Ten Best hurricane memories

by Brian Clarey

Hurricane Dean; August 2007 We’re cobbling the paper together this week without our esteemed publisher, Charles Womack, who as of this writing is standing squarely in the path of Hurricane Dean as it bears down on the Caribbean. In honor of this, we recount our own brushes with the big, nasty forces of nature. Dean is currently at Category 4, with winds up to 145 mph and carrying a 13- to 18-foot storm surge. Batten down, Charles!

Hurricane Katrina; August 2005 People will be talking about Hurricane Katrina for a hundred years – at least they will down in the Gulf states, where life was changed forever. I wasn’t in New Orleans when the floodwaters rose, but I saw with my own eyes the carnage and destruction left in their wake. And let me tell you, the extent of the damage was astounding. I’ll never forget that house in the Lower 9th Ward, the one pushed from its foundation to the center of the block, or the house on the corner in Lakeview that bore the brunt of the surge when the 17th Street Canal broke through the levee. Sadly, and unconscionably, not all that much has changed in the storm-damaged areas of the city in the last two years.

Hurricane Florence; September 1988 Not all hurricanes are tragic. When Hurricane Florence passed over New Orleans and into Lake Pontchartrain I was a freshman at Loyola with a fairly warped sense of what constituted a good time. I spent Hurricane Florence’s time in New Orleans in the bed of a pickup truck drinking Wild Turkey and laughing in the pelting rain. Florence was a Category 1 by the time she made landfall, and most in the city opted to sit her out.

Hurricane Gloria; October 1985 But Florence was not my first hurricane. I was 15 when Hurricane Gloria made her way up the coast and made landfall on Long Island – a meteorological improbability, yes, but there she was, slamming rain and wind, tossing downed tree branches out in the front yard of my parents’ house. Did the power go out? I don’t remember. I do seem to recall playing football outside with my friends as the eye passed over, an eerie stillness in the air.

Hurricane Betsy; September 1965 Before there was Katrina there was Betsy, a wicked Category 5 storm that devastated New Orleans in the fall of ’65 that the old-timers (and not-so-old ones, too) still talk about when they get to drinking in the afternoon. The scuttlebutt was that in order to save the city, the US Army planted dynamite charges along the 17th Street Canal, sacrificing St. Bernard Parish to save the French Quarter. This is probably not true, but it is established fact that during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the city government authorized the detonation of 30 tons of dynamite at the levee at Caernarvon, 15 miles downstream, to save New Orleans. Outraged landowners were reportedly shooting at them as they laid the charges.

Hurricane Fran; September 1996 In the words of Chris Lowrance, YES! Weekly creative assistant: “Fran is probably the worst hurricane I have no memory of. While the storm barreled up the Eastern Seaboard, causing 26 deaths, $3.2 billion in damage and shattering a 20-foot high tree to pieces 10 feet from my head, I… slept. Straight through. Didn’t hear a thing. What I couldn’t sleep through was the resulting several-days-long power outage during the hottest month of the North Carolina summer. I still can’t stand women named Fran….”

Hurricane Georges; September 1998 I’ll never forget this one, because it was the weekend when my friends Mary and Mike got married in New Orleans, and on the day of the wedding all the storefronts on St. Charles Avenue (save for the one where I worked) were buttressed by sandbags and had heavy tape on the windows. The day after the wedding, as the Category 2 storm bore down, my wife and I fled for Birmingham, Ala. with our friend Cory crashed in the back of our Jeep. Georges swerved north at the last minute, making landfall in Biloxi, Miss.

The Labor Day Hurricane; September 1935 Back before we anthropomorphized our hurricanes, this little doozy made its way across southern Florida and up the East Coast, heading back out to sea near Norfolk, Va. It is still the most intense hurricane ever to have made landfall in the US. It wiped out 259 World War I veterans who were building roads in the Florida Keys, which was reported on by none other than Ernest Hemingway in a piece entitled, “Who Murdered the Vets? A First-Hand Report on the Florida Hurricane,” which appeared in the Sept. 17, 1935 issue of The New Masses magazine.

Hurricane Isabel; September 2003 The Gulf states haven’t got the market cornered on powerful forces of nature. In the fall of 2003 Hurricane Isabel, a sprawling, Category 5 monster, terrorized most of the Eastern Seaboard with winds that measured 223 miles per hour, the highest of any Atlantic hurricane. Here in North Carolina it changed the coastline, carving an inlet across Hatteras Island, cutting off all utilities to Hatteras Village.

Hurricane Floyd; September 1999 They closed the schools all the way over in Asheville for this one. Hurricane Floyd fairly whipped the crap out of North Carolina, causing 35 deaths here out of 57 overall. Floyd made landfall near the mouth of the deep-water Cape Fear River, giving it time to spin unabated, and it made contact with a cold front which caused heavier than usual rainfall. Floyd also triggered tornadoes and massive floods, including an overflow of the Tar River, the likes of which had never been recorded. Hurricane Floyd has reached Category 4, but was quieted to Category 2 by the time it made landfall.