Virginia Beach and Outer Banks residents are bailing out their homes and cleaning up now, and despite the shots of TV reporters being blow down streets, the devastation is not as bad as some feared. In Pittsburgh, the hurricane hype ended in a soft rain all day Friday. No big deal for us, since it's been a rainy summer. Pittsburghers' fear of Hurricane Isabel was overblown, despite school closings announced the day before. The media's monitoring of Hurricane Isabel, and the criticism of that minute-to-minute "fear factor," raises the question: How much of the blame for the hyperbole should we put on the viewers?
After all, many of us spend too much time worrying about the next storm or the next terrorist attack -- so much so that it seems that much of America is half-paralyzed with fear nearly all the time. We're constantly on the watch for something final and fatal to shake us out of our lethargy. Maybe it's that we want to feel the immediacy of life and tragedy is a quick way to get there. Or maybe deep down we fear that something bad is going to happen to us or to someone we love. Something is going to happen, but what? And when?
The irony is that you don't need a hurricane to witness the final and the fatal. It's all around, even at the beach. You need only open your eyes.
About two weeks ago I was in Virginia Beach with my wife, in town for a wedding. The weather seemed windier than it should have been, and the sun poked through the clouds just enough to make lying out in the sun barely worthwhile during most of the week we were visiting. But on the Monday before last, the sun seemed to reassert itself for most of the day, allowing for some quality sun-baking. We headed to lunch in early afternoon, down in the hotel's beachfront restaurant.
The floor-to-ceiling windows in the restaurant gave us a great view of the beach, where the waves seemed to crash harder and frothier. The restaurant was half empty and quiet, and we enjoyed a clean bite to eat.
After I'd finished eating and was waiting for Anne to finish, I saw a police officer make a beeline by the window, over the deck and down across the beach, heading south toward the surf. My reporter's instinct kicked in, and I knew something serious had happened.
"Did you see that cop? Did you see how he was walking?" I asked Anne.
She nodded, knowing what was next.
"Something's up. I'm going down there to check it out," I said.
As I made my way south across the beach, I encountered groups of people in twos and threes picking up their chairs and towels and heading off the beach. I saw an emergency vehicle down by the water, and a cluster of EMS workers and police standing by the vehicle. The group was standing around a man's body, laying lifeless on the beach, the surf washing up around his feet. I walked up to a couple of women who'd been sunbathing and now were standing together talking, as were others on the beach, glancing nervously toward the dead man.
"What's up? Did somebody drown?" I asked them.
"A body washed up on the beach," one of the shocked-looking women answered. "We were just sitting there and we saw this thing in the waves, bobbing up and down, and then he washed right up there onto the beach," she said, shaking her head in disbelief.
A female employee of a hotel headed past us toward the hotel. "Don't worry, it's only our second one," she said, shaking her head and laughing. The officers down at the water's edge pulled the dead man out of the surf and covered him with a yellow tarp.
The three of us glanced at each other, then looked away. Then the sunbather answered my question: "No, he wasn't a swimmer. He had clothes on and a cell phone." She turned to her friend. "Well, the reporters will be here in a minute. We should go."
Initial reports on the dead man stated that he may have fallen off of the pier or off of a ship. Coincidentally, on the same day, much farther down the beach at Cape Hatteras, another fatal tragedy occurred that I read about the next morning in the paper. A 26-year-old man, married just two days before, paid for his ticket and walked the nearly 300 steps of Hatteras Lighthouse, smiling and saying hello to people as he made his way up. When he got to the top, he went to the back of the lighthouse and without a word he jumped off. Though EMTs happened to be at the scene and tried to resuscitate him, he was gone. Just after two lives had joined together in marriage, two more were lost, I remember thinking.
The day after the deaths the winds had kicked up, scattering even some of the surfers off of the North End of Virginia Beach. We ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant, watching the foamy waves pound the beach. The restaurant was nearly empty, and quiet, with the servers standing around chatting. "Look at how beautiful the ocean is," one waitress said to another as she stared out the window.
The storm trackers working from their storm centers, keeping the weather watch for us, are not entirely to blame for our fear fixation. We invite it, with our desire to be informed up to the minute. It's as if half of America is waiting for the other shoe to drop. "What's the next calamity?" we wonder. Perhaps our fear of the inevitable tragedy sometimes is worse than the thing we fear. Sitting around and stewing, we miss out on life. We spend so much time worrying about what could happen that we miss what is happening. We can't avoid the winds. They blow in without regard for our preparations.
This story originally was published in the September 25, 2003 issue of Pulp newsweekly.