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. Deep beneath our clay-bound soil, ancient shells, shrouded and sleeping, reveal her footprint; the layer of 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 on the western coast of Africa, searing winds of sand roll off the desert, coiling southward to the Gulf of Guinea producing unstable air, the African Easterly. The Easterly 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.
Now we watch to see how it grows, where it goes, and if the Gulf will pull it in and slam 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 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 with the scenes of destruction, death and misery. Stunned, we watch with inconsolable heartache for the people of Louisiana and Mississippi and we inhale their fear.
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.
Our tall metal deck chairs and table sit disarmed in the deep end of the pool, our south facing windows, blinded with plywood and tape. These flat plains offer little protest to the wind and tornadoes tossed out by the storm and ordinary objects become missiles and daggers. Exhausted, we rest on back steps watching the sky, recognizing the dark outer bands as the storm moves closer. With the adrenaline of haste past, unease seeps from the atmosphere, sidles up beside us, and we sit with it for a while.
In the unnatural dusk, we wander in and out. We learn of those still on Galveston and nearby islands, mostly older people, island-born, who will not leave, who insist they are safe at home, unafraid and prepared. In interviews, they decry the official warnings and mandatory evacuations with chronicles of past Goliaths survived in their stilt houses on the beach and of greater enemies confronted on other beaches far away.
Perhaps the greater fear was being swallowed up in a shelter, at the mercy of agencies and strangers, forced to abandon beloved pets or having them taken from their arms as they board a bus or enter the shelter, their homes and possessions left for looters; images of Katrina replaying in their minds, despite pleading assurances otherwise. Twelve hours later, so many are gone, beams and artifacts buried in sand where a house once stood; taken by Ike, but victims of Katrina.
Starring 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. Near the Strand, century-old buildings stand as stained ledgers, crumbling from the weight of the past, the 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 of those houses remain today, concealing scars of patched and scored wood beneath braided rugs and carpets, hewed passages in the floor to shepherd the rising seawater in hopes of anchoring the house.
By mid-morning the sea was streaming through their garden and beneath the house, quietly seeping through floorboards and soaking their shoes as they move pictures and furniture to upper rooms. In a city so close to sea level, this was not an unfamiliar task given the island’s propensity to storms and surge. The thin fast-moving outlier clouds and gusting winds support the town chatter of a coming tropical gale, so they take an early supper, secure the shutters and prepare to wait out the storm upstairs, as they always do.
The air screams as it squeezes around the window frames of the South facing attic wall. Under blankets they huddle away from the windows, listening for a damping in the roar, a cessation of wind and water signaling an end to the battery. Intemperate crashes wound outer walls and the floor shivers in reply beneath them; saltwater begins to bleed through widening cracks. By midnight cascades assail the attic transoms as the angry Gulf overtakes the roof, devouring the third floor and all within and moves on.
By morning, September 8th, 1900, Galveston lies in matchsticks, a dam of debris and death 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 body, 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. Staring southwards, I feel what I cannot see, light over moving water, dredging wraiths from the silt and sand to sing to her primordial home among the prairie grass and nettle of this land. An indifferent breeze calls me back to my task where the overgrown dahlia and weeds of my garden wait. She releases me, I kneel, and plunge my hands into dirt and Saharan dust.
© 2020-2021 Rhonda Alford Owens
Image Credits: ABC13; Getty Images