A Tale of Two Hurricanes (or 3... we'll see)


May 21, 2020
Be ye warned, dear reader…. LONG AND PIC HEAVY POST!!!!!

I have lived on the gulf coast for my entire life. Hurricanes coming in typically bring with them big pots of gumbo on a stove and some kind of indoor party to pass the time until we can step out and collect our misplaced patio furniture. But every once in a great while a real, life- altering storm makes its way toward us. 2020 was one of these years. Twice.

The morning of August 24th dawned on a tropical storm skating across Cuba and approaching the Yucatan Peninsula. We continued on to work and watched casually. The spaghetti models still looked like they were hastily dropped on a plate, so we were only mildly cautious at that point. The day progressed like any other and by quitting time were still seeing the typical “Yucatan wobble” (any time they hit a land mass their projected path will dance all over the place). By 8 pm we were under a hurricane watch. The forecast called for a Cat2/3… no big deal. Time to get my pots and roux ready. Mandatory coastal evacuations began and still we did not worry.

We started tying down things that evening and making a tentative plan in case she continued strengthening. (Go north) The forecast showed her struggling to make a 3. “Sweet. She’ll fizzle pretty quickly when she hits land.” But, deep in my gut there was a sense of dread growing. Something about the air wasn’t right. We decided to go ahead and prepare to load up our chooks.... all 42 of them. We took their tractor and cages, feed cans and water jugs, and screwed them down on our 16’ foot trailer. The only one we didn’t load was our “Birdy Beach House” It was bulky and wayyyy too heavy so we tucked it up again one of the sheds. The plan was to put our girls and leghorn rooster (Floyd) into the tractor with the meat birds if we did indeed leave. As we prepared to call it a night I had the kiddos gather some clothes and toiletries, just in case.

By the next morning things with Laura had begun to look more organized. Her winds jumped through the categories more rapidly than anyone expected, and boy was she moving! (17 mph is all but blazing fast for a hurricane) By noon the mandatory evacuations were announced for our parish. We were going to get wet, without a doubt. As we left our boarded up office and waited at the light it felt surreal. The northbound lane at the intersection was one of the only ways up from Cameron and Hackberry. For as far as you could see there were nothing but trucks with campers behind them. Our area has been inundated for several years now with traveling craftsmen; the bulk of them are here from Texas. They filed through the light in an organized funeral-like procession that day. The deceptive sun was still gleaming off the top of their brand new fifth wheels. I thought to myself “Thank God they’re listening. There’s nowhere to hide down there.”

As our light turned green a southbound ambulance was coming to a stop at the same intersection. Their lights were on, but no sirens wailed. Their faces were so young, but the weight of the situation was clearly chiseled across their brows for all to see. “It’s an emergency medical evacuation request. I hope they don’t have far to go for this one. They’ll be hours just trying to get back to Sulphur in this traffic.”

We took every side and back road we knew to get across the city in reasonable time. On every stretch the boards were going up. Some of them were brand new pieces. Homeowners were feverishly cutting them to fit. Others were neatly numbered to correspond to the window they belonged over. Emblazoned in crimson across these were years and names; every major storm the homes had weathered. Harvey, 2017, Gustav, 2008, Ike, 2008, Rita, 2005, Lilly, 2002, Andrew, 1992……. Audrey, 1957. These were badges of pride. These homes were warriors locked in a battle against nature and each addition of a storm’s name only enhanced their stature.

The people hanging these weathered makeshift shutters spanned across the decades too. From the young first-time homeowners to the frail elderly men who took more time to steady themselves on the ladders than it took for them to rope the pre-existing holes with new screws, all were working feverishly to finish before the outer bands of rain made it to us.

We made it home in decent enough time and began the last of our preparations. As we stacked the last of the jugs in a circle wrapped with visquine to make a makeshift water reservoir the kiddos started to bicker and fight. Up to that point I had kept everything casual around them, but this was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. “Would you two quit fighting over something this simple?!?! WE ARE PROBABLY NOT GOING TO HAVE A HOME BY THIS TIME TOMORROW!!!” They both froze for a moment. The oldest asked me, “Is it really that bad momma?” “Yes baby, it is. She has been upgraded to a high category 3.” I watched their demeanor change as the number left my lips. The oldest is 13 so the gravity of the situation was understood, but the youngest was still 7. This was all new territory. My baby dropped the water hose and gave me a hug. “I’m sorry for fighting momma. Is there anything else we can do to help?” My sweet, precious babies. The level of maturity that came from them the rest of the afternoon was well beyond their years. As night fell the decision was made to spend one more night in the comfort of our beds. Who knew if we’d ever see another night’s rest on them?

