Happy (?) Hurricane Season

Hurricane Camille, August 31, 1969

This isn’t really a preservation-related post, I guess, but it is Mississippi-related, so I at least cover half my blog title. Today, June 1, is an important day in the Mississippi calendar: it’s the beginning of hurricane season. Growing up on the Gulf Coast in the 1970s-1990s, hurricane season was exciting for me: the best part was getting out of school for a couple of days whenever a storm came around. At the most, damage was confined to a little undermining of beachfront homes and trees and fences blown down inland. After it was all over, we would drive around and gawk. It was fun.

We should have known better, of course. My parents moved to the Gulf Coast in August 1969, one week before Hurricane Camille hit, and my dad’s first assignment in his Navy posting was to go over and help the Seabees in the recovery. Camille always loomed large in our minds, but it was as a historical event, “The Big One” that for some reason would never hit again. I know I never questioned this assumption and neither did anyone else I knew that I can remember. I remember when Frederick hit, we got out of school and my parents allowed us to stay up and watch tv–a crazy Western with almost no talking–until the power went out. And then Elena came past–getting us out of school on Friday–went back to the east, and then looped back– getting us out of school on Monday too–two for the price of one!

My mom, a better meteorologist than most professionals I’ve seen on tv, would greet the beginning of hurricane season with excitement, bringing out her trusty hurricane tracking chart, and showing us the strange ambulations of hurricanes of past years. We learned about steering currents and the effects of lows and highs and of course, the water vapor loop–very important! When a tropical storm would form, we were all required to help her get the latest coordinates so she could get them down. I think this is how I learned about latitude and longitude.

We didn’t live in a low-lying area, and we never evacuated that I can remember. But if we had, we would have just gone a few miles up the road to our school and bedded down in a classroom or the hallways and come back home in the morning. The barrier islands and the low-lying inland areas always had mandatory evacuations, but there were never these mass evacuations north, or contraflows, or any of what we’ve come to expect today. I have thought a lot about this change in evacuation strategies since Katrina, and I still don’t understand why it’s come to be this way. I completely understand that New Orleans and low areas south of New Orleans should mostly be evacuated, but otherwise, why are we sending millions of people 250-300 miles inland every time a hurricane comes into the Gulf? Last fall, I know people who even evacuated from Jackson! Is this really the best or even safest way to deal with the problem? What about the people who die in wrecks on the interstate or those who had to sit for 12-24 hours in the blazing heat at an almost complete standstill during the Rita evacuation?  Are schools no longer available as shelters or are people just more scared because of what happened in New Orleans? I don’t know the answer–I do know that evacuation is expensive, nerve-wracking, and should be a last resort except for those in low areas, and yet the authorities seem to be pushing it more and more as the first resort for everyone. At the same time, many coastal communities are encouraging and permitting more and more high-rise developments that bring more and more people to low-lying places, meaning that they will all have to evacuate whenever a storm even threatens. The wetlands that used to provide protection are also being filled in and developed. This is not logical, to quote my favorite Vulcan.

NOAA image of Hurricane Katrina, Aug. 29, 2005 at 10:15

NOAA image of Hurricane Katrina, Aug. 29, 2005 at 10:15 AM

Since Ivan and Dennis (you don’t remember Dennis? July 2005–hottest week ever and no A/C) and of course Katrina, hurricane season is no fun anymore. It doesn’t bring excitement or anticipation, and I don’t even get out of school anymore. We in Mississippi are still haunted by our own scoured 70-mile shoreline–so much history, so much of our culture, so many people gone. What will it look like in 5 years, 20 years? Will another storm come and knock everything down again (well, if history is any judge . . .). Will the culture recover and thrive? How will it change? We don’t know. Last year, the entrance of first Gustav and then Ike into the Gulf brought an extreme tension even as far inland as Jackson. We looked to the Gulf with fear and trepidation, and we said, “Well, I hate to wish bad on anyone, but I sure hope it goes west (or east or south).” Even though Gustav kind of ended up a dud, it brought hundreds of thousands of people streaming north, stuck on roads (like my evacuee) for up to 13 hours just to get to Jackson. Ike, of course, devastated much of Galveston–so much of the Gulf Coast is in tatters now.

There was an article in the paper a week or so ago–I can’t find it now, you’ll just have to trust me–about the opening of a public building on the Coast. The article quoted the engineering firm saying that the building was constructed to withstand winds of 140 mph. Um . . . is this statement supposed to be taken seriously? There are thousands of old wooden buildings still standing on the Coast that have withstood winds of 140 mph multiple times. On the other hand, there are only a handful of buildings old or new that withstood a storm surge of 10, 20, even 30 feet. Show me a building that will stand up to water and I’ll be impressed. Until then, excuse me for calling anyone, including an engineer, who tries to pass off hurricanes as a wind problem a shyster or worse. Look around you! it’s the storm surge, stupid!

So my prayer is for an unexciting season, a hurricane season without hurricanes. We don’t need anything to even threaten our already rattled nerves. And if one does come around, my prayer will be for it to go west or to go east or to go south, or best of all, to just go away.

Categories: Gulf Coast, Hurricane Katrina

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