Monday, September 26, 2005


People in southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana are starting to regroup after Hurricane Rita. It looks like Houston and Galveston dodged the bullet this time, with the brunt of the storm’s fury being expended in places like Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Lake Charles.

New Orleans is beginning to look like the Joe Bftsplk of cities, always with that dark cloud hovering overhead. It was not helpful that the jerry-rigged levees were overtaxed by yet another Big Blow only weeks after Katrina.

The Great Corporate Salt Mine is looking over its assets in the region, and it appears, for the most part, that operations will not be too heavily impacted. Most facilities should be up and running within days; an exception may be the plants in the Beaumont area, which may be down for a few weeks. That’s good news for a lot of us.

Hurricanes are scary events. Never mind extraordinary geophysical issues such as those facing New Orleans; anybody who has seen images of the devastation in coastal Mississippi, Alabama, and now southeastern Texas/southwestern Louisiana knows how disruptive storms like this can be to the lives of the people affected by them. Many of those pictures were called to mind the horror of Hurricane Andrew in South Florida 13 years ago, a Category 5 storm that scoured homes right down to their slabs. That is some Scary Shit. Where the hell do you hide when your house is being blown away from around you?

My own personal experience with hurricanes is, thankfully, very limited – and not particularly current.

It was mid-September 1960, back in my Runny-Nose Days, and we had just put my grandparents on a plane home to Miami the previous day, in the midst of a ferocious rainstorm. Jet travel was the exception in those days – I’m pretty sure they had to suffer through a bumpy four-hour-plus flight in a four-engine propliner. In my Little-Kid Imagination, I figured rain that heavy could only be the precursor to an Actual Honest-to-Gawd Hurricane. For once, I was right.

Hurricane Donna had taken an unusual path since making landfall in the Florida Keys September 10, briefly swinging out into the Gulf of Mexico, whacking Fort Myers with Category 4-force winds, then crossing the Florida peninsula and pooching into the Atlantic at Daytona Beach. Moving back out over open water, Donna clipped the Outer Banks of North Carolina, then smacked right into Long Island on September 12, scoring a direct hit on us.

With the weather forecast calling for the imminent arrival of a hurricane, schools had been shut down, and our family was hunkered down in our modest ranch-style house. Although we were only about a half-mile from the waters of the Great South Bay, flooding was not an especial concern: the barrier beaches that flank the south shore of the Island provide excellent protection against the mightiest storm surges. But our neighborhood, being long established, boasted plenty of Big Trees, and hurricanes are not kind to Big Trees.

It was exciting for me and my brother, both of us too young to know what was at stake in a Category 2 hurricane. We lost power, but were adequately provisioned with sandwiches. It was, and still is, the only time in my life that I would deign to eat a bologna sandwich on white bread – but that’s what was On The Menu, and one does not argue during a hurricane.

Mid-day, after a few hours of Sturm and Drang, the winds calmed down, the rains ceased, and the sun came out. Was it over? Hell, no. Our mother explained that it was the eye of the storm, the spot of Deceptive Calm at the center, and that the winds and rain would return with renewed fury (and very little notice) any minute. We were not permitted to go outside and explore. And sure enough, within minutes the storm resumed, and we had naught to do but wait for the second half of the show to be over.

When everything settled down late that afternoon, we went out to assess the damage. Our house, thankfully, was unscathed, but the streets and sidewalks were littered with huge, toppled trees. Power was out and would remain so for three days; the next evening, everyone in the neighborhood had a gigantic Communal Barbecue, cooking whatever perishable Meaty Products were on hand before spoilage could set in. We feasted.

Donna was a remarkable storm, the only hurricane of the century to affect the entire Eastern Seaboard, all the way from Florida to Maine. Strength-wise, Donna was a powerhouse, reaching category 5 briefly and retaining Category 3 or greater status for the longest period on record for an Atlantic Basin storm. Fortunately for us, she had wound down to Category 2 during her march up the East Coast. One hundred forty eight people lost their lives to Donna, 50 in the United States. With that kind of history, it’s no wonder they have retired her jersey: there will be no more hurricanes named Donna.

Yeah, we were lucky.

In September of the very next year, we got nailed again, this time by Hurricane Esther. The drill was pretty much the same, although my memory of the storm is much hazier. Esther was a more powerful Category 3 blow when it struck the Island, but the effects in our neighborhood were much the same as with Donna. Trees down, power out, Great Big Meaty Feast.

Since then, I have been had the Great Good Fortune, whenever a hurricane has threatened any of the places I have lived, to be Somewhere Else. May it continue to be so...

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