The 26th dawned on her sucking up all of the warm water and exponentially increasing in size. We prayed for wind shear, but none would come. As we loaded our last bags into the truck and shut off the main breakers to the house the outer bands arrived with a steady mist. The clouds were low and screaming across the sky at breakneck speeds. Ground level winds swirled from all directions, but mostly out of the north. Everything felt so heavy and ominous. One last pass through the house to take everything in. Would anything be here tomorrow? We all worked together to tie down the tarp over all the chooks and our big dog’s kennel and headed out on a nearly empty highway. The only traffic running with us all were a few other livestock trailers (the ranchers bringing the cattle they could find up to other ranches out of the flood prone areas) and a couple of guys headed home to hunker down. We stopped in Deridder at the Walmart to grab a couple last second supplies. I stayed out with the critters and the truck while the hubby went in to brave the panic crowd. The evacuation recommendations had been announced for them as Laura’s wind speeds crossed into the low category 4 levels. I uncovered the menagerie on our trailer while we waited to give them some fresh air and a decent view. They provided comic relief for anybody within ear shot.

Floyd, the leghorn, has a nemesis in our dog Cooper. Though the two have never actually tangled in a fight the mere presence of the other is enough to send them into a tizzy. So you could imagine the raucous noises as Cooper would bark at the girls and Floyd would answer back in confident challenge. The commentary was similar from all who stopped to talk to me “I can’t believe you brought your chickens too. This is so awesome!”, “How many are there?!?!?!”, “Oh, I’m so glad to see this! Those poor babies that were left behind I just can’t imagine.” I patiently entertained them all from a distance as I waited. Hubby came back laughing telling me he could hear Floyd at the main doors across the parking lot when he came out.

We arrived at our camp with several hours to go until dark. My parents and grandparents were there already and we parked the truck facing down the long driveway in case we needed to escape. The chooks trailer stayed hooked up and we made sure to park just outside of the fall radius of the enormous 375-year-old oak tree that covered most of the clearing. We threw a heavy-duty canvas 18 wheeler tarp over the trailer and strapped it down tightly before we hunkered down for the evening and the incoming monster. We checked the forecast again at dark. She was a strong Cat 4 with sustained winds at 150 mph. Everybody laid down and tried to sleep before the beginning of the significant weather got to us. I couldn’t rest so I foolishly watched the radar as the hours passed. Windspeed didn’t drop. By 12:53 the radar in Lake Charles stopped reporting. We would learn later that it was because the radar and its dome shattered before the eye wall even made it onshore. It looked like a busted lightbulb. I checked the center line for where the eye was headed. It was almost directly over our house. My hubby woke up and we both hugged in the dark to the roar of the generator outside. Time to make our peace with everything would come later. At that point we kept our ears peeled for trains in the distance. There’s always tornadoes hidden in hurricanes.

I’ll spare the details of the rest of the night as it was one of the most harrowing experiences I’ve lived through to date but come 5:30 in the morning things got REAL. The eye wall reached us and full-grown trees thrashed in the merciless barrage. The camp had a canopy section attached to the front of it for our outside kitchen. A falling oak tree slammed into it and woke up the few that were still asleep. It was an awfully close call. Had it been any taller we would have had a leak in the roof.

By and by the sky grew lighter as the sun came up on her wrath. The winds began to slack a little and we took that as our cue to start making our way home. It was a grueling drive back down. The northbound lanes of 171 we covered in downed trees, chunks of roof, walls and random unidentifiable debris. Power lines were down everywhere. We had all decided that my folks and the hubby would make their way out to my parents’ place to see if it was still there, and I would try to get my grandparents to their house to check on it before meeting up with them. The miles southward continued and the damage grew more significant everywhere we looked.

