Two terrified dogs, a then-husband and I hunkered down in a basement closet. Just before the lights went out (and stayed out for several weeks), the husband cooked a few hamburgers on a hot plate. He’d had too much to drink. We were exceptionally fortunate that he didn’t set the house on fire as the hurricane passed overhead.
Outside our ancient pecans ached and shrieked in the 125 mile-an-hour gusts. We would lose the two 150-year-old trees which sheltered and shaded the south side of the house. The rending, sorrowful cries of those lovely sentinels as the wind claimed them broke my heart. As Hurricane Fran’s eye approached overhead, the water surge rose in our yard in tiny Cerro Gordo, North Carolina.
That night I received the last of the calls on my cell phone just before the towers went down. Christine Brown, my adopted Black mother, was calling from Winter Haven, Florida. She was on her death bed, surrounded by family. My family, my second family. It was the last call she would make. She had insisted on calling her “white daughter” one more time. Christine, the last child of a 76-year-old plantation slave, had been suffering from diabetes and cancer. As the hurricane force winds whistled next to my duct taped windows, I struggled to hear her weakening voice. Her daughter, and my Black sister Jackie, who would die of diabetes herself in a few short years, told me through sobs that they didn’t expect Christine to make it through the night. She didn’t. Christine’s voice and her unconditional love helped me soldier through that evening, and well into the dark of morning after the lights went out and the heat rose. That call was the last she would make. Because of the downed trees for miles in all directions, I would miss her funeral, and my chance to pay respects to a woman who had shaped my life since I was eight years old.
Of all the damage that Fran did that night, that was the worst of it. You can repair a shingle. It’s hard to repair a shattered heart. Not being able to be with my second family on her last night was devastating.
In the eerie half light of morning as the eye centered overhead, I stepped tentatively outside. The yard was flooded. This part of North Carolina is low, sandy soil. Tree roots spread outward rather than downward, which makes them susceptible to high winds. The dense pecan trees, a source of pride and love on our property, lay broken against the house. Here and there were floating red ant castles. Made of dry sand, the gently wafting mountains of bright red pain-should one bump against your leg by accident- dotted the landscape. My two-story house stood, missing some shingles, but she stood. In the back yard we had a pool, which would become home central as the heat rose and the mosquitoes invaded every nook and cranny of the house.
Hurricane Fran, in 1996, was before the United Cajun Navy. She was before the days when storm surge guaranteed that you could drown in your car even as you did your best to escape the onslaught. She was years before the rising sea tides spelled disaster for coastal communities.
Our big, wrap-around porch became our kitchen and solace. For the next few weeks we spent endless hours digging and pulling up the stumps of our pecan trees, as the crews who did this professionally were not only overwhelmed, but they also couldn’t get to our house. The air was redolent with the smells of cooking meat as our freezers were emptied and food cooked and shared with neighbors. All of us ate barbecued chicken and beef three times a day.
My Blue Heeler Buster learned the hard way not to put his nose into a floating red ant castle. After that he stayed in the pool, swimming off the heat of late summer. We all did, until the power came back on, and the air conditioner finally made the house livable again. Buster hated the heat. So did I.
That storm marked the beginning of the end of our time in North Carolina. I was reminded in a hundred ways that while I was born in the South and am a Southerner by any definition, I am not a Southerner to my bones. I was glad for reasons to return to the West. Fran was hardly my first hurricane, as I was born in Florida. But she would be my last, if I could help it.
It’s hard for anyone who has never curled into a fetal position in a corner as Mother Nature’s most powerful fury slams your sacred space to understand just how insignificant you can feel at the mercy of that kind of power. It’s immense, unyielding, and terribly exciting all at the same time. Hurricane Donna, in 1962, ripped the tin roofs off the chicken houses on my father’s farm, rendering the terrified hens useless for anything but the cook pot. She downed tall pines and saplings. But she was a relative pipsqueak compared to what we’re experiencing today.
