Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Longest Night

“There's always another storm. It's the way the world works. Snowstorms, rainstorms, windstorms, sandstorms, and firestorms. Some are fierce and others are small. You have to deal with each one separately, but you need to keep an eye on whats brewing for tomorrow.”
Maria V. Snyder, Fire Study


                It’s hurricane season again.  After 37 years of living here along the Alabama Gulf Coast, hearing those words evokes in me a mixture of emotions-annoyance, resignation, a hint of excitement, caution, and even nostalgia .Even now, with Isaac on its way, I am not particularly fearful, for I survived, and vividly remember, Baldwin County’s most powerful hurricane. I say most powerful, because, although Ivan did extensive damage and Katrina scared us all, in my mind nothing compares to Frederic.

                Perhaps my memories are exaggerated or distorted as I was only thirteen when Frederic ravaged the Gulf Coast, but my mother remembers things the same way, and she has lived through many more hurricanes than I. She has told stories of slogging through huge puddles of standing water during the eye of Hurricane Dorothy, frantically searching for the family dog , who was finally located under a neighbor’s porch. This was in Jacksonville, Florida, where hurricanes are also commonplace.  Once when I was very young, we experienced the remnants of a hurricane while on a camping trip. My own recollection of most of these storms is of a lot of rain, wind that blew stuff around a bit, a couple of days’ reprieve from school , and the inconvenience of being without power for three or four days.  Frederic, however, was different.

                I remember that my eighth-grade history teacher, upon hearing that a major storm had formed in the Gulf and could be headed our way, showed us a film about Hurricane Camille that frightened and disturbed me.  The loss of life in that storm was awful, and the film was mainly a cautionary tale about taking hurricanes seriously. Two days later, I woke up to the news that school was cancelled, and we were in the projected path of Hurricane Frederic. My father had already gone to his office to make sure everything was secured. My mother set my sisters to washing clothes and dishes and my brother to picking up every loose object out of the yard.  She took me and my fifteen-month-old niece, Tiffani, with her to the grocery store. I was given a list and sent to hunt batteries, paper plates, kerosene, candles, and matches while Mom and Tiffi filled the cart to the brim with canned goods.  It was very early in the morning but lines were already forming and items were going fast. I remember thinking that I had never seen the Spanish Fort Delchamps doing that much business.

                When we arrived back at home, I went out with the neighborhood gang of kids to search for my friend Lori’s missing kitten, Ali.  Ali, a little gray ball of fluff, had slipped out the door before daylight when Lori’s dad had gone out to secure their boat and move the cars to a safe location. It would be several hours before we would begin to feel the effects of the storm, but the clouds were gray and lowering, the air humid and sticky. There was also an odd sort of silence and I realized that I heard no birds or frogs.  That gave me a strange feeling, but I didn’t share it with my friends, who were all just happy to get out of school.  We finally located Ali in someone’s garage, and by that time our moms were beginning to call for us to come home.  A few people were leaving town but most had chosen to ride out the storm in their houses.  Dads and older boys were boarding up windows. I helped my brother put tape on the sliding glass doors and then began looking for my own pets.

                At that time my family owned two dogs. In fact, we had owned two dogs ever since I could remember. The current pair consisted of a collie named Shadrach and a mixed-breed called Misty, who was one of my dearest companions throughout my childhood. In 1979 she was already ten years old, blind in one eye, and terrified of bad weather. She was already on the porch and Shadrach was in his pen, standing by the gate. He had a doghouse but there was no thought of leaving him outside in a hurricane; I had beds made from old blankets in the garage for both dogs. In addition to the dogs and my hamsters, Nicky and Charlie, we had four cats. I looked all over the yard and in the woods behind the house but the cats were nowhere to be found. I found this odd because there were usually at least two somewhere in the vicinity, stretched out on the railing of the sundeck or lounging on the windowsill or curled up on the old sofa in the garage. There was Triple, a yellow tabby with six toes on each foot; Clyde, an orange and white marmalade who had lost an eye in a fight; Spits, a gray and white striped tom, and Sydney, a calico with attitude. “Dad, I can’t find any of the cats,” I said worriedly.

                “It’s okay, Red, they’ll turn up when it’s time, “he assured me.  Sure enough, an hour later, I looked out the window and saw all four of them lined up on the deck.  I got them into the garage along with the dogs, made sure there was enough food and water for everybody, and then helped my mother fry about fifty pieces of chicken. My mother always cooked a good meal right before a hurricane.  We all took baths in rapid succession, then cleaned the bathtubs and filled them up. We also filled every jar and pitcher in the house with water. Having made all of these preparations , there was nothing left to do but watch the weather coverage on the news and follow the path of the storm on the tracking map. It was indeed bearing down on us, a strong Category 3, although to this day there is debate about whether Frederic was actually a 4.

                The feeder bands started way before dark, but by nightfall we were beginning to feel the wind.  We were all gathered in the family room except Tiffani, who slept soundly through the entire storm, much too young to understand what was happening.  Daddy sat in his recliner as usual. I tried to read but was distracted by the wind. It is a sound I will never forget. As the storm’s fury increased, Daddy took a flashlight and went to the window. He flicked the flashlight on and off twice. The neighbors in the houses across the street did the same, a signal that all was well. This continued throughout the night, even as we heard the wind screech and the sound of tree limbs breaking off and trees crashing to the ground.  We held hands and prayed that none would hit our house. Then Mom sent all of us to bed. I lay with my head under the covers, one hand reached out to touch my hamster cage. In the light of my candle I saw that the two little creatures had burrowed down under their shavings.  I had checked on the dogs and cats before I went to bed and they were a little scared, but calm, except for Sydney, whose fur was standing on end as she paced.

