The Vernacular of Disaster

North Carolina sky. [Photo by K.G. Hawes]

First it’s a storm watch. Every television station has its own graphic ready to deploy. Hundreds of miles to the west, there are reports of tornadoes, and the weather people are on the lookout as the system tracks toward North Carolina.

We’re not watching the skies, however. We’re having a barbeque at my sister’s house in the suburbs of Raleigh. Cousins are chasing each other around the yard under the indulgent supervision of grandparents. Hopeful dogs are watching parents plate up lunch by the grill. There’s nothing prophetic above us, just a wisp of cirrus here, a clot of stratus there, drifting in a warm blue haze.

We sit in the sunshine and wait.


I’ve spent much of my life learning the vernacular of place: the local flora and fauna, foods, building materials, soil qualities, human cultures, the folklore that grows up around what’s useful. You have to go out looking for these things. Recently I’ve come to realize that disaster is also part of the lexicon. You don’t find it, necessarily. It finds you.

The signs of local calamity, the way the sky behaves, the longstanding patterns of human anticipation, the behavior of birds and livestock: these are regionally distinctive. But it’s also true, in this era of accelerating climate change, that your local language of environmental catastrophe and mine, your flood and my drought, are connected in ways they’ve never been before. The vernacular of place is evolving, a sign that what it means to dwell in a place is undergoing a subtle transformation. Contemporary disasters divide us into regions and unify us at the same time.

My family has recently moved to Columbia, South Carolina, on the interior edge of what Philip Gerard once called Hurricanelandia. This is my first time living in the South, and I’ve been learning about the geography of our tropical cyclone basin, how the islands descend from Florida like vertebrae, the continent’s bony tail. How a storm seems to vacillate, prevaricate, turning one way and then the other, unsure. Will it come for us on the Eastern Seaboard? Or head for the Gulf Coast, for New Orleans or Galveston? The computer models splay out potential tracks, proliferating, some harmless, some devastating.

Our house is a hundred miles inland, but I’ve been warned of the potential for storms to to come ashore, veer west, and roar up the Santee River basin to Columbia. It’s happened before, a sudden crook in the cyclonic finger tracing the shore, as if these personified convections of water and air were capable of whimsy.

Doppler map of a tornado approaching Raleigh, North Carolina. [Via The Original Weather Blog]


At my sister’s house, the tornado warning has been issued. The roll call of communities in harm’s way scrolls across the bottom of the television screen while pitcher faces batter in a sunny baseball stadium somewhere far away. My brother-in-law opens his laptop and brings up the radar. To the south of our municipal dot, we see a roiling mass of neon reds and yellows and purples, color combinations that in nature often signal something deadly, a poison dart frog, bright as a gemstone and glistening with alkaloid toxins. Heed my warning, those colors say, or I’ll sizzle your heart, make your limbs dangle.

Outside, it’s hazy. A few droplets have left dark stains on the sidewalk, but otherwise the air is thick and warm and still, like a long-held breath. The kids are inside now, playing upstairs. My instinct is to buckle them into their car seats and get on the road. But where would we go? Where are we safer than right here in the driveway? I feel disoriented, unprepared. We’ve moved from the Upper Midwest, where the risk of funnel clouds was real enough that our town installed warning sirens. But those sirens never sounded; the reliable menace was snow. That’s what I’m programmed for: lake effect, school closure, salt and snow plow. I learned the unwritten code of the Blizzard Belt. Don’t go anywhere. Hunker down. Bundle up and hope the heat stays on, the lights don’t flicker out.

In hurricane country, the official advice is to flee. Get out while the getting’s good. South Carolina coastal communities have evacuation plans, blue signs with whirling white cyclone symbols marking escape routes from the islands. The hurricane watch allows us time to assess risk. I used to think of bioregional identity as a celebration of place: the unique interplay of nature and culture, biogeography and community spirit. But perhaps its most intuitive expression lies in risk assessment. As long as there have been humans here, they have been scanning the horizon, figuring out where and when to take shelter.

Shelf cloud over Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. [Photo by Waldo Jaquith]

Last hurricane season, none of my neighbors paid much attention to the storm watches. They knew better. We were the Midlands, pine forests and rolling hills; we were not the Lowcountry, the moss-draped and brooding Carolina coast. We had learned to assume a bioregional identity by watching news reports. With a storm on the horizon, we no longer thought of ourselves as residents of cities and towns; we were from barrier islands and river basins, coastal swamps and foothills. All of us needed to know the particulars of our location. Some could rest easy. Others had to be on alert.

