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What Do Hurricanes And Yellow Fever Have In Common?

The cover of a certificate that confirms that the holder has been vaccinated against yellow fever.

The cover of a certificate that confirms that the holder has been vaccinated against yellow fever.

I grew up in South Florida at a time before hurricanes were named and no one evacuated anyone anywhere. It was when grownups talked in somber voices of the hurricane of Labor Day 1935, the strongest hurricane ever recorded, with winds at 200 m.p.h. That was the time when World War I veterans, working in three CCC camps, were swept off the Florida Keys along with a rescue train that was blown off the tracks. It was also the time when hurricanes were announced by train whistles, sirens, radios, birds flying low, and women going into early labor. Seminoles also reportedly believed that a hurricane was coming when the sawgrass bloomed, a dictum that had to come from some non-Indian as Seminoles know full well that the sawgrass blooms every fall.

After the word was out that a storm was coming, my father cranked down our hurricane awnings, my mother rolled up the rugs, filled the bathtubs with water, and put valuables in a tin box that she nailed to the closet shelf. When the wind picked up, we all went inside our darkened, airless house, and listened to palm fronds flapping against the metal awnings, a tree groaning in the yard, and the radios – for as long as the power lasted.

When the howling wind intensified and things started crashing against the house, we ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while my mother ran around with pots catching drips like a shortstop, my brother made ghost faces with a flashlight under his chin, and my father told stories, like the one about the Wakulla Volcano in the Panhandle. My father always began the story with a disclaimer that, even though geologists agree volcanoes in Florida are an impossibility, witnesses continued to report pillars of smoke pouring into the sky from a volcano in a swamp 30 miles outside Tallahassee, where compasses wouldn’t work and boulders as black as charcoal appeared to have been blown out of a crater 600 feet across.

Read the entire article in the December 2011 issue