Journalists struggle to describe Jeanne's mighty winds.

Language and how we use it.
Sept. 27 2004 5:33 PM

Like a Hurricane

Journalists struggle to describe Jeanne's mighty winds.

Jeanne: More powerful than a reporter's thesaurus
Jeanne: More powerful than a reporter's thesaurus

Hurricane Jeanne battered Florida this weekend, leaving millions without power and forcing tens of thousands to flee to shelters. For the journalists and eyewitnesses who had already been pummeled by Charley, Frances, and Ivan, Jeanne's Bruckheimerian aftermath was particularly troubling. To what do you compare a hurricane, especially if it's the fourth one to tear through the Southeast in just six weeks?

The trouble with writing about hurricanes is that they're most often used as the back half of an analogy: How messy is your room? How will the Scorpions rock you? But when a genuine storm comes rolling through town, that brand of simile construction just doesn't work. Jeanne tore into Florida like … Like what?

In the face of this wordsmithing challenge, writers have found a few go-to tropes. Come upon some felled timber? It's either a twig or a toothpick. When Charley raked Cuba, the Chicago Tribune wrote that "telephone and utility poles were toppled like twigs." Florida Today wrote that billboards in Brevard County, Fla., "lay snapped like twigs" in Frances' aftermath. After an aerial view of Ivan's romp through Louisiana, the Associated Press remarked, "Uprooted trees littered a marsh area like scattered twigs." In the Bahamas, Jeanne also "snapped tall trees like twigs," the Miami Herald noticed. When trees and poles get hit harder, they end up "snapped off like toothpicks," fallen "like toothpicks," "toppled like toothpicks," "broken in half like toothpicks," or even "turned into toothpicks."

Hurricanes also invite comparison to a hyperactive toddler ransacking the aisles at KB Toys. The storms swept away cars and trucks "like toys," lifted 40-foot ships out of the water "like toys," rocked boats "like toys in a bathtub," and tossed cars "like toys, with one Mercedes-Benz ending up in a tree."

They also seem to have a taste for salty fish. After Jeanne, the AP wrote that in Jensen Beach, "roofs of mobile homes were peeled back like the lids of sardine cans." A doctor who saw Ivan's destruction in Grenada noted that concrete buildings had their roofs "peeled back like sardine cans." After Frances, a pastor at a Florida church surveyed its former sanctuary roof and concluded, "The wind must have rolled that thing back like a sardine can." A writer at my newspaper said he saw roofs ripped off trailers like cereal box tops—a better visual, I thought, because it involves jagged edges.

When journalists leave the descriptions to storm victims, they get a new set of verbal tics. They tend to hear the winds as some form of train, whether it "charged overhead 'like a locomotive,' " sounded "like a locomotive racing by," or had a "locomotive-like roar."

Whether hackneyed or inspired, hurricanes beg for similes because most verbs just aren't built to handle 130-mph gusts. In the confusion, writers and victims search for patterns and associations, even subconsciously. In my case, Jeanne's scraping bluster conjured the image of an obnoxious, burbling coffee maker that used to sit in my parents' kitchen. I hadn't thought about that thing in years.

Sometimes the collision of barometric and deadline pressures bears amazing prose. A Sept. 17 New York Times story on Ivan described sidewalk chunks "flicked into the street like plastic dominoes" and a trailer that "had been pinched in as if by giant fingers." Or consider this description of Charley's brutality in an Aug. 15 Washington Post story that creates a unique picture of damnation:

The world went cockeyed here. Fat metal light poles crimped at the center, bowing to the ground like the twisty-neck straws in a retro diner. Couches turned into roof ornaments. Roofs turned into tree ornaments. Flimsy mobile homes twisted up grotesquely or simply imploded, leaving behind chunkily diced piles of someone's life. … Rotting drywall and bright-orange insulation, turning weirdly gelatinous in an unrelenting Florida sun, scent the air with a putrid musk. The streets were soggy obstacle courses of downed power lines, frayed tree limbs and pieces of ruined homes.

Words don't have to be new to carry weight, though. Perhaps the classic hurricane line from this season was by one of the forecasters in the National Hurricane Center. Regularly included in the center's tri-hourly all-caps storm advisories as the storms bore down was the following line: "PREPARATIONS TO PROTECT LIFE AND PROPERTY IN THE HURRICANE AREA SHOULD BE RUSHED TO COMPLETION." In other words: Hurry.

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