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Tue August 17, 2004
The Sounds of a Hurricane
By Catherine McCall
Wilmington NC – [Click the Listen button to hear Catherine's commentary.]
At first there were the same ordinary beeps, bursts and blows of modern daily life. Ice ricocheting in the freezer, the intermittent exhale of the air conditioner fan, the low gurgling hum of the computer. There was also the melodramatic music accompanying commercial breaks on the Weather Channel and the tapered excitement in the broadcaster?s voice as she revealed Hurricane Charley?s latest coordinates.
Next came the rain. It was a gentle summer rain at first, one whose drumming rhythms invited the reading of a novel, the Weather Channel blessedly on mute. We?d had rain all morning and nary a blow of wind, such that the radar on the television didn?t seem to have application to reality. Even the forecasters were saying we?d have some gusts but they would be next to nothing compared to what Florida experienced. True enough, although wind is wind and plenty blew our way.
So the wind bumped up by midday, but still the drone of modern convenience drowned it out, at least for a little while. Flicker, buzz, the awful broken shriek of the smoke detector and then?the household came unplugged.
There is not silence during a hurricane; it?s more of a key change in a song. We could now hear leaves whooshing and brushing against each other. Large branches occasionally cracked and thudded onto the ground. Pine cones slammed into the roof like oversized popcorn kernels.
The wind had entered its crescendo--that eerie mix of wolf howl and locomotive whistle, a sound like none other made in nature. That?s one of the strangest things about a hurricane, you can see the effects of the wind, you can hear the siren-like rampage of its force but the air itself remains invisible. When you look out the window it doesn?t appear red and yellow like it did on the long ago gone silent television screen. You must rely on watching the wind?s effects. You must develop an ear for distinguishing which howls are sustained and which might reveal that a tornado is barreling toward you.
These sounds are foreign, awesome, barbaric.
Then a few hours later, at least with fast-moving Charley, there fell the briefest period of quiet. The house was still powerless, the trees swayed to a halt, the rain stopped falling, even the gulls had yet to return with their laughter. This was a moment to murmur thanks before zealous chain saws sliced the silence wide open.
Eardrum crushing generators kicked into gear as that great pulse of industrialization roared back to life. The machines spit and rumbled all afternoon until darkness hushed up the saws. Flat, loud echoes of the surrounding generators created an odd contrast to the blackened street---and to the frogs that gleefully bellowed from the swollen ditches.
These are the sounds of a hurricane, at least the ones we hear most easily. Quieter still--but heard by the keenest hearts--are the blessings counted and the tears that must be shed.
Catherine McCall is a psychiatrist.