As Hurricane Sally began making her way to the Gulf Coast, the songs “Mustang Sally” and “Sally (That Girl)” took turns being my official tropical system theme song/earworm. “Sally (That Girl)” eventually won out, although I could only really remember, “Sally, whew. That Girl?” so that one line just replayed over and over and over and over in my head until permanent brain damage was suffered.
Hurricanes are (obviously) just part of life on the Gulf Coast. And we all know the drill by now. Five or six days out we can be in the dead center of the “cone of uncertainty,” but a few days later as a high-pressure system strengthens or weakens, the storm’s track can move east or west, and we can end up being completely in the clear.
My husband, Frank, was getting all antsy about Sally, that girl, on Sunday, but I was like, whoa, “You know it’s going to keep tracking west. They always do. It’ll probably go to Texas and we’ll get nothing.”
This has always been one of my highly unscientific hurricane beliefs: If you are ever in the cone early on OR if any of the Weather Channel people show up in your coastal city first, the storm is 100 percent NOT coming your way.
Which is why on Monday morning when I saw Jim Cantore broadcasting from New Orleans I started to really worry about Sally, that girl. Whew, that girl, may be “jogging” east.
“Yeah, we’re going to get it,” I said to Frank as we were making coffee and getting ready for work on Monday. “The Weather Channel folks are way too excited about the storyline that Louisiana is getting hit twice in a month by a hurricane, so it’s definitely not going to Louisiana.”
You know, because that’s how hurricanes “think.” So, it’s either us or “the area between New Orleans and Mobile,” as one forecast predicted, which made some of my Mississippi friends raw. “That ‘area’ is a state called MISSISSIPPI,” they raged.
As I began making a mental list of preparations and thinking about what hurricane food I would make (my mom’s hamburger soup and cornbread was sounding good), I thought about all of the storms I had experienced as an almost lifelong Gulf Coast resident and how each one had been so different.
I was 2 when Hurricane Frederic hit the Gulf Coast as a Category 4 on September 12, 1979. Obviously, I don’t remember much about that one. I was living an hour north of here in Jackson, Alabama, where I grew up. My mom said I stayed under the kitchen table with my cat Pepper, and even though we were inland, when my mom would retell the story she would always say, “You know it was actually worse up here than it was on the coast. We got all of the tornadoes.” Almost as if she was proud of the devastation.
I have absolutely no idea if that is true or if her account of that day just got embellished with each retelling over the years, but that was her truth. And that storm still seems to be the one all others get compared to around here, even to this day. “Well, I mean, it was no Frederic, but we did lose power for a few days.” I pray Frederic keeps his title of biggest, badass hurricane to hit Mobile (and Jackson, where it was “much worse”) for another 40 or so years.
The first hurricane I have real memories of was Elena. It was Labor Day Weekend 1985, and I was 8. My mom’s best friend invited us to come down to Gulf Shores for the weekend to stay with her and her two daughters. Her oldest was also 8, and my best friend. It worked out quite well for all of us.
We spent a couple of days there, and it was gorgeous — a picture-perfect beach weekend. I guess at some point we ended up in the dreaded cone, and the police kept going up and down Beach Boulevard telling everyone to leave. Our moms looked at the beautiful blue skies and said, “Why are we evacuating exactly?” And those two headstrong women waited until the last possible minute to leave.
I guess everyone did that, because while I have absolutely zero memory of wind gusts or rain (I don’t think it actually came here), all I remember is being in the backseat of a car for what seemed like days. (With no electronics! How did we survive?) I think it legitimately took us like 10 hours to get home — it’s normally a two-hour trip. But I’ve never forgotten that journey, and I don’t have very many memories still left of my eighth year on this planet, so storms definitely make an impression on you.
My daughter is 8 now and this will probably be the first storm she and her 11-year-old brother will have memories of. I hope it’s just of me crying because they refuse to eat (or even try!!) my, or really, their poor dead grandmother’s, hamburger soup and not because a giant tree falls in our yard or something like that.
The hurricanes I experienced in college and my 20s were definitely the most “fun,” if you can call it that.
During Hurricane Danny, my friends and I were those idiots who were out in the storm tromping around downtown and being the example of what not to do.
I rode out Hurricane Ivan in Midtown with my friend Michael. We had margaritas, and I spent several hours chasing my dog, who got out of the house somehow — probably while I was busy cutting limes.
Hurricane Katrina scared me enough that I went back home to Jackson, where I am sure my mom warned and boasted at the same time, “You know, usually it’s worse up here. You know Frederic was.”
Thankfully, Danny was mostly a rain event, and we didn’t get direct hits from Ivan or Katrina, but we did lose power and had a bunch of trees down with the latter two. We still fared far better than New Orleans and the area between Mobile and New Orleans.
My biggest memory from those two storms was just how kind people were to one another in the aftermath. Neighbors would check in on you and bring you some ice or something they had whipped up on their grill, maybe help you drag limbs to the road.
I don’t want a hurricane to hit us just so we have an excuse to be nice to one another again, but that sense of community and togetherness was nice.
I certainly hope Sally, that girl, sputters and spares us all. But I know if she does sneak up on us with a more powerful punch than anticipated, we will get through this, we will take care of each other and it will be OK.
Because that’s just how we do this. We always have, and we always will. It’s a Gulf Coast thing.
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