The calls from out of state family began to pour in as our phones drifted in and out of signal. The answers were brief as I had to concentrate on not hitting anything “Yes we’re ok. We love y’all, and once we get down there we’ll let you know what’s left.” We split off at their turn and I continued into Moss Bluff. Every possible avenue to get to my grandparents’ house was blocked by enormous downed pines and powerlines. We knew my uncle was going to ride out the storm next door to their place but we hadn’t been able to communicate with him all morning.

As I turned around to head back the call came from my momma that their place was ok. They had lost some of the exterior air condition duct and the big cedar tree had been uprooted and laid over on the stairs. We all rejoiced at the first glimmer of good news. Our trip back out to what would become home base for the foreseeable future brought us past sights I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. The transmission lines, behemoths that had withstood Rita and Andrew without a scratch, were laid over and twisted down to the ground like giants doing yoga poses. The twisted and mangled metal gleamed in the newly returned sunshine. Laura had left her calling cards.

We got the kiddos, chooks, dogs and grands settled in before we headed out to try to get to our place. We steeled ourselves as we inched closer to home. The destruction was inescapable. A call from my daddy confirmed that my uncle was okay. He had gone back to the Bluff after we left with a chainsaw and cut his way in. He said it was a hairy night, but he was okay. It took us almost 2 hours to make the trip to our place…… a trip that is usually only about 45 minutes. In that span of time we found out that Westlake, the neighboring town to ours, had a confirmed F4 tornado roll through. It claimed my great aunt’s house before heading off toward the west; the very direction our place was. My hubby squeezed my hand tightly. “Momma no matter what we find or don’t find, just remember that we’re okay, and all of our babies are okay too.”

The last 5 miles were pure hell. The closer we got the worse everything looked. We neared the intersection for our turn and that’s where we saw the path. It looked as if a giant bushhog had come through. Pine trees twisted off just above the ground; their tops launched to the other side of the yards and fields they once shaded. “Dear lord there’s no way anything could have stood in all this.”

We slowed to turn at the light and caught a glimmer of hope…. The feed store was still standing. The trees behind it were snapped high. Could the twister have dissipated here? No. It had only skipped. The next 2 miles of our trip ran us parallel to the tell-tale twisted off trees and bare roofs. We came to the four way stop. It wasn’t looking good at all. The power poles were snapped and leaning heavily into the roadway here. The trees had already been cut by those that rode out the storm, but the paths were barely wide enough for a truck. We continued on. We were so close now that I would have walked the last 2 miles if need be. More twisted off trees in the way……. More neighbors with no roof or walls smashed to the ground.

The last mile shook my soul. Houses that had stood since the early 50’s were piles of rubble beneath bare trusses. Whole carports were in the tops of trees waving in the gentle breeze like flags. I tried to hold back the angst and tears but it was a lost cause. As we approached the private driveway that marks the back of our property, I gasped. Only days before that whole driveway was under deep afternoon shade from all the tree cover. This afternoon I could see the bright cerulean of the sky. We slowed to turn. Behind the other neighbors’ place there was more sky where it did not belong. The hubby dodged more trees as he tried to get us to the house. Our driveway was inaccessible, covered with a power pole that was snapped into three pieces and downed pines that looked like a game of pickup sticks. We rolled further down to our neighbor’s driveway to come across the pipeline and access our place. There was just enough clearance for us to come under the long dead electric lines. The cables scraped across the roof of the cab but they did not deter us. We had to see. By this point I was unbuckled and perched on the very edge of my seat. The truck hadn’t stopped rolling before I bailed out and started for the back.

I couldn’t see anything but trees when I looked toward where our house was. The crowns of pines hung like foreboding curtains in front of everything. I climbed through the first one and was able to see two of our sheds. They seemed to be completely intact! “At least we’ll have some place to store everything. Please God let me just find my picture albums. I didn’t have room to bring them.” Hubby was coming through the trees behind me by that point. I kicked up a shingle. “Oh dang that’s a shingle. But it’s brown. Where the hell did that come from??!?! Nobody around us has a brown roof!!” I could make out our roof line. It was still gray. Oh my god was it still standing?!?!? HOW?!! Another tree to crawl through blocked my way and I all but vaulted over it. I could see walls. And the other sheds were there too! I was wailing uncontrollably as I ran through debris toward our house. There was a tree laying on top of the back side of the roof, but it was still there!!!! Hubby caught up to me and pulled me into a bear hug. I screamed into his chest; overcome with raw emotion. I had prepared myself for there to be nothing left. This outcome was anything but expected.

