Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Here Goes. Of Hurricanes, and Such.

Today we are pleased to feature a first person account of Hurricane Ike, written by our very own Mrs. Drunken Housewife of two years running, Missy! (Missy has well-earned that title through our Annual Readers' Photo Contest). People often say that they can't imagine living in San Francisco because of earthquakes, but earthquakes are puny lightweights compared to hurricanes in terms of fatalities and sheer destruction. Missy, being made of sterner stuff, faces down hurricanes with aplomb paired with compassion:

I began to write, a month or so ago, about what it was like evacuating for Hurricane Rita, and taking in Hurricane Katrina refugee children at the school where I taught, and I could not finish. I found it too depressing and upsetting to remember in detail and write about the evacuation for Rita, and I could not go on.

Then, Ike appeared on the horizon. It was all over the place on predicted paths, and I thought for certain it would be like most late season hurricanes, and go in around Corpus or Brownsville. (Corpus Christi, that is.) I began buying water early, checking supplies, we gassed up for the generator and the cars, but all along, I kept thinking that surely we would get lucky and it would go south or east.

"Why aren't we leaving?" one of the girls asked when it became obvious that Ike was headed too close. "Do you remember Rita? That was hell," my husband said, and the girls agreed. It was 15 hours for what was normally a five hour trip, but that wasn't the worst part. The worst part was sitting in complete gridlock at the intersection of I-10 and a highway, with cars stuck in all directions, and an overwhelming sense of anarchy ready to erupt. I remember thinking that it was like a bad disaster movie, but it was our lives and it was real, and one bad decision meant we wouldn't survive. I realized afterwards why people from generations ago didn't like to talk about such experiences. You don't want to talk about or remember how badly it felt at the time, to know there was a solid, realistic chance that you might not survive. You knew that one slight wrong decision would mean death, but there was no clear right way. It was the most traumatic and horrific experience of my life, and I knew why the people who didn't evacuate chose to stay. They simply could not take that again.

With Ike filling the Gulf like a giant white crayon swirl, everyone I knew was staying put and hunkering down. A couple of teachers whose husbands were gone or were policemen made plans to bag out as soon as we were released from school Thursday, not wanting to ride out the storm alone with small children. During the day a few children were taken out early by their parents, obviously heading out. Everytime one left, my eyes teared up, me thinking that if I wasn't working, I would be a better parent, we could take our children away as well. Even so, we could have left Thursday or Friday afternoon, but with the storm forecast to be a Cat 2 at worst by the time it reached us (one hour from the coast) it seemed safer to stay put. Rita had left our neighborhood largely untouched, but we well remembered the authorities saying "Don't come back yet." The same people who had shrieked hysterically that we were all Going To Die telling us to not come home? Open roads, enough gas, we left Dallas in the early hours with a complex GPS aided map from my storm chasing brother in law. Afraid of leaving, feeling as well prepared as possible, we decided to stay. We were not in the evacuation zones, we kept telling ourselves. If all of us left, those people would surely die, unable to get out. We would stay, we said.

Friday: 9:00 a.m. We watched in amazed horror as the Gulf water began creeping, brown and opaque, over the feeder streets of I-45 in Galveston. With the storm well over 12 hours from landfall, the streets of Galveston flooding and filling up with water was eerily reminscient of the accounts of the Great Storm of 1900 that took 6,000 lives and forever altered the future of Galveston from a thriving port city to a small island resort. People were calling already for rescue from Bolivar Peninsular. How could they not see this coming, we wondered. The west end of Galveston which had mandatory evacuations a day earlier, seemed a doomed place even then. The Gulf was hungrily eating away the shoreline with the eye of the storm still many hours away.

I did load after load of laundry, cooked chicken and ground turkey so we could heat it up on the gas-powered cooktop when we lost power. We taped up windows just to keep the glass from scattering, finished moving everything from the backyard and front. We made a bunker in the master bathroom where a neighbor's close house would provide a windbreak, packing in food, water, and a thin Ikea mattress over the small bay window.

