This is a long one, folks. I'll understand if you want to skip it.
Monday, 9/1/08: Labor Day and landfall day
We rise early, let the dogs out, and have breakfast while we watch the news. Gustav should make landfall around noon, so the local channels are airing non-stop coverage of hurricane preparations. I must say I’m impressed with how our new governor is handling things. If he’s being truthful about all the agencies that are standing by to offer assistance, there’ll be no repeat of the Hurricane Katrina debacle.
At 10:30 a.m. our power goes out, comes back on, repeats the same cycle twice more, then goes out for good. We go to the closet to get candles and matches to put in strategic places for later in the day, when we’ll need them, and we pull out the battery-operated radio/flashlight that’s been in my closet for more than ten years. It was a safety prize when I worked for the company founded by Alison’s father, and for the next few days it will be our lifeline to what’s going on in the hurricane-affected area.
The radio says the hurricane has been downgraded to a Category One, which is a good thing, but I’ve never felt stronger winds than those that make my house creak. Gustav spared New Orleans, but the Greater Baton Rouge Area sits in the northeast quadrant of the hurricane’s path, the place where the winds are most forceful. I feel outwardly calm, but the subtle burning in my gut tells me I’m internalizing my anxieties.
The rain pours down steadily, not in sheets like many southern thunderstorms, but in wet strings that resemble beaded curtains, strings that are visible as the wind blows them first in one direction, then in another. I watch Kim as she steps outside into the carport. Even though she’s well under the roof, I see her legs get wet as the wind blows the rain sideways.
We watch the trees across the road and those behind the house as they sway precariously. The big tree beside the driveway is a source of constant concern; if it falls, it will land right on top of us. We see its branches waving like the arms of a giant orchestra conductor, but its trunk remains stable.
Oddly, the storm produces no lightning or thunder, so the dogs don’t seem particularly concerned about it. I’m grateful that we don’t have to deal with their anxiety on top of our own.
Thank God for cell phones. We touch bases with the various branches of our family, feeling blessed to learn that everyone is safe. My daughter Kelli tells me about watching the pecan tree fall in their yard, seeing its roots pull out of the wet earth as it tipped over onto the fence between their house and the neighbor’s.
I speak with my sister several times through the course of the day. She and her family evacuated their Texas Gulf Coast homes yesterday as a mandatory precaution against any last-minute changes in Gustav’s track. She’s relieved that they won’t suffer a repeat of the damage they experienced during Hurricane Rita, but she’s concerned about the Louisiana branch of the family.
We eat supper by candlelight, listening to the radio, and finally make preparations to go to bed. Earlier, Kim inflated her air mattress. There have been tornado warnings on the radio all evening, and if the weather gets rough, we plan to throw the air mattress under the dining table and crawl under there for safety.
The house is hot. Uncomfortably so. Kim calls from her bedroom next to mine and tells me not to come in there and be shocked, that she’s going to strip down to her undies to try to beat the heat. I tell her I’m doing the same thing. After a few minutes of quiet, we talk again, and this time we come up with the idea of getting wet washcloths to place on our heads or our chests to try to feel cooler. We get up and get the washcloths, and go back to our separate rooms, where we agree out loud that “this feels better.” A few more minutes pass and I remember that there are ice packs in the freezer, that even if they’ve thawed, they could still be cold enough to slip into our pillows. Kim volunteers to get up and get the ice packs, and they do feel good. Just before we fall asleep, I get a mental image of the two of us lying in our separate rooms, dressed only in panties and washcloths, and I call out to Kim that if there’s any chance that a tornado will hit the house, this would be the time.
We made it through the night, and the house is cooler this morning by several degrees. We know it won’t be that way long. The rain has stopped, and the weather forecasters on the local radio station don’t seem to think it’ll be coming back. That means our septic tanks won’t fill up with groundwater and our toilets will continue to work. Also, our water supply wasn’t contaminated, so we’ll have plenty of fresh water. That makes us luckier than many. City water isn’t available at my daughter Kelli’s home; they’re on a well. When the power goes out, so does the well pump. Fortunately, they have a generator, and they can plug the pump into it on an as-needed basis.
At mid-morning, friends of Kim's drive up to check on us. They’ve been out hunting gasoline for their van and for their generator, and we’re happy to see them. They describe the destruction they’ve seen on their way from Baton Rouge to our house, and we feel even luckier than before. They invite us to gather up our dogs and stay at their house, where they’re cooking on a grill and a generator powers a refrigerator, TV set, and a room air conditioner. Kim is tempted, but I don’t want to go. I recognize and appreciate the generosity of their offer, but I want to stay home, and I don’t want to get out on the hazardous roads. If I change my mind later, I promise them, I’ll let them know.
