Saturday, August 30, 2008

The hurricane games people play

I hate it when people wish for hurricanes because it would be "fun."

People like that are either stupid or mean. Take your pick.

When I was a student at Louisiana State, you could tell the Yankees from the natives -- apart from their accents -- by their attitudes on hurricanes. The Yankees thought hurricanes were an excuse for a party and wanted the opportunity to see one up close.

At the rest of our expense.

NATIVES LIKE ME, and Desirée from New Orleans, wanted to kill the little bastards. We were the same age, and we each had vivid memories of Hurricane Betsy in 1965, not to mention other various and sundry lesser storms.

And memories of the Category 5 monster that missed to the right -- Camille.

As a then-4-year-old from Baton Rouge, I remembered Betsy as a hellacious windstorm. I remembered the lights going out in the middle of one of my television shows -- "Flipper," maybe? -- and staying off for days.

I remembered the adventure of sleeping on a quilt in the living room, the battery radio tuned to WJBO, flashlights and kerosene "hurricane lamps." A 4-year-old isn't old enough to appreciate that hurricanes can kill you.

What I remember to this day is how the wind screamed like the satanic host somewhere outside our boarded-up windows, unleashed from the netherworld for a long night's rampage. I can still see the aftermath -- leaves plastering everything like verdant wallpaper. Limbs all over the yard. The odd shingle from someone's house.

Before Betsy hit, my old man didn't have time to take down one purple-martin house. It sat sturdily atop a 2-inch galvanized steel pipe about 25 feet high. Solid stuff.

After Betsy's wind got through with it, that mast was bent to the ground, like a miniature Gateway Arch. Over at Aunt Rose's and parrain's, a huge pecan tree had come down, splitting their old house in two.

Parrain -- otherwise known as my Uncle Joe -- had been in the bedroom just a minute or two before the tree turned it into splinters. After the weather cleared up, I remember spending the whole day there as the grown-ups in the family put the house back together again.

They never did rebuild the smashed fireplace, though.

DESIRÉE'S EXPERIENCE of Betsy -- from New Orleans -- was more dramatic than mine. Her "adventure" included having to swim, with the rest of her family, out a second-story window of their house.

I couldn't top that one, having grown up some 50 feet above sea level.

But I could contribute my memories of Hurricane Edith in 1971.

Edith, truth be told, was a pretty piss-poor hurricane. She was no Betsy, and certainly no Camille.

Up in Baton Rouge, Edith wasn't considered enough of a threat to even bother boarding up our windows. School was open, but I stayed home.

If I had gone to school, I would have missed the tornado.

My mother had just gotten off the phone with grandma.

"Mama, look!" I said. "The sky is black."

Right then, everything went white. A swirling, roaring white cloud enveloping our neighborhood and our house. I stood in the living room watching it. More precisely, I stood in the living room, watching debris fly out of the mist and bounce off our front window.

Shingles. Leaves. Fiberglass insulation. Branches.

I don't know how the windows held. Probably, they held because the actual vortex of the twister missed us by a little less than a block.

I was 10, and I'd never seen a tornado before. Didn't have sense enough to run for the hallway and hit the deck.

Then again, neither did my 48-year-old mother. She went into hysterics; I tried to calm her down. I didn't get scared till later. Being the adult in a situation like that screws with your preteen brain,
you know?

BEFORE THE TORNADO, Edith's torrential rain had left the street with a good half a foot of water in it, and the flooding had made it halfway up our driveway. Afterward, the street -- and our driveway -- were dry.

As the weather returned to its normal lame-hurricane programming, the bulletin sounder started blaring over WLCS radio. Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Bulletin! Bulletin! Bulletin! Bulletin! Bulletin! Bulletin! Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!

We were under a "tornado alert." Thanks for the news flash, fellas.
Doppler radar was a couple of decades away still.

By all rights, I probably ought to be dead or something. I guess God really does look out for fools and little children . . . whichever category I fell into at the time.

But I was old enough for Edith, the Hurricane That Got No Respect, to teach me one thing: You don't f*** with hurricanes.
Anything can happen. Thus was born my gut instinct to kill Yankee classmates who thought a hurricane disaster might be good for kicks and giggles.

Or an excuse to down a case of cheap beer or three.

