Writer Wednesday: Natural Disasters

I have lived in hurricane country since I was ten years old, and have sat, slept, and occasionally cowered through more hurricanes and tropical storms than I can remember. The prompt for this month’s Writer Wednesday post sent me to Wikipedia, where I picked through several lists of storms (in Florida, Texas, and Louisiana) to find the ones I remember most.

WW JulyAs with many things in life, “firsts” have a special place. My first hurricane was Donna, which hit southern Florida on September 10, 1960, my birthday. (My birthday is often cited as the peak of the hurricane season in the Gulf of Mexico, although I celebrated this one in the suburbs of Miami.) My mother, used to life in Wisconsin, was terrified. My brother, who was seven, slept through it. My dad and I thought it was an adventure. When the storm passed, and the electricity did not return (I don’t remember how long it was out), my dad made a valiant attempt to bake me a birthday cake on his charcoal grill. It didn’t look much like a cake, but served with melted ice cream, it tasted just fine.

In the summer of 1969, when I was attempting to move from Tallahassee, where I had just graduated from Florida State, to New Orleans, where I would attend grad school at Tulane in the fall, the central Gulf Coast was hit by Hurricane Camille, a nasty killer that closed the coast highway for weeks, forcing us to travel inland and hope we could find gas stations with electricity often enough to make it across Mississippi. The coast road was open again in the fall, and I remember seeing huge commercial ships on the beach.

In 1974, Jack and I sat out Hurricane Carmen in our house outside New Iberia, Louisiana. Although Carmen was a serious storm along some of its path, it didn’t hit us too hard, although it made our tin roof rattle something fierce. On the other hand, I remember looking out the window and watching a cat, oblivious of the weather, wander across our lawn. Somewhere around that time, I had my closest encounter with a tornado, as we ducked behind the refrigerators in a New Iberia appliance store while a twister roared down the street out front.

We moved to Seabrook, southeast of Houston between the Space Center and Galveston Bay, in 1976. In 1979, Tropical Storm Claudette dropped 42 inches of rain on a nearby weather station and overflowed an open garbage can in my yard. No flooding in the house, but we were on an island for a day or two. Claudette was followed by Hurricane Alicia in 1983—lots of damaged vegetation, which all grew back in a couple of years, and a power outage that lasted a week or so—and Hurricane Jerry in 1989, a smallish, late season storm that went right over our house, the only time I’ve experienced the Eye of the Storm.

Hurricane Andrew, in 1992, scored a catastrophic hit on the Florida Peninsula, and scared Jack so badly he insisted we evacuate inland. The storm went to Louisiana, but we did have a nice visit with Jack’s uncle in Austin. Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 was the storm that refused to go away, circling around and causing severe flooding and a number of deaths in Houston, but the worst of it missed us and we watched it on TV. That was the last storm I shared with Jack, who died the next year.

By the time Hurricane Rita reared her head in 2005, only a few weeks after Katrina devastated New Orleans, local authorities had become a lot more emphatic on the subject of evacuation, and I had no desire to stay home, so I packed up my cat and dog and we went to Houston to stay with my friend Jo Anne, the day before evacuation was made mandatory for my zip code. That was a good move, because the storm caused such panic that people who tried to flee west were stuck on the highways for hours, sometimes twenty or more, while the storm went east to the Beaumont area, and Houston seemed deserted—and perfectly safe.

In 2008 we had a visit from Ike, a massively destructive storm. This time people not in the flood prone areas were urged to stay home. My cat and I went to Jo Anne’s, where I stayed until my neighbor called to say she was home and the power was back on—twelve days later. My yard took another beating, but my house was okay.

Since then the hurricane seasons have been quiet here. Last month Tropical Storm Bill paid the area a visit, bringing more rain than we needed but not much damage. If Bill is our storm for this year, we’ll be happy.

Every storm has its own set of stories, but I still have fond memories of that first adventure in 1960, and my lop-sided, crispy-edged birthday cake served with melted ice cream by candlelight. Thanks, Dad!

For tales of more natural disasters, check out the Wednesday Writers in the sidebar to your right. Two of our merry crew have new releases this month: Carol Post’s Hidden Identity, a suspenseful tale of blackmail and murder is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Natalie Meg Evans’ The Milliner’s Secret is available for pre-order at Amazon and Amazon UK.


A Winter Day

We had winter today in Houston.  It’s been colder–we had a hard freeze a couple of weeks ago that drove the temperatures further down the scale.  This morning it didn’t get much below 30 degrees where I live, southeast of the city near Galveston Bay.  But it rained.  Not very much, although I couldn’t check my rain gauge this morning because it was frozen into its base, but enough to make ice.

And there’s the problem.  We’re just not used to ice around here.  We can handle a freeze.  And we can handle rain.  But both at once–that’s a problem.  By the time I got up and turned on the news this morning, there were accidents all over the map, freeway overpasses shut down by ice, bridges closed.  Although I don’t usually work on Friday, I had planned to go in today for some quiet catch-up time (January being the busiest month in the bookkeeping year).  It didn’t take me long to decide that was a Bad Idea.  Virtually all the school systems in the area were closed.  The signs which usually tell us how long our drive will take said “Icy Conditions Exist – Travel Discouraged.”

