Thursday, September 18, 2008

Thoughts on Hurricane Ike

Hurricanes. When we moved to the Texas Gulf Coast 19 years ago, I gave only passing thought to hurricanes. I grew up in tornado country and vividly remember riding with my family to Fargo, North Dakota to look at the aftermath of a big tornado there as a little girl. Two of the sights that awed me that day included a ladies slip streaming in the wind from a tree branch high above the ground and a house opened like a child's toy with the tub and commode gleaming whitely in the after-storm sunshine. After my eighteen years in North Dakota, I spent many more years in Missouri and Kansas, states also very susceptible to unpredictable and dangerous weather.

My next residence, California, did not have tornadoes, but it did have earthquakes, which, like tornadoes, are only marginally predictable. Our first California earthquake scared the beejesus out of me and resulted in two funny (now) family stories. In the first bit of humor, I leaped out of bed and rousted Alix and Lupe (our foster daughter) planting them in the doorway of their bedroom. This is the correct thing to do, but planting them in their doorway meant that they were staring straight across the hallway at Michael who, because he slept nude, was therefore trapped in bed and unable to protect himself from the earthquake!

Leaving Michael, Alix, and Lupe in their awkward triangle, I rushed into Nick's room. Nick was about 6 at the time and sleeping in the upper level of his bunk bed. I snatched him from his covers without a word and stuck him in the doorway of his room before he even had time to wake up. Later, Nick said to me, "Mom, next time we have an earthquake, do you think you could say 'Excuse me, Nick, there's an earthquake.' before you grab me out of bed?"

When we then moved to Houston and people mentioned the possibility of hurricanes, I blithely said, "Well, at least we'll know they are coming."

Turns out that isn't so much help.

When it became apparent that Houston would be involved in Ike to some degree or another, Michael and I made our plans. We had evacuated for Hurricane Rita, joining the maddeningly slow exodus of millions of people, most of whom - like us - should have stayed home. Although we had an enjoyable visit with my brother and sister-in-law in Omaha, getting there and getting home was beyond awful. Why did we evacuate? Because our elected officials told us to. They forgot to mention the now-familiar mantra: Run from water, hide from wind. Why did we run to Omaha? Because when Nick and Julia left New Orleans fleeing Katrina just days before, they planned to be gone 5 days and they didn't get back for 6 months. They lost almost everything. We figured if we were going to be homeless, we should go to a place where we could stay a while without spending our entire retirement fund.

So we fled Rita and swore thereafter that we would not evacuate ever again. We had to prepare to weather Hurricane Ike.

Aside: Isn't it interesting that we use the word 'weather' to indicate coping with the effects of "weather'?

I dutifully acquired enough canned food to last us for ten days. I filled two bath tubs with water for hygiene and etc. I also filled two ten-gallon collapsible containers with drinking water. We moved breakables to safe locations away from windows. Michael taped up the picture window in our bathroom, the only one we felt really worried about because our other windows are mullioned. Michael, with some help from me, cleared everything from our front and back yards that could possibly fly around and hurt someone. We planned to take down and wrap our artwork in plastic, but by the time we got to that, I was too exhausted to care.

A safe spot for us posed a big problem. Our house has no interior rooms unless you count the foyer coat closet and it would not accommodate one of us for very long! We decided to use the bedroom hallway which is enclosed for about six feet and turns out to be the exact width of a twin bed mattress. Victoria's mattress would work, so, on Friday afternoon, we put clean sheets on it and positioned near the hallway for later use.

The coming storm and its television coverage seemed to hypnotize us and we kept watching the reports over and over again while we waited patiently for it to arrive in our area. Ike moved slowly and we live on the northwest edge of Houston, in an unincorporated area of Harris County. From Galveston to our house is one hundred miles and our wait for the storm seemed to last forever.

We did not turn in until 1:00 in the morning. The hallway felt stuffy, so Michael plugged a fan in and pointed the welcome coolness at our pallet. Our cats, Jack and Trixie, seemed baffled by our decision to sleep on the floor. We had moved their litter box into our bathroom from its usual hallway location, for our nose comfort and also to keep them from walking back and forth on top of us during the night. Unfortunately, neither of them stayed put in our bedroom as we had hoped. (To be able to corral them more easily if a disaster occurred.)

By 1:30 a.m. we had snuggled into our cozy bed. Our very cozy bed. Our cozier cozy bed than any we had ever shared in thirty-two years of marriage. Michael and I are not as thin and svelte as we once were. (I have pictures to prove that we were once svelte!) Laying flat, we touched each the hallway walls one side and each other in the middle. Turning onto our sides scarcely helped matters but we soldiered on. At about 2:00 a.m., our power went out. Now fan-less and A/C-less, we added sweltering to cramped. After a horribly miserable hour of dosing and waking, we abandoned safety for comfort.

