Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Storm Surge

[A friend told me this was too melodramatic. I kind of agree. If I have the chance to go back and redo it, I might send it to a journal]

September 14, 2008

Most recently, two hurricanes visited me (and my state) that were reminiscent of two other hurricanes that visited some three years prior. The latter two male (Ike and Gustav), while the former pair were female (Katrina and Rita). I know a good deal about these counterclockwise storms that tear through the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico every year. Most of what I know I have learned from the weather reports on TV and on the radio and the long standing oral history that Grandmother or Grandfather passed on to mother or father who in turn passed it on to their sons and daughters. The truth is, New Orleans’ history could be recounted using the floodings, the hurricanes, the fires, and the epidemics as guideposts to the city’s existence – this would probably make an interesting class if such a thing were attempted.

In other parts of the country, kids grow up fearing the boogieman or some other dark fictitious creature that lurks behind doors, under beds, or in the far off fields on the edge of town. Not in New Orleans. Children grow up hearing stories about “The Big One” and about real storms named Betsy and Camille and what they did to the city and what would happen if this “Big One” hit the city: the house would be flooded, all our things would be gone, Baton Rouge would be beach front property, you could fish off your roof, etc . . .. I was always a bit fond of this last one when I was a kid. I just like the novel image it produced in my mind. Myself perched on the sloping shingles near the edge of the roof with a rod in hand and a line in the muddy waters of the Mississippi. I was Huck Finn and my brother was Tom Sawyer. I never bothered to think about where we would sleep or how we would cook the fish we caught, but I was too enraptured with being able to fish all day and in my own yard and from my own house to consider the rest – but that is how kids think.

Unlike the boogieman, “The Big One” is inevitable and will eventually destroy New Orleans. So where fear of the boogieman fades with age, the fear of “The Big One” never really goes away, and every year from July through November families across New Orleans grow tense waiting and hoping that this be not the year “The Big One” hits the city. No, Katrina was not “The Big One.” She did manage to do considerable damage, but she was not “The Big One.” “The Big One” is destined to go up the mouth of the river, cause flooding from rain and storm surge, and obliterate the levee systems of the city to the point that no number of sandbags would be able to repair the levees for the next year. It is no wonder that a city known for celebrating every aspect of life and for whatever reason be born out of such tensions.

Much to our sorrow, we know now a days how devastating hurricanes can be. Years ago, hurricanes went unnamed and often those unnamed storms are forgotten, except to the select few who study those sorts of things. Now, hurricanes are named. There is no precise certainty as to why these particular storms are named while other, just as deadly storms go unnamed year to year. Perhaps it is done from an ancient idea that if you name something than you might exert some control over it. Maybe it is done so that the storm is easier remembered. Then again, a name might be applied just for the mere reason so that residents know who (or what) to blame and shake their fist at during the storm: “Curse you Katrina!” Whatever the reason for names it does not change the reality that these storms are born from nature’s pleasantries.

The pleasantries of nature are usually never worth noting until it turns violent and is in its rare malevolent form -- the form that the media likes best. If there is ever a portion of the populace that can over react more than an obsessive compulsive hypochondriac mother of four it is the media. Making mountains out of molehills and working the public into a frenzied alarm long long before any danger is eminent is becoming the media’s specialty. Long before a stiff breeze or a mild zephyer swept through New Orleans, the media had already predicted the city’s doom, which was to follow in a like manner to that of Katrina. There was no hope for the city, though the storm be below Cuba and not even in the Gulf of Mexico and with only a vague certainty to the storm’s path, the media had dubbed it another 100-year storm for New Orleans – if the media stopped and researched, they would learn that hurricanes hit New Orleans every 3-4 years. The city was due when Gustauv set it sites.

With my father gone and the media predicting certain doom, it fell upon myself to secure the house, which basically consisted of some plywood covering the windows; an ax in the attic; gas in the cars, extra food; bathtubs cleaned, stopped and filled with water; extra batteries; flashlights; a battery powered radio; and other essentials. My mother, who gets into the spirit of disaster quickly, set to work on the Friday before the storm was scheduled to hit in securing or moving indoors anything that could potentially be turned into a projectile in 100 mph wind: potted plants, chairs, swings, poles and boards – though, it really didn’t seem to matter if one was listening to the media as these things would be under 13 feet of water come Tuesday morning thus rendering these things incapable of being a projectile; besides, a broken window would be the least of our problems if what the media says be true. But anyway we set about doing what residents have always done for years.

