Storm Surge

Murali Kamma

“I wonder what happened,” Jai says, picking up the remote control. “With the hurricane, I mean. It was on the news.”

Nina, sitting beside him, puts her phone down before saying, “Hope it wasn’t too bad.”

Selecting a recording on the DVR, Jai fast-forwards and then hits play. The coastal town they were in a few days ago is getting battered, and as the camera pans to show the storm surge, they see the rain coming down in sheets on buildings and desolate streets lined with boarded-up stores. The inky domed sky looks menacing, like the rushing water below—and the screeching wind sounds as if an orchestra’s string section has gone berserk.

Then they see the reporter, standing close to the shore. It’s quite a sight, brilliantly succeeding in keeping viewers glued to the screen for what’s obviously a wild weather drama. Reality TV couldn’t get more real, and only one participant is needed. The agitated sea’s rising waves, visible in the distance, seem like a colony of restless creatures that are snarling and spewing venom as they thrash about and seek to escape from their lair to cause mayhem.

This coastal town, a few hours away by car, is halfway across the world from the coastal town where Jai’s grandparents had lived. Before Jai emigrated with his family, following the death of his grandparents, he’d visited them many times as a child. Both towns are on the East Coast—in different countries, of course. But despite a shared history of seasonal storms, they’re very different. Even the word “hurricane” becomes “cyclone” in the other place and sometimes it’s called toofan, meaning “typhoon” in the local language.

Making the reporter stand outside to tell viewers they shouldn’t venture outside appears crazy, but the TV drama is gripping. Didn’t some sage say the medium was the message? The reporter says the town seems to have lucked out despite the storm’s ferocity. Only a few people are unaccounted for so far, though the number is bound to rise.

To be fair, far from behaving like a cocky storm chaser, the reporter looks miserable, as if he’d rather be somewhere else, someplace dry, warm—and safe. He’s just doing his job, which can be hazardous at times. The reporter’s expression seems to mirror the look on the faces of interviewees who, having survived a traumatic experience, are breezily asked by poker-faced correspondents, “What was going through your mind?”

What a bewildering question! How could traumatized people, still trying to process what happened, give a coherent response? What if they’d panicked and their minds had gone blank? Again, it’s all about the action, all about making the experience visceral for viewers. But Jai keeps his grouchy thoughts to himself, knowing that Nina would just shake her head.

On Jai’s last visit to see his grandparents, a cyclone pummeled their town, keeping residents indoors for days as howling winds tore down ramshackle buildings, knocked down trees and phone lines, and water inundated the streets, turning them into a network of canals that brought disease, death, and destruction. As always, the fishing community suffered the most.

In those days, weather forecasting was unreliable and there were no warning sirens or mass evacuations. Residents were left to fend for themselves, even as calamity loomed. Any coordinated effort was focused on rescue operations, which came after the cyclone no longer posed a threat. Now there’s a more sophisticated system in place to prevent mass casualties. But while that’s working for the most part, avoiding heavy damage is harder. Not only are building codes violated, but the local government is unable—or unwilling—to meet the housing needs of ordinary people. Then there’s climate change, bringing uglier storms that seem more frequent.

Unlike today, many people back then stayed in their flimsy homes when a cyclone struck. And they often perished. Now there are designated shelters, and since they’re widely promoted, the residents of poorer quarters go there to ride out the storm, returning to their dwellings only after they’ve ceased to be death traps.

Nina’s phone rings, diverting her attention, and she steps away to take the call. The news report is about to end, and Jai knows it will be followed by a jarring drug commercial focusing on indigestion, impotence, or incontinence. Though he wants to turn off the TV and make dinner, the remote control remains frozen in his hand. The parka-clad reporter, trying to stay steady as he’s buffeted by the fierce wind and rain, reminds Jai—strangely enough—of the man he’d glimpsed through the window of his grandparents’ house all those years ago.

That man, his face contorted, was crouching in front of a small medical clinic on the other side of the street. Why was he there, and why had nobody asked him to take shelter in the house? Had he come looking for a doctor, only to find the clinic shut, or did the cyclone destroy his dwelling, making him homeless? Was he perhaps lost and disoriented? Jai had no answers, and he didn’t know what happened to him. Did he eventually get help or leave? Or . . . well, anything else was too awful to contemplate. All Jai remembers now is the terrified expression on the man’s face as he cowered under a dangerously swaying pipal tree near the wall, his body stooped, shaking, and soaked. There was nobody else around him, and Jai never saw anybody who looked more alone and desperate.

“We’d better go inside now,” the reporter says hoarsely, making Jai snap back. Clutching his hood as he bends over with a grimace, the reporter adds, “It’s getting worse!”

“Yes, of course,” the news anchor in the studio says, looking relieved. “Take shelter, y’all. Be safe.” Then, turning to her TV audience, she chirpily notes, “Stay tuned . . . we’ll be right back with some great tips for travelers and vacationers looking for bargains.”

Murali Kamma is the author of Not Native: Short Stories of Immigrant Life in an In-Between World (Wising Up Press), which won an Independent Publisher Book Award. His stories have appeared in Havik 2021, Evening Street Review, Rosebud, The Wild Word, Cooweescoowee, indicia and The Apple Valley Review, among other journals. One of his stories won second place in the Strands Flash Fiction Competition. He's a contributor to New York Journal of Books, and his fiction has also appeared in The Best Asian Short Stories 2020 and Wising Up Press anthologies. He's the managing editor of Atlanta-based Khabar magazine.