that wacky hurricane

Most of my immediate family is safe on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, complaining that all the stores are closed and they’re having to find creative things to do with shrimp they took out of the freezer and boiled. (We should all be so unfortunate.) My brother’s family made it safely to Lafayette—it only took them 4.5 hours to make the normally two-hour trip, but they were pretty fortunate because I heard horror stories about how it took some people most of the day just to get to Baton Rouge (normally about an hour away from New Orleans).
And now it looks like the hurricane will land over in Mobile, once again curving at the last minute from a direct hit to New Orleans. I nearly took a job in Mobile once, but I ended up staying in Austin on a post-grad fellowship, so I guess I was lucky there.

Most people I know who grew up in the greater New Orleans area are remarkably nonchalant about bad weather.
Tornados? I remember being in college at LSU when a tornado started flying around the Baton Rouge area one morning before my media law class. I had a big paper due and I was worried the power would go out and I’d have nowhere to print it. I think I ended up having to print it at a Kinko’s since the power was out at my crappy apartment, or my boyfriend’s crappier apartment, or something. There was no thought of class being cancelled. It wasn’t as though any of the buildings on campus were actually leveled, after all. Just a little wind and rain.
And then a few years ago my dad was visiting Austin on a business deal and staying at the Four Seasons. I was supposed to meet him for dinner there. I had some trouble driving home from work because there were trees blocking parts of 45th Street and Mopac seemed to be holding water. I heard something about a tornado outside of town, but my dad told me not to be silly about a little storm. I put an extra pair of shoes in a plastic bag and braved the roads despite warnings on the radio to stay home. So we had a lovely dinner at the Four Seasons while the town of Jarrell was eradicated by a tornado.
Big thunderstorms? My brother’s car was submerged in a flood and although he got it fixed up, it never smelled quite the same. Apparently the parking lot at the school where he teaches tends to flood a lot, which is why he drives a Jeep now. My youngest brother got to drive an SUV to school his senior year because no one wanted him to ruin a smaller car if the parking lot should flood.
The water pumps in greater New Orleans may not be the fastest, but at least there are pumps. When I was a little girl, sometimes it would rain so hard so fast that not only wouldn’t the water drain, but the wastewater would back up and pour into the streets. I’m not kidding. I remember staying home from school one day (May 3) because the street had become a deep stream of orange water. Orange. And we complained because some of the other kids got to float on rafts in the orange water, but we weren’t allowed near it. My mom threatened us with tetanus shots if we disobeyed.
Baton Rouge wasn’t much better. In the spring, most students wore either flip-flops or duck shoes to class, in case it flooded enough that they would have to wade through high water.
Meanwhile, all it has to do in Austin is rain a little bit, and the weather forecasters are everywhere, telling you to exercise caution and maybe stay home if you can and avoid low-water crossings.
Personally, I get very confused about bad weather. I have an inherent distrust of weather forecasters, who do seem to overreact and overhype anything more than a sprinkling or rain. I never know whether to believe them.
I suppose a lot of New Orleanians are the same way. All over the TV, radio, and Internet, you can hear people telling you that this could be the Worst Hurricane Ever, and you had better board up your windows and leave town while you can. Uh-huh. How many times have New Orleanians heard that one? How many times have there actually been occasions where they should have evacuated? Why should they believe it this time? It’s like the boy who cried wolf.
My grandparents have refused to evacuate. They lived in that house during Hurricanes Betsy and Camille, and any number of little upstart pretend hurricanes, and they survived all of those storms. They see no reason to leave now.
The mayor of New Orleans set a 2 pm curfew today, to keep everyone in the city out of the storm and to prevent looting. This was all over the news. Hell, I knew it and I don’t even live there.
But my grandparents were tired of all that news and weather coverage. Today was Wednesday, and on Wednesday afternoons they always go for a drive. Why should today be any different? Besides, they wanted to get a look at the city with all the fuss about the storm and all. So they drove around town, and down to Canal Street, near the Mississippi River.
You can imagine their surprise when a police car pulled up directly behind them and a voice from a bullhorn bellowed, “There is a 2 pm curfew in effect in the city of New Orleans. Return to your home immediately.” They had no idea.
You might also imagine how I felt when I heard about this from my sister tonight, after spending the day periodically worrying that my grandparents were going to be trapped in their home in some horrible way and possibly have to deal with flooded waters and flying debris and balls of fire ants and other disasters. Instead, they were out joyriding until they got busted for breaking curfew, which is not a sentence people often use to describe their grandparents.
Bear in mind that my grandparents have, in the past, skipped major holiday gatherings because the weather looked a little overcast and they didn’t want to drive to my parents’ house in a potential storm. But the hurricane? Obviously a lot of hype.
The only weather condition that scares New Orleanians is ice. The roads don’t ice as often as they do in Austin—I can remember maybe three or four times it happened when I was growing up in the New Orleans area. The city shuts down entirely if the roads ice at all. No one dares mess with ice and snow. Lots of people still have unwrapped external pipes in their homes, and so many neighbors have to offer hot showers and laundry to the people whose pipes have burst. Ice is a major calamity.
When I drove to New Orleans from Austin one year when the roads in Austin had been icy, taking a chance that everything had warmed up enough for me to make the trip (December 23, 1998, if I remember correctly), the relatives who saw me that Christmas were all truly amazed. Driving all by myself! In the dark! With the possibility of the dreaded ice on the roads! You’d think that I had crossed an icy river on foot in a perilous snowstorm, instead of driving through a perpetual drizzle at night. (I did brave a Cracker Barrel full of singing Christmas trees, and lived to tell the tale, but no one found that at all impressive.)
If it were Ice Storm Ivan, New Orleans might well be deserted and residents panicking. But a hurricane? That’s something the tourists drink in the French Quarter, not something to worry much about. Board up the windows, get the good antique furniture off the floor, and pass around the beer (or coffee). I have stopped worrying about my grandparents or anyone else. It’ll take more than a little water and wind to conquer New Orleans.

One thought on “that wacky hurricane”

  1. Yeah, we were pretty horrified at the total lack of preparations for the very poor or infirm / elderly who couldn’t evacuate. They only decided at the last minute to open the Superdome if absolutely necessary (and I think because the national attention guilted them into it) because apparently, the last time there was a hurricane (probably Andrew) in Louisiana and N.O. used the Superdome as a refuge, thousands of dollars in damage had to be replaced, not to mention thousands of dollars in stolen goods.
    And you’re right — we’ve gotten so accustomed to hard rain, lots of high wind from our regular storms, everyone’s a bit unimpressed. The traffic jam for the evacuees for Ivan surprised the hell out of me — five hours for friends to get from LaPlace (just west of N.O. for those who don’t know it) to Baton Rouge (a trip that at best should have taken an hour). What I’m afraid will happen is that next time, everyone will be a bit cockier about that right hook… which just won’t happen, and the city will get nailed with a lot of people still inside.

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