6:00 that evening, the word came down from every branch of local government that the city should be evacuated, even though the storm was still south of Cuba, and that the mayor had already declared south Louisiana in a state of emergency and in need of disaster relief. The media could tell us nothing more but the same repetitious messages, which was causing the media to spend herself at a reckless rate, that did nothing more than add to the alarm of the people. With tautological nonsense the media could only tell us “Yes, the storm might hit.” and “Yes, the storm might miss.” My mother a good citizen, set about like a mad djinn packing everything she deemed important into the back of her SUV. I on the other hand, maybe it is because I am either a bad citizen or I though the storm was being blown out of proportion by the media for my area, left my mother to assemble her things in all anxiety and went out to listen to some music – it is what people do in New Orleans on a Friday night.

At 3:00 the next morning, my mother shakes me awake on the couch, where I was sleeping, asking for my help to load the big things into her car. She wanted to get an early start so that she could “beat the traffic.” She and my grandmother were evacuating to Hammond, Louisiana to make preparations at the house my mother and father bought after Katrina hit New Orleans. After helping my mother and seeing her off, I sat down in the recliner and turned on the news channel. There was no new news about the storm that I had not already heard: It was nearing the Gulf, it was strengthening, it appeared to be picking up speed, and it appeared to still be headed right for us. I went back to bed.

Later that morning, I learned that the Louisiana State University football game had been moved up to 10 am, an unacceptable time for LSU fans. I quickly turned on the radio (as the game was not televised) and scanned the dial back and fourth to find the game. It is usually broadcasted on AM station 870. The game wasn’t on. Instead it was a gruff voice saying that the storm is set to pass just west of New Orleans -- anyone who knows anything about Hurricanes knows that the east side of the storm is the worst place to get caught in a hurricane, so it appears New Orleans might not fair out well this time. But I went back looking for the LSU game, which it turned out every radio station had been taken over and taken up by Gustav updates and governmental information, so I never heard the game. At this time the Governor was calling for a mandatory evacuation starting tomorrow (Sunday) morning, so taking my mother’s lead. I began packing.

So what exactly do you take with you when the city council, mayor, parish president, governor and the news casters say you will be flooded and all your stuff will be lost if it is not taken with you? I have a small space and much I want to take with me. It was an easy decision at first, I take any important documents (diplomas, car slips, death certificates, wills, passports, birth certificates, loan information, etc.), but after this the choices get more complicated. Clothes is a given . . . but how much and which ones: suit, sports coats, work clothes, and some shorts and t-shirts. I have hundreds of books, which ones do I take? Argh, good bye Kreeft, Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton. In my limited space I took only those few books that I knew were out of print: Meditation on the Passion, The Life of Christ, and a pre-Thurston edition of Butler's Lives of the Saints, and I also took my school books from work. I also grabbed the photo albums that my mom forgot to pack in her car as well as my father's guns -- he collected guns and had several nice pieces in addition to his hunting weaponry.

But the questions always kept coming back, "How much of this stuff do I take, and what is the essential stuff that I must take?" I didn't really like that trip to the Grand Canyon my family took when I was a kid (I'd probably like it more now if I made the same journey today), but my mom has a whole album of the trip chronoilising our expedition from the front door in New Orleans to the canyon and back again, and it is a good collection of pictures of my dad: nuf said, it goes. I had to plan for the worse, as that is what the Media was saying would happen, so "are two pair of dress shoes essential or just one?" If I only pack one, I might be able to squeeze in something else that might be deemed more important.

Unable to squeeze another item in my car, I exited my house in New Orleans, thinking this will be the last I live here for a while. I wanted to do something more. Something wasn’t quite right. I dashed back inside grabbed a miraculous medal off a windowsill, a hammer and a nail and firmly nailed the medal to the exterior of the front door. “Thy Will be done.” is what I prayed. I don’t know why exactly I did this. I wasn’t expecting a miracle and none occurred that I can account, but it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. I got in my car and left.

After being caught in the traffic my mother was trying to beat for some four hours on a trip that normally only took one ,I arrived in Hammond at 4:52 tired and anxious. My mother and grandmother were glued to the TV watching a news reporter, who for whatever reason – perhaps he drew the short straw – was in the bayous of south Louisiana reporting on the storm.
“How is the condition down there Bob,” asked the anchorman in the station? The camera cut to Bob on the Bayou who was outdoors in a hooded rain jacket.
“Well Carl,” shouted Bob, “As you can see the wind is starting to pick up, it is raining here as we are starting to get some of the outer bands, and the water is beginning to get rough.” The camera panned to the bayou that was already turning with small but bigger than normal white crested waves, and the wind could be heard through Bob’s microphone. Bob and Carl continued to dialogue, and Bob finished saying that he would be hunkering down in due time.

