Hurricane Lessons

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I live in Charleston, SC and we have been so lucky that Hurricane Florence took a detour on her way down the coast. We watch with grief and empathy as our neighbors to the north deal with cresting waters days after the hurricane.

This isn’t my first hurricane. I grew up in New Orleans. I lived through Betsy and Camille and, I confess, I was too young to understand what all the fuss was about until we drove back home and my favorite toys – the ones I’d left on the floor because I was kind of a sloppy kid – were floating in water. And the house at the end of our street was sheared in half by a tornado.

Later, I watched from afar as Katrina destroyed a lot of what was familiar about New Orleans.

So, I take hurricanes seriously and I have learned a lot of things about getting ready for hurricanes. Boarding up the windows. Buying lots of water and toilet paper and canned food. Making lots of pre-emptive hotel reservations out of the storm path because you’re never quite sure where that path will be. Have your important papers ready to go.

Those are some of the big lessons.

And the biggest lesson of all is what you take with you when you have to decide what’s important enough to save.

Lots has been written about that, and I’m not going to get into anything that profound.

I’m here to talk about the little lessons they don’t teach you. The ones you won’t hear from The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore.

Lesson One: You’re probably going to gain weight. Cat Five isn’t the hurricane level, it’s the number of pounds you can expect. If you evacuate, you’re eating bad food. And if you stay, there’s a moral obligation to empty your freezer in case the power goes out. Who knew your freezer had so much ice cream and pastry?

Lesson Two: Whatever chronic conditions you have will flare up during a hurricane. Bad back? Hefting all those hurricane supplies and suitcases and sitting for hours in a car is going to have you curved like an apostrophe. Migraines? Wait until the changes in barometric pressure get ahold of your sinuses! And let’s not forget depression and anxiety. Having an actual reason to be depressed and anxious is not as reassuring as you might think – so fill those prescriptions and keep them close.

Lesson Three: You’re going to find out what you’re made of. What I’m made of is apparently an addiction to email and social media and Shonda Rhimes dramas with a dash of Gilmore Girls thrown in. None of those are available when your power goes out. I love to read, but the guilt of using up flashlight batteries for something that isn’t going to save my life means I don’t read as much.

Lesson Four: You’ll find out what kind of a spouse you are and what kind of parent you are. Forget those Facebook quizzes about what color your aura is. It would be much more useful to find out if you’re the type to kill your husband after one day of hurricane stress, or whether you can wait until the second day to turn homicidal.

Lesson Five: You find out how dramatic and judgmental family and friends can be. Everyone had an opinion on evacuation and assumed that whether someone went or stayed had everything to do with choice and intellect and nothing to do with circumstances. I’ve been on both sides. I’ve had good reasons for both. But I’m amazed at how people feel free to judge me whichever I choose, and how they judge others. It’s the height of arrogance to think that you know what someone’s decision should be. Some people make the wrong decision, but few do it because they feel like they had a choice. I know enough now not to judge. Unless they’ve left their animals in a situation where the animal doesn’t stand a chance of surviving. Those people I judge.

Lesson Six is one that really stays with you: You learn how isolated you are, but you also learn how connected you are.

Isolation is how vulnerable you feel, whether you go or whether you stay. You aren’t in control. Nature is. Fate is. And sometimes, human nature is, because I read stories of looters breaking in to a couple of homes or cars left behind. Yeah, it’s just stuff. But if it’s YOUR stuff and you have no way of protecting it, it’s a pretty awful thing.

But, the connection is what helps with the isolation. It might be the most important lesson of all. You learn how really decent people can be. If you stayed, you stop and talk with the few other brave souls and you find yourself watching out for your neighbors in ways that you don’t in normal life. If you left, you find grace and mercy. A hotel clerk who slips you a couple of dog biscuits for your pets. First responders who come from surrounding areas to help your community before you can get back there.

So, next hurricane – because you know there’s going to be one – watch the hyped-up Weather Channel if you have to. But remember these lessons too.

