Edición dominical

Storm memories

I’D LIKE TO BE able to say that I got out of Houston in the nick of time. But nearly 18 years ago hardly qualifies as a “nick of time,” but I did get out.

As the nation’s fourth-largest city dries out, I am happy that only two people still live there for whom I have feelings. One is my former wife, and the other is Victoria who is now a real estate agent with a child she adopted four years ago.

I emailed my ex-wife the day after Harvey hit to inquire about her well-being and that of the house I so generously and perhaps stupidly gifted her shortly after our divorce in 1995. She replied from Oklahoma! She and a friend had fled Houston on Thursday, a day before Harvey arrived onshore.

I asked about the house, and she said it was high and dry. I asked how she knew that, but she has yet to reply. I also emailed Victoria. She, her home and the tyke are well.

Before moving to Mexico at age 55, most of my life had been spent within spitting distance of hurricane-prone coasts. In spite of that, I got hammered head-on just once by a hurricane.

Once was more than enough.

Betsy in 1965, New Orleans. Category Four.

The eye went right over my head.

I want to tell you something: Hurricanes are scary! And I don’t mean Halloween scary. Or fun scary.

I mean, Am-I-going-to-see-tomorrow scary.

I was 21 years old and holing up with my parents. The three of us had moved to New Orleans from Nashville just months earlier. None of us had been in the middle of a hurricane before, which is why we stayed put in New Orleans. We were clueless.

Perilously uninformed.

We were in the second-floor of a duplex rental.

People who’ve not been hit directly by a major hurricane have no idea what they’re up against. It is beyond belief. I always roll my eyes on seeing news clips of “hurricanes” supposedly during one. I have never seen a news clip that even approximated what you experience in a real hurricane.

What you usually see is billboards flapping, lots of rain, some dumb reporter in a raincoat leaning into the wind, tins and bottles hopping down the sidewalk and street.

This is dangerously misleading.

Believe this: In the middle of a major hurricane, you don’t go outside to shoot news film. You don’t even approach a window or glass door unless you’re feeling suicidal.

A major hurricane is incredible. You’ve heard tornadoes being described as “sounding like a freight train.”

The tornado freight train lasts just seconds or a minute. The hurricane freight train goes on for hours. If you stick your head up from where you’re squatting on the floor and risk a look through a window that’s not boarded up, you see this:

Trees bent at 45-degree angles or more. Electricity leaping along power lines like escaped white snakes.

And the incessant roar. Everything in the neighborhood flying all over the place in every direction possible.

My father left his Rambler parked beside the house, not even in a garage, which shows how dumb we were. Later we found a number of small holes in the car body that had been caused by stones penetrating it at bullet velocity.

I left New Orleans and my parents two days later and moved to Baton Rouge to enroll at LSU. Baton Rouge’s damage was minimal, nothing like New Orleans where my parents did not get electricity in the house again for weeks.

No matter. We were lucky to be alive, and I learned a permanent lesson. If a hurricane is on the distant horizon, hightail it to Oklahoma. Fast as you can. Don’t dally.

14 thoughts on “Storm memories

  1. My kids stayed and they have to be among some of the most fortunate people ever in Houston. Their house did not get flooded but areas right adjacent in all directions flooded. The layers of complications of such a huge disaster are yet unfolding. It affects everyone in one or more ways. School in HISD won’t start for another week, if then. My daughter’s office in the energy corridor on IH10 is flooded as is the day school where her three-year-old has been cared for which is right on that same campus of energy buildings. Her family was equipped in terms of household supplies bought Tuesday before the Friday of the storm and they bought life vests, rain suits and rubber boots just in case. I don’t know that they will be so brave (foolish?) when the next one threatens. This one was a real good lesson in what a disaster is caused by a big hurricane.

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    1. Carole: Glad to hear the kin are alive and well. Harvey did not pass directly over Houston, so they did not see a hurricane blow over their heads. Lucky for that. The damage from Harvey was the extreme water levels caused by history-making rains as the storm passed south and east of Houston.

      Saw a sad video yesterday. I knew the Meyerland area of Houston, not far from where I lived and my ex-wife still lives, was flooded extensively, but I did not know that it’s the third year in a row that it’s happened for those unfortunate folks. Clearly, Meyerland is not a viable spot to live anymore. It’s one of the nicest neighborhoods in the city, extensively Jewish, as the name indicates.

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      1. For three consecutive years Houston has had a 500-year rainfall/flood. “Something is happening there, but I don’t know what it is, Mr Jones.” I think that we do know what it is.

