I am in Sarasota, Florida, waiting for a hurricane named Irma, born on the desert plains of North Africa, en route to my state and possibly to my city with record speeds and massive body size, and with the prophetic expectation of great destruction and mayhem. If I listen to the news too much, I will believe that I will be floating in the Gulf of Mexico soon, with no cell phone bars to call home and with my last memories of Facebook friends telling me to be safe. The weather forecasters, after a while, become unbearable and start sounding like information sadists feeding off the excitement of delivering deadly news—all with maps, satellite photos, and multicolored mathematical modeled paths of annihilation. I stay glued to the weather channel hoping for clues that Irma might go elsewhere, for this is one lottery I do not want to win.
The last time I wrote about a big storm, it was a metaphorical one on the Confederate pushback. In this piece, I talk about the reactive, Trump-induced Alt-Reich movement and my sixteen-year project, Recoloration Proclamation, a collection of recolored flags, installations, music, performative texts, and film that examines and responds to the “hurricane” of Confederacy and its sign, symbols, and cataclysm of white supremacy tried and tested in the Civil War—the greatest storm of American history. Since then, many storms have charted their path across this country, creating both division and coalition.
Sure enough, recently, one of those storms appeared in Charlottesville, Virginia, with a flood of neo-Nazis and Confederates from all over, leaving one dead and setting the stage for many more storms to follow. The storm, as metaphor for fear and social political disruption, is so apparent, it’s almost cliché. But when you consider the recent number of catastrophic weather events—Harvey, Sandy, Katrina, the recent earthquake in Mexico, and monsoons in South Asia—it almost feels like nature is mirroring back humanity’s own social physics or trying to tell us something about our collective narcissism. Or maybe this is the strongest evidence yet for global warming.
What makes humans so extraordinary compared to our primate buddies is our capacity to be empathetic and to cooperate (willingly or unwillingly) in large numbers in times of need, stress, and emergency, particularly with strangers. But what also makes humans so self-destructive is the insatiable lust for opportunity at the expense of other folks’ vulnerability.
One positive outcome of the mighty hurricane is that it makes you face the idea of your imminent mortality, forcing you to think about what is really important and what is not. Another benefit of a hurricane, especially if you are black or on the Trump “suspicious” list, is that cops are less likely to pull you over for random searches, harassment, and possible deportation, especially if it is very windy. You may witness the goodness of humanity when people risk their lives to save the lives of strangers. You could even be that stranger or that good Samaritan, and the person who saves you might be Mexican, Muslim, or a Dreamer from China. And ultimately you might witness this special collective spirit to survive—a love affair with the better parts of humanity that usually last about as long as the hurricane does.
The flip side of that is when folks fight over water, generators, and canned foods. When they choose property over people, or when storefront looters risk jail for wet sneakers, we have a breach of not only civility but sanity. While media love and promote the optics of such breaches of law and order, the truly dangerous folks to worry about are not the neighborhood petty criminals, but the insurance companies, humanitarian organizations, and out-of-control government agencies. And since natural disaster recovery is a billion-dollar industry, somebody is getting paid, and it is not your average homeowner or some waitress renting a flat in a flood zone.
Insurance companies are likely to commit the most egregious abuses after a storm—their business is to take in high and give out low. In 2016, State Farm Insurance was successfully sued in the Supreme Court for defrauding victims of Hurricane Katrina. Before that, they were sued by the state of Mississippi after they left a tab of $522 million for the state to foot due to “adjusting” the policyholder reports. And lately some insurance scams have sought to profit from using robocalls to reach out to victims with urgent messages to pay fictional premiums.
Charity organizations, including churches and national relief groups, have come under brazen scrutiny as well. Houston’s megachurch preacher Joel Osteen came under attack for closing his church doors during Hurricane Harvey. And recently, Houston City Councilman Dave Martin, in response to the Red Cross’s slow delivery response, has urged folks not to donate to the group and is quoted in the press as saying, “They are the most inept unorganized organization I’ve ever experienced.” The Red Cross registered massive mismanagement complaints during Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. And what happened to the $500 million that the Red Cross raised for the earthquake in Haiti? We are still searching for where that money went. And our dear government is not exactly providing sterling examples of how relief care and recovery should operate. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and its insurance arm have gotten poor marks for handling Hurricane Katrina and were accused of defrauding thousands of policyholders during Hurricane Sandy, leading to a massive restructuring of the insurance program.
In the Caribbean, devastation seems like the tragic penance for paradisiacal beauty and shallow blue-green waters. The British Virgin Islands, Barbuda, and St. Martin and surrounding islands were the locations to greet Hurricane Irma, a category-five monster lauded as the most powerful weather event to ever approach Miami. Barbuda was 90 percent destroyed. Billionaire Richard Branson hunkered down nearby on his own piece of paradise, Necker Island, in an underground cellar with his crew only to rise the next day to the reality of nature as the great equalizer. Shortly after the storm, he was in Puerto Rico, helping out, where he is advocating a special Marshall Plan of sorts for the Caribbean. Irma’s flirtation with the west coast of Cuba spared Miami from total destruction before it turned north—headed right toward me. Great for Miami; bad for me. My studio was two blocks from the mandatory evacuation zone and four long blocks from the water.
