Why We Feel a Guilty Thrill When a Hurricane Threatens to Come Ashore

The psychology of the crowd before a storm.

At 6:15 a.m., a gale-force wind blows open the balcony doors on the AirBNB bedroom where my girlfriend and I are staying, like a poltergeist haunting Martha’s Vineyard.

Is it the opening strains of Hurricane Joaquin, warning shots from the Category 4 storm that lashed the Bahamas and has New England piqued?

Gruesome weather is already summoning itself on the East Coast. Short, powerfully intense gusts of wind, soaked roads, twisted trees. A tropical storm, clearing its throat before a speech…

How does the world tilt before a hurricane? The unease is palpable. On Tuesday, it was clams casino and a violet sunset. By Thursday, Vineyard townies wore a mealy look; tourists looked dazed, their vacation plans soaked through. On the bright side, everyone, this is suddenly much more exciting than lighthouses and birdwatching.

“I love it,” says Darby Bosch. He’s our cab driver on the excursion from the house we’ve been renting to the ferry landing, an escape back to shore. “It weeds out the pretenders.”

Bosch has his own outlook on storms. When Hurricane Sandy was due to come ashore, “it was like every rat off the sinking ship. Back to New York City. Of course, it missed us entirely — and hit New York instead.” We chuckle at the gallows turnabout. This is New England, don’t forget; these are Massachusetts people. “It takes a lot to impress us.” Bosch says. “Stiff upper lip. We need to see it to believe it.”

Six years ago, it was feared Hurricane Earl would do damage to the East Coast. “It might have knocked a chair over,” Bosch remembers with a grin. But he knows he’s not invulnerable. “Ask New Orleans about that,” he says. “Sooner or later, the warnings come true.”

The car falls quiet. I’m thinking about how, before we left, John, the caretaker, stopped over, and we told him about the doors blowing open. “You’ve got to set the panel locks,” he said. “All these coastal houses have ‘em.” So much for that. We stare without speaking at the house, rain pitter-pattering on our Patagonias. Through the storm, the house will sit empty, riding out the bad weather alone. Sort of a melancholy thought.

We make it to the ferry landing. In the harbor, skiffs tug at their moorings. Bells chime; a mournful foghorn blows. The pier lurches. The sea is green-brown, and sick-looking; the sky, mottled gray.

The line to board the ferry off the island is four times as long as it was when we arrived. Yet to our surprise, there’s also people coming to the island. I stop one, a mustachioed man who looks like Mr. Kidd, the villain from Diamonds Are Forever.

“Excuse me, sir,” I start, “but, um, did you hear about the hurricane?”

His name is John Landis — no relation, some resemblance — and he’s much more patient with the question than I expect him to be. Says he runs a deep muscle therapy practice here. It occurs to me Landis is an anagram of Island.

“Do you do anything to get ready for something like a hurricane?”

He winces. Hurricane is such a loaded word. “I have food stocked, water stored away,” he says. He looks past me, waves to someone. Wind lifts his combover over his head like a corona. “What about you?”


“Yes. Where are you going?”

“New York City.”

“They’ll get it much worse than us, I imagine.”

We laugh, exchange a handshake, break apart. That sounds like the diagnosis. Some other poor bastards will catch the brunt, surely.

After all, what is a hurricane? A displaced, tempestuous, unpredictable, even hopped-up thing. The rumbling bulldozer to a tornado’s piston-shot. It’s so big, so amorphous, that you half-feel it’s as much nowhere as it is everywhere. You think: This is going to be rough. And then you think: But I bet I’d be fine. And so you think: Why not let ‘er rip?

“That’s the rule on the island,” Bosch told us. “Once they sound the alert that you’re supposed to evacuate, they stop asking questions. It’s presumed you’ve left. The Coast Guard stays, in case some idiot tries to take a boat out. But after that, it’s every man for himself.”

There’s a certain guilty ambivalence, a maybe-sorta-kinda-rooting-for-the-storm-to-come, that undergirds everything here. Disasters clarify our lives. Cold coffee, bad service, impotence, rudeness, petty slights become of the most distant concern.

Maybe the coast seems inured to disaster because they welcome it. If the Vineyard were to get swamped, nobody would seem shocked. They’d pick through the soggy remains of our lives and persevere. These are New England folk, after all. Stiff upper lip. Takes a lot. ‘Cause it’s worse somewhere else. Almost always.

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