I’m worried that I haven’t been able to get in touch with Kelli today. Our landline phones aren’t working, even the hard-wired ones, and cell phone service is scarce. On the radio, I hear a request for people to forgo casual cell-phone conversations so first responders can get their calls through.
I also hear on the radio that the number of homes and businesses without power across Louisiana has reached more than seven digits. Entergy Corporation, my own power provider, has 1.2 million customers out of service. Estimates range from days to weeks, depending on the location and the severity of the destruction, before service will be returned.
My sister calls to tell me they’ve made it home safely. She says the national news is all about New Orleans and the nationwide sense of relief that there is no major flooding. She hasn’t been able to find any news about the Baton Rouge area. This kind of makes me mad. Don’t the networks think it’s newsworthy that hundreds of thousands of people are without food, shelter, gasoline and electricity when the temperature is soaring near 90 degrees? Isn’t it significant that thousands of businesses are closed, that companies are shut down and hourly workers are losing wages? Doesn’t it matter that courthouses and government agencies are shut down, without computers, without telephones, and that business as usual is a phrase for the past and the future but not for the next few weeks? It matters to us, and I want people to know about it.
Yes, I’m glad that the death toll of Gustav is nothing compared to Katrina, but there’s still plenty of suffering to go around.
Kim ventures out to her friends’ house and comes back with a hot sausage sandwich for me and a deep conviction that we need to buy a generator. I tell her I’ve been listening to the radio about long queues of people lining up at building supply stores in futile searches for generators. Window-unit air conditioners are in short supply, too, and the air conditioning is the main reason I’d want to get a generator. Not only that, I’m hearing that the things drink gasoline. Only a few gas stations are able to pump gas, and people are waiting in line for hours to buy gasoline. Personally, I don’t want the hassle. Kim tells me they’ll go out and find the generator, they’ll find the air conditioner, they’ll find the gas cans and the gasoline; I won't have to do a thing. Maybe in a few days, I say, but not now.
Someone told me around the time of Hurricane Katrina that our neighborhood is on the same power grid as the new high school, the one that’s being used as a shelter, and that, for that reason, we’d be among the first places to get power. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but if it doesn’t get any hotter, I’m willing to wait a few more days
In the afternoon, my cell phone finally rings and it’s my brother. I’m thrilled that the phone is working and particularly delighted to hear from him. My love for him never falters, but we both have lousy communications skills, and we go for long periods of time without talking. We call each other at birthdays and holidays, but if the phone calls go unanswered, as they usually do on those busiest of days, we extend our good wishes through voice mail and call it done.
We have a great conversation, quickly getting past the subject of the hurricane and moving on to the mundane news of our lives. I had almost forgotten how much I love the sound of his laughter, and it warms my heart to hear it again.
As soon as we hang up, the phone rings again, and it’s Kelli this time. I’m relieved that we’re back in touch, even if I was pretty sure she and her family were safe. She feels the same way.
My sister calls (she’s kept in close contact for days) and once again invites all of us to drive to Texas to stay with them until we get our power back. She even invites all of our dogs. I know she means it and I love her for it, and I promise we’ll go there if things get really bad.
Kim has cabin fever. She’s hot, she’s bored, she says she doesn’t know how much of this she can stand. She asks again if I’d consider taking the pooches to her friends’ house where we could at least sleep in comfort. I tell her I don’t want to go, but I think she should go ahead, and she tells me she can’t go without me. She says she’d feel like she’d be abandoning me, and she isn’t willing to do that. I tell her I’m perfectly safe where I am, with plenty of food in the house and a car full of gasoline (not to mention air conditioning) if things become too uncomfortable. I encourage her to go. When she’s with me, we pretty much sit and stare out at the driveway and the road beyond, which is driving her nuts. When I’m by myself, I can read or work Sudoku or logic puzzles to pass the time.
I remind her that in staying with me, she’s already displaced from her home. It isn’t a big step to pick up her bag and go to her friends’ home. For me to do that, I’d be trading the familiarity of home for cooler but unfamiliar surroundings. I also remind her that I’ve lived through this kind of heat before. There were days in my childhood when the temperature reached 100 degrees, and we had no air conditioning. On those days, we stayed inside with the doors and windows closed against the heat and humidity, shutting the drapes on first one side of the house, then another, following the offending sun. We had no television then, either, so reading and listening to the radio were the norm.