ON THE OTHER HAND, I don't know
what the hell "The Louisiana Conservative's" damn excuse is:
I guess you’d have to be from Louisiana to understand this, but that sadism is brewing again. I don’t want to experience Hurricane Katrina again. Once in a lifetime was enough for me. I hated that a fifteen minute drive suddenly became a two hour experience. I hated sitting inside the house the entire time without electricity as the only sound was the howling wind. I hated coming in from work as the hurricane came as an uninvited guest, drenching us with rain, the road barely visible. I hated to hear about the looting, the flooding, the mayhem that swept through New Orleans…

And though I would still hold my hand out to New Orleans residents who needed aid in that type of emergency, I could careless if the people who destroyed the river center that housed them slept on the streets. I don’t like seeing people sticking greedy hands and taking assistance away from those who genuinely need it. I don’t want to see people getting recovery money and spending it in strip joints, night clubs, and bars. Nor do I want to see them spending money on a designer purse and boom boxes.

Hurricane Katrina gave us the best and the worst of people. I’m grateful for the best of people, I loathe the worst of people, and I hope to see neither again.

But as I said, I am still into a little sadism. Part of me wants Gustav to come right up the Mississippi River and into Baton Rouge. As I said a couple of minutes ago, you have to be from Louisiana to understand this, but I want to know. Can Bobby Jindal handle a hurricane?
I AM FROM LOUISIANA. I understand that "Avman," the "sadistic" author, needs to keep his dark impulses to himself.

To one "Louisiana conservative," Katrina was annoying traffic jams. To more than 1,000 New Orleanians, for whom he has little but contempt, Katrina was the death of them. I wonder whether they hit bad traffic on the way to the afterlife?

Perhaps "Avman" could fight the evacuation traffic and head for Ohio. Then stay there until he forgot what a hurricane was like. Then, at least, he'd have some sort of excuse for his "sadism."

Still, I think I understand what he's trying to say. Maybe.

I'll confess that the run-up to a big storm can be exhilarating, in that you're rising to meet a huge challenge. It's an avenue of escape -- at least momentarily -- from our modern lives of quiet frustration and a nagging sense of futility.

It brings on the rush -- albeit disordered and somewhat deviant -- of being, at long last, part of something bigger than our own boring, solipsistic selves. Our inner 4-year-old finds that somehow exciting.

Especially when we figure it's not us who might lose every damn thing we own . . . or our life, or those of our loved ones.

Then, the non-stop hurricane coverage on TV is the ultimate "reality show." People get to lose their stuff -- die, even! -- so that we can transcend our own sucky selves.

I get that.

When you start feeling that way, it's helpful to realize what's going on. And feel bad about it. And just keep your damn mouth (or laptop) shut. Being a public sadist is unseemly, and not generally recommended.

THE EXHILARATION always crashes, eventually, into the tragedy. Soon enough, we see all too well that our "hurricane entertainment" was no game. That the reality TV show was a meteorological snuff film.

The TV images of "video game" tracking maps and radar displays give way to scenes of death and destruction. Of people who lived . . . and worked . . . and played . . . and loved yesterday but today are just bloated corpses floating in the fetid floodwaters.

Places you knew yesterday suddenly are unrecognizable in today's news footage.

The unactualized life you sought escape from in the excitement of nature's fury just might be forever changed today. And you find that's more than you bargained for in your "sadistic" quest for relevance through Götterdämmerung .

The green, young soldier who thirsts for the glory of battle soon enough is the middle-aged combat vet who wakes up screaming in the night. If he's lucky.

NORMAL PEOPLE know that . . . no matter what crazy-ass things their feelings sometimes tell them.

Almost three decades ago at LSU, I never did get the opportunity to lay down my own storm track on one of our out-of-state hurricane enthusiasts. I don't think Desirée did, either.

It's too bad The Louisiana Conservative's chief sadist wasn't at LSU with us back in the day. I would have paid money to see Desirée kick his ass.


Colleen said...

Hey, the only reason this Yankee thinks a hurricane in Baton Rouge is an excuse to party is because that's what the locals have told me.
I came from a city that was a target for destruction by (in)humans, now I'm in a state that's a target for destruction by Mother Nature. I just hope to continue being out of the direct line of that destruction.

The Mighty Favog said...


Look at the city around you -- the rotten schools, the decay . . . particularly the abandoned parts. You're going to take hurricane advice from folks who take the same attitude toward weathering a bad storm as they do toward running a city?

I don't have any problem with a hurricane drink or three. But you have to keep your wits about you; it's important. All things in moderation.