Once Irma started coming my way, shit got real. It was too late to leave. Too late to negotiate. My landlord, who didn’t live nearby, evacuated from the shores of Port Charlotte to the unit next door, and so did half a dozen others from his neighborhood. For years he had been a system architect for Florida Power & Light, where his job was to forecast hurricane damage and model weather impact. The fact that he showed up, from his east Florida work outpost, meant two things: we felt safer in numbers and we were with someone who knew about hurricane safety. Also it meant I would not be blasting my 90s R&B classics in my final moments, because maybe this wasn’t the end. However, my first concern, as an artist of objects, was how I was going to keep the water from getting into my studio from under the garage door, ruining all of my recolored Confederate flags and MathArt quilts. The thought of losing my space created not-so-silent anxiety in me to figure out how to protect my work even over my own life. And since all the sandbags were gone—along with gas, bottled water, and basic civility—I had to improvise with this:
After I finished my makeshift sandbag project, I thought to myself, what a lame response to Irma. But in those few moments of shoveling dirt, I felt like I was protecting something very valuable to me: my art space, a place that took years to ferment, a place that maps the torment and clarity of my mind, and a place that lives its life as much as I do. To lose this would be tragic. But I was conflicted. While I should have been taping things down and hiding under a bed, I wanted to create something and play hide-and-seek with the great swirling Frisbee of nature. The guilty excitement of possible destruction brought out my desire to feel, to witness and document this great moment of collective fear about something bigger than the police or Trump or the painful pasts of this country, pushing me beyond the expected space to protect and preserve. And the dangers of the hurricanes, like that of the KKK or white supremacy or all that is wrong today, were all the same to me in this moment. They were an opportunity to be alive and push back, however small the gesture felt. So I grabbed my camera and headed out to the empty streets of downtown Sarasota.
I made my way to the Sarasota Bay to say goodbye, or at least to welcome the water monster with a few words or coarse arm gestures of resistance. While looking out on the bayfront, where the sun, boats, waters, tall buildings, moving traffic, and beautiful palm trees can be caught in the same photo frame, I realized that maybe I wasn’t there to say goodbye but to reflect on being in Florida for so long. Maybe it was to say hello to the possibility of the unknown. I was surprised to see how many people were out taking selfies against the open, windy skies, with the mega-storm just hours away. I met a newscaster from Canada who told me that the fact that he was there meant that this storm was super-serious, which I already knew.
On my way back to the studio, I decided to visit Main Street, a very familiar place in Sarasota. It was empty. Completely empty. This was the place where we drop the pineapple on New Year’s Eve, go to countless art and cultural fairs during the year, and visit the farmers market on Saturday. I have walked these streets many times, day and night, almost always the only black man in sight, especially in the daytime, where white men often call me brother and some white woman thinks my hair is an opportunity to play petting zoo.
I thought about how these downtown streets changed over the years. There was a tiki bar spot around the corner with a sandpit for playing volleyball. The Burger King became a Brooks Brothers and my favorite old-school hardware store is now a sports bar. New buildings abound: Whole Foods, fancy shops for the well-to-do, a shop just for string instruments. But what has not changed is the high population of homeless people, the lack of black businesses, and frequent sightings of very expensive cars.
I walked to Five Points, a place in the center of town where five streets come together. If only these street could talk. But right then they were empty and mine for the moment. On my way back to my car, someone drove up to me to ask me if I needed a ride. I said sure. I hopped in and then asked him to pull over a third of a block later. He was puzzled and asked me why I didn’t just walk to my car. I said, “Why not?” and that he might be the last person I ever talk to in person. He nodded in agreement and drove off toward the space where land met sky.
Now that Irma has come and gone, I still wonder how many people have died or will die, how many people will get scammed, and how many lives are forever changed. Millions of Floridians are without power, and many are without homes and drivable streets. On the surface, that seems manageable. But it is not. In Hollywood, Florida, eight elder patients died at a nursing home due to lost air conditioning because of power failure. And my favorite tree, one I saw on my walking route, was uprooted and laid to bed. The damage ranges from minor to major, sentimental to unfathomable, and from inconvenient to life changing.
After Irma hit, Senator Rubio (R) started hypocritically pushing to get FEMA funds from Congress to help Florida now, whereas in 2013 he voted against funding for Hurricane Sandy for New York and New Jersey. And if you add the Red Cross and the insurance companies to the mix, I am worried that corruption, money mismanagement, and substandard services for the disenfranchised will be the norm and not the exception.
Now that Irma is just a friendly mist somewhere in the Midwest, there are other storms—metaphorical ones, political and economic—gearing up to make landfall. If we really believe in the magic of human cooperation, we need to keep a watchful eye on the recovery powers that be and the vulnerable ones left in need, as we mourn the losses, rebuild the broken, and wait for the next cycle of hurricanes.