Gulf Coast has first-name relationship with storms

Along the Gulf Coast, you're not a real hurricane veteran until you're on a first-name basis with one of the killer storms.

That's because for all the misery they cause, hurricanes become ingrained in the fabric of local life. If you survived, you wear it as a badge of merit. If you lost friends or loved ones to the winds and waters, you hold them in dread. The stories are handed down from generation to generation.

And always, you know them by their names.

Locals seldom use "Hurricane" before the names of the ones that left the deepest scars.

It's just Katrina. Betsy. Camille. Audrey.

And now — at least for people in Plaquemines Parish, the flat strip of land south of New Orleans partially inundated this week — it's just Isaac.

The memories start at an early age. My first came in 1957, when Audrey was roaring out of the Gulf of Mexico. I was 3 years old and can well remember the worry in my parents' voices, and the fear. Audrey made landfall in southwest Louisiana, driving in a wall of water — we call it storm surge today — and killing about 500 people.

During Betsy in 1965, I huddled with family members through a night of howling winds, including the moment the roof lifted off our house. My father, a pressman at The Times-Picayune, was working the night she struck. He emerged the next morning to find a downed oak tree deposited in the front seat of his 1957 Ford station wagon.

People who rode out Camille in 1969 on the Mississippi coast recall what they were doing almost minute-by-minute the night the killer storm with the pretty name pushed its surge — the height of a small office building — onto the sandy shores, wiping out everything in its path. They'll tell you of seeing bodies of neighbors who'd been swept away get washed back inland.

If you were in New Orleans when Katrina struck in 2005, the images of 11 feet of water in homes, corpses floating in the streets, huddled masses in the Superdome and other horrors will never go away. The same storm gave younger Mississippians a reference point to talk with their elders about Camille.

Someone I knew in the Midwest once asked me what the difference was in having your home destroyed by a tornado in Kansas and watching it washed away in Louisiana.

My reply was simple: A tornado is on you in an instant. It is an impersonal black cloud that roars out of the sky, and then it's gone.

With hurricanes, there's a rhythm to it, a relationship that develops. It starts with a watchful eye when a storm starts brewing. Then the quickening heartbeat as it starts to come toward you. Will it stay to the projected path? Which of the slew of forecast models has it right?

Then there's a sense of resolution that sets in. It's time to leave or batten down for the duration. And as all things with a hurricane are personal, this decision is one you make knowing it really could be life or death.

There is the lull, maybe a few hours, maybe half a day, after the decision is made but before the storm arrives.

There is the rush as the wind slowly picks up, then howls for hours and drives sheets of rain. You hear the pounding on your roofs, your windows and wind whistling all around. As Isaac approached, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser described the slashing rain entering his house as like having a fire hose spurting out of an electric socket. And he's right.

Then there's the letdown. Even if you've been spared, there's a peculiar kind of loss, like having gotten to know someone closely for a few days and realizing they're not coming back. (The National Hurricane Center retires the names of the nastiest storms, so there will always be one Katrina, one Betsy, one Camille.)

Perhaps the most jarring experience of my personal relationship with hurricanes came just after Katrina in August 2005.

I was working at the Cincinnati Enquirer, but one of my sons was in New Orleans. He spent the better part of a day trying to get out of town when panic set in before what was then a Category 5 monster in the Gulf. When he went back weeks later, he found he'd lost everything to the floodwaters.

A day or two after the levees broke and despair flooded New Orleans, my wife Mary Anne and I were in a restaurant in the Cincinnati suburb of Milford. A waitress walked up and tried to make cheerful small talk as she prepared to take our order.

We were speechless, and she couldn't figure out why.

Then we told her we were from New Orleans, and she got it.

Her nametag read, "Katrina."


Brian Schwaner is news editor for The Associated Press in Louisiana and Mississippi.