As the crow flies, past the fence, fields and far tree line, across a small town and an inlet bay, sand, silt, and seaweed rise, fall and turn over again. Egrets and heron fly inland to rummage our swampy fields and fresh water ponds; away from the summer squalls they feast on crawfish and young perch. Ancient shells shrouded deep in the clay-bound soil reveal her footprint, the rich loam her offering to the ground she left behind.
On clear days, we would fly along the coast in our small yellow plane, heading east above High Island, Boliver, Oak Island, and Gilchrist, over empty shoreline, reserves, and skeletal ruins of beachfront homes. Low tide bares the old coastal highway, no longer on any map, leading only to the sea. Often, as we lifted from the runway, we would point the nose southwestward, climbing over Burnett Bay and Kemah; Galveston a sparkling sliver of sand in the distance. We would bank right
over Surfside, riding the Blue Water Highway, flying due west as we leveled the wings, sailing on air above jetties and canals, mirrored water punctuated by fishing boats and buoys. Silhouettes of oil rigs and ships pattern the port window and to the north, clusters of fishing communities and green fields, back-dropped by shadows of cities and the broad expanse of Texas beyond. We would fly, skimming the Texas shoreline, until time and fuel demanded the deep turn that would carry us back home and to earth.
The briny Gulf waters are warm and deep, a sanctuary of thick sediment, canyons and shelves reaching around Cuba to enfold the Caribbean and the cooler North Atlantic waters. Four thousand nautical miles away searing winds roll off the desert towards the coast of Africa, coiling southward to the Gulf of Guinea, producing unstable air, the African Easterly. It undulates north and south fashioning a capricious storm system that flees the coast to settle over the Atlantic. The fledgling storm stalks the temperate open water for the energy it craves; steered by ridges and current, it crawls westward, amassing momentum. The barrage of saturated thunderstorms tightens around the emerging eye, shoving bands of wind and vapor outwards, devouring the cordial atmosphere. We watch to see how it grows, where it goes, and if the Gulf pulls it in and slams it against the land.
Alicia was an oddity, the first storm of a season that flows through October, the result of a New England cold front sweeping down to the central Gulf of Mexico, another singularity, a homegrown storm. We were brutally unprepared for a storm that would develop and strike within four days. Outlier winds began in the early hours of August 18, 1983, a battery radio in the dark narrating warnings and alerts, competing for attention with bellowing winds and horizontal rain pounding the small house, southern windows straining in their thin metal frames. Before daybreak, the storm rests as the eye passes over, an odd interlude of calm, a tang of metal on the air. Faint faraway strains of Latin music murmur in the silence; neighbors lean out, cautious and curious. In solidarity, we wave to one another across flooded streets and close our doors again. Two days later, carried on a frontal trough, the remnants of Alicia disappear over eastern Nebraska. We will not have power or water for seventeen days.
Though not our storm, Hurricane Katrina altered us, it distorted the landscape of our security and left us bereft and vulnerable. In September 2005, one month after Katrina, Hurricane Rita plowed into the Gulf of Mexico, strengthened by a warm loop current, it escalates into a violent category five hurricane bearing down on Texas, inciting a panicked population to run. Millions evacuated; overfilled vehicles inched northward to other cities and small towns, tying up roadways and blocking evacuation routes. As Rita curved northwest towards Sabine Pass and Louisiana, thousands were stranded on highways, out of gas and despondent in the summer heat. Over one hundred people lost their lives in the mass evacuation, victims of a hurricane that never came.
Hurricane Ike made landfall in Cuba on September 8th, 2008, weakened over land, and then strengthened again in the tepid waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
My exhausted husband and sons hasten to secure what we cannot store. These flat plains offer little protest to the wind and tornadoes the storms toss out; wreckage and ordinary objects become missiles and daggers. Our tall metal deck chairs and table sit disarmed in the deep end of the pool. We watch the skies, recognizing the dark outer bands as the storm moves closer.
Restless in the unnatural dusk, we wander in and out of our blinded house and for hours watch drenched reporters in rain gear on every channel. We learn of those staying on Galveston and nearby islands, mostly older people, island-born, who will not leave, who insist they are safe at home and prepared, decrying warnings with chronicles of past goliaths survived in their stilt houses on the beach, of greater enemies survived in foreign fields and jungles across the world.
Perhaps the greater fear was being swallowed up in a shelter at the mercy of agencies and strangers, forced to leave beloved pets or having them taken from their arms, lifetimes abandoned to looters, scenes from Katrina replaying in their mind. Twelve hours later, beams and artifacts lay buried in sand where a life had been; taken by Ike, but victims of Katrina.
Staring out at the brown-tinged water, history lies beneath my feet, the original elevation of the island, as it was before the Great Storm, before the raising of the city and the seawall built. Near the Strand, century-old buildings stand as stained ledgers, crumbling from the weight of the past, high water delineated in brass far above my head. In 1900, thirty-eight thousand people lived in the Oleander City, many in frame houses on checkerboard streets above and below the mansions of Broadway. Some houses remain, concealing scars of patched and scored wood beneath braided rugs and carpets, hewed passages in the floor to shepherd the rising seawater, in hope of anchoring the house. Huddled upstairs they listen for a damping in the roar bespeaking a furious ceasing of the storm, but cascades assail the attic transoms and the angry Gulf overtakes the roof. By morning, September 8th, 1900, Galveston lay in matchsticks, a dam of debris now barring the sea that built it, the dead and missing, enumerable. Telegrams received in Houston on September 10th read, “…the City of Galveston is in ruins.”
She is a constant, that vast unknowable water, both wonderful and terrible in turn. As terra-bound souls we dwell at the mercy of her acquiescence, her surrender to the turning and breathing of the earth. Starring southwards, I feel what I cannot see, light over moving water, dredging wraiths from the silt and sand that sing to her primordial home among the prairie grass and nettle of this land. An indifferent breeze calls me back to my task in the overgrown dahlia and weeds, she releases me and I plunge my hands into dirt and Saharan dust.
©2011-2017 Rhonda Alford Owens. All Rights Reserved.