The weather in my hometown is easy.
Fairhope wags on the tail of Alabama, where the brackish waters of Mobile Bay tame briny gusts off the Gulf of Mexico. Humidity is a blanket, close to the skin. In summer, the sky collects water until it breaks into booming storms that dissolve at whim into dewy sunshine. Fall and spring only suggest cooler temperatures. Winter is a foreign concept, one I did not understand until I left home and headed north for cities, a job, a relationship. In Fairhope, fierce warmth — the kind that causes sweat to pool under the armpits and well up in beads on my sister’s nose — is constant. For most of my life, good weather has been a promise that Alabama keeps.
My grandfather knew how climate makes a home. He knew how weather, all else being unfamiliar, can make one feel at ease. In the spring of 1975, my father’s family was one of thousands that fled from Vietnam to the refugee camps in Guam. Their final destination: the United States. At fifteen, my father was the oldest of eight. He spoke the most English and had the most education. (My grandparents had sent him to a Catholic seminary to take up the priesthood, a respectable profession for the eldest, but a poor one for an atheist.) So when it was time to decide where exactly in America the family should go, my grandfather enlisted my father’s help and told him to pay attention to climate.
His charge: Find a place in the United States where the weather and environment were similar to home. A place where skin stays moist, and where my grandparents could garden perilla, opo squash, and bitter melon. When my father was young, his family lived on a river, the ocean never far. And so, bonus points for a waterfront town.
“That reduced our problems of starting a new life in a totally new environment,” my father, ever the pragmatist, told me years later. “It’s complicated enough to start a new life in a new place without dealing with the weather.”
My father looked at a map and figured the bottom of the new country would be warmest. He noticed how Alabama’s tail kisses the ocean, how the Gulf of Mexico forms a tub. Florida presented itself as an option worth considering. (To my chagrin, he missed Hawai‘i on the map.) But the sponsors who agreed to take on the family of ten — a necessary step in the government’s resettlement program — lived in Alabama, and proximity to them was ideal. My father’s family moved to Fairhope in 1975.
In 1988, my mother, a young Thai nurse then living in Tennessee, visited her physician uncle in Mobile, the big city across the bay from Fairhope. Thinking the balmy weather and gentle seasons would help his asthma, her uncle had opened a small practice there after years of working in New York and roving with the air force. (Surely the parallels between the weather in southern Alabama and the weather in Bangkok didn’t escape his notice.) My mother’s uncle took her to a nice Fairhope restaurant called Twin Oaks, named after the sister trees on its lawn and run by a large Vietnamese family. My father — four-foot-eleven and charming — greeted customers on the guitar, singing Simon & Garfunkel. When he greeted my mother, that was that.
In Fairhope, my family found the familiarity of coastal storms, heavy air, and heat. (The racial climate was not on the radar.) The Fairhope I know is a pleasant, unhurried town in Alabama’s Baldwin County: very white, and popular with artists, writers, and retirees. The city plants flowers atop its trash cans and, from Thanksgiving to Mardi Gras, hangs Christmas lights on the trees downtown. We boast beautiful beaches, but they’re small enough to escape the neon attention of spring breakers.
My address is at the intersection of climate and coincidence. Fairhope sits at the mouth of the country’s most biodiverse river system, which washes part of three neighboring states and most of Alabama into Mobile Bay. A National Park Service survey found that the world’s only other temperate region with biodiversity and productivity comparable to Alabama’s is Southeast Asia. Starting with Alabama, trace a circle around a globe and you will brush against scorching deserts. Alabama possesses their heat but is as humid as a jungle, thanks to the Gulf of Mexico, which supplies an endless stream of moisture. This combination of heat and water — Alabama is one of the rainiest states in the country — means my father chose the state that most resembles a greenhouse, whose interior maintains an even pleasantness all year long.
I have only fond childhood memories of hurricanes, which meant a day or two out of school, if I was lucky.