When I went out to get my newspaper this morning, its plastic bag was covered in ice.  There were icicles hanging from the eaves of my house, and droplets of ice clinging to my hanging plants.  The rain gauge was frozen into its base.  I know these are minor happenings compared to the rough winter in much of the country.  I lived in the suburbs of Milwaukee as a child, and I do remember winter.  But I’ve been making my way around the Gulf of Mexico for the past several decades, from the suburbs of Miami, where anything below 60 degrees is regarded as unbearably cold, to Tallahassee, where I once saw the fountain at FSU frozen solid, to New Orleans, to New Iberia, where we once had a real snowfall, to Houston.  I’ve seen it snow here, too, maybe three times in thirty-five years, and we have ice on the roads maybe every three or four years.  I know my limitations–I don’t drive on ice.

The icicles on the south side of my house eventually melted, but the ones on the north side were still there this evening.  The traffic signs tonight (I looked at the map on line) still say “Icy Conditions May Exist – Drive With Caution.”  But it should be in the 50s tomorrow, and it may get close to 70 on Sunday.  And then we can expect another cold front next week.  Winter may be fairly short in this area, but it’s never boring.

Icy fern 012414

The First Sign of Autumn

It’s the first week in September and still hitting the upper 90s every day.  There may be a “not so hot” front coming this weekend, but we have a good bit of summer left on the Texas Gulf Coast.

But autumn is coming.  Really.  This morning the first hurricane lily opened in my front yard.

I’m not much of a botanist, or even a gardener.  I mow the lawn, prune a few low hanging branches, do a little weeding, but I don’t grow flowers, not on purpose anyway. For many years I knew these flowers by the name my gardener neighbor calls them, naked ladies, because they pop up and bloom on bare stalks, with the folliage coming up later.  Then a year or two ago I saw an article in the Houston Chronicle identifying them as hurricane lilies.  That makes sense.  They reach their peak around the middle of September, as does the hurricane season here on the Gulf Coast.

Last year was extremely dry, and the lilies, which grow in a wide strip across my front yard near the street, put up a rather meager display.  This year we had a decent amount of rain through the late spring and summer, so I’m hoping they’ll do better.  There have been years when they were so thick that people stopped to take pictures, and others when they barely appeared.  Hurricane Rita blew them down a few years ago, even though she made landfall well to the east of Houston.  Hurricane Ike came right up Galveston Bay and smashed the flowers flat.

The hurricane lilies are survivors.  Their bulbs were in the yard when we moved into this house in 1976.  I have no idea how bulbs propagate, whether the flower I photographed this morning sprang from a forty-year-old bulb or a seventeenth-generation descendant.  They’re not buried very deeply, and I’ve never done a thing to them–except run my lawn mower over them.  Yet year after year they reappear, splashing my yard with red every September.

There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere, but I’m not going to look for it.   For the next couple of weeks, I’m just going to go out in the morning and admire the flowers.

Weird Weather in Houston?

Weird weather is nothing unusual around here.  If you don’t like the weather in Texas, they say, just wait an hour.  Or drive to the next county.  2011 was the driest year in memory, breaking records decades old, but recently we’ve had enough rain to feel almost normal, although we’re a long way from making up for the drought.  In fact, the meteorologists tell us that may go on for a few more years.

You wouldn’t have believed that yesterday, when the sky opened up and dumped enough water to turn urban streets to rivers.  We knew a storm was coming, but when I left my house about 8:15 the sky was not particularly threatening, and I made it into Houston about 9 with no more than a scatter of rain drops on my windshield.

Fifteen minutes later the rain hit, complete with more thunder and lightning than we’ve experienced in months.  At the Scorekeeper we typically have three computers, a fax machine, a copier, and a printer running.  And a couple of radios, maybe a TV, sometimes a microwave oven.  Sudden power outages are not fun, even with the computers connected to UPS boxes.  Remarkably little gets done around the office when the electricity goes off.

We were lucky Monday.  While the power went off in swaths all over the area, trapping people in elevators and fouling up the traffic lights, we never lost electricity.  But we almost lost the garbage bin.

It rained so hard, and so fast, that the street in front of the Scorekeeper turned into a river in half an hour.  We were keeping a collective eye on the situation, because it’s happened before.  Between the rising water and the idiots driving their SUVs down the street at forty miles an hour and throwing five foot wakes, a small car doesn’t stand much of a chance.  The old Ford I drove when I first came to work for Jo Anne back in 2003 nearly drowned in a sudden, unpredicted street flood (it still ran when I sold it a few months later, but the automatic seat belt never worked again), and my Corolla narrowly escaped another.  When we looked out the window Monday morning and realized that the heavy wheeled trash can was on its side and floating away from the foot of the driveway, we knew we had a problem.

