Before, during and after a hurricane- a vicarious experience
"WHAT were you THINKING? You stayed during the hurricane?!"
Yes- my family are those people. We tend to stay for the smaller hurricanes, and there are those who think we're nuts.
But we've noticed something else, too...once it's over, those same people tend to ask what it was like.
I documented going through Hurricane Isaac, which was a pretty small storm but still caused a great deal of damage outside of the flood protection system. It was very slow moving and dumped a ton of rain on already saturated ground, creating huge problems in some rural areas, but here in the city things were fine.
Well, fine in storm terms: no power for nearly a week, lots of heat, and lots of discarded food. Nothing unexpected, but I'm putting this page together to show what it's like to weather "a" storm- not "this" storm in particular, but in general, on a day-by-day basis.
The purpose of this page is not to convince anyone to stay and not evacuate or indicate they should do anything unsafe. We certainly never stay unless we're confident we'll be fine. We have evacuated before and will again, as dictated by a storm's particulars.
However, not every storm requires evacuation, and this page is meant to show people who've never experienced it what it's like.
Weather maps included are National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration images and are publicly available. The other images and videos (other than the Cantore commentary) were taken by me around my house and neighborhood.
The countdown begins: Hurricane minus 7
A week before landfall
This is a conversation that’s happened no fewer than four times in the last decade:
I sigh, pushing away from my desk and heading into my husband’s office.
“Charlie, are you going away next week?”
“Yeah, why?” he asks, suspicious.
“It’s August, so…?”
“You know it,” I answer, dreading what comes next.
It never fails. If you want to know whether a storm that’s developing in the Gulf of Mexico is going to become a hurricane and head toward shore, just drop me a line. As far as I can tell, my husband is the absolute Oracle here- if he has to go away on business, a storm will come. Bet on it.
A week out no one’s really sure where a storm’s going to go, how strong it’ll be, or what the timeline is. “Be vigilant,” says the news. “Plan ahead,” they say. For what, though? A strong breeze? A complete miss? A monster storm?
Well, at least I have a leg up on most people. Thanks to the miracle of my husband’schedule while others are wondering if a storm is coming our way, I can start working, knowing it’s only a matter of when.
5 Days to Go
Still a lot of wobble in the "cone of uncertainty"
A couple of days have passed, and things are starting to get firmed up. The prognosticators have a general idea of where it’s headed (give or take 500 miles) and when (soonish) but not necessarily how strong it’ll be. They’re starting to make guesses based on how warm the water is in the Gulf of Mexico and the cross currents, but no one’s quite sure.
It’s around this point that people start to talk about the storm like a person, complete with personality and cognition:
“Whatcha doin’ this weekend?”
“Depends on when Isaac gets it together and decides what he’s doing…”
The other conversations are of the “might as well” variety: “if you’re going to the grocery, might as well pick up a case of water.” “Headed to the hardware store? Grab some D-cells, okay? Can’t hurt.”
Everybody’s calm. Nobody’s worried…but they are watching.
3 Days to Landfall
Final decision time draws near
Now food shopping begins in earnest, although if you looked in a random cart you’d be more likely to think the person was prepping for a BBQ than a storm: cookies, crackers, chips and dips. Water, soda, and juices generally classified as “mixers.” Paper plates, plastic cups. Grillable meats and canned tuna. Anything that’ll keep the kids happy and the bickering at a minimum. Don’t forget to restock the bar.
Those who’ve decided to evacuate are packing and will try to get out in the next 12 hours or so, thinking they’ll be ahead of everyone else. Unfortunately, lots of other people have the same idea and they’ll be sitting in traffic for hours upon hours, especially if the state patrols haven’t set up “contraflow-” where both inbound and outbound highway lanes are set to all flow in one direction: getting outta Dodge.
Luckily we have a “shelter in place” alert, and the “spaghetti maps” show Isaac landing anywhere in a 700 mile range. we’re not sure what to expect, but we’re getting ready, just in case.
Making the decision to stay or go
Local officials will start going on the air a couple of days before landfall, giving their take and providing information about buses and shelters and giving one of these three options:
- If it’s a category 1 or 2 they typically say to “shelter in place,” but throw in lots of caveats. Translation: “we’re pretty sure everything’s going to be fine, but let’s face it, stuff happens…and it just might happen to you.” Fair enough.
- “Consider evacuating.” Translation: “We really don’t know what to think or how strong it’ll be, but maybe better safe than sorry.”
- “Get out.”A mandatory evacuation of New Orleans has only been called twice, with much higher compliance rates than people realize:
- About 85% of the city left for Katrina despite 27% of city households being without transportation. Additionally, the inept mayor called for evac only 24 hours before the storm.
- For Gustav there were an estimated only 10,000 people left in the city (including police and emergency personnel) out of 350,000.
