Attempted Survival

A major hurricane, Ida, is poised to slam into the Gulf Coast today, somewhere in the neighborhood of New Orleans. Fierce winds of 145 miles per hour or more and a monstrous storm surge, coupled with power outages and crippled public emergency services, could make August 29, 2021 an infamous day for parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Unlike in years in the distant past, when my attention was riveted on Nature’s cataclysmic climatic abilities,  my focus this year and in recent years has been on other things: Afghanistan. The global COVID-19 pandemic. Physically moving my IC into my house. Avoiding news of humankind’s astonishing race toward extinction. But, in spite of the distractions, I cannot help but listen for news about the impending calamity. I know, firsthand, how awful hurricanes can be. And I have had a taste of the ghastly aftermath of a powerful hurricane. Though my experience did not approach the level of horror that many have experienced during and after hurricanes, it was enough to make me dread such storms. I experience vicarious fear of a hurricane, on behalf of potential victims, when I learn of an impending strike.

Hurricane Celia attacked Corpus Christi on the afternoon of August 3, 1970. Before the storm was finished with the town on the Texas coast, about a third of the homes in the city were either destroyed or sustained severe damage. Sustained winds of 145 miles per hour and gusts in Corpus Christi of up to 160-180 miles per hour did remarkable amounts of damage.

My parents’ house, where—as a high school student at the time—I lived, was among those destroyed by the hurricane. My mother, father, my late sister, and one of my brothers were at home when the house began to disintegrate. First, the roof of the front porch collapsed. Then, the wind tore off the central part of the roof of the house. As all of us took shelter in a hallway, the fierce winds forced the pull-down attic stairway onto us, striking my sister in the head; she was not badly injured, but all of us were badly shaken by the experience. Window glass broke and several windows flew out of their casings. Cars in the driveway sustained damage as limbs were ripped from the trunks of big mesquite trees and plunged into their rear windows.

By the time the worst of the storm’s second wind had calmed (after the eye passed over us), my parents’ home was a total loss. Mimeograph sheets (my mother was a school teacher; mimeograph sheets constituted part of her arsenal of teaching aids) left their purple scars on furniture, walls, and flooring; the wind and rain that swirled throughout the house after the roof blew off scattered debris all over the house.  I discovered, during the storm’s fury, that I was not calm in the face of danger. I panicked and screamed in fear as my father left the “safety” of the hallway to explore damage to the house even before the hurricane’s winds subsided.

When my parents thought it safe, we went searching for a place to stay for the night. We were refused entry to an elementary school, where a janitor had opened the doors to permit his family and neighbors and friends to seek shelter. We found a Methodist church open and willing to let us in. A troop of Boy Scouts, who had been camping on Padre Island when the hurricane took aim at the coast, was there before us. My mother had brought a coffee pot and coffee with her when we left the house. My memory tells me that the Scouts’ leaders initially refused to let her have water for coffee, because water might be needed later simply to drink. I do not recall whether they ever allowed her the water; I recall only that I lost all respect for the Boy Scouts organization that night.

My memory of the days after the storm is fuzzy, at best. I stayed, initially, with friends of friends, I think. My brother stayed at the ruined house for a night or two after we discovered that, in our absence, someone had stolen some of our belongings. My parents were given shelter for a few nights by neighbors down the street, people who until that time we had not known. That’s what my memory tells me. It may be deceiving me, though.  But I recall, vaguely, that people tried to take advantage of the fact that power was out for most, if not all, of the city for up to weeks after the storm. They sold water and ice for exorbitant prices until the authorities confiscated their products and gave them away). The few rooms available in hotels and motels were, I think, priced sky-high. The worst of humanity showed its face during the aftermath of the storm. But the best shown through, as well. A lot of meat from now-powerless freezers was thawed and grilled; whole neighborhoods shared in that bounty. People readily offered strangers places to stay and food to eat. But it was a mixed bag, of course. And I remember the stress I felt. The stress on my parents must have been a thousand-fold worse.

Not long after the storm, my father returned to work with a vengeance. He was a lumber wholesaler, buying lumber from sawmills and selling to lumberyards. He traveled throughout the Coastal Bend (as that part of the Texas coast was (and may still be) called, helping lumberyards stock the massive amounts of lumber products that would be needed in the rebuilding efforts. I do not know just how many flat tires his car had as he drove all through the Coastal Bend and down into the Rio Grande Valley, but I remember the number was significant; lots of debris from destroyed buildings littered the roadways. All the while, my parents had to deal with finding a place for us to live, which they did (a man who owned rental houses nearby provided a place for us not long after the storm). And they had to deal with collecting insurance on their destroyed home and contracting for building a replacement on the spot where the old house had stood. My father and brothers took the ruined old house apart, piece by piece, and sold its carcass. Then, my father served as his own contractor for the new house. I have no reliable recollection as to how long we stayed in the rental house or when the new house was finished. I may have already left for college by the time it was ready for occupancy; I just do not recall. I guess the trauma of the time effectively erased my memories of that large swath of my high-school years.

Hearing of the impending devastation that a powerful hurricane like Ida is going to wreak brings back those fractured memories of my experience with a powerful hurricane. And it makes me prepare myself to make donations to help some unfortunate people recover from an event that truly will be life-changing for them. I await news of death and destruction; of devastation so overwhelming that seasoned reporters and news anchors may be unable to control their emotions while reporting on the catastrophe. But maybe the storm will not be as bad as hurricane meteorologists predict. When murderous hurricanes like Ida threaten, I hope the expert storm prognosticators are wrong.


Today, my IC and I will continue our efforts to move the remnants of her belongings to my house. The movers came yesterday. leaving my house full of furniture, some of which we simply do not know where to put. And there’s still more “stuff” to retrieve: kitchen utensils and pots and pans and baking dishes and on and on and on. Plus more clothes and shoes. And blankets and a thousand “little” things. It shall be down. But the tasks at hand will require us to miss Music on Barcelona at the church today. I sometimes loathe moving, even when the move promises to bring happiness that will grow and thrive.

Onward to face the day and construct a future.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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One Response to Attempted Survival

  1. davidlegan says:

    My first crash off of a racing motorcycle, in a motorcycle race, was a relatively “soft” one. At a modest speed, certainly under 100mph, I lost the front end and instantly met the asphalt. I was not hurt…or even shaken. But I was shocked that THE RACE CONTINUED. Only for a moment, lying in the Texas weeds alongside the track, I watched as racer after racer simply passed by.

    I think that’s a crude representation of what will happen tonight and in coming weeks in the Hurricane Ida damage path. You and I will continue with our daily duties as a couple of million folks reassemble their lives. They lie in the weeds wondering what happened…we keep racing. That’s life, until it isn’t.

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