Now we watch the sky from my sister’s backyard. I wonder: Does risk assessment apply to funnel clouds? “Tornado Alley” is the colloquial expression for the broad swath of the central United States where the risk is greatest — Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas — but it’s a misleading term. Funnel clouds of varying intensities occur regularly even in Alaska. Raleigh isn’t traditionally included in the Tornado Alley riskscape, and yet here we are, faces turned upward, with trouble on the horizon.

What are we watching for? An eerie green tint to the sky? Crows behaving strangely? Toads falling out of the sky? The kids are still playing in the yard; the neighbor is mowing his grass. How will we speak of the storm when it touches down? Our hurricanes are personified with human names, but tornadoes are too numerous to name, too localized, too ephemeral to share. They are labeled with the Enhanced Fujita Scale, which measures the potential for wind damage, but an “EF-5 tornado” doesn’t fix the event in place or time or lend itself to story. When it comes to twisters, there is no Katrina, no Camille, no Andrew.

Hawk over Richland County, South Carolina. [Photo by Hunter Desportes]

Sailor Take Warning

A few months earlier, I’d gone to see Cary Mock, a paleoclimatologist who uses ship’s logs, plantation diaries and newspaper accounts of the days before satellite images to reconstruct a meteorological history of the region. Mock is a walking compendium of disaster folklore — he can describe the worst hurricane in Carolina history with details gleaned from the meticulous notes of a 17th-century weather nut, or name the town that’s had the worst luck dodging storms (McClellanville, north of Charleston). If anyone has a sense of place that looks less like a postcard and more like a bioregional riskscape, it’s him.

We met in a room near his office where leather tomes shared space with stacks of scrolled maps. I half-expected a salty dog of the sea to appear, but Mock looks nothing like a blustering sea captain. He has thickish glasses, black hair that falls across his field of vision, the hyped up air of a storm chaser. Never mind that the storms he tracks are hundreds of years old.

I was hoping he might help me understand something I’d observed in my neighbors, who often looked at the sky and felt the wind against their faces. What did they see there? Was it just me, or did the weather coming from the tropics almost taste of those latitudes, like something steeped in mangroves and the musk of sugarcane fields? Could we smell the dust of distant feedlots in the dry western winds? What did a hurricane smell like? I thought Mock’s research might hold the key to the vernacular of disaster, a regional refinement of the old adage, “Red skies at night, sailor’s delight; red skies in the morning, sailor take warning.”

South Carolina pines and sky. [Photo by semisara]

It turns out, however, that folk history doesn’t offer coastal residents much when it comes to predicting individual storms. While some ship captains had barometers to help them detect an approaching weather event, most land dwellers didn’t have such tools. Plantation diaries do contain observations of ominous shifts in the tides and references to the phases of the moon, but those often produced false positives. Until the arrival of the telegraph at the end of the 19th century, people on shore usually had no warning of an oncoming hurricane. They simply had to survive it. In other words, their experience was pretty similar to the contemporary experience of a tornado.

There are accounts, gathered from the residents of Sea Island, of what it was like to live through a massive hurricane that swept over that spit of sand in 1893. No radar gave warning when the storm arrived in the middle of the night — these people heard the wind clawing away the roof of their dwellings, and soon they felt water rising beneath their beds as the storm surge washed over the island. Many recalled the terror of the darkness they endured, a primeval darkness that left them not only helpless but blind.

That was a storm with no name. It is called, simply, the 1893 Sea Islands hurricane. The practice of assigning human names to tropical storms is a more recent development, beginning after World War II with the advent of improved meteorology. We named the storms because we could track them; they were no longer a disaster we had to blindly survive but a phenomenon we could characterize. In this way, the bioregional riskscape evolved in response to technological advances. The vernacular assimilated these new ways of envisioning our place in the world.

Tornado alert, WRAL-TV, Raleigh, North Carolina. [Via Brad Panovich]

Shelter in Place

Now it’s decision time. All scheduled programming has been preempted, and the news reporters, their voices trilling with adrenaline, are toggling between images of the whirling tornadoes and the seething vat of the Doppler. They’ve zoomed in to the neighborhood level now, and they’ve overlaid the blotchy radar with violet parallelograms of anxiety.

“If you are in this area,” they warn, tracing the area just north of downtown with a pointer, “you should seek shelter immediately. Again we repeat, this is a very serious storm coming through your area. Take shelter immediately in a basement if possible. If you don’t have a basement, go to an interior room in the house and wait for the all clear.”