Make no mistake: when it’s time to go, we do.
48 Hours to Go
The world takes notice
The phone starts ringing: relatives from far and wide have seen the Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore acting like he’s waiting for Noah and his arc to go floating by. CNN is running stories with snazzy headlines like “More devastation in the Gulf?” The national press is predicting death and destruction.
And the question from friends and relations is always the same: “Are you sure you want to stay? Really?”
Trying to explain how hyped it is only leads to dubious silence on the other end of the line.
My intention was to find a video of Cantore doing his “whoa! It’s sooooo bad out here” act and make fun of it, but this is even better.
This gentleman is 100% correct. I was here: trust me, it wasn’t all that. Isaac was rain and rain and more rain. Wind, sure, but not “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto” kind of wind.
The problem is that friends and family are seeing this, believing it & thinking we’re nuts.
H minus 1
Time for last minute prep: boarding the windows if needed, final purchases, double and triple checking everything before going out to take a look around, making sure neighbors are where they need to be or if they need a hand.
That done, take a walk or even a drive, see where things stand.
There’s definitely a calm before the storm, and by the end of the day you’re in it. Time for a cocktail, a last listen to the weather, and to enjoy the air conditioning for as long as the power holds.
The wind is starting to kick up about 8 hours before landfall while we sat outside and watched it come on.
What a difference an hour makes- as the sun goes down you can see the clouds starting to race across the sky.
Thanks to our state of the art (note sarcasm) power grid, we generally know the storm’s coming when the power goes out…which it does before anything gets serious. Every time.
Normally the worst of the storm can go for about 12 hours at most before things start to settle down. During that time, things are eerie. The wind moans and rain beats against the house while you strain to hear anything above it- cracking branches, shingles ripping away, exploding transformers.
Regardless of the storm’s hour, it’s dark- and it’s never dark in New Orleans. We have very low skies, resulting in “light pollution-” electric lights reflect on the clouds and bounce back down into the city. Even on the darkest nights we can only see the very brightest stars because they can’t compete with the ambient light of the city.
Which makes the black skies stark and foreign feeling. When there is any light, you can see the clouds racing overhead,driven by the winds.
Nothing to do but wait.
Even with a small storm, you never can tell...
Even though Isaac was barely a hurricane by the time it got to us, it just didn’t want to move on. This video is a full day after it landed. You can see there’s no real damage- some small branches on the ground, big leaves & oleander ripped up, but that’s about it.
Still, the real problem here is that the power crews can’t go out and work until the winds are consistently below 30mph, and the big oak tree down the street shows that it’s still gusty.
The good thing is that at least at this point the wind was keeping things cool, helped by the fact that our house has wide front and back porches so we were able to open doors and get a good breeze through.
The day after the storm
As soon as things calm down, you hear your neighbors coming out, hollering and hooting in celebration of weathering the storm. Somebody’s always forgotten to pick something up at the store, and so you share what you have. The kids are going stir crazy, but can’t come out until the adults have made sure there are no live wires anywhere, nothing dangerous they can hurt themselves on.
Then a careful check of the property: roof, windows, yard, siding. Maybe go sit in the car for awhile to charge the phone, listen to the radio, hear how everybody else made out and keep your fingers crossed that everything’s generally okay.
An enterprising neighbor with a chainsaw cleans up the worst of the mess, and the adults start marshalling the debris while the little ones, finally let loose, work out their energy.
Even when you knew it wasn’t going to be a big storm, you still understood that something could go wrong, and there’s joy, a feeling of being lucky and alive and in the moment.
The first 24 hours or so after the storm are like that, but it’s helped by the weather, which is glorious. The storm pulled out and took the heat with it. It’s warm but not uncomfortable, and it still feels like an adventure.
Hurricane days 2/3/4...
Okay, let's get this over with now...
Once it’s over, you’d like your power back. NOW, for preference, but that’s not going to happen. The first 24 hours, everybody’s happy, everybody’s patient, but that doesn’t last.
Your carefully packed ice is disappearing and you’re looking at losing your entire food supply.
The heat is suddenly miserable, and the breeze is totally gone.
All of your electronics are dead, and you’ve taken to sitting in the car for both the recharge and the A/C.
On the radio, people are starting to complain that they haven’t seen a single power truck anywhere- what gives?
Oh, and the bugs- about 48 hours after a storm, the flies and mosquitoes are swarming.
Then- miracle!- the power comes back on! Huzzah! But then it goes right back out…
Eventually, it returns for good, and things get back to normal.
You forget the heat, you remember the friends. You remember it surprisingly fondly…and yet hope to not have to do it again for a good long time.
If you’d like a more in depth look at what it’s like right after a hurricane, you can visit this article at my blog.