Hurricane season in south Louisiana is always a time of nagging worry that weather patterns will align and a path will open up through the Gulf of Mexico, sending a storm of destruction that changes people’s lives. Hurricane Gustav in 2008 was one such storm, six years ago today.
All day the Sunday of that last storm, in that longtime home in Baton Rouge, the wind and rain bands moved inland and in the dark of early Monday the wind began to gust at alarming speeds. He lost electricity mid-morning and still the winds were building to velocities that were downright scary. Thinking the brick fireplace down into the house was a strong point and because it was close the to walk-in kitchen pantry with walls all around, he sat on the raised edge of the hearth for long moments, hearing and feeling the distinctive crack and ground-shaking thuds of falling trees, each time backing into the pantry doorway, waiting for a time before venturing back out into the house proper.
Peering out of rain-streaked window panes in the bedroom, the huge oak at the end of the driveway came crashing down along Seven Oaks, taking all the poles and previously-dead power lines with it. Amazing how fast it came down, earth-quaking up his 8" thick driveway into slabs as big as kitchen tables. Venturing to the large picture window in the kitchen, not standing too close because of the possibility of the glass exploding inward, he watched the large oak across the driveway, on the other side of his fence, crashing toward the house, the treetop splitting the tall Bradford pear tree next to the koi pond, crushing plants and tied down patio furniture and smaller trees and shattering lantern-like patio lights on supposedly immovable iron posts, the top branches finally crashing into the roof. Still, all around, the crack and ground-compressing whoomp of falling trees felt in the chest. Like standing next to a speaker at a rock concert when he was young, the vibrations like a cello bow being drawn across his ribs. It went on for hours and hours, the feeling of helplessness building endlessly with each minute, what it felt like when he was in the middle of a battle. Two more trees from across the driveway came crashing down, one of them hitting the corner of the house, enough so it was being helpless in battle again because his first thought was, I got hit that time.
And it went on and on.
When the worse of it passed, but still the gusts scary enough to walk with his back flattened against the outside walls of the house, it was emerging into a battlefield. Nothing was left untouched. It was like wartime views in Vietnam he saw from bombers dropping so many close-patterned bombs, carpet bombing, and then the view up close, at ground level. Even after going through actual war and now seeing a small portion of the storm through rain-streaked windows, it was still difficult to wrap his mind around what had happened.
Later, reports stated it was the worse storm ever for Baton Rouge—with gusts of 90 mph with sustained hurricane force winds for nearly 5 hours, the result of Gustav's eye coming close to the city, putting it on the northeast quadrant, the strongest area of destruction. In every neighborhood it was the same: 20% of the trees in Baton Rouge down, every third or fourth house with a tree on it or in it, streets blocked by huge oaks, trunks as big around as cars, street signs found miles away from the actual streets.
There was a long week of no power. He moved everything from refrigerator into the freezer, eating sandwiches, Shredded Wheat before the milk went bad. Trees across the driveway blocked his automobile, but there were no stores open even if he could have gotten to them. No streetlights or traffic signals were working in the entire city. At night it was like being at the cabin in the country: no ambient light from any source. There was the sound of a few generators running, powering someone's refrigerator, a fan, radio, a lamp. It was eerily similar to the end-of-the-world movies. For the first two days the wind continued to blow, bands of rain falling, the weather cool enough to get some exhausted sleep. It was Wednesday before an out of town crew was hired to cut a path through the trees across the driveway, those crews like Carpetbaggers after the Civil War, from North Carolina, Alabama, Ocean Springs, all seeking work in the devastation. Thursday the sun came out, the humidity rising and the nights miserable; he would sit in the dark with as few clothes on as possible, candles in every room, hurricane lamps aglow, reading (because there was nothing else to do) by booklight and flashlight, finishing three books in as many days. Every day, he started by burying two or three koi he and his wife had raised, ten-pounders and bigger, each floating in the water pitch black from the undissolved oxygen, beautiful fish, raised from thumb-sized specimens. It was like burying pets each day.
When the lightless nights were becoming the norm, when it was second nature to light candles and lamps at dusk to keep from entering totally dark rooms, the lights came on a week later at Sunday dusk, the light over the kitchen sink suddenly lighting a small area on the patio, the sound of the pond pump with its first surge of water through the hose into the waterfall basin. Finally back to teaching classes after that week off, he would come home into air conditioning, watching off-air TV because the cable was still out, and feeling for weeks to come somehow still disconnected, disgruntled, discovering it was the aftermath shock of driving home along a street no longer the same, a stranger street, not the same neighborhood of so many years before.