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Living Through Hurricane Isabel

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I started cooking first thing in the morning – something I don’t do, ever. I cleaned the house, made the beds in all the rooms, put away all the toys around the house and in my son’s room, and cleared the odds and ends that were piling up around the house. I did the laundry. I cleared the dirty dishes in the kitchen and ran the dishwasher. I dusted, scrubbed, and mopped. I was waiting, getting my cocoon ready.

Then, I tackled a pile of loose receipts, assorted letters, statements from banks, mutual funds, and credit card companies, tearing up and throwing away most of them and saving a few for the tax folder. I wondered about my ability to prioritize. Is that what I should really be doing now? I gathered our passports, birth certificates, marriage license, insurance papers, and whatever receipts I could find for all of the items around the house, and put them all in a plastic bag.

I sat down to catch my breath. It wasn’t even 9am yet.

A couple of days earlier, I had taken photographs of the exterior of the house. Now, I took photographs of the interior. Then I continued cooking, simultaneously making chapattis and boiling water for pasta for my son. Chapattis would last for a couple of days without refrigeration. My son and I then went upstairs, loaded batteries in all our flashlights and the boom box. I pulled out the water bottles and the canned food (remnants of the last elevation of the terror alert a few months earlier) I had stored in a closet upstairs. I lowered the temperature in the refrigerator and the freezer to the coldest setting.

I turned the TV on to see what was in store for the night. I made myself some tea and read the newspaper. Unable to concentrate, halfway into the tea, I headed back upstairs. All my photo albums were in the fourth bedroom that we had converted into a study. Just a few months ago, it had taken me two whole weeks to sort, chronologically organize, and insert 13 years’ worth of photographs into albums. All the negatives and the new-fangled photo CDs had gone into a cardboard box that was perfect for the purpose.

I dumped all of the toys out of a plastic tote in my son’s room into a basket and carried the tote into the study. I arranged the photo albums and the box with the negatives and the CDs in the tote and lugged it two floors down into a cedar closet (that’s used to store seasonal clothes and unused suitcases) in the basement. Of all the things in the house, those were the items I regarded as the most precious. I was worried more about possible tornadoes that night than I was about flooding.

Now, I was ready for Hurricane Isabel.

I remembered watching news coverage of many hurricane and tornado victims and the one thing they all said they were sad about losing the most were the photographs – irreplaceable mementoes of their children’s baby years, first days of school, proms, vacations, anniversaries and birthdays. That memory obviously stuck with me.

My in-laws called around 10:30am from Chicago where they were spending some time with their second son. What was going on? Were we going to be all right? I reported that it was drizzling and breezy, but other than that, nothing was happening yet. I said I thought we had everything on hand to come out all right. They were worried about the possibility of flooding. I assured them that that was not expected to happen where we lived, crossing my fingers and hoping it was true.

This was the first big natural disaster of our 13 or so years here. Even though we had lived through snow storms (including the infamous “Blizzard of ’96”) and other thunderstorms before, none was as dangerous as Isabel was expected to be, and none had greater adverse effects than Isabel was expected to wreak on the Washington area.

My cousin called from St. Louis wondering if we were going to be all right. I said I thought we would be, but that I was worried about the tall trees in our back yard and told her we planned to sleep in the guest bedroom that night, away from the trees.

A close friend called. She lives in a high rise with her husband and daughter. We both reassured the other that we would be all right and talked about the precautions we were taking. She mentioned filling up one of her bathtubs with water. Why? I asked. She explained that water pressure might fall if there is loss of power, especially in a high rise. I debated if I should do the same, and foolishly as it turned out, I decided against it, somewhere in the back of my mind, connecting the water pressure issue only with high rises. I was more concerned about my three-year-old in the house with full bathtubs.

By late afternoon, the winds had picked up and so had the rain. My son and I sat out on the bench in the porch and felt the wind and the rain and breathed in the cool, wet breeze. It felt good. He screamed at the “wind god” to stop blowing wind. He squealed and ran back every time he got close to the railing and felt the rain on his bare hands and legs. He ran back and forth in a kind of a tango with the rain.