The storms began with a wash of fat drops. Indecisive, insistent wind possessed the rain, driving water across the yard in sheets, a sight as mesmerizing as glittering fire. Trees swayed like palms, but they were gangly longleaf pines, pin oaks, and pecans. The pool in our backyard boiled beneath the downpour and overflowed onto the cement, which had darkened to steel. And always, forever, the rain.
Once, during a hurricane when I was very young, the electricity fizzled out. The cloak of dark delighted me. I held my book close to the candle, relishing the romance and pretending to be Jo March. My grandfather cooked jambalaya over a gas burner — the big one we used for crab and crawfish boils — in the garage. He simmered corn, tomatoes, lima beans, and smoked sausages. Outside the open garage, hot gravel steamed in the rain. My little brother, sister, and I played with the buckets our father had strategically placed under the leaking roof. We imagined a herd of cows above our heads, and I gloated when my bucket filled the fastest.
We only ever evacuated once, during Hurricane Ivan when I was ten. My siblings, mother, and I caravanned with aunts and cousins to Birmingham, where we camped out at a family friend’s home. The four-hour drive took eight in hurricane traffic. My father had stayed behind to monitor the computer servers that powered his online business. I worried as he hammered plywood over the server-room windows before we drove off, but when we returned to Fairhope, we found him, the house, and the computers unscathed. I didn’t know it then, but relief was an island. If a bad storm doesn’t get you, it gets someone else. Ivan was one of the most destructive hurricanes in Alabama history, killing at least ninety people between the Caribbean and the southeastern United States.
After I left Alabama in 2012, the ever-growing roster of catastrophic Gulf hurricanes — Katrina, and then later Harvey, Irma, Michael — strained my comfort with the storms. As I tracked hurricanes each summer, I worried for the South and its outdated infrastructure. Yet my family continued to escape the worst of them.
In 2020, Hurricane Sally arrived the same day Ivan had sixteen years earlier: September 16. It was the first hurricane to make landfall in Alabama since then.
I was living in Milwaukee, a day’s drive from Fairhope. During the pandemic, I had become accustomed to the constant drone of long-distance dread: worried that my mother, a school nurse, would get sick; that my father, who forgot to leave the house with a mask, would get sick; that my grandparents, who depended on the care of my parents and aunts (one a healthcare worker, the other a pandemic skeptic) would get sick. A hurricane was only the weather. When I called my mother the evening before Sally hit, I felt no more foreboding than usual.
Sally wasn’t supposed to strike Alabama; initially, the storm set her gaze on New Orleans. But she lingered in the Gulf of Mexico, gorging on warm waters, before veering east toward Mobile Bay with little warning. I didn’t ask whether my parents had stocked up on food, water, and gas. Over video, my mother showed me backyard treetops whipping in the growing wind through the kitchen window. Rain slapped the glass, and the light was dark for the late-summer evening, so on the screen her face looked grainy and dim.
“Sally’s on her way to town,” she said.
“Stay cozy,” I said. “And call me in the morning.”
I woke the next day to news alerts that Sally had clawed through Alabama with far more violence and force than anticipated. She had swaggered through at just three miles per hour — a cruel, leisurely walk — shredding roofs and snapping power lines with hundred-mile-per-hour winds. Baldwin County had no power, and most places had no water. Cell towers were down. None of my calls to my parents went through. For several days, text messages were sporadic, aside from a message from my father to our family group chat the day after the storm:
Good morning! We’re OK. A few trees are down. The wind turned a lot of our shingles into frisbees and some of the ceiling into showerheads. A roof, carpet, ceiling, wall, trees, plants, shrubs, computers, etc. will need to be updated. I wish they could be updated as easily as we update computers. We’ll be without power for a while.
His flair for metaphor made it difficult to tell just how bad things were.
Do you have food and water? I asked the next day, when one of my messages reached him.
He said yes but offered no details about how much they had and whether it would keep without electricity. The latest estimates were that the county could expect to be without power for up to three weeks. The lack of information was annoying, and typical, but I didn’t want to drain his battery with follow-up questions.
My little sister was in school in Birmingham, and we pieced together snatches of information we’d gathered from social media. She asked whether I thought she should drive home. Our mother loves texting us constantly, and the lack of messages was disquieting. “It’s a quick drive, and I can take them supplies,” my sister offered.
