In August we took a long weekend to visit the Florida Panhandle, staying and attending church in Port St. Joseph — ground zero for Hurricane Michael — eating dinner one night in Mexico Beach, where the storm made official landfall yesterday; and spending a day on the beach at Cape San Blas and another in Apalachicola, both of which, on Wednesday, went underwater — observing all the while, during the trip, this area’s vulnerability to cyclone destruction.
It was a storm of ironies — and destiny. It starts of course with the name — Michael, as in the great Archangel who wars with evil, as now our world finds itself in the midst of evil that rises on all sides, that manifests in all segments of society, that knows no political aisle. From there we go to the name St. Joseph. What does that tell us — can we associate with the way he depended on an angel to stay ahead of disaster? Joseph too is associated with fighting darkness — scourge of demons, the town named after him, in the Panhandle, now in tatters, perhaps ruins. Will it be, we wonder, like the destruction we saw upon visiting Homestead in the 1990s in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew?
That will depend on whether Hurricane Michael had the same core tautness and eyewall tornadoes. In barometric pressure, it was among the half a dozen lowest on record to hit the U.S., pressure being a key gauge of strength. Many years ago, we wrote about the danger, in the Gulf of Mexico, of deep “warm-ring cores,” spin-offs from the Gulf Stream that can be a hundred miles wide and a mile deep with abnormally warm water at this time when — discarding political debates (which have turned absurd) — the water in spots is nearly four degrees higher than normal.
Ironically, the storm struck the same year as this region of the nation — Florida’s Gulf Coast — has reeled from a more slow-motion devastation due to “red tide” — nasty, fish-killing algae spawned by the unusual warmth as well as the overuse of farm and lawn chemicals. It also washed over barrier islands — on which the wealthy have built luxury homes and condos even though such land was never meant for that — was put there by God in a pristine state to do just what the name implies: protect the mainland.
Construction on such islands across the state (especially around Miami and Palm Beach) and across the nation has not only displaced wildlife and spoiled the natural wonder of what God created here, but stripped the land of marsh that was meant (by God) to absorb storm surge.
These are matters — ironies — with which we must reckon, along with how nature seems to parallel the turbulence and chaos in society. When has it been more roiled? The 1860s? On Wednesday, also in the stock market. There are mystics who have long predicted the economy of the U.S. would in the end dissipate due to — natural disasters. Note how the truly bad storms catch forecasters by surprise.
So we see precursors, if we have the eyes to see. So we see the need to purify, each of us personally. So we encounter the urgency to pray and fast that in the current societal fog we can begin to observe more clearly.
As for Port St. Joe: we pray for all those there and in other places in the Panhandle and wherever else this storm causes effects. As I write (from Virginia, en route to a retreat about such signs), it approaches, even here, as a tropical storm.
“The sun shone brightly over the wrecked ambitious work of man. Death’s Angel, the hurricane, had completed the work begun by its brother, Pestilence (yellow fever), and buried beneath the sands of the sea, or swept to the four winds of Heaven, all that remained of the proud young city of St. Joseph.”
Thus wrote George Mortimer West, Chicago newspaperman and founder of Panama City, in his story published in 1922 entitled, “Old St. Joe.” As an article two years ago, related, “In September of 1837, two gales wrecked the city and blew ships ashore. In 1839, another storm hit the city, demolishing buildings and blowing three ships ashore. In the summer of 1841, yellow fever struck and decimated the city. Of the possible 5,000 people that lived in St. Joseph, most of them either died or left. When the fever abated in September, only 500 remained in the city. Again, on Sept. 14, another hurricane hit and destroyed the large, expansive wharf. No ships were wrecked because there were none in the bay. Commerce was dead. To add insult, that fall, nature sent a fire through the forest and city.”
It is an area of ironies and destiny and an indication to us of how chastisement unfolds.