Although I don’t want to wish Gustav on anyone, least of all longsuffering New Orleans, I was relieved to see this morning that our area is still well outside the Cone of Probability. Although it was quite warm when I set out on my walk about 7 a.m., there was a light breeze that made it fairly pleasant. It wasn’t a stiff enough breeze to be whipping trees around, though, even small ones, so I was puzzled by what appeared to be a small tree waving in the distance. As I approached, it became obvious that the “tree” was in fact a bundle of black helium balloons tied to an A-frame sign. It seems that the neighbor my husband and I have dubbed Mr. Status Quo (because, judging from the campaign signs in his yard, he intended to vote for the incumbent in every contested race in our municipal elections) is turning 40. One side of the sign read, “HI HO, HI HO, OVER THE HILL U GO.” The yard was filled with plastic penguins decked with sunglasses, leis, and, in one case, a widow’s veil. This was a new variation on the “Flamingo-a-Friend” concept; the display was provided by a company called Laughing Gulls Special Occasion Lawn Greetings. Presumably the penguins will be collected before Gustav has a chance to carry them off.
For the most part, people here don’t seem to be freaking out over Gustav. When I went to the grocery for milk, there was plenty, though the bread aisle did look a bit picked over (that’s common on Sundays, though)—a far cry from the scene a couple of days ago at Wal-Mart (or Walmart), where the canned vegetable shelves had been stripped bare. Most shoppers seemed to be buying ordinary grocery items in a relaxed, unfrantic way. Our neighbors across the street—the ones with the newest McMansion—have applied custom-cut plywood storm panels to their Palladian windows, but mostly people aren’t bothering to board up. While walking I did encounter one neighbor who was hitching his SUV to the back of his Winnebago. When I remarked on the obvious, asking if he was really bugging out, he said, yes, they were going to go to Ozark, where they rode out Katrina. I expressed surprise, pointing out that the projected storm track seemed to have veered well away from us, and he said, “We just couldn’t bear to live in that cave for several days.” When I got to his house (around the corner from where he had pulled the Winnebago in order to have a straight stretch of street), I saw what he was talking about: all the windows were very thoroughly boarded up, so it was undoubtedly very gloomy inside.
I hope that such precautions will turn out to have been overkill. The Winnebago owner was convinced that “this one is going to be worse than Katrina.” And indeed it probably will be, for some people. But he wasn’t here during Katrina; if he had been, he would know that it was no real threat to our neighborhood. In the 29 years since Frederic, we have not experienced any other storm as destructive or frightening. We’ve had strong gusts from subsequent storms, but not the relentless howling that was so nerve-racking during Frederic. After Frederic, my husband vowed that he would never again stay during a hurricane; we would pick up and go to his parents’ home upstate. But then his mother died, and his father sold the house and moved here and later died also, so that retreat is no longer an option. And our observation has been that all our friends who do pick up and leave seem always to have jumped from the frying pan into the fire. During Ivan our next-door neighbor went to stay with her parents in Brewton; her house here was untouched, while several trees fell on the house in Brewton. Another neighbor went to stay with family in Birmingham, and the ceiling of the guest bedroom collapsed in the middle of the night; she also returned to find her home here without a scratch. A friend of my husband’s evacuated to Atmore during Katrina; the motel where he and his wife were staying lost power, and they had to sleep in the bathtub during the storm; their house here would have been an equally safe haven.
So we won’t be leaving. I don’t think I could stand to be far away, worrying about what was happening to the house. I’d rather be here where I’m in a position to defend it. If our house were below sea level or barely above it, or if it were exposed to the wind, our decision would doubtless be different, but, as I’ve said before, we are high and dry, in a house that has withstood storms since it was built in the early 1920s and is now surrounded (and hence sheltered from the wind) by larger homes, so we feel confident.