                I finally slept, but not soundly until the wee hours of the morning when exhaustion overtook me and I fell into a heavy slumber.  Daddy was keeping watch. I knew he wouldn’t let anything happen to us.  Mom had reminded us of the words from the Bible: “Be still and know that I am God.”   Mom was keeping watch, too, I knew, even though Daddy kept telling her to go to bed.  It is a testimony to the love and security in that house that all of us were able to sleep during the worst hurricane we could remember.

                In the morning I was awakened by the sound of chainsaws and the scratch, scratch of rakes. I looked out the window and my jaw dropped. The yard was a disaster, a mess of trees and leaves and pine straw and other debris. My mother was raking at the pinestraw while my father surveyed the damage. I scrambled out of bed and dressed quickly in shorts and a t-shirt. The power would be out for three weeks and the heat would become nearly unbearable at times. I let the animals out of the garage and they dashed to freedom, then stopped, confused. Everything was all over everything; that was the only way I could think of to describe what I saw. Shadrach’s pen was squashed as was Daddy’s company car, and I could see a couple of places where trees had narrowly missed the house. We lost 21 trees in that storm, mostly dogwoods, but we soon discovered we had fared better than many others. One tiny corner of our roof was damaged and that was all.

                In the days that followed, we began to appreciate the small things-ice, for example. I will never forget when the relief trucks came delivering ice down at the shopping center. There were National Guardsmen standing watch with weapons in order to make sure no one took more than two bags. In my imagination, I thought it was similar to what things would be like in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. There were people lined up to get the ice, and many of them looked haggard, exhausted, and hungry. However, I do not recall anyone trying to take more than his fair share. What I do recall is a community coming together to help and support one another. Bobby Wilson, whose gas station had been badly damaged, got things up and running as soon as possible and gave free food and drinks to anyone in need. My father grilled all of the meat that was in our freezer and fed the entire neighborhood. We feasted for about two days and after that it was Dinty Moore beef stew and sandwiches with no mayonnaise. I don’t think any of us complained.

                Frederic was the most costly Gulf Coast hurricane until Katrina came along in 2005. The devastation was heart-wrenching, but at least there was minimal loss of life. Still, when we were able to get down to Gulf Shores, a place that a friend of mine has aptly referred to as “the extended backyard of my childhood”, we were shocked at what we saw. The sand dunes were no more. Debris was everywhere, and building after building was reduced to a concrete slab. I remember being savvy enough, even at thirteen, to wonder what this would do to Baldwin County’s economy. I remember listening to harrowing stories on the news of people who had ridden out the storm in Gulf Shores and on Dauphin Island and how they managed to survive. Mostly, I remember our neighborhood coming to life again , the sound of chainsaws (there was no shortage of firewood that winter), and yes, even laughter.

                I learned a lot of things from Frederic. I learned about God’s incredible power and His amazing grace. I learned that in a crisis, most people behave honorably. I learned that when you are without air conditioning, a cold shower actually feels good. Because I was a kid, there was a sense of romantic adventure about the whole ordeal, and I will admit to enjoying the unexpected three-week holiday. I read a lot of books, played boardgames with my family, and roamed the neighborhood with my friends, looking for someone to rescue (and we actually did find a frightened cat in a drainpipe, and returned it to its owner with a sense of satisfaction). I learned that really, one can get along with a lot less than he assumes.

                With the passing years the sense of fear I had during the storm has faded and instead I think of my father sitting calmly in his recliner while the storm raged. I recall with a sense of wonder the fact that when Frederic came up the mouth of Mobile Bay, he sucked the entire bay into the sky and spit it back down again. I remember my niece walking into the living room the morning after the storm, looking out the back door at the chaos, and saying, “Uh-oh,” with wide eyes. I think of how my mother contrived to keep us fed and in clean clothes, and how generous the neighbors were when they got back their power before we did, inviting us over for hot showers and a home-cooked meal. I remember my dad maneuvering his squashed car carefully down the street and how amused our neighbors were. I recall going back to school and the sense of camaraderie we all felt as we shared our storm stories. Our school gym was gutted , so for the rest of the school year we had Health on rainy days instead of P.E. This was fine with me because I hated volleyball anyway, but our health texts were so ancient that the pages were yellowed.

                Eventually, the Gulf Coast was restored to its glory. Baldwin’s Longest Night ended and hope returned. Today the dunes stand sparkling in the sunlight, covered with sea oats. The tourist business is booming even in the wake of the oil spill two years ago. Neither Ivan nor Katrina caused the amount of devastation to our beaches that Frederic did, and there are people who have forgotten what a powerful storm it was. But I have not forgotten, and the funny thing is that my memories of that time are so incredibly sweet. Our family drew closer together, our community stayed strong, and Bobby Wilson gave away free Cokes. On the Sunday following Frederic, we went to church and our pastor Pierre Burns (the second greatest man in my world) preached a sermon about how God is most present in times of danger and trouble. I knew it was true. Incredibly, only five people perished in the disaster, even though many chose to weather the storm in extremely dangerous areas. That had to be the hand of God at work.

                As I sit here, the rain is bucketing down and the tarp we put on the roof is holding. I hope that my children’s memories of hurricane days, like mine, are mostly about togetherness and love and laughter, not terror. We may lose power shortly but we have plenty of candles, and playing Clue by candlelight is a lot of fun. I pray for the safety of our horse and the safety of those who have to be out on the roads. All is in God’s hands. Maybe that’s the greatest lesson I learned from September 12th, 1979.

“When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
Haruki Murakami

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