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The devastation of Hurricane Katrina to the Gulf Coast is almost unfathomable even to people who are there. I've noticed that many of my friends here in Los Angeles, while sympathetic to the destruction they see, don't know what it is like to live through a hurricane. I (I'm dispensing with the editorial "we" for this post) grew up on the Gulf Coast, in Houston, Texas, so I do know about hurricanes, though those I've been through were not as deadly as Katrina. Think of the night this January in Los Angeles when, after days of rain, the streets flooded and houses slid down cliffs. Now imagine that amount of water coming down in a few hours, and accompanied by winds at speeds of hundreds of miles per hour. Now you have not only the water and wind to deal with, but the wind rips up trees by the roots, peels off the roofs of houses, and sends them hurling at you.
I've had friends and neighbors have trees land on their houses and cars. My aunt lives on Mississippi Gulf Coast and lost most of her possessions when the house she was then renting flooded in Hurricane Danny in 1997. She, her boyfriend, and the cat evacuated successfully to avoid Katrina, and she reported yesterday that a friend drove by her house, and that it was still standing, without a tree on it. "We had expected slabs," she remarked. They still cannot reach many of their friends, and hope that this is simply because the friends were able to evacuate.
I don't know if people here know what the Gulf Coast is like. Even in normal times, the separation between the water and the land is not as distinct as it is here in Los Angeles, with this city's dry cliffs and desert winds. Below sea level, as New Orleans and Houston are, you can feel the damp ocean breeze wash over you all day. The air is usually thick and humid, and muddy bayous slug their way inland. The land is completely flat and floods easily. The consternation over the alligator in the lake in San Pedro had been amusing to me until a few days ago, because on the Gulf Coast, alligators, who thrive in its swampiness, will occasionally crawl into in someone's backyard and menace the household pets, much as coyotes do here, or will turn up lounging in someone's parked car. Now, of course, the flooded streets of New Orleans and other cities may hide alligators and snakes (there were reports of a shark swimming through the streets of New Orleans), as well as disease.
I've been through major hurricanes myself. I was in North Carolina during Hurricane Floyd though east of where the worst of the damage was. I was in Houston during Hurricane Alicia and walked outside as the eye of the storm passed over our house. The air was still and silent, and we hurried back in to huddle in the hall, away from the windows, because we knew that the second half of the storm was on the other side.
The thing is that still, living there, you get used to it. I've had people assure me here that you get used to the threat of earthquakes, but having grown up in hurricane country, that's exactly what I'm afraid of. In school, we did a long project on the lessons of the Hurricane of 1900, which killed 6,000 people on Galveston Island and the Gulf Coast, many of whom were certain they could ride it out. People have learned from these lessons. The warning "Get out now" instructed thousands of people to evacuate, and if the people who did get out had stayed, the death toll would have been even higher than it tragically will be. People who stayed and took refuge in their attics often took axes up there, knowing they might have to hack through the roof. What happens that keeps you living in these areas is that you learn how dangerous a hurricane can be, but by living through them, they start to feel familiar. I love a normal thunderstorm, which is majestic, and a hurricane is a thunderstorm taken much too far. It seems to be human nature, when you live through something, to feel more familiar and confident with it. It's like getting used to the threat of earthquakes, or terrorist attacks. And the thing is, a hurricane, unlike an earthquake, you can see coming. It's like any other aspect of getting comfortable with danger - you know it's there, but it's still astonishing when it happens.