9/13/2008

Remembrances of Hurricanes Past


While watching the endless looping feeds of weather reports on cable television this rainy September day, GFT regaled her family with "tales of hurricanes past". She is the only member of her little nuclear brood to have actually lived near the coast long enough to have experienced first hand a real hurricane. The hubster lived in Houston for five years, from 1978-1983, and only remembers one particularly bad series of tropical storms, (in the fall, around 1981 or so ) , several storms in a row, that flooded the Rice University campus to the point where students were using kayaks to navigate the campus road that goes from Weiss to Baker to Cohen House, past Lovett Hall and the Virgin's Walk, on to Chem Lecture, the old Archi bldg, the RMC, etc. That storm doesn't really count, as the devastation was negligible. Just a lot of rain.
*
One summer, 1980, there was a real hurricane - I can't remember its name, Allen maybe. It was the only summer I wasn't off riding motorcycles through Greece, natch, but was dutifully taking summer classes and working several minimum wage jobs simultaneously, in order to be able to make rent on a ratty 1 room apt I shared with two other people. Hubster was safely back in Va , being a Yankee transplant and all, but I was living in a moldy tenement in Montrose that I shared with my girlfriends Viv and Spud. We were all in a panic with the impending arrival of a hurricane - we were only 19 years old - so we put ALL of our belongings in giant sealed up trash bags, stored them on the tops of all the tall furniture, and fled to Dallas ahead of the storm, along with 2.5 million other people. The highway heading north was a parking lot , and we almost ran out of gas - until we got the bright idea to swerve over to College Station and visit one of my roomie's brothers at Texas A & M for the weekend. It turned out this particular hurricane was a bust - it turned and went somewhere else at the last minute- and we all went back "home" and took our stereos, clothing, shoes, and books out of the garbage bags and breathed a sigh of relief.
*
I lived in Houston from 1979-1991, however, and got another opportunity to experience a hurricane first hand : I lived through 1983's Hurricane Alicia, a category 3 storm when it made landfall centered near Galveston and Baytown, Tx - about 27 miles east of Houston. At the time, fresh out of college, I was living in a cluster of new apartment complexes located between the Astrodome and the Texas Medical Center. (The almost daily events at the Astrodome constantly blared loud trashy music across its vast no-man's-land of parking lots and right into my bedroom windows.) My apartment complex was called Scotland Yard (supposedly due to its high-tech security system, which consisted solely of one driveway gate that any keyless idiot could walk, ride a bike, or drive through any time they wanted, simply by waiting for someone with a key to drive through, then scooting in quickly behind them- residents used to joke that a better name for this place would have been "Scoot-on-in Yard"), which catered to medical students, interns, nurses, all the members of the gay community who could not be accommodated in nearby Montrose, flight attendants, museum curators, insurance salesmen, and random other 20 to 30 year old yupsters who worked in downtown Houston. Scotland Yard looked much like the soul-less apartment complex that the hero in "Office Space" lives in : 2 stories, exterior stairs, everyone has a patio balcony. Pool in the middle of the courtyard. All walls white, all carpets beige. Cars parked in numbered spots out in front of each stairwell. There were several other apt complexes nearby, all just the same, clustered together. Full of clueless souls too ignorant to heed hurricane warnings to get the heck out of town.
*
I was working at my first post-college job, which was sales manager trainee for Proctor & Gamble - yes ! The giant consumer goods company that makes everything from Folgers to Pampers to Crisco ( we used to joke that all their product names had two syllables and/or began with the letter "C") to Coast to Crest to Tide ( lots of images of the sea in their marketing, as well ) ......It was a particularly heinous aspect of this job that the corporate culture believed that in order to manage its people, you had to work a stint in every position, no matter how lowly , so you could experience the conditions the average Joe faced each day. I was starting at the bottom , as a regional sales rep, and given a territory that started in the middle of Houston and moved outwards in a pie-shaped wedge that went all the way to Baytown, Orange, and Vidor ( home of the largest KKK rally in Texas) in the east, and Huntsville in the north. My boss wanted me to live in my sales district, and kept pushing me to move to Conroe or the Woodlands. (Those places, in an odd example of real life foreshadowing, gave me the heebie-jeebies.....visions of the Stepford Wives.....and proved to be oddly prescient, as my first marriage spiraled to its disastrous conclusion while I was living in a similarly grim apartment in the Woodlands, nearly 10 years later.) I was a swinging yupster back in the day, fond of the seamy downtown life of sushi bars and gay disco-tecs, and living in suburbia scared me. Still does......but I digress. So in spite of my boss' urgings, I stayed in my little downtown enclave near the Texas Medical Center.
*
As Hurricane Alicia drew closer and closer in the summer of 1983, my young foolish friends and I ignored warnings to leave and planned instead to hunker down in our apartments for the duration. Perhaps we all remembered the hurricane that "wasn't" of a few years earlier. Perhaps we were just stupid. I spent most of the time beforehand, when I should have been buying bottled water and boarding up windows, hoping that maybe something like an impending hurricane would mean I'd get a day off work - the sudden reality of the Mon-Fri 9-5 life was just beginning to wear me down. The night before the storm was scheduled to arrive, I got a laughing drunken hysterical phone call from a bunch of my gay friends who lived across the apt complex, calling to invite me to a "hurricane party". They had decided that since we were bound to have power outages and all the food in their fridge and freezer would quickly spoil, they were "cookin' it up now and making hurricanes in the blender and inviting' everyone one we know to come help us eat it all ! " I went and had a blast and had a few too many hurricanes-the drink, that is.
