Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Rain in Spain Is Plainly Not the Same

From whence The Voice came, rain is a very different animal than it is in Florida. How can something so universal in the human experience be so completely different in different places?

I was used to a constant light rain that could go on for days, that seemed almost as if you were enveloped in a cloud that had come to rest on the Earth for a while. Everything around, trees, roofs, all dripped endlessly and softly, while plants nodded their heads gently under the burden of the moisture.

In Central Florida, rain, like so many things here, has attitude. It pelts from the sky almost daily in the height of summer in impenetrable sheets, as if someone had suddenly opened the heavenly sluice gates, pounding the ground relentlessly and falling at a speed the land cannot possibly absorb, quickly forming streams, then rivers.

Outside my corner house, a body of water appears mysteriously, like Brigadoon, only when there is a heavy rain. I call it by the hyphenated names of the two cross streets with the appellation Lake in front. You laugh. It has currents that are visible, wavelets during the storms in which the rain is joined by lashing wind, and tides that lap the yards and driveways when foolhardy cars brave its depths. In a storm that occurred a couple of weeks ago, said by a friend of mine who has lived here in Orlando virtually his entire life to be a 50-year rainfall, the Lake got so big a rather large knobby branch that was bobbing along just peeking out on its surface made it appear for all the world as if my Lake had its own alligator, just like the permanent lakes dotted almost everywhere around the city.

It’s really not surprising that such violent rainfall, which I characterize as 1940s jungle movie rain, occurs here so frequently. Meteorologically speaking, Central Florida is a war zone in summer. Situated almost evenly between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, and only about an hour by car from each, Orlando is the place where the relatively cool onshore sea breeze from the East and onshore Gulf flow from the West meet and tangle with the hot interior air rising from the land to clash like titans above us, producing an average annual rainfall of 50.1 inches a year. That coffee place, also known as the Rainy City, experiences a paltry 38 inches a year.

Of course, these monumental clashes of cool and warm air produce more than rain. I have always loved thunderstorms. The sound and fury of nature is a free show. Florida’s bubble as lightning capital of the world may have been burst when satellites and NASA scientists proved that actually that title belonged to Rwanda, but it is still the lightning capital of the US and even of the Western Hemisphere. On average, more than ten people die from lightning strikes in Florida each year.

Really, I only thought I had experienced a thunderstorm prior to coming here. Lightning blasts from the sky hundreds of times an hour. Thunder shakes the house. Appliances are unplugged from the wall, and one is advised to stay off the telephone. The primitive thrill of being safe under shelter with all of that going on outside dances along the nerves just shy of the edge of fear. If we are lucky, the torrential rain and lightning are the only things that occur. Sometimes, it is hail or even tornadoes. It gave me a real “Well, we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto,” feeling when I first arrived.

Some things about the rain are universal, though. Assuming conditions are not too apocalyptic, I still love to tuck up in bed with a book and listen to it drumming on the roof. One of its huge benefits in Florida is to briefly and blessedly drop the temperature. When I venture outside afterwards (usually with my dog, who maintains steadfastly that if forced to go out there and pee during a rain, he will melt) the world is washed clean and seems fresh and bright again with strange, enticing scents and the new-penny shine of water everywhere.

It is both renewal and benediction.

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