I turned the TV on for the latest weather news. Isabel had made landfall in North Carolina and was expected in Washington around 8 pm, with the worst of it expected between 10 pm and 2 am that night. Around 5 pm, we lost power.

Apart from the howling wind, it was the one of the calmest and most peaceful nights I had been through in a long time. The TV was not humming in the background. The microwave and the coffee-maker could no longer point out the time to me, constantly making me wonder if I should be doing something else. It was only when they were completely dark did I realize just how many times, in a span of a few hours, I would look for the time, reflexively. The swaying trees, the rain pelting the glass windows, and the soft lights of the candles and flashlights only enhanced the dreamy effect. The bedtime story ritual was conducted by candlelight. With no TV, no e-mails to check, or dishes to do, my husband, my son, and I sat together and read the story of planets and stars, my son’s current favorite.

Around 10:30 pm, about two hours after my son had fallen asleep in the guest room upstairs, we felt and heard the first big roar of the wind that night and looked out to see the trees bending low, bowing to its force. I wondered what would happen if a tree fell and blocked our path to the floor above, leaving us stuck downstairs with our son sleeping upstairs. That image was graphic enough to have us scurrying upstairs straight away to get the sleeping bag, a couple of comforters, and pillows and put them down in the living room, where we all eventually spent the night.

The rest of the night developed into a strange sort of dance on continuous replay. We would sit at the table reading or listening to the radio, hear the wind whistling through the doors or blasting through the trees, get up and look out the window to check the trees in the backyard, go check on our son, and come back to the table. We had to keep the radio on continuously to get any weather-related news, which was, unlike on TV, quite intermittent. I voiced my concern about the batteries running out and stared down a snicker from my husband. Batteries don’t run out in the span of a night, he explained. The forecasters, earlier in the day, had mentioned that tornado watches might go up by midnight, but nobody said anything about tornadoes as the night wore on. Finally, around 2 am, we were exhausted and did not see any point to staying awake.

Sleep was neither continuous nor restful. Every once in a while, we saw the headlights of a car driving by and wondered just what compelled driving around that night. Around 4 am, when I got up to get a drink of water, there was neither rain nor wind. Just calm.

Isabel was gone.

When we walked out the next morning, our neighbors across the street were already up surveying damage around their house. One of them lost a newly planted tree. We all gathered on our driveway and marveled at how little damage there was in our immediate neighborhood. Some of the tallest trees around had withstood Isabel, coming out of it with just a few shorn limbs.

It was then that someone mentioned the falling water pressure. Toilets tanks were not refilling water. Oh, oh. We were in trouble. I had not only not filled the bathtubs, the stoppers in both bathtubs did not work. I scrambled to fill water in whatever huge containers I could find as my husband drove to the local hardware store for the stoppers.

It came to me in a flash as I reported the morning’s events to my in-laws. Preparing for blackouts and water shortages is the stuff of life during summers in India. The images came to me now – scrambling to finish showers and any cooking involving electric appliances before the scheduled daily two-hour “power cut,” and filling water in whatever cooking utensil you could find, even the smallest one, to tide over a water shortage. Most homes have huge underground water tanks for this purpose, which will fill up as and when water becomes available.

More neighbors came out to talk and exchange stories as we got out the rake and the brooms to clean up the mess of dead branches and leaves. We saw people who lived in our neighborhood we had never seen before. Parents went out for a walk with their teenage children. A mother sat with her two small children at the end of the footpath across from our house and counted cars as they went by. Children came out to walk their dogs. A father went out for a jog with his daughter. People’s busy lives came to a crawl – soccer games and piano classes were canceled. People cooked breakfast and lunch at home because they did not want the food in their refrigerator to go bad and restaurants were not open.

Power came back later that day and water pressure improved greatly the next. Isabel came and went and, as in the case of many powerful forces of nature, she left damage and destruction behind. But she also left behind a sweet aftertaste, a harkening back to the days when life was lived in a slower, gentler pace, and when the lives of individual families were intertwined with that of the community.

She also served, for me at least, as a very good practice run for future emergencies – both the natural kind and the kind that are thrust on us by people.

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About Sujatha Bagal