It was at this moment that I realized the media in Louisiana was taking a position that was firmly against hurricanes. That was not doubt. Though it was anti-hurricane, it seemed to be pro disaster. After all it is far more interesting to hear about the detailed misfortunes of a family without power, food, water, and who had a tree crash into their house than to calmly report “everything is fine a dandy down here. Back to you Carl.”

Nothing new happened on Saturday. My mother and grandmother gorged themselves on Gustav information. It didn’t matter that it was the same information they had been hearing now for the past two days. A person can only take so much of the same information before getting sick to the stomach and taking a strain on one’s mental wellbeing. In each room the TV was tuned to Gustav updates. There was no escaping Gustav. Every few hours new updates on the storm came through. It was headed a little more east. Now it is more west. It is getting stronger. Land fall is set for New Orleans. Now it is west Louisiana, and now it is somewhere in between. The only predictable thing about this storm was its unpredictability. I have heard too much Gustav updates recycled to the umteenth power with no new information that I would have preferred to fight Gustav himself than listen to another minute of hurricane information. I went for a run to get away from Gustav.

On Sunday gray and black clouds chased each other as my mother and I went to mass. Attendance was sparse as people were evacuating from the very place to which we evacuated: this made us nervous. It wasn’t that the storm was going to hit us that made the reality difficult. It was the waiting. It was your mind guessing and wondering how much damage is going to happen and to every tree we’d silently ask “How much wind can you handle? If you fall won’t you please fall in a good direction?” The media didn’t help either, for by now all the casters were speaking with strained, over worked voices and their exhaustion could not be hid by any amount of makeup, lighting, or camera angle. Their heavy eyelids and staggering voices smoke more about their mental and physical state than their slouching shoulders and blue blazers. Moreover, the Parish President did nothing to ease the burden by ending his last address with “God have mercy on us all.” Nor did the Mayor of New Orleans help when he very frankly told the citizenry to “be afraid.”

7:48 Sunday evening, the power failed, the wind picked up and the rain began falling like crashing waves. What a relief to have a break from the TV news. Gustav could be heard for the first time in all his terrible glory beating against the house. The wind moaned and called us to window just in time to Gustav push over a tree in a loud crack and land across my neighbor’s front yard. The break didn’t last long, for moments after the tree fell my mother anxiously turned the portable radio to the news station and picked up where she left off. The man on the radio told us that Hammond was without power.

Limbs broke. Trees fell. Streets flooded. It was a typical hurricane. We all went outside to escape the climbing indoor temperatures. When one is without power, there is no computer, internet, video games, and maybe even cell phones. The board games and decks of cards emerged (It always seemed to be Professor Plum in the Conservatory with the candlestick). What one discovers during a hurricane is that there is lots of food that needs to be cooked and there are people needed to eat that food. In short, an impromptu gathering happened and people began discovering people. Like in the old days – or at least how I imagine the old days to be. The front porch was filled once more with conversations and laughter, while my grandmother cooked a pot of red beans (we have a gas stove), some gumbo, and fried some fish. She didn’t “want it to spoil.” That evening all the world’s problems were solved on my front porch. If only someone had remembered to bring with them a pen and paper.

That night two of my cousins from down the street came for a visit: one only seven years old and dressed in a shiny, plastic, yellow rain coat fit with rain boots and his mother my first cousin. My seven-year-old cousin was a great break from all this storm business. He didn’t know what was happening. He just thought it was a really bad rain. He became my favorite family member during the hurricane mostly because the deepest and most serious conversation we had that whole week revolved around Pok-e-mon and whether or not Pikachu is better than Riachu. All our arguments ended in the typical manner that all arguments between 7 year olds end, with an endless repetition of him negating my near perfect argument supported from multiple points by the almost indistinguishable, sing-songy, grunt "na-uhu" and me being only able to counter, even with all my education, by replying "yeah hu".

I refused to let him have the final "na-uhu", for the loser was determined by the one who gave up first. Also, I wanted to remember what it is like to have the appetite of infancy and to further develop the strength to endure monotony, after all it is God who says "do it again" to every daisy he makes. We often drove the parents and grandparents crazy with this kind of arguing.

Gustav was finished the following day, but we were without power for a week, which made for sleeping at night in South Louisiana a miserable experience with indoor conditions reaching 85 degrees with 85% humidity. With all the news coverage and build up of the storm, it really was only a strong rain storm with mighty winds, and the out come is what to be expected from a rain storm with strong winds. Many places were without power and water, trees were down, people were hurting, flooding occurred and help was needed.

All that remained was to get clearing the mess Gustav made.

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