With a promise to call her if I need anything at all, I finally convince her it’s all right for her to go. I ask her to leave her pups with me, so they won’t feel stressed out by a strange home with strange dogs, and she reluctantly agrees.
I go to bed early. I’ve discovered that Kim’s battery-operated lantern puts out a light that’s bright enough to read by, and I happen to have a new book I’m excited to begin: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. It’s about a boy and his dogs, and surrounded as I am by Butch, Kadi, Winston and Lucy, it seems a fitting story for a night like this. Once again, the wet washcloth and the ice pack are part of my bedtime story, and I feel safe and happy as I lie in bed and read.
I also feel proud of myself. I’m proud that I prepared adequately for a time like this and proud that I haven’t let the heat beat me down. At the same time, I’m honest with myself. I realize that if this had happened a month earlier, when temperatures were really high, I’m not so sure I could have survived without air conditioning. I recognize that luck is more accountable for my wellness than any personal fortitude.
The temperature outside has dropped a couple of degrees, and there’s an occasional breeze. I decide that sitting outside for a while might make the heat indoors seem less oppressive. In the interest of cooling off the dogs, I fill their swimming pool. Kadi is the only taker. She climbs into the four inches of water and lies down while the rest of the dogs go to the door and ask to go back inside.
I’ve seen strange butterflies through the window for the past couple of days, strange in the sense of being unfamiliar to me. They’re quite large, with lavendar wings. While I sit outside by Kadi’s pool, I see one of the butterflies flittering from branch to branch on the tangelo tree. I go inside to get my camera, come back out, aim, focus...and get the message: “Change batteries.” I go back in the house and replace the batteries, determined to try again. I step out the backdoor just in time to see the lovely butterfly go over the back fence.
I sit in a lawn chair next to the gardenia bush, a cold drink in one hand, a book in the other, the camera hanging around my neck. A bumblebee buzzes close to me and settles onto a nearby blossom. At least the camera activity wasn’t a total waste.
Kadi is ready to go back inside. I dry her as thoroughly as possible with a towel, hoping her wet fur will keep her a little cooler once she’s back inside.
The neighbor who lives directly in front of me comes to the front door and brings us a bag of ice. We are thrilled. She tells us the ice is being distributed at the Expo Center. “The line is long,” she says, “but it moves fast." Kim and I drive there immediately and join the long line of vehicles snaking half a mile or more to the distribution site. There are beat-up, old pickup trucks and luxury SUVs in line with us, demonstrating the equalizing nature of a storm like this. As we wait in line, we discuss how fortunate we are that we’ve never had to seek out assistance like this before. To our left, we notice a yellow, single-wide mobile home, so insubstantial in its bearing that it’s a wonder the strong winds didn’t blow it over. We chuckle when we realize its windows have been carefully boarded over. That, my friends, is optimism.
We wait in the line for an hour and a half before we pull up to the area where young men and women in military camouflage are passing out supplies. Each car stops for less than a minute. We pop the trunk open and strong arms place two large bags of ice, two boxes of MREs (meals ready to eat), and one blue tarp inside. We tell them how much we appreciate them, and we’ve never meant it more.
On the radio later we hear about people who waited four and six hours in supply lines. Once again, we realize we were lucky.
Kim has gone back to her friends’ house, and I am having a hot meal: my first ever MRE. Each box we were given contains 24 meals, four each of six different varieties. I decide to try the southwestern chicken with black beans and rice. When I open the package, I’m surprised that in addition to the entree, there are crackers, cheese, fig bars, a shortbread cookie, a pack of raisins, a tube of raspberry drink flavoring, a packet of pepper, a spoon, and a moist towelette. Each item is packaged separately in sturdy, waterproofed material.
I follow the instructions to place the meal pouch in the heating envelope and add the saline solution that starts the chemical heating process. After the prescribed 12 minutes, I carefully remove the hot pouch, knead it thoroughly to distribute the heat evenly, then tear off the top and taste it. It’s seasoned surprisingly well, not bad at all, though the texture is a little gummy. There’s no question this food would stick to your ribs. The only other item I try is the large shortbread cookie, which is as good as any I’ve ever tasted.
I know it’s silly, but I feel almost giddy with happiness to be eating this meal, not because I’m so hungry but because of its origins. I’m proud of the people who eat this food in the line of duty, and I’m honored to share at least this one meal in common with them.
