Wednesday, May 03, 2006

I feel the need to explain myself and storms. Why I feel this need has something to do with what I mentioned in my last post, that I was anxious recently during the onset of a big rainstorm that carried tornado watches for our area with it. It also has to do with my son's reaction to a midday storm that poured down on us while we were running some errands yesterday - more on that one later.

Storms in Houston, where I grew up, and here in New Orleans are not events for the faint of heart. During the summer, storms that come up in a blaze of black fury, with much thunder and some lightning, will dump some water on us in midday, usually lasting under an hour, and then the atmosphere afterwards is still hot, just extra steamy. No relief comes from those summer showers, that's for sure.

Winter storms are different only in that the temperatures are generally lower, so a storm simply adds more dampness to the cold. I woke up on a few mornings when I was a kid to loads of thunder and lightning that, in some cases, was a carryover from the night before, and it could shake the house with the noise and even knock out power for a few seconds. One storm dumped so much water that it flooded the route to my school. My father was turned away by some firemen blocking the route. "How high is it?" he asked the guys cockily. My dad drove a '79 Bronco. Surely it could make it through those piddly flood waters.

"Higher than your truck", the firemen said. Dad made a u-turn and there was no school for that day.

Still, there was always something thrilling about the onset of a storm - the way it could turn a sky in midday black as night. The thunderous noise that announced its arrival. The sounds of the rain plopping onto every surface it could, sometimes slowly building in intensity, sometimes dropping it all in one shot, it seemed. For me, it was like watching a symphony descending from the sky, complete with its own light show. And if it was bad enough, it could keep you out of school - bonus!

That's how I looked at Hurricane Alicia when it hit Houston. Granted, I was a kid, but any instruction to batten down the hatches, evacuate if you had to, and sit it out was great to me.
We got our food and water, candles, flashlights, and batteries for the radios and got ready for whatever would come. Oh, we should have gotten a good dose of sense while we were at it. At least we didn't live right near one of the concrete-lined bayous that threads its way through many parts of the greater Houston area. Most folks selling flood insurance wouldn't even give those homeowners the time of day anymore, it was rumored - and it may well have been true. After a hard rain, the amount of water rushing through those things was enough to give anyone pause.

I fell asleep in my room the eve of the hurricane and awoke to wind howling around the house, torrents of rain sounding like thunder itself as it whipped its way on top of the house, around and over. I also awoke in my parents' bed. My mother told me she had had to move me to their room last night because of the rattling coming from the window right above my bed; they didn't want it to blow out and have shattered glass carving me up while I slept. Good one, family. I thank you.

The windows were so steamed up, one couldn't see a thing out of them. I don't remember exactly when the power went out, but it did at some point. I seem to recall my father still watching TV when I woke up, but I know we had no power for a good twenty-four hour period. When things such as the humming of the refrigerator and the squawking of the TV and other appliance sounds are no longer there, it only amplifies the sounds of the screaming winds, high-pitched and seemingly never-ending. If a basic rainstorm is a symphony from the sky, I'd put a hurricane in the operatic category - if Wagner and the Who had collaborated on the Ring series, say. Long and LOUD - and then, quiet, as the eye of the storm passed over us.

Maybe my dad actually ventured out at that time. It's something he was surely capable of doing, and in some ways, still is. The winds returned, but it didn't seem so bad after that, probably because we knew the thing was passing. Our neighborhood seemed fine, but our backyard wasn't. A large tree in our backyard featured a number of trunks coming from one root system, and now one of those trunks had fallen into the backyard, making a once-large grassy spot into one giant mess of fallen tree. The tree was right by the den of the house, and if a different trunk had been ripped out, it would have crushed in the house and smashed up the den, couches, TV, and all. We were lucky.

We counted ourselves even luckier when we went out for a drive and saw the bayous swollen with water all the way to the bottoms of the bridges spanning them. Some people had become caught under the bridges by the rushing water and had to be rescued. Shingles were missing from rooftops. Downed trees and large limbs were features of this new landscape. We passed a high-rise building with a driveway beneath one of its eaves, and insulation blew from under its overhangs. Overall, it was a mess, but not an impossible one.

