Waiting for Wilma

Shortlisted in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2022.

Five ruddy turnstones land on the jetty. As they scuttle up the planks outside our bedroom window, I can’t help thinking this gang of tubby waders move way too fast for the tropics. When one runs, they all frantically follow, stop, seem confused, then stare vacantly out to sea. 

The shack we’re staying in, the place these birds visit each day, is tethered loosely to Conch Key, a coral cay strung halfway along the archipelago-beads of the Florida Keys. Built to house Hemingway-esque big-game fishermen in the 1950s, it’s painted the lightest shade of sky-blue and perched on uneven stilts over the sea. 

This morning, a great white egret stands on the balustrade of its wraparound verandah. I hear her before I see her as she’s clinking her long pointed beak against the side of a metal bowl of water. As I turn to watch, she throws back her head and a little of the liquid trickles down her throat.

The turnstones take white-striped flight as the guttural thrum of Life Force, Gary Nichols’ commercial fishing boat, passes within twenty feet of our jetty, heading out to sea. “Gotta get as many traps in before Wilma,” he’d shouted the previous day, as I’d watched the boat lumber past weighed down with empty lobster traps. He was obviously trying to get one more load in. 

Quivering her tail feathers, the egret stares at me. The boat hasn’t bothered her and unblinking yellow eyes hover disconcertingly over a white stick-like neck. If I were to get up and open the door, three-foot of white plumes and attitude would strut in demanding food; sliced ham is her current favourite. 

It’s strangely quiet. Small waves should be licking at the stilts below, and the yellow-billed terns should be squabbling with the gulls, but the atmosphere is subdued, as if the day is holding its breath, gagged even. 

Still miles away, Wilma is sashaying towards us across the Gulf of Mexico. When she passed Jamaica last week, she was just another tropical depression on the weatherman’s charts. In the last few days, she has wriggled and writhed into a tropical storm, then spiralled into a hurricane. 

Tourists have been ordered to evacuate The Keys by 11am. That includes us, even though neither of us feel, or are treated as, tourists by our Conch neighbours. But, in a few hours, we’ll do as we’re told and drive the Overseas Highway to the relative safety of a friend’s brick-build condo in Miami. 

Before then we have a list. A list of things we need to do before we go. 

1/ Drag the outside furniture inside.
2/ Close and bolt the windows and doors. 
3/ Screw the external window and door shutters into place. 

That’s it. 

Of course, hurricanes aren’t unheard of here. In mid-July, Emily kick-started the season by not just knocking but beating down the door of Mexico, twice. In August, Katrina unleashed her fury on New Orleans leaving catastrophic flooding in her wake and thousands homeless and dead. When Rita arrived in September, she graciously shared her time between Texas and Louisiana, extinguishing lights, and storm-surging through homes for hundreds of miles.

It’s Monday the 23rd of October. The blades of the ceiling fan continue to slice through the thick chewable air, a gumbo of wet mangrove, seaweed, and hot coral sand. I’ve often wondered what it would feel like to be in the path of a hurricane. If I’m honest it’s surreal, and poignantly sad.

Will this ramshackle building survive? Over the years we’ve spent months here while Andrew, my partner, fished from the jetty and recuperated from cancer treatment. This place and its people helped him heal, and when we couldn’t be here, I know that just picturing it in his mind kept him sane. 

I get out of bed. The egret waits expectantly, and I shoo her away as I open the door. On her own verandah, Jacquie, our neighbour, is just finishing the last of her yoga stretches. As she pushes her long grey hair away from her face, which is now pink from the sunrise and one too many downward dogs, she sees me and waves. 

“Are you going to the hurricane shelter?” I call, knowing the nearest shelter is miles away. She shakes her head and smiles. Like the rest of the islanders, all she owns, her memories, her life, is here. She won’t be leaving – even if ordered to.

Five ruddy turnstones land on the jetty. As they scuttle up the planks an easterly breeze fans their tails giving them the look of Calusa warriors ready for war. I go in search of ham.

About the author

Jane Adams is a London-born naturalist, photographer and writer now living in Dorset. She’s passionate about wildlife and wild places and has been working professionally with UK conservation charities for nearly 20 years, communicating that passion.