Sunday, September 30, 2007

Lessons in a Hurricane

I learned a valuable lesson about preparing for hurricanes from my grandparents. It was in August 1983 and I was done with college and back home in Texas City pursuing a freelance career. I often visited GranMommy and GranDaddy during the day when I wasn’t showing my portfolio or doing an illustration.

I had always heard a number of stories from each one of them about hurricanes that they had endured. Hurricanes where the neighbors came to their house to ride out the storm, or when GranDaddy had to drive his wrecker through the storm to rescue someone, and they usually ended up at the house. I am still impressed with the intrepid spirit that they displayed on the old days.

In August 1983, my parents and sister had gone on vacation up to the Hill Country for a couple of weeks, and I stayed in Texas City because I had to get my freelance business off the ground.

This August was a little different, mainly because a serious hurricane appeared in the Gulf, and from what I remember, it steamed in to eventually hit the Texas coast between Freeport and Galveston pretty quickly. Too quick for my parents to come in from Wimberley and too quick to try to convince two old hurricane veterans that they should perhaps take their leave and watch from a safe distance. After all, GranMommy had practically built that old house herself, filling in the gaps where the drunk contractor left things undone. The exterior siding that the asbestos shingles were nailed to was put up on an angle for strength in a hurricane. I couldn’t have gotten them out of there with dynamite.

That is how I came to face the fury of Hurricane Alicia in the house that was over 50 years old at the time. GranDaddy had taken up his usual post at the southeast corner of the living room two feet from one big window and three feet from the other. He was listening to the radio and we had the television tuned to the news. GranMommy and I sat on the pullout couch, focusing on the television and aware as well of the rising wind and slashing rain outside. As the night wore on, we heard the rain battering the house, and the water ran down the chimney like sluice, making us more and more uneasy. In the increasing gusts, the siding started buzzing like a clarinet reed. Occasionally we would see the flashing lights of a fire truck as it patrolled the streets. I don’t know if it even crossed anyone’s mind to go catch a ride with them to a reinforced building that didn’t have a fireplace pouring water inside. We just sat and watched.

About 11:30 or so, an earsplitting bolt of lightning popped outside, and instantly the interior of our sanctuary went dark. We all sat still for a moment, and I asked GranDaddy if he had a flashlight. He reached wordlessly into his cabinet by his chair and produced one. He flipped the switch and a weak yellow glow lasted for a few seconds, then failed in fear of the storm. I asked if he had batteries for the flashlight or the radio. He just started to laugh. A hearty, sort of embarrassed laugh, that spread to me, and I think even GranMommy chuckled a little.

Fortunately, they had an oil lamp for decoration on the mantel, and it was in working order. The rest of the night, we sat there in the pale light and listened to the extreme weather out there, getting wilder every ten or fifteen minutes.

At least five times that long night, we heard the freight trains pass by. Apparently, big, long, loud trains that, strangely enough, never did use their whistle. Their roaring roared above the normal roar of the storm, they produced extra sounds that were a little more unfamiliar that the other unfamiliar sounds we had grown accustomed to made us more uncomfortable. The most disturbing thought that I know we were all thinking, was that the nearest train tracks were about three or four miles south of there.

At about two or three a.m., the rain and wind stopped. Completely. The false calm of the eye descended like a great wet blanket. GranDaddy and I went out front and looked around a little. There was an eerie silence, not a breath of wind. We did see evidence that one of the trains had come down their street; the tops of several trees were twisted out and deposited upside down some distance from their home trunks. The train was definitely a tornado, as were all the others.

As the night wore on, we never spoke of what to do if Alicia, not content with howling outside, decided to come inside for coffee. It was a good thing she didn’t, in all the excitement, we had forgotten to make any.


AggieDes said...

That's CRAZY! I knew that story tho! haha, but it's still scary, I would have flipped out. haha

Lynn said...

Awesome! Felt like I was right there. =]