Enduring the Hurricane: When Toxic Masculinity Poisons Its Victims

Stillaguamish River (South Fork) flood at Granite Falls, 9 feet above flood stage (Walter Siegmund)

My father and his husband moved from Chicago to New Bern, North Carolina, last year. I’ve struggled to understand the move. North Carolina is warmer and cheaper, for sure, but it’s less friendly to gay couples and they have no friends or family in the area who beckoned them there. They live with their dogs in a little brick house by a creek. My dad is retired and his husband works for the county.

As Hurricane Florence lurked off the coast this week, I spoke to my dad several times, trying, as his husband did, to convince him that they should abide by Craven County’s mandatory evacuation order.

My father’s refusals were glib. I’m too cheap for a hotel . The house is ten feet above the flood plain. We’ve got a 3-foot concrete slab foundation. Our neighbors went to their place in the mountains, but we don’t have that. No one invited us to go with them. I could hear his shoulders shrug through the phone line.

On the next call, there were other excuses: We can’t leave the dogs. (I wasn’t suggesting he should.) We won’t find a hotel that’ll let us bring them. Anyway, why are we going to be safer in a crappy hotel than we are in a brick house? The best excuse was We bought $400 worth of canned goods. As if the receipt itself would stand as the last defense against a wall of wind and rain and an inland tide 9 feet tall.

I didn’t convince him and he didn’t convince me, although he spent Tuesday and Wednesday moving stuff off the garage floor, stuff I will someday wish had been destroyed by water, when I am left to settle his estate. By Thursday, I could see on CNN that New Bern’s lovely downtown colonial buildings had become stepping stones in the flooded Neuse River. Dad assured me that, although the neighbor’s yard was covered in water, they were fine up on their 3-foot slab.

I lived in Chicago during the heat wave of 1995. More than 700 people died in those weeks of choking heat. There were so many deaths that bodies were put into refrigerated trucks to be driven around for days, because the morgue was overflowing and it’s air conditioning couldn’t beat the degrading heat.

In his book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, Erik Klinenberg describes WHO exactly were the victims of that murderous weather. With a few exceptions, the victims were older men, poor, who lived alone in neighborhoods they feared to venture out into. They were men who were alienated from their families, or didn’t have any. They didn’t go to church or belong to any club. The victims were found because junk mail piled up, or the local bodega owner called the cops when they didn’t come in for their daily pack of cigarettes several days in a row.

Klinenberg, a sociologist, found that women of the same age, in the same neighborhoods, were far more likely to survive. They had family, biological or adopted, friends and church networks that activated to check on them regularly. Women asked for and accepted help, and it saved their lives.

It’s been more than 24 hours of non-stop disaster porn out of New Bern and I can now report, with guarded relief, that my father’s house is intact and dry inside. The power company’s heroic workers have even miraculously restored power, and the water in my father’s yard has begun its retreat to the creek at the edge of his property. He’s safe, not because of his rusty Boy Scout skills or great decision-making, but because of sheer dumb luck.

The real reason he wouldn’t leave has nothing to do with his 10 feet above the flood plain, his 3 foot slab foundation or his mountain of canned goods. He wouldn’t leave for the same reason those men in Chicago wouldn’t leave: he is ashamed that he doesn’t have much money, he won’t ask for help, especially from strangers, and he’s afraid of the unknown dangers that lurk outside his door.

I read a tweet (which I now cannot find) that argued we shouldn’t criticize people who don’t evacuate. When fewer than half of all American adults have less than $400 in savings, it’s too much to ask them to pay for a hotel or travel far, or leave their loved ones behind in the face of unknown danger.

While this is certainly true, and a fair reminder that we should not judge others, it misses the segment of the population who don’t evacuate because of their underlying toxic masculinity. Lots of poor people evacuate, as do those with elderly parents and disabled children and multiple pets. The paralysis induced by fear and shame of not being man enough to weather any storm is a condition caused by toxic masculinity, which even old gay men are steeped in. When men can no longer fake that strength and self-determination, they would rather drown in their own home than risk the rejection or uncertainty of seeking help. It may have been preparations that his husband and I insisted on that helped minimize the damage, but really it was only fate that swept that storm past my father this time. Toxic masculinity is a poison that is very hard to dispel and its antidote very hard to administer, and that’s the storm that endangers so many men.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store