Storms put things in perspective

Published 1:13 am Saturday, September 18, 2010

I will never forget how happy I was to stand up and walk on Sept. 16, 2004.

For it was in the wee hours of that day that Hurricane Ivan came ashore along the Gulf Coast with enough power to wash out a full portion of I-10.

We had long been without power in Escambia County when I awoke suddenly from a dead sleep and with the knowledge that we should move to an interior hallway of our home where I’d stashed cushions and pillows. Within minutes, a huge tree took out the wall of the bedroom where we’d been sleeping.

But it would be hours before we’d know that. Crouching in the hallway, we knew only that our home had been violated, for we could feel the wind.

I couldn’t call what I felt fear; it was sheer terror. I remember thinking that it was odd that the trains were still running in a storm like this one. It was days before I connected the dots: Tornadoes, they say, sound like trains.

And so we waited and we wondered. We knew it was bad, but we weren’t prepared for the devastation revealed in the dawn. It looked as if our neighborhood had been bombed, so haphazard was the debris blocking our yards and our streets. And yet there was joy. I could hear it in my husband’s voice when finally he walked to a room with windows.

“They fell the other way. The trees fell the other way,” he said of the huge pines that had, indeed, fallen away from our home.

And we could walk. We could stand up and we could walk. I had been so certain I would be forced to crawl from beneath debris that I wasn’t worried about the rest. Walls, furniture, clothing – all of it could be replaced.

I felt much the same way after helping people dig through flooded remains in Elba in 1990 and in 1998. Once you witness up close and personal how quickly material things can be blown or washed away, they cease to matter so much.

Days and days later, a childhood friend called. We were still without power at home, but fortunately there was electricity at the office.

“Still no electricity?” she asked, aghast. “But ’Chele, what about your hair?”

What about it? She hadn’t witnessed the devastation. She couldn’t know how good it feels to stand up straight and walk on the morning after; that a gas hot water heater can be a priceless commodity; that hot coffee is 10 times more important than a curling iron.

“Well, Karen,” I explained to her, a smile in my voice, “There was a reason God gave us sun visors.”

And that, my friends, is why I was calm when I braked too hard on Thursday – Ivan’s anniversary – and spilled at least a fourth of the two gallons of shrimp creole in the back seat of my vehicle, en route to serve it for lunch. It’s just a car. It’s since been cleaned.

And if I smell slightly of shrimp when you see me? Well, you’ll understand why.