Three weekends ago, as we braced for Hurricane Georges, my husband and I didn't know what to expect. Since our move from Washington, D.C., to Baton Rouge, La., three years ago, the only hurricane we'd experienced was in a melodramatic play -- a combination of bad Faulkner and bad Tennessee Williams, with a little Oprah thrown in. The actors stomped around onstage in wet clothing, uttering things like, "When the Lord in His Terrible Glory speaks you don't got no choice but to listen, baby." But now it was real life, and the storm was heading straight for the Big Easy, and after that, to us, here in the state capital. It looked like it was going to be a whopper.
My husband had been an Eagle scout, and he doesn't like to be caught unprepared. During the one year that we lived in Los Angeles, we kept a row of jugs filled with water along the wall of our kitchen, in case we had an earthquake. By the time we moved out of our apartment, all our earthquake water had turned a sickly shade of green and smelled. But now it was 10 years later, and my husband, in something approaching a full-scale panic, called me from work on Thursday and asked me if we were stocked up on batteries, canned goods, water, paper supplies, Band-Aids, sterile gauze and flashlights.
"No," I said.
"Oh my God," he said.
"Band-Aids?" I said.
"What if a tree branch fell on one of the kids?" he said. "Or worse?"
That night, he went to the store. When he got back home -- his grocery bags laden with Chicken of the Sea -- he said, "I forgot bread." In the morning, he went back to the store -- this time for candles, fruit juice, canned soup and bread, only he couldn't get bread because there was none left. Friday night, my aunt called from Maine to ask me to call her children in New Orleans and urge them to take refuge at our house, some 80 miles inland and on relatively high ground. I didn't have to. They called me. We went to sleep wondering how long we'd have electricity.
At 6 o'clock on Saturday morning -- a time that I prefer to be extremely unconscious -- the phone rang. It was our friends Collette and Steve, calling from New Orleans. Collette and Steve have three children under the age of 3. "We're kind of thinking about getting out of here before the storm hits," they said. "Do you have room?"
"We'll make room," we said.
"We'll call you back," they said.
By now our own three children were up, and -- it being our only day to sleep late -- in bed with us. Our eldest son, age 9, had begun to worry about what we'd do if our water supply was cut off and we could no longer use our toilets. "I mean, do we go in the bushes or what?" he said. "And how can we go outside if there's like a hurricane blowing around?" I was worried about the same thing. But the truth of the matter is -- not that I wanted to give the Lord in His Terrible Glory the wrong idea -- I was kind of looking forward to the hurricane. For one thing, we'd been in a drought all summer: Our local lakes had receded to reveal a skin of muck, pond scum and litter, my flowers had barely bloomed and our trees were so thirsty that they'd started drinking beer. Plus I'd never seen a hurricane before, and I wanted to see what it looked like.
At midmorning, Collette and Steve called again. Here's what
they said: "We've decided to ride it out."
"Are you sure?" we said.
"We have a raised house," they said. "We'll be all right. Just so long as
the roof doesn't blow off."
They gave me courage. I figured that if they weren't scared of the storm in
New Orleans, there was nothing much to fear in Baton Rouge, except for a week-long loss of electricity and massive, widespread property damage, as had
happened in 1991 when Hurricane Andrew hit. Even so, we filled up all the
jugs we had around the house with water and cleared out our backyard: Our
patio furniture came into the dining room; the kids' toys -- their plastic
"climbing machine," their trucks, their seesaw, their tools and bicycles and
scooters and Frisbees -- went into the shed; the potted plants came into the
kitchen. "We don't want to leave any potential missiles lying around," my
By Saturday night, as we waited for my cousins to arrive from New Orleans,
even I was beginning to get a tad anxious. Where, after all, were they?
They'd called around 4 to say that they were leaving, and already it was
9. It's not supposed to take five hours to get from New Orleans to Baton
Rouge. It's supposed to take one and a half if you're me, or, if you're a
college student who has not yet grasped the basics of mortality.
