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On Hurricanes and Why They Stay

Boarded up and ready for the storm.

In the summer of 2005, my husband and I moved to Mobile, AL. Having lived all our life landlocked, we were both excited to be living close to the Gulf of Mexico. We dreamed of long walks on the beach, watching the sun rise over the Gulf, and lazy weekends spent splashing in the surf.

It was June when we moved. Within days of our arrival, we got a taste of what living on the coast could also mean, in addition to those beachy daydreams. Tropical Storm Arlene pounded the coast with her wind and rain while I tried to sleep. It was frightening to hear the wind against the windows, I was certain they were going to break at any moment.

A few weeks later, Hurricane Dennis loomed in the Gulf. The city of Mobile called for mandatory evacuations. My husband and I, newly initiated to coastal living and expecting our first baby, heeded the warning and drove north to safety. As we were leaving to head north, I saw for the first time in person, boarded up windows. Spray painted with bullseyes and warnings of “You loot, we shoot,” these plywood boards bore the scars of previous storms. Luckily, Hurricane Dennis turned out to be a dud for the state of Alabama, which was good news for us, but not such good news for our neighbors in Florida.

Storms came and went the rest of the summer. Once the season ended in November of 2005, there had been 28 storms total, making it the most active hurricane season on record.

It was also the season Hurricane Katrina slammed into the coast on August 29th as a Category 3 hurricane with 125 mph sustained winds, devastating Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. I vividly remember sitting at lunch in a popular Mobile restaurant several days before Katrina hit. The TVs were all tuned to the national news where they were following the track of Katrina. Newscasters and meteorologists alike seemed mostly unconcerned, predicting Katrina to make landfall somewhere along their projected cone of uncertainty as a Category 1 or 2 storm. It truly seemed like just another day in the life on the Gulf Coast. Hurricane coming? No big deal!

My husband and I had recently moved into our new home, situated northwest of Mobile Bay, and a long distance from water. We made the decision to stay put during the storm, as the city of Mobile did not call for mandatory evacuations as they had for Hurricane Dennis. Coupled with our distance from water, we felt that we would be safe. It was only going to be a Category 1 or 2 storm after all.

That sounds crazy–irresponsible, even–doesn’t it? Just months before I would never have even considered staying, especially being five months pregnant. In years past, I judged those families I’d seen on TV who were determined to stay in their homes in the path of oncoming hurricanes. But we weighed our options and decided that staying in our home and riding out the storm was the right decision, as ludicrous as it sounds.

I can’t explain it exactly, but when you’re in the situation yourself, staying does seem like a viable option. Nevermind the threat of 100 mph sustained winds! We had a hurricane kit, complete with non-perishable food, water, and batteries! Rumors of looting, the traffic, gas shortages, my husband’s work commitments, and the cost to evacuate all played a role in our decision. Our life and our safety–especially the safety of our unborn baby–was a huge concern to us, but it seemed so unlikely that the storm would really be that bad.  We gambled and we won, losing only one tree and our electricity for a few days following the storm. Others gambled and lost everything they had because Katrina really was that bad.

As the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches alongside the coming of Tropical Storm Isaac, soon to be a hurricane, I can’t help but reflect on our own experiences during Hurricane Katrina. I can’t help but remember the horror of those days and weeks following the storm, the images from New Orleans and Biloxi, Chalmette and Bayou La Batre. Those who stayed, those who left, and those who lost everything, their plights are again fresh in my mind. I can’t help but think of the people who’ve rebuilt and continued to make their homes along the Gulf Coast. I can’t help but sympathize with their decisions to stay and ride out the storm, but knowing the true and unexpected powers of a hurricane.

For those in Isaac’s path, batten down the hatches and stay safe.

(photo source: Flickr)

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