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  2. The worst hurricane I remember growing up in Florida was Hurricane Donna, the strongest hurricane of the 1960 Atlantic hurricane season, which caused severe damage to the Lesser Antilles, the Greater Antilles, and the East Coast of the United States, especially Florida with winds of 130 mph.

    Tampa was a small village when a major hurricane blew through in September 1848, pushing a massive storm surge into Tampa Bay and flooding the entire city.

    The tide rose 15 feet above normal. Water covered all the islands in Tampa Bay and Tampa’s Interbay Peninsula. Only the tops of trees could be seen near the flooded Hillsborough River. Most structures were swept away and huge oak trees were blown down. The massive change in topography the storm wrought rendered navigation charts almost useless.

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    1. Andrés: I lived in Jacksonville, Florida, from the age of 10 to 17. We never got a hurricane. I don’t recall one even coming close. I learned years later that due to some topographical (geographical?) reason or other, Jacksonville is almost immune from hurricanes. Lucky them. Storms either hit farther south in Florida or up the coast to Georgia or the Carolinas.

      But not Jacksonville.

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  3. We went through Opal in ’95. Way up in Central Alabama. It hit during the night. Couldn’t see anything in the darkness but sideways rain. No power. Nothing helpful on the radio. Long, long night.

    I’ll never forget the smell when I walked outside at daylight. Just like Pine Sol. Almost every pine tree was snapped-off or on the ground.

    I can’t imagine what it would be like on the coast.

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    1. Ray: Storms, of course, can do lots of damage inland for a distance, as you discovered, first-hand, but what they can do on the beach is another matter. I was in New Orleans when Camille hit the Mississippi coast in 1969. Scads of big homes along the coast, old and well-built ones, were wiped right off their foundations, taking anyone inside right along with it. Lots of the bodies were never found. I was lucky with that one because New Orleans was on Camille’s “good side.” Hurricanes have good sides and bad sides.

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  4. I have been on the edge of two hurricanes in this area during the past nine years. That is enough for me. The only reason my neighbors do not evacuate is that they cannot. I can. And most likely will when the next hurricane passes through. And one will

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    1. Señor Cotton: I recall your sitting those things out, which is a colossally bad idea. You with your bravado are a classic case of not knowing what you’re up against. You’ve been very lucky so far, especially since you’re almost smack dab on the beach. As storms approach shore, they can turn on the proverbial dime, so if it looks like it will miss you, it is not necessarily what it will do. Best to head to Oklahoma.

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  5. My wife says that my family gets by on dumb luck and clerical error. She may be right. My cousin sold his Texas beach house six weeks before the storm. I hope the check cashed.
    The effects of this hurricane are not limited to the flooded area. People will stop paying on ruined automobiles and destroyed houses. There will be plenty of defaults. Most did not have flood insurance, and those that did, will probably be screwed by the insurance companies.
    Who will take the hits on these defaults? Most of these loans were bundled up and resold. This will not be nice.
    Right now, the US government is releasing oil from the national reserve, but that will not last. Eventually, we will pay a higher price for gasoline, if there is gasoline to be had.
    Buy a bicycle.

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    1. Señor Gill: Or rather, Mr. Gloom and Doom! Buy a bicycle. I like that.

      It is strange that such a small percentage of people in Houston had flood insurance. About the only reason I buy home insurance here, and I do, is to get quake coverage. Any other sort of problem is highly unlikely to occur to my house(s).

      Your cousin really ran into some luck.

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  6. I stayed in my house here in Corpus Christie for Harvey. When I moved down here from Oklahoma in 1991 I swore that if a hurricane was headed this way you could color me “gone”. But we studied the radar and predictions closely and decided that it was going to come ashore north east of us and that we would be on the “good” side of the storm. As it turns out, we were right, but we did have 100 mile an hour winds with only 2 inches of rain. Lots of trees and fences down around the city, but no major damage. It was not fun. I’ve had some tornadoes come pretty close in Oklahoma, but like you say, it’s over in a minute or two. We started getting strong wind around noon and then by four in the afternoon it was raining sideways. By midnight, it was downright scary. But now I’m feeling a bit of survivors guilt because we’re back to normal while across the bay, about 20 miles as the crow flies from my house, lies Port Aransas and a little further, Rockport, pretty much in ruins. Then there’s Houston and Beaumont.

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    1. Señor Bowman: Just noticed your comment above in the Trash file. Should not have been there. Not my doing.

      As for your staying put in the face of Harvey, I would recommend for next time that you remember that hurricanes can turn on a dime, totally unexpectedly, going this way, that way, or back where it came from.

      Next time, I’d go elsewhere.

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