It’s Always the Storm Surge, and Other Nuggets of Wisdom from the Land of Hurricanes

Hurricanes are terrifying. They cause damage and destroy people’s lives. They’re unpredictable and relentless. They remind us of our frailty and mortality. Still, some people like them.

Why, you ask? Well, one reason is they give folks a chance to look smart when dispensing arcane meteorological wisdom. It’s the storm surge that causes most of the damage, your great uncle who’s seen a storm or four will tell anyone willing to listen. As if no one’s ever considered this, as if even a five-year-old doesn’t have a decent grasp of the destructive power of the ocean. Don’t you dare go out in the eye of the storm, either, Uncle Obvious warns you, not even to let Fido have a wee. Sure, it’s tempting, but everyone knows some poor sap who got sucked up into the great beyond when the eye wall hit.      

Kids love hurricanes, too, or at least I always did. I got a kick out of watching enormous trees strain against the wind, and the rain sounded like something out of the apocalypse. The prospect of time off school didn’t hurt, either. At that age, I didn’t stop to consider that we were out of school because we had no power, which meant we also had no air conditioning. Living in the south in September with no a/c, if you aren’t aware, is like living on Hell’s equator.  

My first hurricane was Camille in 1969. After all these years, Camille is still spoken of in hushed tones in Southern sitting rooms from Corpus Christi to Clearwater. It destroyed a good portion of the Mississippi coast, a feat repeated years later when Frederic and Katrina rolled through. Then there was the doomed Richelieu Manor Apartments hurricane party in Pass Christian, Mississippi, where twenty-three people laughed in the face of danger only to be washed away by mother nature. Even Walter Cronkite talked about that one. The fact that this legendary party probably never happened doesn’t matter, either. It’s a good story, so it gets trotted out every time someone wants to talk about people dying, which happens more often than you might think. It’s the South. We’re sort of known for drama. 

Here’s what I remember about Camille: I was at my grandmother’s house with my mom and aunt Lois, watching something Elvis Presley-related on television. I used to think it was Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii, but that didn’t come out until four years later. Whatever it was, a few minutes in, the screen went dark, Elvis disappeared, and we were forced to seek shelter under the bed. Honestly, I don’t think we had to hide, but my mom wasn’t taking any chances. She never did when it came to bad weather. Spoiler alert: I survived.  

Ten years later, during Hurricane Frederic, I was fourteen, finally old enough to be of some use around the house. I didn’t sleep under any beds that time around. After running outside in gale force winds with my dad to turn off a gas line, watching in fascination as pine trees bent over to near breaking, and listening as a tornado lifted the roof of our porch only to set it back down, I did most of my sleeping in a recliner. Oh, and despite what Uncle Obvious says, the eye of a hurricane is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. Totally worth it.    

1998’s Hurricane Georges was destructive outside the U.S., but even though its name was retired, in the annals of nasty storms it still ranks low. I only mention it because it nearly ruined my wedding in Fairhope, Alabama on September 26. Caterers, florists, and cake ladies were on the phone asking if we wanted to cancel, to which we replied, “No.” The storm wasn’t due to hit until the 27th, and as anyone who’s experienced a hurricane can tell you, the weather preceding the event is almost always beautiful. I’ll always remember Georges as the storm that hit the day after I got married. It was also one of the few hurricanes I didn’t sleep through.   

Over the years, there were other big storms like Andrew, Hugo, Katrina, and Ivan, but these three are the ones that stand out in my memory. Nowadays, living in Colorado, I don’t think about hurricanes as much as I once did. Of course, every time I see those breathless television weather personalities in their high-dollar rain slickers, I immediately feel concern for friends and loved ones who live on the coast. And yes, I know napping isn’t always an option.

To people who live in coastal areas, hurricanes are an unfortunate way of life. If you’ve never lived through one, think of it this way: They’re like that sketchy relative who comes to visit every year sometime between June and November, the one you know is coming, but there’s not much you can do, so you just decide to make the best of it.

And then that relative goes on to uproot all your pine trees and tear off your roof.