When we were a kid, hurricanes were fun, sort of. That, at least, is the way we remember them: as a break from the routine, from the everyday. They brought out a communal feeling, everybody in town focused on the same thing. School would be canceled or let out early, and as the storm approached you’d batten down with the family, or maybe some of the neighbors would come over and folks would play Monopoly or cards by candlelight and listen to the radio, till the local stations were knocked off the air. The winds would whistle and howl---really whistle and howl---and the rain would come in sideways and pepper the house all night long. In the morning (it seemed as if the hurricanes we remember always came ashore after midnight) you’d emerge to a New World, of blown-down branches and uprooted trees and several inches of leaves covering the yard and the street. Then the chain saws would come out and you’d help your father clean up. The massive piles of leaves raked into the ditch made great places to hide when you threw gumballs at passing cars. You’d heat up canned goods on the barbecue pit while waiting for the electricity to come back. You might even get a couple of extra days off from school.
But even then we knew hurricanes could kill. If you drove through Cameron Parish on the Louisiana coast in the early 1960s, you couldn’t miss the signs of Hurricane Audrey strewn up and down the roadside where the storm had left them in 1957: the many rusting overturned cars and trucks, household appliances that had floated loose and been bulldozed together in a pile, flimsy wood-frame houses that had been abandoned, their roofs blown off or the walls flattened. That made a lasting impression. More than 400 people (some sources say 600) died there, in what we now measure as a Category 4 storm. For many years, “Audrey” was the byword for hurricane destruction, the way Katrina has become (and we hope will remain going into next week).
When we were older, our work---and, on a couple of earlier occasions, misdirected youthful exuberance---brought us out into hurricanes. It wasn’t “fun,” exactly, but we’d be lying if we didn’t admit to getting a charge from driving down an empty highway in a pounding rain while trying to steer the vehicle so it wouldn’t be blown off the road. Then, in 1983, we saw (we didn’t really see it, more like we were in the vicinity of it), our first “hurricane-related fatality,” when we reported to work near the tail-end of Alicia and were dispatched to Magnolia Park on Houston’s east side, where a huge oak had fallen a few hours earlier on the back addition of a small frame house and killed the family abuela who was sleeping there. The poor woman was smushed---there’s no other way to accurately describe it. The rescue workers decided they needed a crane to pull the tree off and left for other emergency calls, which were coming in fast and furious as the city was waking to the full extent of that storm’s damage.
Then, two years ago, a Category 2 hurricane that got short shrift from the national media beat a path through our parents’ hometown and dropped the huge top half of what turned out to be a rotted water oak on their roof, causing more damage in dollars (not real ones) than what it cost my father to build the house. The four branches that pierced the ceiling hung down creepily into their living room like gnarled witch’s fingers (sorry---that’s exactly what they looked like). There’s nothing quite like living alone for five days, with no electricity, in the house where you grew up, working the rake and chainsaw all day, the street outside having been transformed into an open-air tunnel lined with six to eight feet of debris pushed to each side by the city (quickly and efficiently, too).
We’re factoring in these past experiences tonight as we dither over whether or not to vamoose in the face of Rita. We’re taking into account more recent experiences, of course---not just Katrina, but the fact that the water never fully covered our street during Tropical Storm Allison, even though we live just a few yards outside the100-year-flood plain. We already know we can go a good distance without electricity. Then there’s the pain-in-the-ass factor of fleeing, always a major consideration. Add it up and right now---late Tuesday night---we’re staying. But who knows what tomorrow will bring.