Our headboard sits directly in front of two large, side-by-side windows. We closed the mini-blinds, piled pillows between the headboard and the blinds, crawled in and stretched out. Compared to the floor of a three-foot wide hallway, it was the Waldorf Astoria.

During this period, the wind rose and the rain pelted our roof harder and harder. We slept in snatches, an hour here, twenty minutes there, rousing and checking out the storm as the noise came and went. Amazingly, the night sky stayed so bright that we could see the storm's action clearly. I had heard how dark it became in Galveston when the storm hit and didn't expect this, but perhaps by the time Ike reached Cypress, the nearly-full moon had risen and was reflecting off the cloud cover.

We never heard the "freight train" sound, but I sat on the bench in the office and watched my neighbors forty-foot tall pine tree wave back and forth like a sparkler in a kid's hand. I watched the rain 'fall' horizontally. Standing by my front door, I felt the pull and push of wind moving the metal door in and out of its frame with odd little sucking sounds occurring at each pull. Our front door has a small entry area that is brick on three sides and open to the yard. Leaves plastered the window on the front door and pine needles danced on our welcome mat.

We worried about our pergola and Michael had tied clothesline rope through the lattice work top in 15 or 20 places to - hopefully - keep it in place. We expected to lose the vines that grew up the supporting beams and across the top. During the height of the storm, we watched out the backdoor window and saw that the clothesline rope hardly moved despite the wind's fury. Apparently, Michael and I built a sturdier structure than we even knew when we put the pergola up two years ago. The vines suffered some, especially the night-blooming and star jasmines which were on the exposed side of the patio, but all-in-all, the plants held up well.
We even had flowers blooming on our bougainvillea within a few days!

During the eye of the storm, when the wind dies down, we ventured out. By this time it was daylight. We pulled on ponchos and opened the front door. We had pulled our cars onto our front terrace the day before, thinking that in front of the house, they would be protected from falling trees, while in the driveway they would be exposed on three sides to danger. They blocked us in a bit, but we crawled through a gap and onto the driveway for our first good look at what had transpired in the first half of the storm.

Walking up and down our block, greeting others who had the same idea, we saw a lot of destruction. Fences were gone; big trees were uprooted, leaving peculiar looking hillocks where front yards had been. Many, many branches littered yards and streets and we saw a few roofs stripped down to bare wood and many others missing shingles. Our neighborhood has lots of pine trees and the usual mat of orange pine needles had been accented with lots of green needles. All the trees looked like fall had suddenly transpired: branches were nearly bare. In our case, we lost shingles in six or eight places,had a water leak inside the house, lost one large tree limb in the back yard (that landed safely in an open area!), had lots of small branches down, and the gardens were flattened. (The elephant ears took a real beating, probably the worst of all the plants. They remain flattened even now, so I suppose we'll have to wait for a crop to grow in.) We lost power for three days and cable, Internet, and phone for nearly ten days.

Pretty soon the wind picked up and we fled to the shelter of our house. Without power, it would eventually get uncomfortable, but while the storm made its way through our area, it stayed pretty cool. Saturday afternoon, the sun came out and so did our neighborhood. Everyone was cleaning up - raking debris into piles, propping up fences where they could, cutting up trees and tree limbs.

By Sunday afternoon, the wild disarray of the storm had disappeared, leaving remnants that I expect will be with us for quite a while. Fences are torn apart and piled on front berms along with other types of debris, like the old tire someone deposited on our berm when we weren't looking. Roofs sport blue tarps. Windows are boarded up. People aren't supposed to repair things anymore than absolutely necessary so the insurance adjuster's can see the damage and once seen, probably won't get repairs done until they get checks in hand, so I suppose the tattered look will be around for a while.

Texas insurance policies changed after Hurricane Rita and now insurance deductibles for "tropical cyclones"
are twice as high as the deductibles for any other type of damage. That means many people will not get covered, including - most likely - us. Michael had hoped for a new roof, but the adjuster who finally came by yesterday, says it will be "just repairs" for the roof and the foyer ceiling. With a deductible close to $4,000, we will most likely be paying for this out of our own pocket despite having insurance. That said, I wouldn't trade places with any of the poor souls who had more severe, even catastrophic, damage. We were lucky to be spared serious loss or injury.

Now that I have added hurricanes/tropical cyclones to my list of weathered weather, I can truly say I will be happy to go another nineteen years without seeing my next one!

I had a lot of difficulty getting this blog written. Although the date says 9-18 (when I actually started it), I found I did not want to keep working on it. In the weeks since the storm, I have felt terribly fatigued and down. The aftermath of the storm includes an emotional let down - from being ramped up on adrenaline? - and physical exhaustion. Many of my friends report these same feelings. I probably won't write any more about Hurricane Ike now that I've gotten it out of my system. I'd like to have a happier topic next time!!

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