Is this actually happening? Am I actually looking toward the downstairs bathroom and wondering how many of us could fit in there? We’re north of downtown, maybe a bit east of where they’re pointing, but what does that mean? Are we far enough away? I want to jump in the car and haul ass out of there, but of course you can’t do that with a twister. There is no tornado evacuation route. We’re stuck here, sheltering in place. All 12 of us are in front of the television now, nervously trying to assimilate the information and assess the threat. All except my brother-in-law, who’s tracking a different radar projection on his laptop. “We’re here,” he says, pointing to an area just north of one of the freeways that ring the city. He runs his finger down from the red boil covering the house to where a crescent of lilac and magenta curves back toward itself. “That hook is where the danger is,” he says. “That’s the leading edge.”

North Carolina sky. [Photo by K.G. Hawes]

How does he know this? He’s not a storm chaser or a weather nut. In the background, I can hear the announcers ratcheting up through the octaves of hysteria. “People in these areas of North Raleigh should take shelter immediately. This storm will be moving through your area in the next five minutes. We repeat. …”

Five minutes? That’s our warning? No wonder there’s no prophetic vernacular for tornadoes — there’s no time for it to develop. What should we do? It’s not even windy outside yet, but they’re showing scary scenes from downtown, and that’s what, a 10-minute drive at most?

“Maybe we should think about heading to the basement,” I suggest.

“Nah,” my brother-in-law says, settling into the couch. “It’s not coming through here. It’s south of us. We haven’t even lost power yet.”

He’s right about that; we still have the wireless modem and the cable connection, still have our climate-controlled interior that makes us feel insulated from the vagaries of the weather. But as he finishes speaking, the wind rises suddenly, buffeting the treetops with a sound like someone yanking aside a curtain. Just as suddenly the rain comes down, a thousand nails clattering onto the roof all at once. The gutters start gushing water. The lights flicker.

North Carolina sky. [Photo by K.G. Hawes]

The wind itself is strange; the treetops are being tossed back-and-forth in a frenzy, but there’s nothing but a quiet eddy below. Three minutes away now? It feels, on some tingling somatic level, like something’s coming.

“I think we’re going under the house,” I announce, reaching for my daughter’s arm. “Right now.”

The basement is little more than a crawlspace cut into the slope of the yard. To get to it, we have to dash across the backyard to the door, which happens to be right underneath a gushing torrent of run-off from the roof. One by one, all 12 of us, aunts, in-laws, boyfriends, grandparents and parents and kids and dogs have to step through this waterfall to get inside, like a kind of baptism.

We shut the door. It’s dark under there, and it smells of damp earth and wet panting dogs, like we’ve been returned to some primeval cave dwelling, our electronic senses snuffed out. Not so far from the Sea Islanders after all.

I’m listening for the tornado, but what does a tornado sound like? A blood-curdling scream? The chugging roar of an oncoming freight train? Will we hear trees snapping, hear the skeleton of the house creak and stretch and finally break away? Nobody has told us what to expect, acoustically speaking.

Then, in the darkness, the glow of a small screen. My mother has pulled out her smartphone, and she’s pulling up the weather channel’s radar. We all gather round, taking comfort in the light, this last vestige of our control over what happens to us.

South Carolina dogwoods and sky. [Photo by Hunter Desportes]

Don’t Worry, I Saw the Doppler

After my visit with Mock, I began collecting tidbits of hurricane folklore online. From a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report written in the days of the typewriter, I learned of a ghostly “Gray Stranger” who wandered the coast warning of impending storms. Supposedly, as a hurricane approaches, alligators bellow ominously and roosters crow in the middle of the night.

The longer I surfed the web in search of Carolinian lore, the harder it was to ignore the irony of getting to know my bioregion this way. In the ecosystem of the internet, electrons flash through networks like hummingbirds, vibrant and swift, bearing tidings of hurricanes present and past from server farms near and far. (The next time a storm follows Hugo’s path through South Carolina, it will pass directly over Google’s major data center in Moncks Corner.) They have the frantic metabolism of hummingbirds too, drawing energy from fossil fuels. Which means that even as I seek to learn the vernacular of this place I change it, altering the weather conditions I’m trying to describe.

We now know that the conditions of place are unstable: sea levels and temperatures, rainfall patterns, growing seasons. The vernacular can’t be recorded in an almanac or passed down from farmer to child. It exists as a dataset to be graphed over time and extrapolated into an uncertain future. The technological changes that allow us to see our homes on a map as the tornado approaches, that allow us to trace a future shoreline given parameters of carbon emission and temperature change, are leading to the creation of a new vernacular of disaster, a language that stretches from the local to the global. It’s a kind of creativity arising from destruction, or at least the threat of destruction. We are being forced to respond to the changing nature of what it means to live locally, for better and for worse.