Friday, 5:00 p.m. The sky had begun to cloud over . The wind blew briskly with an occasional little gust, once in awhile, a more ominous whine. My fifteen year old daughter who had breezily dismissed our preparations as crazy, happened to be walking by me as one of the gusts whined through. Her eyes widened. The sound of an incoming hurricane is no like no other wind sound or storm you will ever hear. As the sun went down and the sky darkened, we watched the radar on tv and it was unbearable waiting. Sunset was both eerie and beautiful; with a red rose sky and bands of deeper purple clouds. Time seemed to crawl unbearably slowly , as we simply waited, wondering and worrying.

As the sky darkened, the wind gusts picked up. The large palm in the neighbor's yard began swaying more furiously, and the 8 foot hedge around our fence began bending over on the north side. The other sides remained motionless while the windward side bent over in an odd dance. I stood outside in the dark while the wind blew my hair straight back from my face. And yet, we were still hours from the actual storm reaching us. By nine, the gusts made it impossible to shut the door easily. The girls came down of their own into the bunker room, and I put the two younger cats into the laundry room. We turned on the tv to watch the yellow and red bands advance on the radar, and waited.

At midnight, we moved into the back of the house. The wind was blowing in continuous gusts, but there was still little if no rain.

Two a.m.: The storm was hitting in full fury. We still had power, and we clung to the words of the weathermen on tv. The gusts were continuous and rain was hitting the glass like a fist. It came in bursts, like a machine gun. I began dozing off from sheer exhaustion, but the girls and my husband were wide awake. We had lined the floor of the master bathroom with cushions and pillows and we all curled up, flashlights in hand, waiting and watching.

As I slept, I dreamed I was awake, so there was never a sense of being free from the storm. Over the top of the mattress, the lightning flashed continuously. The reporters talked about green lightning, but it seemed more like someone flashing a lightnonstop over our house.I foolishly thought it might be the neighbors, and then realized, it was lightning. The constant light was unnerving. The power went out after several flickers, at three a.m., nad the darkness and sudden silence were like a blow. We knew it would happen, but we still dreaded it.

"It's gone!" we all shouted. The battery pack that allowed a small nightlight beeped like a clock alarm every five minutes. Half of us wanted it silent. The other half said they could not bear the complete darkness with only the sound of the storm.

At five a.m, the storm was at its worst for us. We were on the clean side of the storm where the winds were lessened, and we were an hour from the coast and to the west of the direct line, but the gusts of wind were stil much more powerful. The windows shook. The rain beat like a fist. The whine was more like a shriek and yet, I kept falling asleep from exhaustion.

"You need to stay awake! You need to be vigilant!" my husband said, as the girls finally slept in equal exhaustion.

"Why? What can I do to stop anything from happening? I'll wake up if something happens!"

I went to the half-bathroom in our house, and tried to look out the front window from the dining room. It was pitch black, coated with rain, impossible to see anything. I gave up. We would have to be ignorant of whatever demons were at work outside. I realized the foolishness of standing next to the window trying to discern something from the darkness. We were ignorant and helpless. Nothing else.

Dozing off again, I realized with a sudden start I hadn't prayed all night, and I started praying. I thought of angels, outstretched arms, protecting our little room, and I prayed. Meanwhile, the wind shrieked and howled and paused, took breath, and howled again.

"It's moving on. It's going to be better by six thirty, by seven. It's going to be moving on," I said confidently. I had no real idea that it would get better. But it had to, I thought. It had to move on, and it had to get better.

I woke just after six, startling to the unfamiliar view. The small patch of window was purple but clear. No more flashes of light, no more rain. We were past the storm. My daughters were silent and still, sleeping finally. I fell asleep again also.

At seven a.m., we awoke again. The girls were still sleeping soundly. We laid down on our bed, and slept for two hours. We were alive, the house seemed intact, and we were completely exhausted.

We awoke to the sound of large motors running. I had a vague hope it was perhaps some kind of electricity repair crew, but I knew it was the hum of generators from neighboring houses. I began heating up some coffee on the cooktop. We walked outside to find neighbors out cleaning up, walking about, talking. Trees were down, but only a few houses had been hit by trees.

We were almost giddy with the sense of being alive and having survived. We began sweeping, raking, cleaning up. The roof, our biggest concern, was intact. We drove over to my brother's at the front of the subdivision, to find him standing outside with a glass of cabernet at eleven.