Fortunately we also have Ha Tran, the third member of our office team, a young man who is always willing to take care of us.  He took off his shoes and socks, waded out into the flood to corral the renegade trash can, and moved my car to the safety of the driveway and his own to higher ground across the street.

We were lucky.  We watched the water rise in the street–and the front yard–and recede almost as quickly, from the safety of our offices.  Jo Anne’s sister-in-law spent a couple of hours stranded in a parking lot.  People around the city found themselves swimming away from their stranded cars and shovelling mud out of ground floor apartments.  (Click here for a slideshow of flood photos at the Houston Chronicle.)

This wasn’t the worst flood Houston has seen, not by a long shot.  Today was dry, and twenty degrees cooler.  If you don’t like the weather here, wait a little while.  It’ll change.  It always does.


Odd and Ends and Updates, Oh, My!

Business cards:  The business cards I ordered Saturday morning from Zazzle.com were waiting on my doorstep when I got home from work this evening, and they are exactly as ordered.  I’m very pleased.  I only ordered the basic one hundred cards, being cautious, but I certainly won’t hesitate to order more when I need them.

The trip to New York:  My neighbor, LaRue, has kindly offered to feed Nutmeg while I’m gone, so I won’t have to board the cat.  I’m sure she’d rather stay home alone than spend ten days in a cage at the vet’s.  LaRue will turn 82 on Friday, and I only hope I’m that healthy and active when I’m her age.  Heck, I hope I get to be her age.

As for shopping, I think I’ve got just about all the essentials.  Clothes, luggage, business cards, lists of small stuff.  I’m not going to the North Pole.  They have drugstores in New York City.  I can’t believe the RWA conference starts in less than three weeks.  Today I started making arrangements with my bookkeeping clients to be sure they have what they need while we’re gone.  Better make a list there, too.

Kindle shopping:  I’ve been checking out the top hundred free downloads for the Kindle regularly, and I’ve downloaded several novels from publishers offering backlist novels free to interest readers in following up with newer (paid) books by the same authors.  Yesterday I noticed a novel (Cotillion) by Georgette Heyer  on the list.  Regency England is not my period of expertise, not by a long shot, but as a writer of romance, I’m a bit embarassed to say that I’ve never read any of Heyer’s books.  When Sourcebooks plunged into the romance genre a few years ago, they republished some of Heyer’s books, and this is one of their editions.  When I went browsing again today, I found another Heyer novel (The Grand Sophy) for the princely sum of $1.99.  When I one-clicked that onto my Kindle, Amazon suggested I might want Nail Your Novel for $4.99.  The book had racked up 26 five-star reviews, so I risked five bucks on it.

Writing:  No progress whatsoever on the Work In Progress.  Apparently I’m having too much fun blogging, doing this when I should be writing a hundred words a day.  Or at least reading over the forty-one thousand I have, and figuring out which forty thousand more to add.  And in what order.

The weather:  Always a good subject.  Ours has been extreme, even for the Houston area.  105° on Sunday and Monday, an average high of 99° for the first week in June, an all-time record.  What’s it going to be like in August?  It hasn’t been quite that hot where I live, southeast of the city, near Galveston Bay, but it’s hot enough, and we’ve had no rain at all.  What little has fallen in the last few months has landed well to the north–while other parts of the country are under water.  Hardly seems fair.

But then the weather in Texas is seldom fair.  Broiling hot, freezing cold, Sahara-dry, hurricane-wet, but not plain old boring fair.  On Sunday afternoon when I was taking a walk in a blast furnace, a friend was hiding in a bank drive-through to protect his new car from a hail storm.  In the same county.  If you don’t like the weather in Texas, wait a few minutes.  It’ll change.

Where, oh where has my reading time gone?

I love to read.  I could read before I started school.  I buy books like a junkie.  I know perfectly well I’ll never catch up with my To Be Read shelves, and I buy more books anyway.  There was a time when I read several a week.  That was before I had a full time job with a long commute.  Before I was writing seriously.  These days by the time I get into bed with a book, I’m already half asleep.

In early February we had a Weather Day.  Not the kind we’re used to here on the Texas Coast (Hurricane Ike springs to mind), but sleet, a little snow here and there, and ice on the freeways.  Just another day in, say, Chicago, but no one in the Houston area knows how to drive on icy roads.  I certainly don’t–I was born in Wisconsin, but I learned to drive in South Florida, and I haven’t lived north of Interstate 10 since.  So I called in afraid-to-drive and had an unexpected Friday off.

And I spent most of it reading.  I sat down on the couch with a thick mystery novel (Sue Grafton’s U Is For Undertow) and read the whole thing.  My Weather Day turned into the most relaxing day off I’d had in ages.  No errands, no chores, no waiting for a repairman or a delivery, just a whole day with a book.

Many years ago, I read a book called Where Were You Last Pluterday?, one of those literary European science fiction novels translated and published by DAW Books, back when all their covers were yellow and numbered.  I remember nothing at all about the plot, just the premise:  the elite of society had access to an extra day of the week, Pluterday.  If I could find just a few Pluter-hours here and there, I would spend them reading.