We opened the front door, smattered with leaves and random debris, and checked room to room for damage. The ceilings were intact. There was water all over the glass top of the stove, but it had to have come in through the exhaust vent. The floors were damp against all the exterior walls, but again there were no holes. The wind just pushed it in. There was an inexplicable hole in the middle of the kitchen floor from the outside inward, (I don’t think we’ll ever figure out exactly how it was just that one spot and nowhere else) but other than that everything was exactly as we had left it. We plopped down on the couch and took everything in. In the distance we could hear generators cranking up. We shared a toast with some ration water and locked everything back down to return to my folks’ place.

It would be a month to the day before our power would be restored and we could bring everybody home. In that time we lost several of our flock to stress and the most horror film inspiring mosquito problem you have ever seen. They were so bad in the days following Laura that they were suffocating cattle and horses all around us. It was horrific and my poor chooks suffered with faces so swollen they couldn’t see and lethargy from blood loss. We lost a total of 4 chickens and 5 of our 6 little guineas. But at last we were home. Or so we thought. By the following Tuesday the next hurricane had a name…..

Delta spooled up just as quickly as Laura but didn’t match her for strength and speed. It came on shore the 9th of this month. This time we didn’t run. We tied the chicken pens down, covered them again with the same tarps, and added a bunch of branches from the already downed trees for extra measure. Delta was a daytime hurricane. We weathered it at our office; a two-story brick building that has withstood every storm since Audrey. The eye came for us again, but the wrath was far less compared to her predecessor. Even still it raged and shredded the blue tarps that were covering all the damaged homes around the area and dumped 16” of rain into houses that had little to no protection and blew around all the freshly piled debris that was still waiting for the cleanup trucks to come.

Around 11:30 that night the winds abruptly stopped. It was as if somebody had turned a switch off. The hubby and I returned to our house again to check on everything. The water was deep that night; it lapped at the bottom of the doors on our truck. It took a good bit of time to navigate in the dark amidst the floating debris, but we made it to the house safely. To my joy and relief everybody was okay and bone dry. We returned to the office and our kiddos knowing we could rest easy. Another week with no power passed before we could return yet again.

As I write this tonight we are preparing for yet more rain from the 3rd incoming hurricane, Zeta. Fortunately for us though it looks like there’s a cold front that is going to protect our beleaguered half of the state and push it toward New Orleans. It won’t be much of anything. But 2020 has dealt us enough heavy blows. It will be at least a decade before our area truly recovers from all this. There’s still blue roofs and enormous debris piles everywhere you look, but progress is coming along. We will rise again, and we will do it together.

And my chooks? Well, they blessed us after we made it home from Laura with their very first butt nuggets. And they still love to snuggle and know exactly where their beds are. Oh, and they have no want for free “playground equipment” either. They’ve commandeered every tree we have down they can get to. They’ll chase the squirrels back and forth down the trunks. It’s precious. They are our constant source of joy and mirth. And we like to think they really do love being around us too……. The whole group is collectively referred to as “meals on wheels” after their August adventures. LOL

If you’ve read this far I commend you! It’s a short novel worth of story, but it just might help keep things in perspective…….

  • You are ALWAYS blessed in some way, even if you really have to dig to find it.
  • Things can ALWAYS be worse than they are.
  • Community and family are both invaluable. Cherish the relationships you have with others because you never know when they could end.
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Callender Girl

Sep 18, 2018
North Central Iowa
First, thank God you and your family survived. Second, thank God you managed to keep most of your critters safe.

I was only going to spend a couple of brief minutes on BYC this morning, then I saw your post. It completely pulled me in. As a former newspaper editor, I can tell you that I would have been proud to have your account in any edition of the papers I oversaw. You brought so much to life with your writing. A good writer doesn't just tell a story; he or she makes the reader feel the story. You did that.

In the Midwest, we get our share of tornados and straight-wind damage. But I cannot imagine the terror you must encounter with hurricanes. Amazingly, you have come through it with gratitude and wisdom.

My heart and thoughts are with you, along with a prayer that the third hurricane doesn't touch you and yours.

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