Two stories struck me from the current Carolina hurricane. This morning, Ann Litts’ piece on gratitude, https://medium.com/@annlitts/thankful-1f4e263af590. Yesterday I read a piece by a woman who pointed out that the poor can’t evacuate- and she’s right. In 1962, we were poor, we we stayed put. She pointed out that poor people not only don’t have the funds to pay for expensive hotels but their bosses often fire them for leaving work. In 1996, my asshole of a boss fired me for not showing up for work the day after Fran even though every road for miles around was blocked by downed trees. That’s the same boss who came after me for wearing pants to work even though the dress code allowed for them. Yes I sued. Yes I won. A hollow victory against Assholes United, because I had to file for bankruptcy as a result of that firing. The money had to go to the banks. Such is life. You learn a great deal about how vulnerable you are to disasters — not only those visited on us by Mama Nature but also by venal corporate jerks. Boy can I relate.
Speaking of United, Ann spoke of the United Cajun Navy. Think what you like about rednecks (and most of them qualify, by many measures) but you cannot criticize brave, ballsy, uber competent men and women who throw their boats and supplies onto their trucks and travel miles into the teeth of a storm. They rescue hundreds of folks isolated by their financial conditions and left to fend for themselves on the tops of their cars in the horrifying dark of early morning when all hope is lost. At least, until you hear the powerful thrum of a boat engine headed your way, with a powerful spotlight searching for you. Those folks are heroes. For more please see https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=648016176.
In my childhood, evacuation wasn’t an option. Hurricane spelled “hunker down and hope.” There was no United Cajun Navy. There were no animal rescue organizations rushing to save the deserted horses, cows, dogs, cats, chickens and other defenseless creatures tied to posts or left to drown in stalls. https://www.actionnewsjax.com/news/local/jacksonville-animal-rescue-group-travels-to-carolina-s-to-help-rescue-animals-in-florence-s-path/832476363
Ann’s grateful for them. So am I. So are hundreds of people plucked off rooftops, car roofs and hanging perilously from the last branches of a thousand trees rendered lifeless by Florence’s fury. Hurricane Harvey spawned a new breed of community hero, those who understood the limitations of the Federal Government and took matters into their own hands to help their neighbors. Then people much farther away. They bring hope to the hopeless, food to the first responders, and a sense of humor and purpose to many who have watched all they have wash away. When people are later reunited with their precious animals, there is nothing to describe their joy.
This is what it’s like to have a higher purpose. To feel needed, necessary, essential, important, valued. This is what happens when you show up. Nobody but nobody is happier to see you when you are their last possible hope. Nobody cares about your color, your accent, your breeding, the size of your shack, or what the hell you look like under your rain jacket, if you need to drop a pound or two. None of that bullshit matters- it never did, frankly- because right now they are HELP. They are the difference between hope and helplessness.
In the aftermath of these huge storms, often exacerbated by lousy city planning and over-development (as in Houston’s case), people rise to the occasion. If nothing else, we discover who our neighbors are, as we all gather outside to grill what we can salvage from our warming freezers. We wave. Talk. Share stories. Make fun of the damage. Build a new community. Thank the first responders. Make merry bonfires of our beloved downed trees. Mock the mosquitoes. What other choices do we have? Plenty. However, hurricanes can make heroes out of many of us. Many of us try to find out who saved us so that we can say thank you.
If nothing else, in the face of great devastation, we remember to feel what Ann Litts writes about: grateful. For another day. Another sunrise. For folks who are willing to risk life and limb, leave their own families at home in Cajun country to help the helpless. For dedicated animal rescue folks who care deeply about creatures who cannot save themselves. There are no words for such generosity.
This is the America I threw down for so many years ago. The America I donned a uniform to protect. The people who love this country and her people enough to fight for their lives and the lives of their beloved pets and livestock. Folks who understand that who you voted for in the last election simply doesn’t matter in the face of hurricane force winds.
While property loss is devastating, and I have had plenty of my own, what would be far more devastating would be a world without the United Cajun Navy. Without the first responders. Without the neighbors and the neighboring states and all the donations that pour in and the commitment of strangers to lift us out of the water, dry us off, and warm us with hot coffee and a sandwich. A hug. A listening ear.
Social media cannot do this for us. People do.
We can always start over. It’s just life. But what a life it would be without these immensely good folks.
Ann’s right. Let’s be thankful. Because in a swiftly changing world, we can’t predict when it’s going to be our turn needing a rescue, a blanket, a warm cuppa Joe and a caring hand to hold ours.
Thank you for the shelter in the storm, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for reminding us who we really are.