Monday, September 05, 2005

Hurricane Hysteria

As a victim of Hurricane Katrina and having finally gotten the power turned on after 6 days, I'm shaking my head at the television coverage of this storm. First let me say that I have lived on the Alabama gulf coast all my life. My first remembrance of a hurricane was in 1965 when my parents took us to spend the night with some friends not-so-near the bay. Including my parents, there were 10 of us, and the family we stayed with had the same. We slept on pallets on the floor and it was exciting. We woke up the next morning and went home. That, I was told, was Hurricane Debbie and other than a lot of rain, she was harmless. 4 years later, on my brother's birthday, we prepared for Hurricane Camille. I was 12 years old. By this time, we had moved uptown and away from the water. An old aunt who still lived by the water (and to this very day, still lives in the same house by the water) came to stay with us and brought cookies and chips and a wrapped birthday present for my brother. We got lucky, and Hurricane Camille missed us and hit Biloxi. A month later, the first day that Highway 90 in Biloxi was open to the public, we took the 40 minute drive over to see the damage. This was my first understanding of what a hurricane really was. The place was in shambles. The sight of a baby grand piano sitting in the middle of the highway is still fresh in my mind. The oak trees were filled with colorful fabric flapping in the wind and after a minute we realized that what we were seeing was hundreds of pieces of clothes strewn all the way up to the highest branches. One 2-story house had busted open at the seams and the upstairs bathroom was shamefully exposed with the toilet hanging upside-down, the lid dangling. Another house had a huge boat lodged inside the front door, as though the driver had accidentally hit the gas instead of the brakes. It was an incredible trip.

We had some more near-misses after that, but in 1979, it was our turn to be hit. It was the first year of politically-correct hurricanes. This year it had been decided that...to be fair...hurricanes would now be given male names as well as female names. This was so wrong, because everybody knew that hurricanes were named for women because they were so unpredictable. Well, the first male hurricane, Hurricane Fredric, sent us for a loop and hit us head on. One of the better photos to make the newspapers back then was a message spray-painted on the roof of a collapsed house. It read "Fredric hell! This HAD to be a woman." Like New Orleans, the first couple of days after the storm were chaotic. It had been a long time since we had suffered a direct hit and not many people around could remember one. Looting was the first problem we encountered. My mother had a hilarious story she often told about the looting. She was a Police dispatcher at the time, and the morning after the storm, she was called into work. With all the down wires and trees, a police squad car was sent to transport her. My mom sat in the back seat as two officers drove her to town. When they got downtown, the officers saw a looter coming out of a store front. They stopped the car and told my mother to sit tight. They gave chase, catching the looter, cuffing him and putting him in the back seat, next to my mom. She said she just looked at him and pretended she was a lady of the night. But I digress. The next problem was ice. Ice vendors begin selling ice for $10.00 a bag and people were willing to fight for it. With no power and few generators, ice was in great demand. Everybody needed it. I don't remember how long it took, 2 or 3 days, but soon the National Guard was brought in and we were placed under marshal law. It became a crime to sell ice at ANY price in the city...it could only be given away. It didn't take long before things settled down, ice distribution was arranged, people got used to the heat and spending time outside and slowly the power came back on. For my house, the power came on 2 weeks later.

Since then, we have had some close calls but many people still remember Fredric and the mistakes we made. Last year, we had Hurricane Ivan, 6 days without power. The day after the storm, we were told where we could find ice and water and the system worked great. Traffic was routed in rows to large parking lots where soldiers delivered bags of ice to our cars, they preferred that we not get out. It was the same this past week after Hurricane Katrina. We have our act together. Because we remember.


The problems in New Orleans are much greater than our city has ever seen. Even if they had their act together, not much could have been done differently. The evacuations went as planned, but then the levees broke. The rescues began immediately, but sometimes the sheer scope of a problem is hard to see up close. Only when you stand back, can you see that you need more helicopters, more buses, more man-power, more ice, more prayer. The blame game on TV is so obviously political that it's disgraceful. The time to blame and complain is after all the people are rescued and the bodies collected. Standing in the middle of a fire yelling "it's your fault, it's your fault" does nothing to put out the fire. When all is said and done, we will be proud of what happened in New Orleans and how a nation came together to do the hard work...despite politicians and their finger-pointing, despite the government and it's red tape, despite Hollywood and it's ego and despite Mother Nature and her fury.

1 comment:

Sharon said...

Thank you for sharing some of your hurricane stories, both present and past. Your writing gives a clear picture of what hurricanes are like.

I live in California where we only battle wildfires and earthquakes. Hopefully we will never have to evacuate because everyday "rush hour" traffic is bumper to bumper, leaving no room for the rest of us.