Unprepared warns of the coming storm

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We are Unprepared, by Meg Little Reilly. Published by Mira. Paperback. 353 pages. $15.99.

Reviewed by Tena Starr

It’s sometime around the present, and youngish, fairly prosperous hipsters Ash and Pia have recently moved to the Northeast Kingdom from Brooklyn. Ash is a native Vermonter, so to some extent, he’s coming home, although the little town he and Pia move to is far from his parents in Brattleboro. Ash and Pia’s dream home is a rambling old farmhouse, and they are settling in to a new, and they hope, fulfilling life as better people. The second wave of back-to-the-landers.

“We talked about self-reliance in those days as if it was a state of higher consciousness,” says Ash, the story’s narrator. “It was the explanation we gave for leaving our jobs in New York and starting a new life in Vermont. We wanted to grow things and build things, preserve things and pickle things.  We wanted to play our own music and brew our own beer. This, we believed, was how one lived a “real” life.”

They’re just three months into this venture, however, when they hear about the storms, more specifically, “the Storm.”

Big, violent storms — tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, and floods — have already become the norm, but this one threatens to be something beyond what anyone has yet seen. The federal government is providing regular updates about what to expect and when, urging an unprepared nation to get ready in a hurry for weather the likes of which they’ve never seen.

On the sad day that Ash and Pia learn that they’re not likely to have children, they listen to a National Public Radio reporter quote the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  “…due to rapidly rising sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, we are now approaching a period of extreme weather events. NOAA is predicting as many as thirty named tropical storms and hurricanes in the coming months, along with likely heat waves and drought, and even severe blizzards.”

And just like that the idyllic life that Ash and Pia had envisioned in idyllic Vermont goes straight to hell. Well, maybe not “just like that.” The path is brief but also tortuous.

We are Unprepared is a well crafted and well written book that does a fine job of illustrating how external tension, in this case the threat of colossal natural disaster, can widen cracks in both a marriage and a community. It’s a page turner, and it has much to recommend it in terms of plot as well — severe weather, a collapsing relationship, and the oh so interesting responses of townspeople to the possibility of impending doom.

Predictably, there are those who turn to religion. And predictably, there are religious hucksters happy to take advantage of them.

Then there are the “preppers,” basically survivalists who have built bunkers and aren’t much interested in a community response to threat, who are skeptical of all authority and mainly interested in how they, personally, will survive.

And then there are people like Salty, the selectman who is intent on being practical (if not always totally legal) and coming up with a plan to protect the community when the storm hits.

As the weather worsens, the situation devolves. The town is under strain, Ash and Pia’s methods of preparing for the big storm clash, new alliances are forged, old ones crack up.

When the storm does hit, it’s with far less warning than anticipated. And it’s a whopper alright. The devastation in state after state is stunning.

This is a good book, no question, and there are lots of people who won’t notice the little flaws that develop as Ash and Pia deal with the weather, which flings about everything that a storm can — torrential rain, sleet, and heavy wet snow. All the while the wind is screaming around the house, and anyone who lives in a Vermont farmhouse surrounded by big old maples knows how dangerous that can be. The remnants of Hurricane Floyd felled one of the ancient maples at this reviewer’s house, turning the porch into kindling and a perfectly good car into a cartoon.

Trapped in the house, with no electricity and the windows boarded up, Ash and Pia wonder how to fill the time. Anyone whose lived through a sustained power outage, especially in winter when it’s dark at 5 p.m., knows that it’s primarily boring. What does one do with a long, dark evening?

They fret about food, though they’ve stocked up well, and no storm lasts for weeks. Going hungry is, realistically, a distant worry. Ash mentions the indignity of not being able to flush the toilet. Most any rural person knows you can still flush the toilet if the power goes out. Just dump some water in the tank. And they had plenty of water — outside if not inside. Over the course of the storm’s worst, Ash and Pia are constantly freezing, huddling in bed with layers and layers of clothing and blankets, and worrying about how to dry their wet clothes with no electricity. What will happen when they run out of dry clothes? Ash wonders.

That particular dilemma mystified me. How does one freeze with a wood stove and plenty of firewood, especially when it’s only cold enough outside for sleet? Plenty of Vermonters heat their homes all winter with a wood stove, even when it’s 20 below. And there are, indeed, people who don’t own clothes dryers but somehow manage to walk around in dry clothes.

Urban and suburban readers aren’t likely to pick up on those details, but I found myself, first, disgusted with Ash and Pia’s ineptitude (for goodness sake, if your clothes are wet, hang them up by the stove), then annoyed by the author, who was exaggerating the consequences of the storm.

Annoyed because there’s little doubt that increasingly extreme weather is in our future (and our present), and we are, indeed, not prepared. So let’s talk about consequences realistically rather than overstate them and feed the naysayers by employing ridiculous hyperbole that can easily be jumped on. It’s too bad to have the story’s plausibility diminished by dwelling on problems that don’t even make sense.

As for the storm itself, I was skeptical, so I asked Steve to do a meteorological vetting of it. He, too, liked the book, and said that it stretches what’s meteorologically possible, but for the most part it does stay within the realm of possible.

Where it falls apart in his view is when the final storm hits. Hurricanes don’t land in North Carolina in February and become category fives while inland and headed toward New Jersey. And the cold front that smashed into it would not have made off on its own. Storms merge; they don’t separate, says Steve. And massive flooding in February? The assertion that six feet of snow melted in the course of a week in February strains credulity.

The author is no lightweight. She has worked as treasury spokesperson under President Obama, deputy communications director for the White House Office of Management and Budget, and producer for Vermont Public Radio. She’s a native Vermonter whose family has a place in West Glover, and she’s a graduate of UVM. She currently lives in Boston.

For all my pickiness here, We Are Unprepared is a book well worth reading. Keep in mind that I am, and always have been, fascinated by extreme weather. (But then I think most Vermonters are.) It’s a well told, complex story that you won’t want to put down.

It’s available on Amazon, and there’s a copy at the Barton library.

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