I’m not having a good night. My legs are aching, and it’s almost too hot to breathe, even with the wet washcloth laid on my mid-section. The cloud cover lifted early in the day, and the sun’s heat has lingered to make this the hottest night yet.
The dogs are restless, too. Butch and Lucy seem fine, but I’m worried about Kadi and Winston. Kadi is panting constantly, and Winston wheezes as if he has asthma. Sometime in the pre-dawn hours, I rise to take them outside, and as I do so, I realize I’m dizzy. I must have sat too long by the gardenia bush today and activated the allergies that upset my equilibrium. Minutes after the dogs come back inside, when I’m almost drifting off to sleep again, I hear a loud crash inside the house, followed quickly by another identical one. I grab the flashlight and make my way from room to room until I come to the dining room, where I find two chairs lying on their backs. Butch is in the living room and Kadi is in the den, equidistant from the scene of the crime, both of them watching me. One of them, I’m sure, was seeking shelter under there.
I go back to bed and try again. I’m lying on my right side, and I feel something land on my left upper arm. I quickly fling my right hand up and grab it, hurling it to the floor. I imagine that the size and heft of the thing would be about the same as a cockroach. I reach for the flashlight and shine it all around my bed, but I don’t see anything. There’s a towel on the floor beside the bed. I poke it with my toe, but nothing crawls out.
It’s a long night.
The sun is shining this morning. At first I think it’s the contrast of the sunlight outside and the shadows in the house that reminds me of the house where I grew up in Missouri, but then I realize it isn’t the light as much as the sound. There are no generators running this morning. No air conditioning, no television, little or no traffic. It sounds as quiet as the summers of my childhood. Apparently, the noises that have polluted our environment through the years have come on so gradually that I never noticed them until they stopped. For a brief while I sit alone and enjoy the sense of being back in that time and place.
Kelli, Troy and Michelle come over to visit. They live 20 minutes from my house, not so far in normal times, but quite a distance when all the traffic lights are out.
Troy surveys the house and seems pleased that the damage is insignificant. We’re missing a handful of shingles from the roof, the gutter is hanging a few inches low on one corner, and that’s about all there is. I mention that we lost one fruit-laden branch from the tangelo tree, and both of them, in turn, admit to having hit that branch accidentally while they mowed the lawn. They weren’t too sorry to see it go.
Their visit is brief, but we all feel better for having seen each other in person.
When Kim comes back, she brings me a brown-bag lunch packed for me by her friend. It contains a banana, two buns, lettuce and tomato in a plastic bag, and a sausage link and a hamburger patty, hot off the grill. I think I’m in heaven.
Kim thinks I need to get out of the house, and I don’t particularly want to go anywhere. We discuss our options, and I finally agree to go out for a ride if we can clean out the refrigerator first and take the spoiled contents to the dumpster behind my office.
As we ride, we see more houses with tree damage. Near the middle school, we see what’s left of a school-zone sign. The pole stands almost erect, but the rectangular sign itself is shredded and twisted.
We stop at Kim’s apartment. Her power is still off, but it feels a little cooler there than at my place. We talk about possibly spending the night there, but I don’t want to move. Hot as it is, I want to be home as long as I’m able.
The neighbors in front have bought a generator. As we watch them work together to set it up, we have another discussion about the pros and cons of getting one for my house. I’m still not convinced. I’ve been in Louisiana for 30 years now, and this is the first time I’ve needed a generator. I think I can wait a little longer.
It’s late afternoon before the neighbors get their generator operating. I encourage Kim to leave so she’ll get where she’s going before dark, and I settle on the sofa and turn on the radio. When Kim and I talked about generators earlier, we also talked about fans, including the big, cord-operated fans used long ago in southern plantation houses. Thinking about that conversation led to thoughts of the hand-held, cardboard fans we used in church on hot Sundays when I was a kid. I have an idea. I take the flashlight and go to the laundry area of my kitchen, reach up on a shelf and grab the blue plastic handle that fits into a Swiffer duster. Next, I go in the den and retrieve three letter-sized sheets of card-stock paper, tape them together, insert them into the notch on the Swiffer handle, and tape the long blue prongs onto the card stock until I’m sure the whole thing will hold together. I go back to the sofa and settle down again. Kadi is on the floor at my feet. For the next half hour, I fan the two of us. That subtle movement of the air makes a world of difference. I feel simultaneously pleased at my creativity and stupid for not having thought of it days ago.
Moments later, the lights come on.
