of the Arts. I can tell you I’ve gotten no work done the past couple of days because all I can do is refresh the Miami Herald site and the NOAA maps. My parents are safely out of harm’s way as are 90 percent of my friends. The other 10 percent, I’d say I’m praying for, if I were a praying kind of person.
As a Floridian, I didn’t live through many actual hurricanes. Lots of scares. Lots of taping up of windows and filling bathtubs with water. Tropical Storm David is my sharpest memory, but by the time Andrew rolled around, I was an adult living in New York. My parents had to deal with the Andrew aftermath, but for them, luckily, it was minor. A tree in the roof, but nothing unfixable.
I wish I were just researching history. South Florida in general, and Miami Beach in particular, are so vulnerable to the poor planning of the town pioneers and the vagrancies of climate change. Simple rain storms place the Beach under water, and the town is trying to compensate by raising the streets, a fool’s errand if ever there was one. All it does is keep the roads clear and lets the water flow into the buildings surrounding it.
Miami Beach is one big cautionary tale. The more I research it, the more I see that. An island created from nothing, built from the sand dredged from the bottom of the bay. It’s an ecological nightmare. Yet it’s home. And I hope against hope that Irma will spare it.