Friday, May 19, 2006

How Not to Prepare for a Hurricane

My husband, Steve, and I talked about getting proper, old-fashioned shutters for our house. You know the kind, the ones all old houses once had and that now cost a king’s ransom? Just the hinges alone are almost $100 a pop. Our house has a lot of windows. It was on our To Do list.

The summer before Katrina, when Ivan threatened, my sister-in-law and her husband came down for a visit. Bad timing. They were trapped in New Orleans when the airlines closed down. Instead of visiting plantations the way we had planned (the plantations also being closed), Jim spent the day helping Steve cut up plywood to make shutters while Janie and I moved plants, patio tables, benches, etc into the garage. Ivan brought us a lot of wind, but that was all.

So when we realized Katrina was aiming at us, not Florida, we had plywood shutters already made. All we needed to do was put them up (not an easy task minus Jim). Steve started fitting the shutters on the first floor while I went up in the attic, found the two big plastic bins that normally hold the Christmas garlands for the upstairs gallery, dumped out the garlands, and set to work packing up photo albums. Photography has been a hobby of mine since I was a kid, and I’ve always been fairly good about putting my pictures in albums. Big albums. Lots of big albums.

I knew I needed to take the photographs with me, but what else? When we lived in Adelaide, Australia, our house was threatened one summer by a bush fire that burned down the side of the mountain and was stopped just a few hundred yards from our house. We could hear the fire’s roar; its red flames lit up our rooms. I stuffed my little Holden with photographs, manuscript in progress, jewelry, important papers, and clothes. Afterwards, I made up a list of Things to Take in a Bush FIre that I taped on the inside of my closet door. With Katrina barreling down on us, I found myself thinking, Why didn't you do something similar here for hurricanes?

I packed up my manuscripts—not one but three books in progress--the second of the Sebastian St. Cyr series that I’d just sent off, the third in the series that I’d just started, plus a contemporary thriller set in, of all places, New Orleans. I crammed in the rare 19th books I used as references and my big stack of research notebooks. I had fixed up a file box of important papers (birth certificates, insurance policies, car titles, etc) when we first moved here. That went on top of the bins of photos—although I wasted precious time hunting for things we use frequently like passports, and recent papers that never quite made it in there. I thought about four people descending on my daughter’s apartment, and added a bag of towels and three sleeping bags to the pile.

One of the cats meowed, and I thought, They’re going to need water and food bowls. Food. Litter. Boxes. It all went on the growing pile near the door. I raced upstairs to throw a change of clothes into a bag (yes, one change of clothes) and pack my jewelry. The one intelligent thing I did, insurance-wise, what run around and take pictures of every room in the house (that's our old kitchen, above, with the windows already blocked by plywood). But the day was quickly slipping away; it was getting dark. I went out to help Steve put up the plywood on the second floor windows and found myself looking at the fifty-foot-long gallery that stretches across the side of the house. We were getting ready to replace some rotting beams and so we’d pulled up all the floorboards. Dozens and dozens of ten-foot long boards just waiting for a hurricane to turn them into missiles. Oh, shit.

At that point, it was midnight on Saturday, August 27th. The wind was blowing and the rain had started; already the outer edges of the storm were pushing weather inland. Yet there we were, out on the gallery, balancing on bare (rotten!) beams ten feet up in the air, gathering up floorboards and tying them down with bungee cords. We were most worried about the coming wind, which we knew would be bad even if we don’t get a direct hit. I was particularly concerned because I knew our roof wasn't in very good shape; it’d only been a few weeks since Hurricane Cindy pealed off some shingles. We’d decided the roof needed replacing but it hadn't been done yet. I had this strange, apocalyptic attitude toward flooding: I was convinced either the storm would turn and New Orleans would be saved, or we’d be hit with a wall of water that would destroy the house. I never thought in terms of one or two feet of water. I was so busy putting things in the garage, boarding up windows, packing things to take, that I didn't move anything off the ground floor.

Not one single thing.