As NRO fans read this on Thursday morning, winds of about 130 miles per hour should be raging around my house in Mobile, Alabama. It’s an oddly bracing experience to be at the absolute bull’s-eye on all of the hurricane-tracking maps.
Hurricane Ivan, by all accounts, looks like a monster. If you grow up on the Gulf Coast, you develop a certain jadedness toward most hurricanes. Been there, done that. But that’s because most of the storms so breathlessly reported by the likes of Dan Rather don’t carry that much more of a gale force than do the lungs of the windbags reporting them. Seventy mile-per-hour winds, 80 m.p.h., even 85–that’s fierce stuff, but (unless you are within a few hundred yards of the shoreline) usually not a major fright.
But these storms rated in Categories 3, 4, or, Lord forbid, 5–these are different. These are freaks. Here in Mobile 25 years ago this very week, Category 3 Hurricane Frederic knocked out power for three solid weeks. In 1965 in New Orleans, where I grew up, Category 3 Hurricane Betsy breached some levees and necessitated rooftop rescues of many hundreds of people in the sections east of downtown that tourists almost never see. As has been well reported, a Category 4 storm hitting the Crescent City at just the right angle could push both Lake Pontchartrain and parts of the Mississippi River past protective levees and put most of the city–already between two and ten feet below sea level to begin with–underwater for weeks.
Then there was the infamous Camille in 1969, a Category 5 behemoth packing sustained winds of some 180 mph, with gusts above 200. It absolutely leveled Pass Christian, Mississippi. An Episcopal church cater-corner from my grandparents’ house there had withstood every storm in a century, so more than 20 poor people gathered there for shelter. Only one survived.
My grandparents rode out Camille at their friends’ house about seven miles inland; when they returned the next day to their property one long block off the beach, all that remained were the brick front steps and a couple of silver spoons. The massive 25-foot storm surge, and maybe even a tornado, had wiped out an entire town of grand old homes. My aunt, frantic to check on her parents’ safety, drove over the next day from New Orleans. (My immediate family was on vacation in North Carolina.) Normally a one-hour drive, this one took her six hours as she navigated past tons of debris, massive felled trees, and even downed bridges. She finally made it to the old property to find my grandfather, drenched in sweat, sitting on those brick steps and drinking a Dixie Beer. All he could do was shrug his shoulders and try to crack a joke. He and my grandmother would pick up the pieces and go on with a wonderful life.
My grandfather died 29 years later, of Parkinson’s disease, precisely as the brunt of fairly powerful Hurricane Georges swept over the Mississippi coast.
So with all this devastation so deeply seared in memory, one would think a major impending hurricane would be the last thing, the worst thing, one could ever wish for. But one would think wrongly (in part).
It’s a strange, strange thing that happens as hurricanes each year form in the Atlantic or the Gulf. While they are way out there, well away from the mainland, one’s intellect (of course) roots for the tempests to dissipate into nothing. But if a Tropical Storm never reaches hurricane force, or if a Category 2 hurricane weakens to a Category 1, a weird phenomenon occurs. As hard as you try to push it away, it keeps returning. It’s a sensation of disappointment, of unwilled and inexplicable disillusionment. It’s like being revved up by the previews for a blockbuster disaster movie, only to find that the real film falls flat with a dud of an ending.
It’s the loss of the sense of wonder felt by an eight-year-old in New Orleans, for instance, who–about four hours before a moderate hurricane roars through the marshes of South Louisiana–takes his football out to Audubon Park with a friend and experiments with the growing (but still dry) wind. The eight-year-old faces into the prevailing wind, the friend a good ten or 15 yards downwind, behind the 8-year-old’s back. With all the insubstantial might the 8-year-old can muster, he heaves the pigskin directly into the wind and watches, bemused, as it travels no more than eight or ten yards before boomeranging right back at him, back past him and over his shoulder, into his friend’s waiting arms. These approaching hurricanes, he thinks, are fun!
Almost lost in memory, though, is how four hours later a host of wind-strewn branches were crashing into the side of the boy’s house, making a racket and scaring the dog into pitiable howls of distress.
But it’s that palpable excitement, the sheer novelty and power of a hurricane, that makes the jaded adult sneer if one meanders pathetically away.
AND THEN…and then…and then reality strikes. And, as the movie title said it, reality bites. For there comes a time when an Ivan doesn’t weaken, but makes clear it is staying strong. And it is no longer somewhere out in the Caribbean, but turning into the Gulf. And it has the second-lowest barometer reading ever on record, meaning its wind speeds are likely to be brutal. And everywhere you turn–CNN, The Weather Channel, the local news–all the forecasts show the most likely entrance to the U.S. mainland to be right smack dab through the middle of Mobile Bay.
That’s when, suddenly, you want the thing to disappear. You want it to turn puny, to turn away, to turn in on itself–to do something, anything, other than stay on its path. The monster is no longer some hypothetical force out in the Gulf; it’s real and it’s strong and it’s really, really bad.
The governor orders an evacuation of 165,000 people south of Interstate 10. The worried e-mails and phone calls from friends and family start pouring in. The patio furniture comes inside, the masking tape and duct tape go onto the windows, the overstocking of nonperishable supplies marches forth with a resolute force, seemingly carrying you along rather than emanating from within you.
This is a hurricane, but it’s definitely no party.
Here at the Mobile Register, reporters bring in their sleeping bags and changes of clothes, and backup computer terminals are set up in rooms far in the building’s interior. Outside the windows, the trees begin to show, just barely, the first signs of swaying. Soon some of us with homes on high ground will return to our wives and families to ride out the storm.
And everything will be scary, but it will be all right. We have cell phones, now, so aunts don’t have to drive six frantic hours to find out we’re just fine. And if we were smarter than I was, we’d be well stocked with ice, the better to keep the beer cold for the clean-up work afterward.
–Quin Hillyer is an editorial writer for the Mobile Register.