For a few seconds, I can’t believe it, and then the euphoria sets in. Kadi and Butch are right there with me, up and active, Butch cocking his head to listen and Kadi prancing around from room to room, all of us caught up in the excitement of the moment. Kadi seems to visibly relax, as if the world had been askew on its axis and was suddenly set right again.
I call both my daughters and then my sister to share the good news. I get a cold Diet Coke from the ice chest, put crackers and canned chicken salad on a paper plate, turn on the television to a local station and, for the first time, see video footage of some of the damage I’ve heard described on the radio.
I want to laugh, and I want to cry. It’s hard to imagine that I’ve always taken something as important as electricity for granted, and I don’t want to forget this, ever.
I post a brief blog entry to tell my online friends the news, then I take a shower, let the dogs out one last time, and crawl into bed. Butch is in his usual spot, as is Kadi. Kadi is breathing normally for the first time in days, and I’m grateful for every easy breath she draws.
I say prayers of gratitude and sink into a long, deep sleep.
I’ve slept for 10 straight hours. I do remember letting the dogs out once during that time, but that memory is vague. I’ve slept so long that I feel sluggish.
Because of the air conditioning, I feel cool and clean. I gather up laundry loads of sweaty shorts and T-shirts, and other loads of sheets and towels. It seems almost magical to push buttons on the machines and have them agitate and spin until the laundry is done.
There’s ice in the freezer, perfectly frozen semi-circles that were manufactured all through the night. I’m so proud of them you’d think I gave birth to them myself.
I talk to Kelli early in the day. She doesn’t have electricity yet, but they’re making do.
Kim calls early, too. She’s had a restful night, and a friend is with her now. They’re both eBay sellers, and they’re taking advantage of her reborn electricity to contact their customers. She wants to know if I’ve heard of any area post offices that are open, but I don’t know of any.
My boss calls. He’s gone to a meeting with other officials of the local justice system to develop a plan for the immediate future. If the power comes back on at the office, we’ll go back to work on Monday.
I stay in my bathrobe all day long. I want to write about this experience but can’t seem to wrap my mind around it yet. I read a little bit and watch a little TV. In the pre-storm days, I kept the TV on most of the time for background noise, but today the chatter annoys me. I turn it off and enjoy the silence.
Kim’s going grocery shopping and offers to pick up some things for me. I make a short list that includes hot dogs and meatloaf ingredients. I want comfort foods. I’ll need to completely restock my refrigerator and freezer, but with hurricanes Hanna and Ike still threatening, I’m not ready to do it yet.
As I take towels out of the washing machine, the last load of laundry and the one that includes the towel from the floor beside my bed, half of a large cricket falls from the folds of a towel onto the kitchen floor. I can’t explain why, exactly, but I find a cricket much nicer than a cockroach, especially when I think about it having been on my arm.
Kelli calls early to tell me her power’s back on. She sounds ecstatic. She also tells me about driving to the store and seeing a convoy of utility trucks coming into town. She says it made her cry, the same kind of tears of pride and gratitude that spring to her eyes when she sees a caravan of military vehicles. I know exactly what she means.
Kim comes over to work in her glass studio. She has custom orders to fill and is eager to get back to work.
I pick up all the candles and matches and put them away. The flashlights and batteries go back in their places, and the battery-operated radio goes back in the closet to wait for the next time we need it. Except for the unusual quantity of canned meats and other non-perishable foods in my pantry, things at home are pretty much back to normal. In the isolation of my house, it’s easy to forget that there are thousands and thousands of people nearby whose lives remain upended.
Gustav wasn’t the largest or most powerful hurricane ever to come this way, but those who’ve been around long enough to know are saying it’s the most devastating storm in the history of this area. At least in terms of physical destruction and business interruption.
While we’re speaking in superlatives, I’ll acknowledge that this is the longest blog post I’ve ever written. It would have been even longer if I’d written about the days of preparation for the hurricane, the government’s mostly successful efforts to provide guidance and assistance, and the countless other ways our lives have been affected at least temporarily. There’s been no mail service in the last week, for example, and we don’t know when it will resume. For another example, helicopters fly over multiple times daily, so often that the dogs no longer pay attention to them.
My boss calls again this evening. He’s about the same age I am, so I don’t know if it's an age thing or if the younger generations feel the same way, but we both agree that an event such as Hurricane Gustav enables us to establish our priorities in an instant. The safety of our loved ones is the only thing that matters. As long as everyone’s okay, the rest of this mess can get sorted out, piece by piece, all in its own good time.
Life goes on here. Pray for the people in the paths of Hanna and Ike.