It’s the stuff of Floridians’ nightmares: a hurricane that blows up to unprecedented Category 6 strength just before it slams into Miami and renders the southern part of the state uninhabitable.
Bruce Holsinger’s new novel, “The Displacements,” begins in the not-too-distant future with just such a storm, Hurricane Luna. Holsinger, a professor in the English department of the University of Virginia and author of three earlier novels, describes Luna’s furious impact so vividly it made a longtime Floridian like me want to speed up my plan to retire to Arizona.
Luna’s rapid intensification, the product of climate change, brings a surge that inundates Biscayne Bay and everything around it, 215-mph winds and, within the first two hours, 22 inches of rain. Miami Beach and much of Miami are simply gone. Lake Okeechobee once again bursts it banks, flooding the Everglades with polluted silt. No one can even guess how soon the death toll can be calculated. Luna makes Andrew look like a pipsqueak.
The evacuation order is massive but last-minute. As the then-governor explains in one of the “oral histories” scattered through the book, she delayed it because it would inhibit tourism and because “man oh man, the good people of Florida were so sick of the National Weather Service by that point, just done with Washington treating science like the Bible.”
That disdain for science leads to “four million Floridians decanted into the upper half of the peninsula in a single day.”
Stuck in the middle of that slow-motion evacuation are Daphne Larsen-Hall, her two young children, her 19-year-old stepson and the family dog. The day before, they were living in a 5,000-square-foot mansion in a gated community in Coral Gables, where Daphne worked in her ceramics studio creating pieces for a high-end gallery while her surgeon husband, Brantley, earned the big bucks that paid for their golden life.
When the order comes, Brantley rushes off to the hospital where he works to help evacuate patients, telling Daphne and the kids he’ll meet up with them soon. So off they go.
The family van, crammed with their belongings, runs out of gas before they get to Gainesville. And that’s when Daphne discovers how much trouble they’re really in: Her purse is missing. No cash, no credit cards, no phone.
Stepson Gavin and tween daughter Mia have phones, of course, but no money, and Brantley doesn’t seem to be answering their increasingly frantic texts. Too broke to buy gas, even if the gas stations weren’t running out, the family joins a crowd trekking toward a nearby reception center at the county fairgrounds that’s processing the hurricane’s refugees.
Daphne tells herself it’s temporary, that they’ll regroup, get in touch with Brantley, be on their way home in a few days. But there’s no home to go to and no resources to go elsewhere. Instead (after the heartbreak of surrendering their dog to a shelter group) they’re put on a bus for one of the 18 Federal Emergency Management Agency megashelters around the country, opened to house the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons, as they’re called. Their numbers have exploded after Luna took a right turn and flattened Houston as well.
The megashelter is in Oklahoma, on a former experimental agriculture site called Tooley Farms. The woman in charge of managing its 10,000 inhabitants is Rain Holton, a disaster assistance engineer for FEMA. Rain is a no-nonsense Army veteran, and she knows from experience just how much crap she’ll have to put up with because she’s a Black woman in a position of authority.
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But she has a job to do, and she does it. When Daphne and her family get to Tooley Farms, they have their own tent and bedding, orderly mealtimes and donated clothes and toiletries. Despite their shock and loss, most residents of the camp try to make the best of things, at least at first. And the youngsters like Mia and her little brother, Oliver, rapidly find friends and invent a complicated game called Range that they play all over the sprawling camp’s streets.
But where there are vulnerable people, there are predators. Back in Houston, Tate Bondurant was a smooth-talking insurance agent with a sideline in selling opioids. Just before Luna hit, his mule, a charismatic rock musician named Jessamyn, delivered a car packed with a new drug called wildfire, “with ten times the potency of oxycontin.” Tate figures his Russian suppliers won’t be able to find him in the shelter under a fake name, and he can sell the drugs and keep the giant payoff for himself.
Daphne’s family will be affected by Tate and Jessamyn in unexpected ways. Daphne’s kids Gavin and Mia, who are obnoxiously entitled as the book begins, will go through changes, as will Daphne herself. And much will be revealed about the missing Brantley.
Rain Holton is the most intriguing character in the book, and I kept wishing for more of her. The centering of the Larsen-Halls raises questions — in disasters like Luna, low-income people and people of color bear the brunt of loss and suffering, but in “The Displacements” they’re supporting characters.
But, as a Puerto Rican sociologist explains in another one of the book’s oral histories, “Call it the catastrophe of whiteness. You want the world to pay attention to your story, you make it all about white people in peril. Works every time.”
By Bruce Holsinger
Riverhead Books, 448 pages, $27
Meet the author
Bruce Holsinger will be in conversation about “The Displacements” with Alex Mahadevan, director of MediaWise at the Poynter Institute, at 7 p.m. July 19 at Tombolo Books, 2153 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Free; RSVP at tombolobooks.com/events.