IT’s a bit late now to be throwing my placid nature to the winds and morphing into a storm chaser. But that’s exactly what I have done. I’ve spent most of the weekend jumping from Sky News to CNN and back to the BBC trying to find the most dramatic descriptions of Hurricane Irma, as she roared furiously across the Caribbean leaving a wide swathe of death and destruction in her wake, before smashing into Florida.
I’m a little bit ashamed of myself to be honest, because there was something vaguely voyeuristic about watching live coverage of such an awesome and terrifying manifestation of nature from the safety and comfort of a fireside armchair with a glass of wine in my hand. Real storm-chasers don’t do that! Nevertheless, I’m jaded.
I was interrupted now and again by himself - who had fallen asleep in the other armchair just as the eye of the storm approached Naples – waking up with a start, half an hour later thinking he had missed the All-Ireland football final.
‘That’s a week away yet,’ I growled, sounding like I might turn into a category 5 hurricane myself at any minute if there were any more interruptions.
I don’t know whether it was the wine or the amazing coverage, but I was transfixed. Intrepid reporters lashed by unprecedented wind and rain and barely able to stay on their feet, were spouting adjectives and metaphors with a force and energy that would do justice to a storm surge. And I was back again on January 6, 1839, the night of the ‘Big Wind’ wondering what it was like when what must have been at least a category 3 hurricane pounded this small island, scooping up hundreds of mud-walled cabins, smashing church spires, rocking the houses on Arthur’s Quay like a cradle, killing up to 300 people and uprooting 250,000 trees, most of them from the vast estates of the landed gentry.
One man, who lived 50 miles from the sea, found dead salt-water fish in his fields the following day. That must have been even more terrifying than the storm surge that swamped Miami Beach on Sunday, because as anyone familiar with Irish folklore will tell you, finding dead fish on your inland farm is an ominous sign. Someone has tried to work a pisheog on you.
There were no cameras to capture the devastation then, but in fairness the newspapers did an admirable job of recording the aftermath for posterity. Every day, they carried reports from around the country and the story was the same everywhere – so much the same that their readers complained that they were getting the same news every day, albeit from different places. Like me, watching Irma, they were jaded.
But the response of the Dublin Evening Standard was admirable. The editorial writer replied to the critics with the ultimate rejoinder: ‘It is not for the purpose of interesting or still less, amusing the readers, that we have deemed it necessary to report, day after day, in respect of different places, the same thing. It is to put on record the extent and nature of the calamity.’
No wonder then that I was feeling a little bit ashamed at being jaded from over exposure to the ravages of Irma .
But outside of the thrill, there was another reason why I had a vested interest in ‘Irma’. Not long after it was born in the strange waters of the Caribbean, and at least a week before it made landfall, it was dubbed ‘the storm of the century’. All the hype made me wonder if the second coming might be at hand or if we had simply and recklessly created this monster ourselves with our big carbon footprints.
Right in its category 5 projected path, even then, were the British Virgin Islands, where Richard Branson, a man after my own heart, made for the wine cellar to ride out the storm. But on the neighbouring island, Tortola, most of the residents did not have that luxury. I have never been to Tortola, but I feel as if I know every stone on it. My daughter spent a memorable few weeks there two years ago when she went out to visit her best friend who lived in Roadtown for nearly three years, and who only returned to Ireland in June. Roadtown suffered dreadful devastation and loss of life, and there was nobody there to capture it until it was over.
But apart from that very tenuous connection, there is a certain universality about huge natural disasters like Irma, that transcend the kind of parochial concerns that affected the readers of the ‘Dublin Evening Standard’ 178 years ago. The world is a much smaller place now and there is more than a possibility that we know someone caught up in the middle of a catastrophe. As well as that we all believe in the implications of global warning and the need to protect the planet. But in the face of nature’s most violent forces - and the scientists and environmentalists won’t thank me for saying this - some of us still believe that it is even more important to place our trust in Him who walked the waters of Galilee.