"Are you finishing late or starting early?" He had just talked to my parents, who were fine and had power, and were busy assigning rooms and bathrooms for their refugee children, he said. I was surprised he had anything left in his wine cellar after that conversation, and we inspected the ruins of his backyard together. The storm had come down his street like a bowling ball down the lane, and his prized plants and trees were shredded. Still, he was happy, and he cheerfully offered me up a bottle of French cabernet.

By five p.m., we had swept up over eight bags of yard debris with more left. Impossible, that the trees and shrubs could lose so many leaves and still be alive. The hedge was bowed over and the pool full of debris. Amazingly, the front live oak tree had lost its top third of limbs, but none had gone into the house. The remaining canopy of leaves and branches had caught the limbs from going into our house or anywhere else. The ice cream scoop out of the middle of the tree was a sobering visual to what we could have experienced.

We cooked dinner on the gas powered cook top. Sunset, around seven, was beautiful, but odd. The sky was golden yellow with puffs of dusky slate blue, like a Laura Ashley pattern. The last rays of the sun hit one of the clouds in an odd greenish way. I thought to myself, how beautiful the sky was, and how odd that last ray of greenish cloud looked. I have never seen a cloud that color, in my whole life. I didn't want to say anything about it. I was finished with the oddities of the hurricane and done with the twists of nature.

"Look at that green cloud there," said my husband.

Then, everything around me was lit up in the way that only the sunsets near the Gulf Coast can do. It's so flat here, the last golden rays from the sun touch everything. Houses, schools, any building gets covered with a golden radiance. When you are driving on a highway, it's almost blinding in a kind of St. Paul on the way to Damascus way--the last sun light waves touching everything in a brilliant golden glow. In the midst of the most ordinary day, I sometimes find myself in the middle of a medieval painting, with a golden aureole, or a latter day impressionist glow of light. And it was again this way, the day after the storm, that the golden light covered all.

I thought, how beautiful, how lucky we were.

We went to bed, by nine p.m., hot and sticky. Around one or two a.m., my husband got up to fix the generator, which kept cutting off due to an overheated vent. For some brain-fogged reason, he kept setting the house security alarm. Beep beep beep beep---wooden blinds on door rattling--then beep beep beep beep again. In and out, in and out, again and again. By three a.m., he had found the instructions, fixed the problem vent, and started up the fans again. We all slept til nine, and I plugged my coffee maker into the generator. Hot coffee. Cinnamon scented. It was heaven, despite the heat. By two p.m. though, we were all cranky and tired, and frustrated. There was nothing to do but take a nap and long for deep sleep.

Six p.m. Sunday: The power came back at five, to cheers and astonished shouts. I immediately grabbed up an essential load of laundry. One of the older DD's friends from dance along with her sister came over to spend the night, as they were the last of their subdivision to get power back. We got take out Chinese from our favorite restaurant and we were thankful for hot wonton soup and crab puffs. The air conditioners hummed in the background.

The pool vacuum, having run continuously for three hours, miraculously cleaned the pool of most all the debris. The air conditioner hummed in the background, the appliances sang. We saw lines of other people waiting for ice. With electricity, we did not need help. The volunteers and authorities could help the truly needy, because we could continue on our own. We were no longer in need or disconnected from the world, or counting the hours we had til fuel ran out. We talked about how if we stayed here, our next home would be self-sufficient and self sustaining. Whole house natural gas generator, deep porches and hurricane clips on the roof, the ability to be helpers, not helpless.

Eleven PM: The pool was serenely clear and almost blue again. A near-full moon behind a drifting veil of smoke blue clouds shone calmly. Less than a fifty miles away, cafe au lait water lapped at the pilings of shredded houses and over the concrete foundations of others in silence as the stars began their nightly journeys. A cooler wind from the north whispered, chasing away the last dripping remnants of the storm. The local tv stations, exhausted, gave way to national broadcasting, having shown the last photos of devastated homes and beaches and shorelines possible. The girl in the Chanel-style suit has been talking for hours. Time to sleep, where ever that sleep may be.

Twelve thirty p.m. We walk outside. The moon is a distant coin behind the purple smoke of the clouds.

"We were lucky, we made it," I say.

"Other people weren't so lucky," he says.

"Yes, but...."

There is no finishing the sentence. There are plenty of tomorrows for that.


hokgardner said...

