By Audrey Atkins
Brother and I huddled under the heavy oak table on a cushion from the old, red corduroy chaise lounge. It was a little more than a week before my 10th birthday, and he was only 3½. We hadn’t been able to bring much, but I had my favorite teddy bear, and Brother had his “Bubba,” a pillow our great aunt, Big Mama, had made for him when he was born. Since the day she gave it to him, that pillow had been everywhere with us. It kept the bad things away, or so he thought.
I didn’t think Bubba could help us much now.
Outside, the wind bellowed around the little house. Earlier in the day, we’d left our hundred-year-old home and sought shelter here, but not before we covered all the windows in masking tape and left a few slightly open. For the pressure, you know. It can build up and blow a house up. Mama feared the huge oak tree that grew in the ell of our home would, at last, be lost. The tree was ancient. How long could it face storm after storm without giving in?
We’d filled the claw-foot bathtub up with water. We secured the barn and the shed. The good silver and some other valuables were all packed in the trunk of the car ready to go. Don’t forget Bubba. The baby will cry all night without him.
We’d gone to Mama’s office, which was in a converted cottage across the street from the police station and fire department. They had a generator. I could tell from the eerie yellow lights that glowed through the glass door. Our power had gone out a couple of hours before, and I’d seen the blue sparks from the fallen lines and heard the transformers explode. All we had now was the kerosene lamp with its glowing orange mantle and smoky chimney glass. And that’s how Brother and I came to be under the table, in case the roof caved in, looking out between the tape stripes on the big plate glass window, Mama and Daddy sitting nearby. What would protect them, I wondered.
It was September 12, 1979, and Hurricane Frederic raged onto shore late that evening. It traveled up the line separating our home state of Alabama from Mississippi, and Citronelle wasn’t too far from that line. We were on the “bad” side of the storm.
For nearly two weeks, we’d tracked its course on a paper map we’d gotten from the library. Here it comes over the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba. Now it’s in the Gulf of Mexico. “Hush your mouth so I can hear,” Mama would say as she listened for the weatherman to announce the latitude and longitude so she could put another little dot on the map. Children can always tell when their parents worry.
My parents were worried.
A hurricane is different from a tornado. While both are violently destructive, a tornado dips suddenly from the sky like a long, malevolent finger, its sharp nail scraping away everything in its path. If you have any warning at all, it’s likely to be only minutes. A hurricane takes a path you track daily. It may zig a little, and it may zag a little, but it relentlessly marches closer.
With it, there’s plenty of time to plan for the worst and hope for the best. There’s plenty of time to fret and worry. You have plenty of time to bounce between dreading the inevitable and praying maybe it won’t be so bad.
“Hurricane Frederic,” the weatherman said, “will be the worst storm in recorded history.” A hurricane has a name. It gets talked about like that uncle, the hateful drunk uncle. The uncle who’s liable to throw one of Grandmother’s china plates against the wall if you say the wrong thing. The one everyone hopes will go to someone else’s house at Thanksgiving. I wish that Frederic would just stay away from us, you think.
It’s not Christian to wish ill on others. But if you wish, if you get down on your knees and pray that you’ll be spared, it means someone else won’t be. That someone else will be packing their good silver in the trunk of their car. That other parents might forget to pack the baby’s pillow when they flee.
In the early morning of September 13, the winds died down, and Daddy and I went outside to look around. Limbs and shingles and pink insulation were everywhere. “I’m glad it’s over,” I said to Daddy. “Oh, this is just the eye of the storm. We’re only halfway there,” he said. I went back to my safe place, back under the table with Brother. Sure enough, in a little while, the winds picked back up. I saw a whole roof go tumbling down the street, end over end, just like a toy. Then there was a horrible cracking, crashing sound. Something was scraping against the window glass. One of the big pecan trees next door had fallen and flattened the carport. It barely missed the house.
At some point I went to sleep even though I meant to stay up all night, to stay up with my worried parents, to watch over Brother. I didn’t want to miss anything, but I didn’t want to see any more either. Hurricanes can be very tiresome, and at some point, you wonder if it will ever end.
Eventually, Frederic moved on through, though he wouldn’t stop until he had blown all the way up through New England and back out into the Atlantic. We crept out into the day and picked our way through the four blocks between the office and our home. The sun was shining, and the air was hot and still. Everywhere you looked there were limbs and debris, houses with shingles, siding, or whole roofs missing, pieces of sheet tin, signage and wood, scraps of paper and fabric.
Our house was untouched mostly, but trees were down. I remember Daddy standing in the living room by the side windows, the ones we’d left cracked open. For just a second, he looked completely overwhelmed, then he turned and went outside to fire up the chainsaw so that he could join the growing chorus of others in the neighborhood. I remember the sound of those saws continued for what seemed like months, and it probably was months. And for years, Brother and I climbed on the crisscrossed trunks of pines that had fallen in the woods surrounding our new house, the house that had only been a frame when Frederic came. Mother Nature’s jungle gym leaked sticky sap that stained our clothes.
Since Mama and Baw (her father, my grandfather) owned an insurance agency, it was right back to work for them, filing claims for the people who lined up out the door, across the porch, and out into the parking lot. It was my job to fetch coffee for the customers, run errands, and generally stay out of the way unless I was needed. The insurance company sent two men down all the way from Syracuse, New York, to help with the claims. They were busy and brusque. I’d never met anyone from New York before and didn’t understand why they couldn’t be friendlier. I wondered where in the world they were staying. Citronelle did have one motor lodge, but I couldn’t imagine “nice” people staying there. I never did know, and then one day, they were gone.
Eventually, school started back up, and things went pretty well back to normal. That is, until one November morning when Daddy woke me up to tell me that Baw had died in the night. “His heart gave out,” he said. I went on to school feeling sad and empty. We are people who carry on, even the children. “It was that blamed hurricane that killed him,” Mama said. The stress from trying to help everyone with their claims had proven too much.
The aftermath of Hurricane Frederic went on for years, and it turned out to be the costliest hurricane on record to that date. Eighty percent of the buildings in Gulf Shores were destroyed, and even 90 miles inland, where we lived, the repairs would go on for years. This hurricane was so destructive, its name — Frederic — was retired, an honor given only to the most devastating of storms.
But the impact of a storm goes far beyond property damage. The loved ones who are lost either during the storm or as a result of the storm will never come back. There are memories of happy times at places no longer in existence. Routines and traditions are forever changed. And the life you once knew gets washed away like so much debris.
It’s hard to believe that nearly 40 years have passed since I sat under that oak table with my teddy, Brother, and Bubba because every time I see the weather report focus on a little red dot far away in the ocean, I immediately start to worry. I’m excited when I watch that dot make a turn toward the North Atlantic, and my stomach sinks when I see the dotted trail lead to land. I know the dread people in the path of the storm feel.
And I know, somewhere, the good silver is getting loaded into the trunk of a car, and a few clothes and other valuables are piled on top. I know bathtubs are being filled with water and windows are being taped up. And somewhere, there’s a mama frantically looking for a little pillow so the baby won’t cry all night.