“It’s not safe,” I told her. There was a run on gas in all of Baldwin County, and debris lay thick on the roads. “Stay where you are,” I said. “I’m sure they’re fine. Probably driving each other crazy.” We attempted a laugh at the thought of our brother and father, who spend more of their hours on computers than not, without electricity, and agreed to wait.
News from Fairhope filtered through: A tree had crashed through my cousin’s bedroom window. Another cousin had herded her chickens into the laundry room when the backyard coop flooded. Sally had flattened the pine orchard on my parents’ street, leaving rough, uneven stumps, like a bad haircut.
Arborists estimated that Baldwin County had lost half its trees, among them many of my favorite live oaks that hugged the coast and lined our roads. Falling trees had knocked down power lines and telephone poles. The trees that hadn’t fallen had drowned in more than a foot of rainwater. In a year already rife with economic hardship, Sally had laid ruin to soybean, cotton, and pecan crops. Crews of electricians drove in from three neighboring states to restore power. People piled debris on the roads in front of their homes, so all the roads became one-ways, with cars taking turns driving through tunnels of broken branches and hunks of roof. Labor crews helped remove the worst of it, but for months tree stumps the size of boulders littered the roadsides.
Three days after the storm, my mother called. I was so relieved to hear her voice that I didn’t think to be embarrassed as mine broke. She sounded exhausted. My parents still didn’t have power.
“The house is a mess,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
A mess: She would repeat this word over the following months when I asked what it was like to deal with insurance, contractors, roof repairs, wall repairs, a new floor, the backyard cleanup. “It’s a lot,” she would say with a dense sigh. “It’s a mess. Let’s talk about something else.”
I craved more details. Weather had altered the shape of our home, and I didn’t know the new configuration. But she seemed reluctant to talk about the house, which otherwise consumed her thoughts and time. Instead she said, “What is autumn in Milwaukee like? Send photos of the fall colors.”
Six weeks later, another hurricane formed in the Gulf. The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was the busiest on record, blowing through the alphabet with two and a half months left in the season and forcing meteorologists to use Greek letters. Back-to-back Laura and Delta had already ravaged communities across southwest Louisiana.
My parents managed to repair the outside of the house before Zeta arrived. “It’s a good opportunity to take the new roof out for a spin,” my father said.
This time, I worried overnight about my parents. They sent updates from their bathroom floor as the storm knocked through town, eating ice cream after the power went out and wondering whether that new roof would hold up. But Zeta made landfall in Louisiana, and in Alabama it was a quicker affair.
Sally felt like a sixteen-year fluke. Now that the house was repaired, the piers rebuilt, the beaches cleaned, it would be easy to laugh her off. But in those months of unrelenting wind and rain, it seemed that the season of Fairhope’s relative safety had come to an end.
Climate change has emboldened hurricanes. Heat fuels storms. In the ocean, warmer water fosters stronger storms, and in the sky, warmer air carries more water vapor, which leads to more rainfall. As the sea level rises, the risk of storm surges and flooding climbs. Atlantic hurricanes have slowed over the last century. There is a languidness to their wrath. Slower hurricanes lumber over the land, dumping ever more rain and creating more opportunities for destruction. They’re traveling farther too, mocking the historic bounds of hurricane zones.
Is home still home when the weather changes? My grandfather knew the importance of weather, which charts the passage of time. It wields the power to determine the quality of a day, whether it’s clear sun against azure or bitter, wet, windy. We get to know the weather where we live. We become attuned to the moods of the sky and what comes next.
The future will eventually disabuse us of feeling at home in the weather. I once relished the never-ending cocoon of the rain. Then hurricanes took on a darker shade of gray.
After Sally and Zeta, I decided to leave Milwaukee and drive home for the holidays. I felt guilty: my partner, Alex, would be alone for Thanksgiving and Christmas, in the middle of the first pandemic winter. “You’re not coming back till March,” he moaned, when things felt especially bleak. “You go down there now, you won’t be able to come back with the winter weather.” At least he has the cats, I reassured myself.
