The last couple of days I’ve been thinking that maybe it’s time for a boat. That’s how much it has rained. In one town north of here (though not far) it rained 15 inches or so — yesterday alone. We’ve had maybe 5 or 6 inches, not that much in comparison. Yet my yard is so soggy that I can hear it squish when I walk to the car or from the car to the house. My driveway is basically mud. And earlier today when I drove away from home, it looked as though a lake were emerging from underneath my house (my house is up on piers, not on a slab foundation, so that’s okay). I’m not really in danger of flooding. I think.
Some folks aren’t nearly so lucky. Since it’s supposed to keep raining, that means that ground already saturated will just turn to mud. And it also means that the rivers will keep rising, as the bayous fill and drain into them. And all that water will keep coming for days, even after the rains stop.
It’s not just the rain that makes me stop and think. I mean, we get rain — a lot of it — pretty much year round. Our average rainfall is something like 65 inches per year, though it can be more. We’re a semi-tropical climate, too, so figure in humidity: the average yearly humidity is in the 70s. In hot months, though, that humidity climbs. Humidity in the 80s is common; in the 90s is pretty normal; and it can — and does — hit 100% more than once.
So rain? Pretty normal. Like many people here, I’ve got shoes that can (and do) get wet on days like today. I’ve got rain boots. I’ve worn rain boots to work in the past. Now I just slosh through with sandals or flip-flops.
But what this rain makes me think about is another kind of weather phenomenon. It’s that time of year, still — hurricane season. It may seem late to some people, but we’ve learned not to breath easy until November. Though there’s nothing out there right now in the Gulf that we need to pay attention to, it’s never really far from our minds here on the Gulf Coast at this time of year. Especially when it’s been raining so much. We pay attention to weather patterns, to tropical depressions turning to tropical storms to hurricanes. We pay attention to predicted landfalls. We pay attention to pressure fronts and water temperatures in the Gulf.
It’s not that we want someone else to get hammered, but we want to escape being hammered. We’ve been hammered enough in the last few years.
Everyone remembers Hurricane Katrina. Katrina hit as a Category 3 hurricane on August 29, 2005, in Southeast Louisiana. New Orleans looked fine — until the levees breached. That’s what caused massive flooding and horrendous destruction. Mississippi was also hit very hard, since it was on the dirty side of Katrina. The “dirty side” is the easterly side of a storm, where there is the most energy, where wind speeds are increased, where rains are heaviest, and thus where the likelihood of high storm surges is greater.
In Southwest Louisiana, we had very little direct weather from Katrina. In fact, we took in a lot of people from the hurricane-hit areas. Yet just less than a month later, it was our turn.
Hurricane Rita made landfall on September 24, 2005, near Sabine Pass, Texas, with 120 mph winds. Since Lake Charles and Southwest Louisiana was on the dirty side of the storm, we were hard hit. Mandatory evacuations were called, and we didn’t ignore that. I was amazed just how much I could pack into my RAV 4 — pets, everything I thought I needed to live. I drove away. When I drove back, I couldn’t get into Lake Charles — all of the interstate exits and entrances were blocked with tanks or police cars. After a couple of weeks, we were allowed in to look and then leave. Finally, we were allowed back home when power was restored — but with curfews.
I was fortunate with Rita. On my street alone, something like 8 trees went through houses. The roof of my house, though, had been picked up and set back down. I had water damage inside as a result. And had to get a new roof. Debris was everywhere. Trees were uprooted, sometimes complete with huge hunks of concrete. Most of us made our daily passes through the Red Cross/Army lines — to get ice, to get ready-to-eat meals, to get blue tarpaulins for roof damage.
Here’s what I saw on my street — just one example of what trees could look like:
The sailboats at the marina on Lake Charles were washed under the I-10 bridge and ended up on the railroad tracks:
And my house didn’t look too bad. Even inside —
Friends put on the blue tarp since the Army and Red Cross wouldn’t (I had asbestos slate tiles):
But others weren’t nearly so lucky. I have friends who had to completely gut and rebuilt their houses.
Fast forward three years. Hurricane Ike made landfall as a strong Category 2 hurricane near Galveston. I had a small beach house on Crystal Beach, a community on Bolivar Peninsula, maybe 16 miles from Galveston, on the mainland. That means that my house was on the dirty side. Here’s what Ware’s Walden looked like — rather modest, but treasured nonetheless:
Since I couldn’t talk Dad into evacuating for Hurricane Ike, I loaded up pets and other treasures and headed to his house in Egan. I made him buy a generator, even though he sputtered and protested. It wasn’t an option, I informed him. For as long as we could, we watched television and tried to follow the storm — where it was probably going to make landfall, etc. We lost power during the night as the rains and winds stormed around us, and so lost the ability to follow anything. The next morning when it was light, we got the generator started. With that, we could watch television, run the refrigerator, and power a window air-conditioner, and I could power my laptop — and actually could get internet. That’s when I was able to use Google Earth.