Outside the wind was picking up and the sky, through the trees, was taking on
a weird, pearly shimmer. At last, around 11, my cousins -- their baby in
tow -- showed up.
"The traffic was pretty bad," they said.
On Sunday morning, we turned on the TV to learn that all of Baton
Rouge -- from the schools to the government -- would be shut down for two days.
After breakfast, we went out to fill up our tanks with gas -- just in case we,
too, had to flee. But the four gas stations we went to were out of gas.
We drove back home on a quarter of a tank and went out for a walk. The air
was warm, wet, somehow unusually dense. The skies were streaked with a
greenish-yellowish light. All over the neighborhood, people were beginning to
tape up their windows. At one house, the windows were already covered with
plywood. When we got home, my husband asked me where we kept the masking
tape. We didn't have any. He went back to the store, but the store didn't
have any masking tape, either. It had already sold out. We watched the news.
We watched the sky. The storm was scheduled to hit before daybreak.
That night, we ordered in Indian and watched a video. By the time the movie
was over, it was well past our bedtimes. But it didn't really matter: The
entire state was shut down. Up and down our street, our neighbors' houses,
like ours, were filled with refugees from New Orleans. Their cars, like ours,
had been pulled up off the street, for the "higher ground" of our
driveways. It was almost midnight. I got in the shower and washed my hair.
After all, I figured, I hate having dirty hair, and the Lord in His Glory
alone knew when I'd next have the chance to shampoo and condition.
Finally -- just before we turned in -- my husband and I filled up our bathtubs.
We were, in other words, as prepared as we were going to be for this amazing,
enormous, 200-mile-wide melee that even now was beginning to pound the
wetlands east of us, sending surges of salty wetness into people's homes, rearranging the arrangement of earth and sky, and proving, once again, that a
below-sea-level swamp is not an ideal place to build a city. But I didn't
feel prepared. I felt -- in this house full of people -- alone. My husband and I
should have known better than to move to a place where they eat alligator. We
should have studied the map more closely, or at least consulted an expert in
the field of water dynamics, or a geologist, or a psychic, before we'd packed
up all our stuff and our three little children and moved to Baton Rouge.
Someone, in other words, should have told us that they have hurricanes down
here. I fell asleep thinking about which of our treasures I'd try to save, in
the advent of flooding: the portraits of my great-great-grandparents that I'd
inherited from my grandmother? The beautiful tribal rug that I'd bought on a
whim three years ago even though we couldn't afford it? Our wedding album?
The children's baby pictures?
On Monday morning, we woke to clear blue skies and learned that, though all
of Baton Rouge was still closed down, the storm had taken a right turn and
had slammed into the Mississippi and Alabama coasts, sparing all but the
eastern edges of Louisiana entirely. My husband gratefully went off to work.
My cousins went home. My kids began to whine about how bored they were.
Then, in mid-morning, our electricity snapped off. I don't know why. There
wasn't any hurricane; there wasn't even any wind. Outside, the skies were a
brilliant deep blue spotted with a few high clouds. I figured maybe somebody
in our neighborhood had sneezed hard. Our house, without air conditioning, began
to heat up, because even though it was almost October, it was still, by any
civilized measure of weather, disgustingly hot and humid. I was stuck in an
un-air-conditioned house in a city where nothing was open with three bored kids
and more canned tuna than we could eat in a lifetime. I would have preferred
"Fuck," I said.
But I was rescued just before noon, when friends called and invited us to
join them on a picnic. We headed out to a rural park just below the
Mississippi levee, where a stiff breeze was blowing. We ate our sandwiches
and potato chips and then the children flew kites. They ran back and forth
across the field, their kites trailing behind them, under a dome of Southern
sky, on the banks of the Big Muddy. "Look Mommy! Look, look!" they cried.
The wind took the kites high into the clear blue skies.