THank you for sharing the account. Here in Austin we had some wind and nothing else.

thi said...

Thanks for sharing the account. Here in Round Rock we got some wind and ... hey! hokgardner's in Austin? Did I know this?

Back in May we had thunderstorms with a tornado warning - we hunkered down in the downstairs hallway for a few hours, tops, after I set aside some water bottles, put on my shoes and stayed dressed. Not the same duration or intensity, or prep time, as a hurricane, but the same pounding heart.

Again, thank you for sharing.

Missy said...

Thanks for reading, everyone. It was an amazing experience. One many in a near by community went out during the height of the storm to investigage a tree that fell on his garage--and was hit by another tree. He's paralyzed from the waist down now. He pushed his wife out of the way but was slammed down and had to be rescued by the National Guard in a humvee. Tragic story.

I asked my husband about it, and he thought it was somewhat reasonable to want to go check. It's as if some part of the common sense brain just checks out during these situations.

We lived in Austin for awhile, and we spent more than one hour in the inner room bathroom waiting out a tornado alert (we moved there just before the Jarrell tornado.)

We're all grateful for the semi-normal routines we're back in (traffic is horrendous for commuters due to non-working traffic lights at major intersections, some stores are not fully stocked) although both daughters came home yesterday with tremendous amounts of homework from teachers anxious to make up time and get grades in on time.

The brush and tree limbs are piled up in front of our houses waiting for FEMA to pick them up. We're predicting that will be around, on, December. We're still lucky, though, for some people it took up to 30 hours post storm to get ice and water to certain areas around Houston.

Epiphany said...

Missy - Another thanks for your report. I, too, am in Austin, and we got some wind, no rain. (We had a pretty nasty storm here in mid-May, but it was neither as bad or as long-lasting. We did lose part of a tree, which fortunately did not hit our house.)

Where exactly are you? Your story sounds much like the story of a woman we had dinner with the other night who lives east of Houston, especially the part about the chunk being taken out of the trees.

Mother Nature is a bad-ass bitch, no doubt about it. I'm glad to hear you and your family are okay...

Missy said...

We're on the west side of Houston--Fort Bend County. I always thought we'd get a harder hit from any hurricanes, but we came off much better because we didn't have nearly as many downed trees.

On Sunday, a big truck came around and one of those mini bulldozer truck-things, and they picked up....all the bags of lawn debris. They picked up everything the normal trash does on Monday. The big tree branches? FEMA will be around someday to pick them up. Can't say when.

Jjjj said...

i love your blog


Missy said...

Update, they're starting to recover bodies. It's a sad, sad story--people who thought they could ride out the storm. I remember hearing on the radio accounts of people who were calling in for help and being told "We can't help you now, try to hang on" and just being horrified at the mental images. There's about 350 people still unaccounted for--some in shelters that can't connect with relatives, but of that number, the larger portion will be those who refused to leave and paid with their lives.

hughman said...

thank you for this post. however i have to admit i couldn't read through all of it as it brought back my own memories of struggling through a disaster where friends were dying around me. in my case, it was AIDS in the late 80s and early 90s. still, i worried and watched as those i love succumbed to a disaster out of control.

i wish you the best. remember those you knew and loved who were lost. keep driving on because there is not much else to do.


Missy said...

Hughman, you're a peach. I know only a little of how you feel, but my heart goes out to you. I always wondered why Holocaust victims and others such as AIDS survivors and loved ones, don't want to talk--and I realized after Katrina that sometimes just surviving is enough.

It takes everything you have to get up and go past that.

It amazed that me when I started to write a blog entry I simply could not finish the one about Katrina/Rita. For the first time I understood why Holocaust survivors never talked about their experiences to their children.

There's no tragedy or tough time suffered, that doesn't teach us something about other people, is there?

Hugs (())) Missy

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Missy, for posting. You're right -- when I lost my DH just saying "he died" made it real. Sounds stupid now, but saying it out out made it real -- so I didn't want to say it. So it goes with any tragedy, I think.

One would think Houston wouldn't take a direct hit from Hurricanes -- your post just proves how wrong that thought can be. I have relatives in Houston who just got power back this past weekend.

Take care, and hugs to you all! (ya'all!) :)

/dawn (dfratzke)