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Another Messy Day
On that hot August morning when Hurricane Sabrina roared into the coastal areas of Louisiana and Mississippi, many of the people who lived inland were not worried. Ninety miles northeast of New Orleans where we live in the tall piney woods of Mississippi, the main concern was whether or not the blow would be serious enough to justify a decent hurricane party.
Grills were readied, food was bought, beer was put on ice and liquor stores did a landslide business. Wal-Mart sold out of bread, batteries, candles, flashlights and charcoal but no one worried. We had been through the drill too many times before. With forecasters and doomsayers’ warnings of killer hurricanes that never quite made it to us, we southerners had developed a perilous sense of confidence and cynicism when it came to messy weather.
Even Camille, the strongest U.S. hurricane on record, had made landfall only sixty miles south of us and served up nothing more than minimal damage to our area. So, as the storm made its approach in the gulf, we and our grills were stoked.
The night before the storm I braved the crowds long enough to purchase charcoal for the grill and supplies for making hamburgers and hotdogs. I picked up some Fritos and bean dip for the girls and a container of potato salad for the burgers and dogs. At the register, I waited while a very large woman in polyester shorts and flip-flops dug for her checkbook in a very large purse. I watched my hand pull an assortment of candy off the impulse rack and drop it into the buggy.
The morning of the storm I awoke before daylight to the noise of windows banging in their wooden frames. The eye of the storm was still offshore yet the winds were already cutting up sixty miles inland. A jolt of adrenalin tweaked my brain like a pot of dark roast coffee. I threw on a pair of jeans and t-shirt and stepped onto the front porch.
Dawn was in process, the sky swirling as if from a Van Gogh painting. The tops of the Loblolly pines surrounding our home and every other home on the street swayed and danced like dandelions in a whirlwind. The entire neighborhood was cast in greenish-gray. The rain had not yet begun but the air was thick with its odor.
I woke my daughters and fixed them cinnamon toast with a glass of cold milk.
“Don’t want to miss the storm.” I pulled the toast from the broiler in the bottom of the gas stove and smiled. “It might be exciting.” I attempted to punctuate the moment with a little allure.
They looked at me as if I were a bad commercial.
Taking their breakfast from the kitchen they settled in front of the television without speaking.
They, too, had been through a couple of false hurricane alarms.
By noon the electricity was off and the rain came in horizontal torrents with winds gusting to fifty and sixty-miles-per-hour. The pines, heavy with water and wind, bent in deference to the wind but held their ground. A few tree tops and limbs were torn off and bounced into the street and off of roofs. Down the street a limb imbedded itself through the windshield into the driver’s seat of a parked car. By then, the eye of the hurricane had made landfall below New Orleans, one-hundred-twenty miles away, and was headed directly for us.
By two o’clock the winds had increased to what I now know were gust of one-hundred to one-hundred-fifty miles per hour. More limbs were ripped off and blew by; some without touching the ground; some cart wheeling down the street.
Across the street a giant Oak tree uprooted and laid itself onto the roof of a sixty-year-old white clapboard house. An hour later the house gave up as if its back were broken. The crown of the roof sagged then snapped allowing the whole of the tree to settle into the house’s interior. We knew the elderly couple inside was safe because we saw them scrambling around toting possessions into the undamaged parts of the house.
By now my own kids were hysterical. The older one, Samantha, 16, didn’t cry in the beginning because she didn’t want to scare her sister. Savannah, 9, however, let it all hang out. The two held hands and cried and comforted each other in the center hall of the house; the only location safe from glass and falling trees. I covered them with pillows and blankets and all their favorite stuffed animals and gave them each a kiss and told them not worry; that they were safe and I would take care of them. It was no reflection on me, I’m certain, but this seemed to have little effect upon the girl’s increasing level of anxiety.
Transformers, like small bombs, blew up randomly around the city; the sounds of the explosions swallowed by the storm. Rain and sticks pounded the side of our house unrelenting. Shingles from blocks away sailed through the air like shrapnel and rain gutters ripped from their anchors rolled across the yard like discarded soft drink cans.
At four o’clock the eye of the storm arrived and everything slowed down. In seconds, a screaming violent day had turned passive. We had but a few minutes to go outside and survey the damage before the second half of the storm hit.
Limbs were stripped from almost every tree in sight. The big oak across the street lay amidst the broken house. Two pine trees down the street were uprooted and another snapped like a matchstick ten feet off the ground. At least half the shingles were gone from every roof in the city and broken power lines flapped from every power pole on the street. Small bits of broken leaves, driven by the force of the wind, dotted the surface of every house and car within sight.
But the worst was still to come.
What we didn’t know at the time was that on the back half of the storm the wind would be coming from the opposite direction as the front half. Trees already wrenched and weakened by the initial assault would be finished off by the wind’s change of direction; the coup de grâce, if you will.
And then things got really wild. One hundred foot tall pine trees, some that were old growth pines, began to snap and tumble like autumn leaves. The sound of cracking and breaking wood echoed even over the howl of the wind while houses and vehicles throughout the city were demolished. In our neighborhood alone over two thousand trees were felled by the storm. Power poles snapped like twigs and privacy fences blew away as if they had never existed.
Stop signs were either twisted out of the ground or blown from the pole completely. Traffic lights fell and shattered on the asphalt and street identification signs were stripped from their poles.
Some homes were cut in half and some were completely crushed. Others were impaled by trees and debris and some were simply blown apart in the wind. Cars and trucks were smashed by falling trees and plate glass windows imploded into businesses all over town.
