Everyone seems to be discussing statistics and making weekend plans. The stores are full of people loading up on snacks and beer. Is it time for the World Series or the Superbowl? No it’s hurricane season and South Louisiana is about to experience the main event. Hurricane Gustav has been beating up islands in the Caribbean for days and now it’s our turn.
As the storm nears, the need to hear about every pressure, speed, and track change that Gustav is making approaches an addictive intensity, and the news sources are happy to provide the fix. People in the projected path of the storm face a decision. They can evacuate or they can stay. With memories of Hurricane Katrina fresh in many people’s minds, the largest evacuation in Louisiana history begins as over a million people decide to head for higher ground. All interstate highways leading north become one way to aid in the traffic flow. Those that decide to stay empty store shelves of generators, batteries and food.
My family decided to ride out the storm at our home in Iberville Parish. The storm made landfall west of Houma, LA early Monday morning and went north toward Baton Rouge. As Gustav headed inland, the winds and rain around our home began to intensify. We lost electricity around 9:30 am. By lunch time, the storm had reached its peak.
The willow trees lining the bayou behind the house began to twist and break, no longer able to stand up to the wind. Visibility declined as the wind whipped the water on the bayou into a fine mist filling the air. Large tree limbs and debris from other homes started to pile up in the yard, including a vinyl shutter and insulation from a nearby house. We warily kept an eye on a large cypress tree next door which had the potential to do major damage if it came down on the house. Around 4:00 in the afternoon, the worst of the storm had passed. Like a turtle coming out of its shell, people began to emerge from their homes to survey the damage and check on their neighbors. Despite the yard being buried under leaves and branches, we came out relatively unscathed with only some pieces of siding missing from the shed.
After surveying the damage, we rode to my grandparent’s house to check on them. We drove through a terrain that had been transformed. Everywhere electrical poles were twisted and torn. Large oak and other trees had fallen over pulling up large patches of earth with them. Many homes had trees on the roofs. My grandparents had made out okay so we returned home and began to clean up the yard.
Eager for news, we hooked up the generator to the house in hopes of being able to watch television. Since our cable was out and we didn’t have rabbit ears, we connected a radio antennae to the TV and managed to get one channel. Reports of widespread destruction, especially to the electrical grid, began to filter in as government agencies went out to assess the damage. It appeared it could be weeks before power would be restored. Curfews were declared all over South Louisiana.
In the days after the hurricane, people began to adapt to life without electricity, no easy feat when daytime temperatures are in the 90’s and the humidity is high. Cloud cover left over from the hurricane provided some relief but soon small A/C window units began sticking out of many homes. Others like my family relied on fans. Due to the high price of gas, many people ran their generators only at night. During the day, porches which on many homes were built solely for ornamental purposes suddenly became the main hangout areas as people sought to escape the heat in homes which were not designed to be cool without air conditioning.
Further aggravating the situation was a massive fish die off. This is a common occurrence in major hurricanes. All the debris falling into the waterways depleted most of the oxygen in the water as it decomposed. For the first few days it was very easy to catch fish and crabs as they came to the surface of the water for oxygen. Fish fries and crab boils abounded. Soon though, the fish began to die and the water became foul, the smell making it unpleasant for people to open their windows or sit on their porches.
Despite all the damage and hardship, rebuilding has already begun. Households which suffered little damage are helping those who did. Relief agencies are in the area distributing emergency rations, ice and water. Crews from electrical companies, viewed as heroes, are working nonstop on electrical lines. Despite the massive influx of workers from all over the country, rebuilding will take time. My area will be without electricity for weeks. With all this going on, we are once again turning our eye to the Gulf of Mexico as hurricane season is reaching its peak. People are again getting ready for the next main event.