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Dancing with Daddy

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When my parents danced, their marriage played out on the dance floor. The two moved together in rhythm, my mother throwing flirtatious little grins over her shoulder as dad spun her, my tall father’s body like a comma so he could lean close and whisper in my petite mother’s ear.

The two anticipated each other’s moves and the dance floor would empty around them as other dancers’ energy flagged. My mom and dad danced every dance at every wedding and every Mardi Gras ball and every party.

Like many girls, I learned to dance atop my father’s feet. Jitterbugs and waltzes and crazy turns and dips.

When it was time for my first school dance, my mother watched from the sofa while my father and I turned methodically around the living room, all of us laughing at my mis-steps.

“Just watch my eyes and not your feet,” my dad would say. But gazing into his eyes was an intimacy for my mother and nothing I could sustain without breaking into nervous giggles.

Later in life, I took dance lessons. Salsa and ballroom. Country western line dancing. I could cha-cha and boogie on cue. I couldn’t wait for the next family wedding so I could take my dad to the dance floor and finally keep up.

And, finally, a cousin married. That night, after many dances with my mother, my dad held his hand out to me while my mother, fanning herself, went off to get a cool drink.

I faced my dad, right hand loosely clasped in his, left hand perched on his shoulder. The music started. And I stepped on his feet. And then he stepped on mine.

“Sorry,” he said with a wince.

And, the secret was out. My dad didn’t know dance steps! My one-two-three-cross was at cross-purposes with the dance he was trying to lead.

“I just dance,” he said, shrugging.

We stumbled through the rest of the song and then, with relief, my dad reclaimed my mother.

It would take years – years of watching my parents swoop along the dance floor – before I realized that dancing isn’t about the steps. It’s about improvisation. And feeling rhythm. And trusting someone enough to follow, even when you’re not sure where the heck they’re leading.

Dad’s been gone for two years now and I’m still dancing. I’ve gotten pretty good at leading, but I’m still a novice at that following stuff. On and off the dance floor.

Joe & Pauline Mitternight
50th Anniversary Party
New Orleans 09

My Katrina

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We mourn more when a pretty woman sustains a disfiguring injury than when an ugly one does. It’s not right, but we do.

So, when New Orleans, that sly seductress, was torn open and apart by the fury that was Hurricane Katrina, the nation felt it viscerally. It didn’t seem right that the lovely Party Girl that was NOLA, one who so generously shared her graces, should be brought low.

New Orleans is my home town, although I haven’t lived there since I was a little girl. My extended family does, though, and even now they greet me with that nonchalant disinterest in my adopted cities, because none could ever be as glorious as New Orleans, so why would they care? New Orleans has always been a city immodest in its many blessings: great food, drink, music, literature, beauty.

All of that changed 10 years ago, when Katrina scarred the beauty that was New Orleans and left it humbled and bewildered.

My first concern was for people. I remember the frustration of fallible technology as I waited for days for family members to check in. My parents, riding it out in an RV with my aunt and uncle, just barely out of the path of Katrina’s fury. A cousin, hiding out in Houston. An uncle, living on his boat because it just seemed safest when so much of New Orleans was water anyway.

And, then, my concern was for the homes. Roofs lost. Refrigerators full of old food and mold. Grand trees toppled. One aunt in Lakeview whose home was submerged, and an uncle whose car engine was soaked with the ugly, smelly water that filled the streets.

And, finally, the city itself and waiting to see if the lovely party girl of a city would rise from her knees, laughing at fate as she has always done.

For this last, I am still waiting. There is laughter, the kind of grim gallows humor the city does so well. But there is a shadow behind the eyes too. I see it in the poorest neighborhoods that haven’t quite recovered, in the Third World buckling streets the city hasn’t found the money or the gumption to fix, in the families who lost close ones to the floods, or to the floods of refugees who left for Florida or Texas and never came back.

When I visit, New Orleans has the look of a woman still beautiful, but whose gaiety has been dimmed by the knowledge that even a beautiful woman can be knocked down and, if it has happened once, it can happen again some time.

Katrina Boat