The scene is New Orleans, right about now. 20 inches of rain is falling in alternating torrents as Hurricane Isaac spins out over the mouth of the Mississippi. A huge hole in the atmosphere sucks the Gulf of Mexico up and sprays it over the city, spinning out condensed vapor high above where the atmosphere is cold and barren.
The scene is near Port St Lucie, Florida, in 1979. Hurricane David, a strong killer in the Lesser Antilles, is scraping the Florida coast and unloading what little is left of its once mighty strength. Below, a few cars on the Florida turnpike struggle to inch ahead under blinding torrents of rain.
The scene is a classroom at FC Martin Elementary in Richmond Heights, south of Miami. Ray Gunderson is going over hurricane preparedness with the sixth grade class as they plot out the latest storm. Many of the kids come from Yankee families, so the curriculum includes heavy doses of how families should prepare for the storms that will come one day. The lessons teach three things good for kids – some atmospheric science, a little Caribbean geography, and a fair dose of plain scaring the bejaysus out of them.
These scenes define at least one life of hurricane obsession.
Anyone who has grown up in Florida has had it drilled into their heads – hurricanes are nasty beasts that are not to be trifled with. The key is preparedness, and knowing where you are. And where the storm is. Three things. Whatever. The old timers understood who would talk about the Labor Day Hurricane of ’35 knew this stuff in their guts and did their best to relay it to the northerners who settled around them. The key was respect, in the end. It was more than a quaint Southern concept that defined personal interactions when it came to hurricanes. Those things you either respect or you die.
That’s not to say that we didn’t all have one really stupid story when it comes to messing with great forces of nature. We were driving home from Ohio in 1979 when the news came through the tinny teevee in the hotel on the outskirts of Atlanta. There’s a hurricane about to hit Florida, and it’s time to be serious. We were too far away to prepare as we should, but it made sense to us to get back as soon as possible. There was only one question remaining – was David going to go across the state or skirt up the coast?
We drove south on I-75 with a clear plan in mind. At the point where the Interstate joined the Florida Turnpike we could set our course. If David went across the state, we would curve down behind it on the east coast along the turnpike. If he went up the coast, we’d take I-75 along the west and sneak behind it that way. The decision came where the two roads joined, so we stopped and asked the man at the booth where you got the ticket for the Turnpike – where is the hurricane? All he could tell us was that the Turnpike was open the whole way, so we took that as a sign. We went for it.
The Florida Turnpike was indeed open the whole way. There just happened to be a hurricane in the middle of it.
I still have dreams where I hear the birds screeching against the purple and green sky. The winds lashed our 1974 Ford Maverick as the rain fell as if the Atlantic was lifted up and over onto us. At Fort Pierce we had to stop for fuel, and some poor kid in a raincoat filled our tank as he nearly stood sideways in the howling gale. I’m pretty sure Dad tipped him well.
Hurricane obsession is a learned vice. It starts with a really cool teacher who does his best to drill the necessities into kids. It’s amplified by the old timers who see it as a part of life, the occasional price of living in paradise. A bad move into the teeth of the storm cements the relationship, and you’re hooked for life. Tonight, a wet but weak storm drenches a city with its own stories of desperate respect for the situation learned the hard way and I can’t help but feel for them. This leaves aside the fantastic stories of amazing hurricanes like 2004’s Ivan and 1992’s Andrew, the one that wiped the land I grew up in nearly flat.
Stay strong, Nawlins. Stay dry, stay alive, just stay. You have plenty of respect for these things by now, but I’ll loan you all of that genteel Southern concept learned into an emotion which I can. I have it for you as much as Isaac.