I never was all that anxious about hurricanes after that. Loads of sound and fury, and you clean up afterwards. Sounds more like a party to me. They don't have the term "hurricane party" around for nothin'. Everyone's stuck inside due to the hell outside. Why don't we raise a little hell inside?

Hurricane Georges didn't conjure up much anxiety in me, either, because here I was in New Orleans. I wasn't alone in my house - I was staying in one apartment of many that a gorgeous old decaying Victorian mansion had had carved into it around the turn of the century or so, and my landlady and several other tenants were staying put. Stories were told every so often about Hurricane Betsy and how it flooded the eastern part of the city (yeah, like Katrina originated that!). The Mississippi began to flow backwards, and it looked like Georges was going to head right up and give New Orleans a visit. Listening to the radio and hearing the rain falling outside, I heard on my radio from one caller that he was sitting in his house with a canoe on his coffee table, ready for the water. The one concession I made to the possibility of the severe nature of the storm was to pull my bed from beneath the window under which it was positioned to the middle of the room. What my parents had done years ago stuck with me, for sure.

Georges ended up being a bust. It turned to the east and paid a visit to Mobile Bay instead. The New Orleans area had dodged a bullet. Life was good and charmed. We could all return to our sleepy, humidity-soaked ways once again. And I was secure in my knowledge that big storms were like the big bad wolf and us little pigs had homes of brick that could resist such a force, or at least cause it to reconsider. La LA la la LAAAAAAA...

So here I am, and the first big storm we have, I'm running around town in my car, getting shoes for my son and some stuff for dinner and for my pets, and the sky is hovering over, ready to drop its wet load on us any minute. It begins to rain some when I am near the end of my rambling, and I make it home before the real downpour begins. So I don't get too wet, but I do feel some faint strains of fear when I am out and about, as though the skies will open up and throw every bit of fury directly on me, opening me up and throwing every blue tarp, every piece of debris, every clod of dirt brought into the houses by the flood waters down my gullet. Yes, the fear is faint, but it's there.

Yesterday, there was a midday rainstorm, and my son was in the car with me. Suddenly, it was as though the faint fear I'd had days before had become a three year old child with an elephant-sized bundle of anxiety in my backseat. He was afraid of the rain, my son was. Afraid we would be flooded out. Afraid our car would become a floating mass in a rainwater river. A large part of this anxiety was from tiredness, and my son conked out in the backseat shortly after his tirade.

Since then, however, he has expressed several times his conviction that rain will bring destruction with it, and he ain't necessarily wrong. Not all rain does, though, and lately I have been eyeing some plant candidates to grow in our yard and in outdoor planters to try to prove to him that rain has other functions in this life. My son seems to be a bit of a lightning rod for the anxiety that lurks beneath the surface of this town, flowing beneath the normality of everyone's actions and thoughts here in this city barely preserved by the grace of God and returning residents.

How best do I combat this, especially since my own long-held impressions of storms have been shaken some since I've been back down here? Maybe when the summer storms return, their everyday presence will kick his anxiety in the teeth - or maybe it will make it worse. I now dread the beginnings of hurricane season this year, especially since the new evacuation plans for the city have been revealed. Most of the provisions in the plan are things that should have been implemented with Katrina, but at least one thing has everyone I've talked to clucking with impatience: the mandatory evacuation when it looks like a category 2 storm will be coming our way. That is a real cover-your-ass move on the part of our mayor if I ever saw one.

Then again, maybe a road trip might be just what we all would need if and when it happens. My son has always done well with those. Then again, it might be a signal that one can run from your problems when they get too big. Of course, a force of nature is sometimes just way too big to deny. And my internal pendulum swings back and forth on this and many other questions when it comes to my son. What is right? What is wrong? it is questions such as these that make parenting an insanity-inducing profession.

And I thought surviving my first year in my college's freshman dorms was tough...

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