This is the second in a series of little essays by Elliott Freeman about experiencing hurricanes as a kid in Mississippi. Check out the first one.
Hurricane Georges, September 28, 1998
I was in the fifth grade, and it was the first time a storm had ever prompted us to leave. For me, hurricanes meant an excuse–a dictat, even–to spend the day indoors. They weren’t much more to me than wind and rain, but I always saw pragmatism and concern in my parents; my mother had gone through Camille as a teenager, and that storm left its mark on her generation, creating a strange combination of wary caution and willfulness in them. They had seen what a proper hurricane could do to the Coast; how Camille had basically leveled Highway 49, which runs the length of the coast and rarely strays more than fifteen yards from the water…but in seeing that, they often measured danger only in relation to Camille.
By the time it made landfall on the Gulf Coast–its seventh landfall, just to put things in perspective–Hurricane Georges was a tattered Category 2 on the Saffir-Simpson Scale, meaning its sustained winds topped out at 110mph.
A sidenote: it is easy and tempting for anyone who has been through a summer of easy Category 1s and 2s to say that they are nothing to worry about, because more often than not, they really aren’t worth your worry. It’s those qualifiers you have to watch out for, though: more often than not still means that sometimes, usually the times when you’re at your most casual, they’ll become problematic.
My father worked for a millionaire as the captain of a private yacht at the time, and so when the decision finally did come for us to evacuate, we decided, calmly and logically, to evacuate on a boat.
Which isn’t as dumb as it sounds, because the boats all have to go somewhere.
The logistics of hurricane preparedness are exhausting because things have to be packed away: lawn chairs are put away, windows are boarded up, and if you’re anywhere near a port, that thing had better damn well be emptied because otherwise chances are good you’ll end up with a schooner in the middle of your street, and while that’s funny enough for a few minutes, it’s actually a damned headache to clean up. So, when the orders came down from the harbormaster to evacuate, my father followed a small fleet of boats upriver and into a little man-made crater called Hurricane Hole where they lashed their sterns together.
The end result was a temporary ramshackle town of boats bobbing up and down in time with each other, jostling up against one another with nothing but inflatable bumpers to keep things from getting notably more catastrophic. Tied together, the storm couldn’t really do much to them: otters will be the first to attest to the fact that flooding is rarely a problem for anything that floats. And, in the likelihood of a blackout, the yacht had a generator.
So my mother picked me up from school, drove me thirty minutes up Highway 90 (which runs perpendicular to Highway 49; it has always driven me slightly mad that they didn’t call it Highway 45, because math, people, math), pulled her Nissan to the shoulder near a clutch of similarly abandoned cars, and brought me down a steep, wooded slope to the boat.
It was called the Brick Bat IV, presumably because the owner was a brick magnate who’d had at least three boats before. Outside, it was polished and white, like a newly-purchased bathtub; inside, it was a reliquary for the 1970s, with wood paneling, the smell of petrol, and a floral sofa whose pattern I cannot help but see in the unfortunate and (allegedly) comfortable dresses of women past a certain age. I’d been aboard before often enough; some of the most powerful memories of my childhood were aboard; but, for the next few days, I would share a few hundred feet of space with my parents, my grandparents, and one of my brothers (whom I was utterly afraid of).
The storm wouldn’t hit for the better part of a day, and so we had little else to do but sit around, playing cards or watching a handful of tapes rented from Blockbuster–Hercules for me, but also Clara’s Heart and Titanic, which I watched in rapt quiet with my mother, feeling more and more adult.
In the evening, I sat out on the back of the boat where my father and grandfather took turns trying to outsmoke one another: my father the lean, permanently sunburnt picture of tension, my grandfather the big-smiling, quick-joking mutt whose only definitive background was poverty. They were captains, both of them: Paw Paw had been one of the people to bring charter fishing to the Gulf Coast. He had never shown me anything but gauzy, diffuse kindness, calling me sport and taking me with him as he dredged up his crab traps around the local marina.
But then, even then, I wouldn’t touch or hug him, because his skin terrified me: it was the color of dark clay, spotted and stretched and yet also simultaneous loose. I could see every vein and knuckle, yes, but also the way it flapped at every joint and socket. Everyone else in my family could remember him as life incarnate, as the kind of man who could tickle the moon out of the sky or scold a fire for burning too hot. They knew him as someone big and boisterous and brilliant, but all I’d ever known–all I’d ever get to know, to whatever pathetic attempt I really did–was a man who spent almost two decades dying.
If we all spent time on the back deck during Georges, it was for fear of (or exhaustion caused by) Maw Maw, who was gray, permed, and reedy, with a sharp voice full of blunt words. Effortlessly exacting, my grandmother was the source of my family’s stubborn nature, one of the few traits we all share in common and probably the least conducive to spending nearly a week cooped up in five hundred square feet of livable space. Paw Paw, I was afraid of; Maw Maw, on the other hand, I just plain didn’t like, though she never turned her trademark galeforce honesty on me–instead, it was usually my aunt, brothers, cousins who were told just how fat they’d become.
If we all gave her a wide berth, it was for her comfort as much as ours, but when the wind picked up and the water started lashing at the boat, none of us could do much more than hunker down. My brother–at the time a mean spirited, prickly young man with mom’s willful nature and a double dose of dad’s anxiety–sat down with me at the booth in the kitchen and taught me Blackjack, to this day my game of choice in a way that only a first can ever be. We watched our movies and watched them again, for lack of an antenna. We listened to the radio or sat in the last muggy evenings of that summer, waiting for everything to clear.
In the end, it was less the storm itself and more the rivers that gave us trouble: nearly ten feet of surge and more than two feet of rainfall swelled the Tchoutacabouffa. When it settled, I could see the dark rings of dampness on the trees and hillside where Hurricane Hole had filled like a bowl. Mom helped me off the yacht; dad stayed behind to pilot it back to port. Home was as we’d left it, and school went back into session that Monday.
It was my first real storm, more an inconvenience than a revelation. In memory, though, it was the longest time I’d ever spent with my parents and grandparents in one place; the next time we would all live under one roof would be my grandfather’s long, lingering journey through hospice. Nothing had changed, but I felt different in a way that I couldn’t arrange into words: the feeling of fake wisdom a child gets after a very minor catastrophe.