|Rutherford Beach, Cameron Parish, La. ~ April 2010|
I suppose most every kid has stories of some chore they did as a result of weather. I knew a guy in college who told me all about shoveling feet of lake-effect snow off his driveway in upstate New York. A coworker in Colorado talked about wind-blown leaves that she raked and piled into high mountains. I heard harrowing tales from a friend who mowed her recently rain-soaked backyard grass jungles in the middle of Mississippi. I suppose kids from the desert talk about sand storms and rock formations. I, a girl from the tiny town of Cameron on the Louisiana Coast, have evacuation stories. Many a hurricane season did I go through the evacuation process. As a child, I kind of liked the excitement of it all. Packing up boxes, loading up trucks, boarding up windows; it was an adventure.
I remember evacuating to my aunt’s apartment in Lake Charles, about an hour’s drive north, when I was around 6-years-old. The power went out abruptly ending the rotation of the record that came with my Sesame Street Hurricane Preparedness Kit. So, I put down my Barbie paper dolls and headed outside with my most favorite umbrella of all time. It was clear vinyl with multicolor hearts printed in rows around it. The storm passed pretty quickly and the next day we drove back home. It wasn’t a bad storm, probably a Category 1. The most damage done was blown down tree limbs and leaves. We unpacked and un-boarded windows, and my brother and I went back to school.
Pack, board, leave, return, and repeat. We all knew the routine by heart. The season started on June 1 and we made tentative plans with baited breath until the season ended on November 1. Usually, though, folks would start to breath a little easier around the beginning of October. I was so attuned with the timetable that as I got older, before the start of each season, I would begin to have disaster dreams. In them I was escaping some catastrophe – fire, flood, earthquake, etc. – and deciding what I was taking out with me. The dreams all ended the same; with me grabbing photo albums and yearbooks. They served a dual purpose, I suppose, preparing me for what was coming and for what I wanted to save when I would leave.
The further away I moved from the Gulf Coast, the further away the fear moved from my mind. I guess it is true what they say about out of sight out of mind. When the waves were no longer breaking in my backyard, I was not nearly as concerned. That was until the last time I evacuated. Prior to that trip, I had never driven into the parish when everyone else was evacuating. Watching the steady stream of headlights on the cars leaving was chilling. Cameron was swathed in a blanket of fearful ambiguity. Talk from the Food Mart to the gas station was that we just didn’t know what the hurricane was going to do – she could hit directly, get stronger, or she could do what every storm has since 1957 did – hit somewhere else. But as coastal residents, we were all amateur meteorologists and therefore knew one thing for certain, hurricanes have minds all their own and move too quickly to allow much human hesitation.
Packing was overwhelming. Knowing that whatever we didn’t take with us may not be around the next day was daunting. Knowing that the entire area where I grew up, that I still called home, could be destroyed was stifling.
The next morning, my parents and I stood in our den weighed down with worry and prayed. This was a big storm. Overnight the hurricane had grown into a Category 4 and it was heading straight toward us. If it hit damages would be far greater than downed tree limbs. There would be lost homes. We hugged each other then, following the routine, my mother and I drove out and my father stayed. He was a Sheriff’s Deputy and was required to stay.
As we drove out I thought about my relationship with my town. For the most part, growing up I felt that I really didn’t fit in. I suppose it is because we wanted different things, my town and I. Most of my wants would be found in a larger city. I wanted theater productions and concerts, a high rise apartment where guests had to be buzzed in like on “Seinfeld.” And I wanted to go into a convenience store and not hear country music blaring through the speakers. I really just don’t care whose bed his boots have been under.
While the bright green marsh flashed by in my rear view mirror, I thought of how I spent most of my youth wanting to be anywhere but there. But now I had been away at college for three years. And I was starting to realize that this place had its charm. It’s the biggest parish in the state, with three national wildlife refuges and most of the state’s beaches. Man, there is something about the Gulf of Mexico that grips me, and probably everyone else who lives there. It’s not the most beautiful piece of waterfront in the world, but it’s alive and a part of us. I went to sleep every night with the sound of waves crashing less than a mile away. That breeds a different kind of person, I think. Don’t get me wrong, I’m never gonna love country music, and I aspire to different goals than some of the folks there, but every bit of what happened there helped in molding me as a person and with one giant storm all of it could be lost.
I evacuated with a renewed appreciation of the place, the people and the situations that helped make me who I was. Not all of it was good, but all of it was meaningful.
We once again spent the night at my aunt’s, only now she was about three hours away in Houston, Texas. The next morning we learned that Hurricane Lili’s size diminished and she unexpectedly turned as she got closer to land. Both actions are extremely rare hurricane characteristics.
Almost exactly one year after that storm I moved to Portland, Oregon. And almost nine years later, I’m still here.