Remembering the Day It All Changed
- by David Reynolds
My military service was as a pilot. In aviation, attending to weather, in depth and in detail, is routine and compulsory. Long a civilian by 2005, I still kept the weather awareness habit, especially in summer, monitoring the tropical Atlantic and eastern Gulf of Mexico, where hurricanes consolidate and grow. Our 1880s home in Bay Saint Louis was a thousand feet away from the Mississippi Sound, on safe ground at an elevation of 21 feet above high tide. The other dozen or so buildings on our block were all historical and on roughly the same high ground. The neighborhood had seen plenty of hurricanes, recorded for over two centuries. We knew what to do: provision, pick up, fasten down, cover-up, secure, protect, then listen to the wind, watch uneasily, sleep poorly, pitch in to care for others, and repair damage after.
On Saturday morning, the 27th, I drove to New Orleans, where I managed The Green Project, a non-profit that acquired, conditioned, and sold for reuse salvaged and surplus building materials, components, and paints, to check storm preparations. Around noon, my wife called, anxious that we should prepare to depart inland in view of the predicted track and strength of the hurricane. I had grumbled about possibly being without power for a spell in the late summer heat and humidity, and worried about the great, aged, oak behind our neighbor’s barn, close enough to put a good lick on our guesthouse if it blew down. I figured to stay though, as I had in previous storms. I knew the varied and brave sounds that our house made in high winds and wasn’t much bothered, except for the added work, inconvenience, and discomfort.
In the meantime, my wife, who didn’t have a lifetime of living on coasts and was of decidedly less of a mind to stay than I, followed the TV and Internet storm coverage. Friends in Birmingham called, inviting us. While I put on the more difficult west-facing plywood covers, left off the day before, a second weather buoy, much closer, reported a barometric pressure of 27 point something. I can’t recall the decimal “something," only that the low number was alarming, not so far from becoming 26 point something, radically low. That was enough. We would leave in the morning (Sunday), and be back in a few days. Going without electricity when we returned seemed likely, and would be uncomfortable, but there would be gas for cooking, and we had lanterns, flashlights, candles, and neighbors who looked out for one another and who would enjoy visiting on porches in the evenings until our houses cooled inside.
On Sunday morning, things were quiet around town – a car going by once in a while, an occasional sound of sawing or hammering. We packed lightly: casual clothes, laptops, some vital documents, and, oddly, a few personal keepsakes. In a bureau drawer, I noticed my Coast Guard flight log, with its dates and notations of search and rescue at sea, and tucked it in my pack. The cat, uncooperative in most things and strongly adverse to transport, entered the pet carrier on her own, skipping the usual balking and hiding.
None of the buildings on our block was substantially intact by the night of August 29, 2005. We were not there to see it happen. People died in wind, storm surge, and building collapse, or survived, frightened and wet, in attics, in trees, and on roofs. It took until 2011 to clean up, clear, and groom the property again. I drove the 375 mile round trip from Jackson uncounted times, in our small pickup, down and back in a day, in all seasons, getting in six or more hours of site work.