I have talked about my love of the ocean. The wild exuberant Pacific, the solemn Atlantic. The exotic Caribbean.
The gentle Gulf.
The Gulf is my ocean, the waters I grew up in and near. The ocean I love more than any other.
Oh, I have walked along the Pacific, listening to the roar of the waves crashing against the rocks. (I once swam in the Pacific, in Hawaii, which was the only place other than San Diego that I have ever been where the Pacific was warm enough to swim in.) I have waded the shores of the Atlantic at dawn, helping release baby sea turtles to hopefully help a species decimated by human activity avoid extinction. I have stood on the beaches of Key West and St. Croix, looking at the Caribbean waters which were a shade of blue more wonderful than anything in the world, except the brilliant cornflower of a San Francisco fall sky.
But the Gulf… The Gulf spoiled me. I once told a group of women, most of whom had grown up along the Atlantic Coast, that any temperature under seventy degrees was simply too cold to swim in. My pronouncement was greeted with derision; one young woman declared that that was “bath water.” They were, of course, wrong.
In my neck of the woods, the Pacific is showy: look at me, it seems to say: I am spectacular, I am dangerous. It is an ocean that could have been precisely designed for car commercials. Crashing waves and dramatic rocks – and the lighthouses, of course – show up in calendars. Nobody ever made a calendar of the Gulf: it would be too boring.
The Gulf is gentle. Until it’s not.
The Gulf usually only creates some of the storms: the rest are spawned thousands of miles away in the eastern Atlantic. (You want a dangerous ocean? Hurricanes, icebergs…The Atlantic has a lot to answer for.) But the Gulf and her sister the Caribbean caress them, feed them, grow them into monsters that can destroy cities. She gives her water for the surges that wash over islands and seawalls. The water that floods houses, that collapses buildings. That devastates lives. That warmth that I so love turns into a power source making the storms ever larger and longer-lasting.
The results of the sisters’ handiwork can be seen in the aftermath of Irma and Maria: in the houses stripped of roofs, the impassable roads. In islands that may not be habitable for months, perhaps (in the case of Barbuda, years, if ever). In people scrambling for food, water, fuel, power. In the Florida Keys, which straddle both seas, now being nothing more than a glorified sandbar, at least for months to come.
In Puerto Rico, people struggling all the while the U.S. government can not get its act together enough to provide adequate help. It’s Katrina all over again, made worse by the fact that, even though they proclaim otherwise, Trump and his people seem to not really believe the Puerto Ricans are American citizens. (Look at the disparate treatment of the Texans slammed by Harvey. Tell me that the Puerto Ricans are not being treated as red-headed stepchildren.)
And Harvey… The Gulf fed energy and moisture as Harvey sat for hours – days – driving more and more rain into Houston, a city already threatened by climate change. You could see the pictures on the nightly news of people being carried from their flooded houses into waiting boats. (And in one unforgivable case, Immigration and Customs Enforcement grabbing and deporting an undocumented kid doing rescue work.)
Every year St. Croix (an island I love and whose destruction at the winds of Maria upsets me) and many other islands celebrate Hurricane Thanksgiving Day on November 14. I’m not sure that they will have much to be thankful for this year.
After the devastating winds, and the driving rain, and the killer storm surge, the Gulf will return to her deceptive gentleness. At least until the next storm, be it in two weeks or two years. And if you stand on the white sand beaches on the Pinellas barrier islands or the Florida panhandle and have the waves lick your toes, you might be unaware of her deviousness.
The Gulf is treacherous.
I still love her.