Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Plywood and Other Preparations

I wasn't here when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. I was in the bucolic mountains of Burlington, Vermont, at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. I'd gone to sort out my troubled relationship with writing, and for ten days I managed to be convinced by the intensity of the event, the beauty of the setting, and the isolation from, well, everything outside of it, that sorting out my on-again, off-again affair with writing was The Most Important Thing in my life at the time.
Clearly things changed.

I can't remember now if it was Saturday or Sunday when I got a little pink slip in my Bread Loaf mailbox directing me to call Simon. I remember worrying that something had happened--maybe to my parents, maybe to his--and feeling actually relieved when he told me it was a hurricane evacuation, instead. I'd been through two of those (Georges in 1998 and Ivan in 2004). Both were a hassle, but in the end, actually kind of fun. A hurricane evacuation, I thought (relieved), I could handle.

But when I went to the basement of one of the Bread Loaf campus's buildings to check my email, I read the doomsday reports. I saw the projections. I eyed the storm's forecast cone, by then menacingly focused on New Orleans.

And then I got all quiet and stunned. While the rest of the Loafers celebrated the conference's end (the resident poet pressing himself to young admirers at the final night's dance, the basement boys having their frat-like farewell kegger), I wandered around in a daze, saying, "What the fuck" to anyone who would listen.

I spent the final afternoon--the one when some of my friends headed to a swimming hole for a dip--on the phone with a representative from Delta. My flight to New Orleans was cancelled. I would have to fly to Atlanta, where Simon would meet me with a truck full of cat carriers and file-boxes, with my dad's hand-me-down guitar and Simon's shell-shocked brother, who'd been in town for his vacation.

Because I was already in what I can only describe as an alternate universe--this pretty-fied place that seemed to me to be a postcard come to life--none of it really felt real, somehow. Maybe it was because I had no access to radio or TV that I couldn't quite believe what was happening (ordinarily, I'd be glued to every forecast from a storm's birth, eight days out). I don't know. I just remember that I didn't really feel like it WAS happening until I got to some airport (was it O'Hare?) and ordered an egg-and-cheese biscuit and sat down in front of CNN. When I saw the images of the evacuation--of the miles and miles of cars and cars, none of them really moving, of the people boarding up and spray painting their dares on the plywood (Go Home Katrina!), of the many Weather Channel correspondents who'd stationed themselves around the city--I started to cry. I remember everyone was watching the TV, and everyone looked worried. I was really afraid.

This weekend, when Fay's remnants mussed our hair as we stood with friends outside Lucy's Retired Surfer Bar, celebrating the publication of our dear friend Bill Loehfelm's novel, a few of us talked about that time. We're close to three years out, now, and of course those milestones bring the memories out, big time. Even though we all know it, know it, it still seems surreal, even now. We were zombies, all of us, in those days. Or robots. We were going through it because we had to, but none of us processed it in our hearts until it really punched us at some odd point, typically one that occurred in front of a TV.

It's the TV, now, that has me worried. That and a post from the Weather Underground blog of Jeff Masters:

"The track forecast for GustavThe models are in good agreement on the 1-3 day track of Gustav, and we can be confident that Gustav will turn west and pass south of Cuba after a close encounter with the southwest peninsula of Haiti. The trough of low pressure currently exiting the U.S. East Coast and pulling Gustav northwest is expected to move off to the east, allowing a ridge of high pressure to build in and force Gustav due west or slightly south of due west. After three days, there is more divergence in the models. The ECMWF and NOGAPS models foresee a landfall in the Cancun/Cozumel region on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, followed by a second Mexican landfall south of Brownsville, Texas, early next week. This solution assumes the trough of low pressure moving across the Midwest U.S. late this week will not be strong enough to turn Gustav to the north. The other models predict that this trough will be strong enough to turn Gustav northward, and foresee a landfall on the Gulf Coast between the Florida Panhandle and Texas border 6-8 days from now. The GFDL is the fastest, bringing Gustav to New Orleans on Sunday afternoon. This is a plausible forecast, but at this point, virtually any point along the Gulf Coast has a roughly equal chance of a direct hit by Gustav.Which set of model should we trust? I plotted up the errors for some of the computer model forecasts made during Fay. While Fay was over Hispaniola and Cuba, the GFDL model made the best track forecasts, among the four main models used by NHC: GFS, GFDL, NOGAPS, and UKMET. This makes me more inclined to trust the GFDL model's forecasts for Gustav, since Fay and Gustav are similar storms."

Yesterday, when I first read about the storm--when it first got its name--I checked out some comments on Nola.com. They made me feel ill. (Mom, don't read them.)

I am going out to gas up the cars. This afternoon we will get plywood.

In terms of steeling myself for what may happen... for preparing myself mentally for the possibility that Gustav could be yet another "big one" for New Orleans? I just can't go there. We just moved in to our new home!

Nope. Not going there.
I will say that I could really go for being someplace pretty and isolated from everything. And I could go for not having to deal with an evacuation.

Mom, your prayers would be good right now...

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