My beach house was simply gone. I could see a white space, which wasn’t good — the roof wasn’t white. I could see the red of one neighbor’s deck, but no house there. No house to either side of the white spot. Later, when I could drive down, this is what I had left:
I began referring to this as “the lovely slab.” That’s what was left. Nothing else — other than a single Christmas ornament that I usually left out, a resin angel with a chipped wing. Someone found it near and knew it was mine, and it was sitting on my slab.
It was a mess on the island and on Bolivar Peninsula. Houses were just gone. Stairs were left going to nowhere. Trucks and cars were piled on top of each other in fields across the highway — if they could be found. Some cars dipped front-end into holes left by storm surges.
Yet slowly the Peninsula emerged as people cleaned up and began to rebuild. I couldn’t. Didn’t have the energy. Only recently, after Dad died, did my sister and I rebuild together. Our new house isn’t big — 824 square feet — but it’s well-built, well-designed, and insulated. Three bedrooms, one bath. A sand shower downstairs, as well as a locked storage room. The deck is lovely at any time. We’ve named it The Warehouse Too. Here’s what it looks like now:
Though I didn’t lose my main residence, I have some sense of what my friends and too many others went through. As Ike was hitting, I told my dad that I either wanted the house completely untouched or completely gone. It was the in-between that I didn’t want to deal with. I could have done so, but didn’t want to. I’d heard from too many friends and acquaintances just how horrible that could be.
Friends who live other places, places that don’t have hurricanes, simply don’t really understand how we can live here, with the knowledge that a hurricane could wipe us out. Yet some live where earthquakes strikes, or where tornadoes come with such ferocity and in such numbers that it’s a hurricane alley.
At least with a hurricane you’ve got some warning. And you know how to follow a hurricane’s path on a chart. Now, with the internet, it’s even possible to look at computer-generated possible paths. Yes, there’s an app for this too. Believe me, it’s on my phone and my tablet. I check it periodically.
Knowing that The Warehouse Too could disappear just as Ware’s Walden did isn’t something I spend a lot of time contemplating. It’s there, in the back of my mind, but just as a barely audible blip. But it’s not just beach houses that are vulnerable. Even here, in Lake Charles (about 30 miles, or 48 kilometers from the Gulf of Mexico) houses are vulnerable. Though I don’t have any trees left (I had the last taken down after Rita — I saw too much), I know that a roof can have something blown through it, that a roof can be picked up. Tornadoes come with hurricanes too — and with Hurricane Rita there were at least 200 tornadoes that were recorded.
Everything is vulnerable, in the end. Whether to hurricanes or earthquakes or tornadoes or flooding or fires — it’s all vulnerable.
What I’ve learned is that so much that we think is important isn’t really. If no loved ones or pets die — if we are safe and unharmed — that’s really what’s crucial. I pack my car with what I want to survive, knowing that I might have to do so. As I’ve evacuated several times over the past 15 or 20 years, I’ve realized that I pack less of a number of things, and more of others. Clothing? Just enough to get by with — and there’s always a Walmart or something somewhere to buy more. Artwork? Maybe a few pieces, but the rest I wrap up and put either in a closet or in my storage unit. Photographs — too many, really — have been crammed into my car every time I’ve left; now I’m working on digitizing more. It’s slow. Laptop, backup hard drives, desktop computer. Food, water, and flashlights are always ready to go. Medicine. And money. If power goes — no ATMs. Maybe no cell phones.
Today while the rain held off, I was in an 8-hour workshop working with precious metal clay, learning to make a hollow lentil bead with a bail and a pendant with both a bail and a cubic zirconia gemstone. Someone mentioned that the art studio we were in was filled with ephemera.
That’s what I’ve been thinking of all night — how much of what we collect is, in the end, ephemera.
Right now it’s not raining. It may well start soon, or tomorrow. Or not.
But I’m going to spend some time with my pets tonight. I’ll talk to my sister soon. And my niece. I visited with friends this afternoon and tonight. I’ll see other family members soon.
That’s the kind of thing that’s important, really. Not the material things we accumulate and too often deem valuable.
What would you pack in your car if you had to evacuate?