Our house, however, had avoided a direct hit. The corner of the roof above the girl’s bedroom was nipped off by a falling tree and there were leaks due to missing shingles but the major damage was to the yard and landscaping. We lost eighteen pines total, a large oak and a huge magnolia tree which the girls loved to climb; all of which lay around our home like giant pick-up sticks.
And then, without warning, everything became still. The winds died, the howling stopped, the rain dwindled, and people ventured out of their homes.
Like a scene from a disaster movie, people moved up and down the street in slack jawed silence. It was impossible to distinguish where the yards ended and the streets began. Trees, limbs, and pine needles covered the city like a giant, green blanket. The air smelled of lightered pine, like newly refined kerosene and all recognizable landmarks were gone.
A daunting realization passed through the crowd like an unwanted virus. There would be no power in the foreseeable future: no open businesses, no open roads, no groceries, no water, no air conditioning, nothing. I remembered the grocery twenty-four hours earlier and grieved the things I did not buy.
In a span of less than twelve hours we had been ripped out the comfort and security of the twenty-first century and dropped squarely into a medieval existence. I mentally inventoried the food stored in our pantry and frozen in our freezer.
As night fell on the devastation around us, bonfires, grills, and Tike Torches lit up yards across the city. People cooked the contents of their freezers before the heat and humidity took them.
In our own yard, the girls and I made a pile of limbs and started a bonfire. We set up a card table and pulled wicker furniture from the front porch to build a center of operation for our “hurricane survival camp”. I fired up the grill and stoked it with pecan limbs from a downed tree while the girls snacked on chips and dip. We drank coke from a two-liter bottle with the last ice we would see for a month and I grilled us each a hamburger melting cheese on the patties when they were done.
The girls and I sat in my truck and ran the air conditioner at full tilt then went inside and tried to sleep but the ninety-six degree, one-hundred percent humidity post hurricane weather made it impossible.
The next morning there was neither a breath of wind over the land or a single cloud in the sky. Our next door neighbor Randall and I set about clearing fallen trees but didn’t get very far without a chain saw. He said he knew of one we could borrow but it was on the other side of town. With both our vehicles rendered useless by log jams and the streets impassable for the same reason, a great sense of helplessness settled upon us. Suddenly exhausted, we sat in a swing on the shaded porch sipping lukewarm water out of a plastic bottle. In silence, we watched what was left of our world.
After a lunch of cold cuts and warm coke, Randall disappeared on foot down the street into a jungle of fallen trees and broken poles. An hour later as I raked needles and sticks into a pile, the sound of a chain saw whined in the distance. Minutes later the sound grew louder, as if coming toward me.
Leaning on the rake, I squinted sweat from my eyes and drug my forearm across my brow in time to see Randall burst out of a green wall of downed foliage riding a very small, bright red kid’s motorcycle. His knees were even with his ears and he looked like a giant on the little four stroke dirt bike. I practically fell to the ground laughing as he buzzed circles around me with a big ole stupid grin on his face.
“I’m going to get us a chain saw pardner,” he yelled from beneath an undersized helmet.
Grinning, I nodded and waved him on. Throttling up he disappeared around the corner like a mosquito on steroids. I was still smiling when my kids ran around the end of the house yelling.
“Settle down now, what is it?” I held my palms toward them, my fingers pointing up. They slammed on the brakes but not before running into me.
“There’s something under the house,” Savannah said, out of breath.
“Yeah,” Samantha said, equally winded. “Something alive.”
“And it’s crying,” They panted in unison. “Come on, Daddy.”
They pulled my arms and pushed against the small of my back, hurrying me into the side yard.
“There,” they both pointed under the house. “Listen, Daddy.”
“Okay, get my flashlight. It’s on the shelf next to the washing machine.”
In the mud underneath the house two big eyes blinked the light back at me.
“It’s a puppy,” I yelled back to the girls.
By the time I got to the terrified pup and pulled it out we were both covered in mud and soaking wet.
The pup’s oversized ears, wrinkled brow, and black snout were unmistakable. It was a little, female hound dog of some flavor, probably a two or three month old bloodhound judging by her size.
I handed her to Samantha who sat down and placed the puppy on the ground beside her. The pup nuzzled to get under her hand but had trouble standing.
“Oh, look Daddy. She’s got a hurt leg.” Savannah cradled the pup and kissed the top of her head, between her ears.
“Ooooh, she’s limping,” Samantha’s voice caressed.
“Yeah, but her tail is wagging. That means she’s happy. Why don’t we go find her something to eat?” I smiled at the scene before me.
“Can we keep her Daddy…”
“…please, Daddy, can we…”
“..please?” As always, the two spoke as a single unit.
“Girls,” I said, sounding as exasperated as possible.
They faced me with the puppy cradled between them, their blue eyes wide and blinking at the same time.
“You’re the best Dad in the world,” Savannah said with a crooked smile.
“Yeah,” the other one said, without missing a beat.
They moved closer together and held a collective breath, their eyes darkening in anticipation.
“Okay, but I have one condition.” I shook my head in feigned surrender while the girls worked to contain their excitement.
“We have to name her after the storm.”
In that moment, as I looked into the faces of my girls and their new puppy, I saw love and innocence at its purest and knew that despite the inconveniences we would endure in the coming days and weeks it would be okay because, for us, Sabrina had given more than she had taken.