Alyssa Sellers

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Super Storms Suck

June 2006 ~ Cameron, La.~ My Hurricane Rita Relief Team

It’s 9:30 PM Monday, October 29, 2012 in Portland, Oregon and I can’t stop checking Hurricane Sandy coverage. It’s bringing up quite a few emotions.

I cried at the first image I saw of water flooding a street this afternoon. It was of a street outside a friend’s work studio in Brooklyn. It is seven years after the horrible hurricane season of 2005 and still I cry. Recovery is a slow sneaky process.

Weather is an equalizer. I’ve traveled through almost every state in this nation and I’ve noticed that we are all shockingly different.  And while we are all different we are all equal. Many of us have a devastating weather story, or two, about the great ice storm, flood, mudslide, wildfire, blizzard, sand storm, tsunami, or hurricane. Every storm is super to the one who lost a love one, community, home or experienced some level of damage.

Weather happens. And it sucks. Flooding sucks. Wind damage sucks. Rebuilding is work and sweat and tears. I know. East Coast Residents, you have hours, days, months and years to come that will be filled with various levels of sadness and frustration from many sources, including insurance and FEMA. The good news is, the likelihood of any one claiming that you should abandon your particular neighborhood and not rebuild is slim to none. So you’ve got that going for you. That’s probably a tad snarky and unfortunately that snark is a direct result of what I learned from my two super storms: weather can bring out the worst in people, turning them into insensitive jerks who say and do mean, spiteful, uncompassionate things; sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.

But more importantly, I learned that weather can bring out the best in people. Thousands of volunteers helped out my small community, most of whom knew nothing about us. Humanity never ceases to amaze me.  So, as I go to bed tonight, I hold you, East Coast folks, in my prayers. A handful of you I know by name and have shared many a laugh with. Most of you I know absolutely nothing about but, I want all of you to know that I am sorry this is happening to you. I want you to know that you are loved, even when it doesn’t feel like it. You are not forgotten, you are not abandoned. Your hurt is real and valid but it won’t last forever, I promise. Although, I can’t guarantee it won’t sneak attack you occasionally.

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The Weather Outside Is Frightful

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.

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Little Things

I am back on campus as a community advisor for a Christian group at Portland State. Some days, probably like you in your work and daily lives, I have no idea if what I’m doing makes any sense.  But I’m here, trying to figure it out. The “it” being how to care for this neighborhood and love like Jesus does. Love without condition, with patience, with hope. I wrote a memoir that is yet to be published and in one chapter I talk about bringing a team of people down to my hometown after Hurricane Ike to love it like Jesus does.
Cameron, Louisiana ~ March 2009

It’s March 2009 and if culture is defined by details, Cameron’s is abandoned. Folks are back sooner after Ike than Rita so buildings are already cleaned, gutted and being rebuilt, but spring weeds covering derelict ruins leave the impression of abandonment. Prior to our arrival I’d asked Mom to find a place where we could beautify the town. Hurricane Café, a local eatery operating out of a trailer, was located on the concrete slab where the Post Office once stood. There was a 12 foot bed there that hadn’t seen flowers in over three years. Across the driveway there was a matching bed in front of the Bookmobile that was serving as the temporary Library. Our goal is to clean out the beds and put in flowers in four days.

After two major storms these beds hold a number of surprises – pounds of broken glass, four square foot sections of broken brick walls, busted wood and more. Our team of five adults and two preteens keep at it. For a brake, we attack the weeds up and down the empty spaces on Main Street. The string brakes on our weed eater so I walk down to Marine Supply to get more.

“Are you with that group cleaning up down the street?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Where y’all from?”

“Oh, I’m originally from here. I’m Paul and Cyndi Sellers’s daughter.”

“I thought you looked familiar. You look just like your mama.”

“I get that a lot. I live in Portland, Oregon now and I brought some friends down with me to help clean up.”

“Well, it looks real nice, what y’all are doing. Thank you for coming. It really means a lot. Y’all coming down here and all.”

“We’re glad to help.”

We aren’t building a building or doing some other grand act. But we are here, doing the many small somethings they haven’t the energy to do and that means a lot to people. Care is sometimes most evident in the details.

So, it’s March 2012 and I’ve planted myself here, in Portland, Oregon, doing the small somethings, trying to show that I care.