It’s stormy again today. My phone beeps at regular intervals, letting me know that we are under this severe warning or that, but like most people who live inland from the coast, storms are a part of our life and Mother Nature has to do something pretty spectacular to get our attention. From my desk I look out to the south and I know that past the fence, the fields and the far tree line, across another small town, then an inlet bay, lies the Gulf, her ever churning water stirring up the sand and silt. As the crow flies, it’s not that far and we know her by the gulls that fly inland, the ancient sea shells we dig up now and again that say she once breached our borders, and by the clouds and storms she tosses across the coastal grassy plains of our home.
For a time, my husband and I owned a small plane and I remember flying home, watching for her, watching for the faint line of darkness that signaled a vastness beyond, and as we flew closer to make the turn that would lead us back to earth, a reflection of light over moving waters would welcome us. We loved to fly along the coast, heading east over towns with names like High Island, Boliver, Oak Island, Gilchrist, over beaches, wildlife preserves and empty places where homes used to be, claimed by the waters when the great storms struck. Just along the edge of the sand, where the water washes up and recedes again, you can make out the shadow of an old highway that once ran the length of her shore, but now dormant and broken, slowly giving itself up to the sea. Sometimes as we rose from the runway, we would point the nose southwestward, climbing up over Burnett Bay, rising across Kemah with Galveston a sliver of sand in the distance, slowly coming into focus and then we’d bank to the right over Surfside heading due west as we leveled the wings. We would head towards Matagorda, sailing on air over the sands and jetties, the inlets and canals punctuated with fishing boats. Out the right window oil rigs and the dark silhouettes of ships far out to sea offered themselves up to us, and to the north, clusters of small fishing communities surrounded by fertile green inland fields beckoned, back-dropped by the shadows of cities and the broad expanse of Texas beyond.
I’ve known her all my life, I feel her presence just past the horizon. I’ve lived through her storms, first Alicia, as a young wife, bracing against the storm in a small frame house with my husband. A hand-held radio and flashlight between us in the darkness, the sound of a hundred trains barreling outside our walls, tossing debris and swirling, cutting a path through our town. The silence of the eye of the storm, the strange brief interlude of sunlight, neighbors cautiously stepping outside to see how the world had changed and then quickly back inside again when the other wall of wind arrives. I can remember the stillness and the light rain that was still falling when the wind finally passed. It was a different world then, no cell phones or social media, no online reports of damages or loss of life, so you just waited until the world came back on again, until the lines were connected once more. You opened your windows, sat outside with neighbors and shared what you had. There were rumors of barges piled up on the freeway that ran behind our house along with tug boats blown inland from the ship channel, so groups of the brave, curious and bored hiked the distance down the highway to see for themselves. It would be seventeen days before we had water or lights, but youth lends an elasticity to tolerance and we coped with the help of family and neighbors.
Hurricane Ike was a storm of a different kind and by that time we had lived in this small town and on this land for almost ten years and our children were now adults. Of course, after witnessing the human suffering and tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and the panicked evacuation of Rita, everyone paid attention when reports started coming in of a possible storm in the Gulf. If you live on or near the Gulf coast, you understand how it plays out as the winds of Africa push unstable air out into the ocean, as it bubbles up into tropical waves and you watch to see where it goes, how it grows and if the Gulf will pull it in and slam it against the land. You watch the storm track, those wildly erratic colored lines creeping in every direction until the lines begin to come together and you see if it’s your time to worry. We live far enough inland that storm surges cannot reach us, our worry is the wind and the tornadoes that the walls of the storm toss out, the wind that uproots trees and crashes them into roofs and windows, the wind that flattens metal buildings and wood houses, consuming the lives within. The land we live on is flat and much of it treeless, we have no natural barriers to the wind and debris, but we have a sturdy home, built with storms in mind and there are many in danger that must evacuate so it’s reasonable that we stay put, off the roads and out of the way.
It’s the solemnity of the hours before it hit that I remember, the unknowing hours of wondering what life would look like tomorrow on the other side of our boarded up windows. We watch the skies, recognizing the dark outer bands of clouds as the storm moves closer, we worry about our older son on duty out on the streets, whose only shelter will be a patrol car. From the television we learn of those choosing to stay on Galveston and other islands, mostly older people who would not leave. They insist they will be okay at home with a beloved dog or cat, and that their shelves are stocked with water and food and they tell of past storms they have weathered in their stilt houses on the beach overlooking the storm barreling inland. I believe that in spite of reassurances, their greater fear was being swallowed up in a shelter at the mercy of agencies and strangers, terrified their pets would be taken from them, so sadly they threw their lot in with the Gulf and let her decide their fate. Twelve hours later we would hear that those that stayed behind were simply gone, their homes nothing but beams and posts sticking out of the sand. Just gone.
I’ve walked her beaches as a child, braved the waves as a teen, honeymooned at the Flagship Hotel, and held the hands of my two little boys and now my grandchildren at the edge of her brown-tinted waters. I have dug countless pennies and bottle-caps from the warm sand while treasure-hunting the beaches with my father. When I’m there, I feel the history of that city that sits on her shores, the beginnings and endings and the starting over, time and again. Beneath my feet, I am aware that far down below lies the original elevation of the island, as it was before the Great Storm, before the city was raised and the sea wall was built. The stately houses and century-old buildings along the Strand have not bowed, though great losses are evidenced in the high water marks documented on small brass plaques far above my head. I know from history passed down that some of those houses hide scars as well, under the fancy rugs and carpets, are the marks of axes where the floors were opened in the hope the rising water would anchor the house down and they might be saved in the rooms above, only to be washed away through attic windows when the angry Gulf waters reached the roof.
The cries of those lost in those terrible years, 1900, 1983, 2008, still carry on the wind there, blowing in a mist off the water, winding through the streets and alleyways, whipping the sails of boats and beach umbrellas, and then back to the water, always back to the water. She is a constant, that vast unknowable body of water, both wonderful and terrible in turn, but always there, past the fence, over the tree line, across the bay, as the crow flies.
©2014-2015 itsa5doglife/Rhonda Alford Owens All Rights Reserved