It was my first winter in Wisconsin, and no matter what Alex said, I didn’t appreciate that my plans to return in the new year were entirely up to the vagaries of the weather. The filthy icebergs that formed in parking lots perplexed me — they persisted for days — and I jumped every time I heard the snowplow’s snarl. I laughed at the frozen shore of Lake Michigan; icy beaches had seemed impossible until I saw them myself. Alex’s sister gave me a bright orange hat and vest, which confused me until I realized I was supposed to wear them when I went hiking so that hunters wouldn’t mistake me for a deer.
I drove from Wisconsin to Alabama in one day, peeling off layers as I passed through each state: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee. I arrived in the middle of the night to the empty apartment where I’d arranged to spend the next two weeks quarantining. It was balmy, even for December. I unpacked the car, sweating in the familiar humidity and the long johns I didn’t need any more.
When my two weeks were up, I moved into my old room, eager to be home. Just months before, it had been one of the hardest hit areas in the house — the soggiest. Now the bed, wardrobe, and mattress were gone. My mother told me she’d had to toss my old books after the pages dissolved into pulp and mold.
For a couple of weeks, until a cousin offered her old mattress, I slept on a futon my uncle lent me. Downstairs, my parents had restored the kitchen tile and replaced waterlogged carpet with wood. The walls were freshly painted and, in some places where water had soaked through, rebuilt. On the way to my bedroom, I kept tripping on the top step because the stairs were reconstructed a hair taller than what my feet remembered. The fresh interior disturbed me. In its newness, I saw a shadow of the damage that had required these repairs.
Months after Sally, signs of her ferocity remained. Three clumsy pits gaped from my parents’ backyard, where pecan trees had fallen. Amputated trees carved unfamiliar holes in the sky, and heaps of wreckage lined the roads. But there were still daily walks by the shore — no matter the route, we always ran into some friend of my mother’s — and sweet satsumas to pick. It was as sunny and warm as winter in Fairhope can be, and I thanked the bright, apologetic sun.
Alex was right: I had to postpone my return to Milwaukee twice because of snowstorms. At the end of January, I steeled myself for shorter, darker days and headed north.
Back in Wisconsin, after a dismal stretch of winter, I told Alex I felt like a slug. The temperature had stalled below zero, and my eyes and nostrils ached in the cold. I missed Alabama’s dependable warmth and my intimacy with the whims of its sky. Midwestern winter made me uneasy. I questioned everything: the safety of the road, the sufficiency of my layers (never enough), the whine of my car, which seemed to hate the cold as much as I did. My father had told me it would be hard to build a new life against the backdrop of new weather. That’s what I was trying to do in Milwaukee, where I’d moved to be with Alex. I felt dislocated in my new state, torn between resenting the cold and willing myself to acclimate.
Though hardly obvious to me, winters in the upper Midwest are warming rapidly, eroding beloved traditions like ice fishing, maple runs, and sledding. As the Great Lakes warm, the ice shrinks, forming later and melting earlier. In springtime, heavy downpours give rise to dangerous floods. I’d moved to a new place and found the weather unaccommodating. But the cold obscured a looming obstacle, one I’d have faced in Milwaukee and Fairhope alike: uncertainty.
My mother likes to check my weather, and in our daily text exchanges, she informs me of the latest forecast. In our respective weather apps, we each have a carousel of the places different family members call home: Fairhope, Huntsville, Milwaukee, Philly. To know the weather surrounding a loved one is to know the world they live in, to be a little closer, despite vast distances. This is true even when that weather induces worry.
When a snap of subzero days broke, I strode into the twenty-five-degree day with a stupid optimism, and the sun was a salve. It’s sunny for you today in Milwaukee, my mother told me from the other side of the country. Did you go on a walk yet?
On clear days like that, when the sky was blue and bright, I could see the beauty in this weather. On the shore of Lake Michigan, icy shards clinked in the waves, and the sand cracked under my boots. I sent my mother a photo of myself grinning, bundled up on the snow-covered beach, my eyelashes frozen.