Doppler radar dome. [Photo by Reid Beels]

I’m now a member of a new bioregional community of sorts: the listserv for weather-related warnings from the state climate office. Mark Malsick, the Severe Weather Liaison, sends email updates on the status of approaching storms, complete with images and a compelling prose style that mixes the humorous and technical:

Good Morning. Quick update on our friend in the Gulf of Mexico. All hat, no cattle. The closed low that formed over Cuba earlier this week continues to drift glacially northwest with nary a whiff of intensification. This morning’s infrared imagery shows just a large, unimpressive blob o’convection near the center with no other features suggesting internal organization. A strong ridge of high pressure to the NNE, coolish GoMex waters, and mid-level dry air entrainment will continue to inhibit any intensification. None, zip, nada. This feature will continue to sashay NNW over Louisiana this weekend and slowly dissipate next week. … Easterly winds courtesy of this feature will continue this weekend, dragging in moist air off the ocean (pond, with ego…) which should contribute to weekend scattered afternoon rain showers and isolated thunderstorms, nothing severe.

What is a closed low? Or internal organization? Or mid-level dry air entrainment? I wonder. How long will it take before I don’t blink with incomprehension at insider lingo like GoMex? How long before my fellow Midlanders are chatting about convection blobs as they wait in the grocery store line? Malsick’s updates begin with the global, segue to the regional, and then wind up at the local, making me aware of a weather system that extends beyond my senses, beyond the particulars of my immediate surroundings — the clouds I can see, the dry air that curls my hair, the wind that makes the crocodiles bellow.

Lightning strike on South Carolina tulip poplar. [Photo by Martin LaBar]

Living in the Midlands has often produced a jolt of bioregional detail: suddenly I become aware of vines stitching the canopy of pines and oaks, and dark middens beneath the magnolia trees, their fallen leaves like unglazed pottery. Not long ago, a black snake longer than my femur slashed across the road, coiled into a dogwood and disappeared into the trunk as if it never existed. I had to circle the tree twice to find the hole, narrowing my attention to the burlap texture of the bark.

Even as the local ecology comes into focus, however, the listserv has made me feel as if the boundaries of my home have expanded beyond state or national borders. The accessibility of meteorological data changes my sense of the bioregional riskscape. I need to care about what Cuba and the Antilles are experiencing, about what’s brewing in that oceanic expanse where storms are born, a space that previously meant nothing to me, that simply didn’t exist on any mental map I’d ever made. Whereas our forebearers had no warning of an impending hurricane, and thus no local language of prediction, now we have access to a whole new spectrum of information, visual and linguistic, giving voice to a strange new experience of place.

I’ve already felt myself itching for the chance to point at the sky and say, “Don’t worry, I just saw the Doppler. There’s no closed cells in our area.” Many people, I suspect, will know what I mean in the not too distant future. We’ll have a vernacular of disaster, a local and global language for orienting ourselves in the bioregional riskscape. The state has just announced that it will send hurricane updates via Twitter, allowing us to tweet back and forth as storms bear down on us. And yet, there will be many who won’t speak the language, who, like the thousands who drowned on Sea Island in 1893, will have no warning.

Sunset in North Raleigh suburbs. [Photo by L1mey]

The Storm’s Passing

In my sister’s yard, there are no broken limbs or sheared off trees. The tempest has left more sinister signs in its wake: yellow tufts of fiberglass insulation like soggy mushrooms in the grass, black twizzles of roofing tile, small shards of wooden rafters, studded with nails. These are fragments of a story ripped from its context — at least, a story we can’t read from here, with our senses alone.

On the television, scenes of disaster. A home improvement store roof yanked into the parking lot. Brick apartment complexes reduced to rubble, cars crunched by power lines and trees. The first responders are just arriving, but it’s clear from the live helicopter footage that some dwellings are so damaged, anyone inside didn’t survive. I feel relieved for my family, but also outraged, as if the tornado has violated the terms of living in place. We were spared, but why? It makes no bioregional sense: weren’t those neighborhoods carved from the same blanket of skinny loblolly pines as ours? Why that freeway exit, those stoplights, that mini-mall?

The storm remains nameless. If there’s a language to describe what’s happened, it isn’t prophetic, and isn’t new. Wandering around the yard, picking up debris and trying to imagine how far it’s come and what its source looks like now, I think of the Sea Islanders, clinging to life in a churning maelstrom of water and wind, praying for dawn. My mother checks in at work. My sisters are calling friends. My brother-in-law, too. I think of all the cell phones that must be ringing now in all the neighborhoods around us, down all the streets and cul de sacs, in all the parking lots, the phones jingling and vibrating, an electrical storm of its own kind. This storm too will gradually abate, until there’s just the sound of the phones that nobody answers, ringing in the incomprehensible darkness.

James Barilla, “The Vernacular of Disaster,” Places Journal, September 2012. Accessed 02 Oct 2023.

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