*
The next morning, the day the hurricane arrived, it was raining hard when I awoke. I called in to work to find out that yes, just this once, we had the day off. I made coffee, curled up in an armchair and started to read the paper which had miraculously been delivered to my doorstep("neither rain nor sleet nor snow nor dead of night" - oh, wait, that's the postman) , watch the news and weather reports on tv - but the power went off by mid-morning. I had a little portable tv that you could plug into the cigarette lighter of your car, so I went out into my car periodically , turned the engine on, and watched the weather reports. I didn't stay long because I didn't want to use up all my gasoline. Going back and forth from apt to car got me completely drenched each time. I tried reading, but the apt was dark - no lights . I opened the blinds but the sky was dark , and got restless after awhile. The hours passed. I looked out the window and watched the rain falling, you could see it come in sheets, at a 45 degree angle. A neighbor across the courtyard, a beefy white man with bleached blond hair whom I had long suspected of being a drug dealer b/c he had no discernible job, and was always out on his balcony talking on his phone at all hours of the day or night, he also had no furniture in his apartment, not a single piece- was out on his balcony, talking on his phone, even in the rain. Even though the driving gales were sending rain onto the covered balconies till the cheap plastic chairs people kept there blew off into the courtyard below. They were all bobbing merrily in the pool, like toy sailboats. I listened to a battery powered radio I had. Fortunately, the phones still worked.
*
Around noon, one of my friends who lived in the apt complex across the street called, saying the eye of the storm was about to pass over us. This meant we had an approximate 45 minute period of calm - no rain, no winds . My friend proposed we drive around and look for some restaurant still open, since neither of us had electricity to cook up a hot meal. Being only 22 years old and stupid, I thought this was a good idea. We got in his car and off we went.
*
Navigating through the city streets was like trying to drive through a war zone. The streets that weren't flooded were littered with debris of all sorts -odd bits of lumber, downed street lights, giant tree branches, various electrical wires from traffic lights that were still sparking, trash of all sorts, broken patio furniture and lawn decor, portions of signs that had blown down, broken glass from windows, pieces of roofs, assorted unidentifiable building parts , cars flipped over - the usual post disaster impedimenta. My friend was driving a mustang with one of those sporty dueling roof window things , and we opened them up to see better, and zipped around all the trash that was on the roads , quickly driving up and down, all over the place, looking for some sign of life. Pretty much everything was closed. The skies remained an ominous gray tinged with yellowish green but for the moment, the storm had stopped. We decided to head towards the canyons of downtown, about 10 minutes away, and soon were driving between the towering sky-scrapers that were eerily dark in the middle of the day. A gust of wind suddenly blew and a giant pane of glass came tumbling out of the sky, to crash on the street abut 20 feet away. Pieces of glass flew at us. (Fortunately, it was safety glass, or we would have been serious hurt.) Realizing that if one of those huge sheets of sky-scraper glass were to actually hit us, we'd be beheaded, we quickly turned around and drove home. The rain was just starting up again as we pulled into the "Scoot-on-In Yard" gates.
*
I passed the rest of the day and night at home in my apartment, eating sandwiches and watching the drug dealer talk on his phone across the courtyard. My apt building had a few roof sections blown off, but basically we were ok. The next morning, I called in to work to find that yes, we were expected to go to work today. The storm was over. I got dressed, got into my company car, and headed out towards Baytown, figuring at least as I made my sales calls ( which always seemed to me an extravagant waste of money, as the "sales rep"position never involved actually selling anything, but seemed to involve checking store shelf sets to make sure that product placement was allocated based on market share, and if it wasn't, convincing the store manager to reset it......that was the "selling" part, I guess.), I'd get to see cool stuff that was damaged from the storm.
*
As I pulled into town and my first stop, I rolled into the parking lot. The grocery store - a large sprawling suburban building - was gone. Completely gone. All the shelves, and all the merchandise, were still there, oddly, neatly in rows - but the walls, windows, and roof of the building were gone. Just shelves, with groceries on them, in the middle of a giant parking lot. No other cars. No sign needed to say " closed". In a field nearby, some giant oak trees that must have been 100-200 years old were completely upended and lying on their sides. They weren't broken, but pulled from the ground, roots and all. The trees lay in a field, each of them with their huge canopy of branches and leaves at one end, equally huge canopy of roots at the other end. Like some monster's barbells that had been set down in the middle of a weight lifting session. The holes they came out of were nearby, full of murky water. I drove to my next client - this building, too , was a shambles. And on and on it went - very little was left standing. Filled out my sales report and went home.
*
The next day, the power was still off for most of Houston ( day 3 of no electricity) and the many suburban cities on the eastern side, and I was getting tired of eating cold sandwiches and running out of bottled water. So I headed for the northern portion of my sales district, towards Hunstville, mostly so I could buy groceries and gas and and eat a hot meal while at work, at least. Life was fairly normal here. I stocked up after completing my sales calls before heading home. I don't remember now how long it took for life to be restored to normal in Houston, but I think it was a few days. I seem to recall it was almost a year before all the buildings in the Baytown area were back to normal. And that was my experience of a category 3 hurricane - a relatively mild one, as they go.

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