Human Condition: Hurricanes lead to time with family, hostess duties _lowres


My elderly mother called early on Aug. 30, 2008, to be certain I was expecting her for the weekend. I hadn’t issued an invitation but, then, she wasn’t asking a question.

I expected her, as well as my brother and sister-in-law and their neurotic schnauzer, and my older daughter because that’s how it is in south Louisiana after Katrina.

Whenever the hurricane’s path looks as if it is veering toward our coast, if you live in Baton Rouge and your dearest relatives live in New Orleans, you expect company.

When Katrina threatened in 2005, my family had prepared to hunker down and sit out the storm at home in the tradition of intrepid city residents since 1718. But the day before it came ashore, when the governor mandated that New Orleans evacuate, my brother and mother came in one car, my sister-in-law in another. They joined the thousands of vehicles gridlocked along Interstate 10. The drive lasted more than 10 hours as they inched along, baking in the hot and humid south Louisiana sauna with their windows down, afraid to use the car air conditioner and burn extra fuel.

Three years later, when Gustav approached and watching the weather channel became the region’s prime entertainment, my mother called to alert me to my impending hostess duties.

In Baton Rouge, we are not immune to hurricanes. They blow through here, too, felling trees on power lines and through roofs. And, we do occasionally have dramatic flooding.

So our hostess duties include getting in line to pump gas and elbowing through crowds of equally agitated residents to gather quantities of ice and foodstuffs, bags of batteries specific to flashlights, fans and portable televisions, and plywood and duct tape to decorate windows.

For Gustav, my family arrived a day and half early, long before contraflow, in cars packed only slightly less colorfully than Steinbeck’s Okies.

They had learned from Katrina to bring more than two day’s worth of necessities and so unloaded into my guest room closets full wardrobes, reams of legal papers and items of sentimental value.

Then we crowded into the kitchen around the television with good bottles of Scotch and white wine, as we had done before Katrina, and prayed that Gustav would spare New Orleans.

The good news was that, for the most part, it did.

The bad news was that the storm edged west, roaring up the Atchafalaya Basin and placing Baton Rouge in the most destructive quadrant. Eighty percent of the greater region went dark. So many trees were downed that the city was impassable for days and Entergy reported later that Gustav had created the third-highest number of power outages in the company’s 95-year history.

So my evacuees and I endured without lights or air conditioning for five days, taking temporary refuge in places we discovered to be in better shape — restaurants with lights and air conditioning, for example. After five days, they happily fled back to New Orleans where full power had been restored. I sat in the dark for another week.

As this year’s hurricane season has us on alert, my ear is tuned for my mother’s call. I did invest in a generator not long after Gustav. It’s large enough to run an air conditioning system and refrigerator — the least I could do I decided for my now-94-year-old mother. And my family knows they are welcome here as long as they wish.

I hope we will continue to be as fortunate as we have been: Neither my mother nor brother lost their houses in Katrina, and, despite 12 days without electricity during Gustav, my neighbor’s towering water oak fell cleanly across my backyard instead of through my roof.

But I trust that my family will understand and not think me inhospitable when I suggest that, in truth, I hope they don’t have to visit this year during our season of storms that have names.

Mary Ann Sternberg lives

in Baton Rouge.