I Was Born in a Crossfire Hurricane

Hurricane Camille was one of only four Category 5 hurricanes to make landfall on the continental US, and the second most intense. She hit the Mississippi Coast the day after my 4th birthday: August 17, 1969. When she hit land, she destroyed all the instruments recording wind speed so her actual wind speed isn’t known, but it’s estimated to have been about 175 mph. The winds flattened houses. Then those houses were swept away by the storm surge flooding, which reached 24+ feet. Camille killed 25 people and caused almost $1.5 billion ($10.5 billion today) in damages.

The gulf coast from New Orleans to Apalachicola was severely affected. Camille caused tornadoes in Pensacola,  where the highwater mark was 4.8 feet, and flooded Gulf Shores, AL 34 miles away, with 9 feet of water. Camille took a relatively straight path into the Gulf of Mexico, hitting the Western edge of Cuba as a Category 2 and basically heading straight for Biloxi, gathering strength along the way. She made landfall in Bay St Louis, Mississippi, and barrelled north for 2 days, weakening to a tropical storm. On Aug 20 She turned east and traveled through Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia until she re-entered the Atlantic Ocean near Norfolk, Virginia that same day. By Aug 22, Camille was absorbed by a frontal system and was no more.

Joyce, Larry, Tonia (almost two), and I were in Pensacola visiting Richie and Nora, and Nita and Ruby Mae for my birthday. At one time there was 8mm film of Tonia and I playing in hurricane Camille. We’re in tiny little bikini bathing suits, riding inflatable pool rings down the flooded street on rushing water. When Lynne threw out everything that had belonged to Joyce, she also threw out my childhood, and Tonia’s and Sean’s. Our baby books and photo albums were gone, with our bronzed baby shoes and all the movies taken of us with the 8mm camera. But I remember the film, with its slight orange tint heightened by the orange mud roiling in the water in the street. We must have been in front of Nora’s house, because she and Richie appear in the movie, catching us when we reach the end of the street.

Hurricane Frederic hit the Gulf Coast on September 12, 1979, prompting the largest mass evacuation of the Gulf Coast to that date. His path was similar to Camille’s except he swept along Cuba’s southern coast as a tropical storm, gathering strength before making landfall in Dauphin Island,  Alabama as a Category 4 hurricane. Frederic weakened rapidly and was a tropical storm when he reached Meridian, MS about 18 hours later. From Meridian, he turned to the northeast and traveled to Newfoundland where he entered the Labrador Sea on September 15 as an extratropical cyclone.

On September 3, 1979, a hurricane warning was issued and evacuations began in the US Virgin Islands. Eventually over 500,000 people were evacuated in preparation for Frederic’s landfall. There was storm surge damage for 80 miles of coastline between Florida and Mississippi. In Florida, winds were clocked at 58 mph with up to 7 inches of rain. Frederic killed 5 people in the US and caused $2.3 billion in damages.

When we moved to Holt and lived with Nora and Richie, Richie built us a treehouse in a Live Oak in the forest in front of their house. He nailed boards to the trunk so you could climb up and enter the tree house through a trapdoor in the floor. The treehouse’s only roof was the crown of the tree spreading above it, but the roughly 8 foot square platform had 3-foot walls to keep anyone from tumbling 40-50 feet to the ground below. 

Sean, Tonia, and I spent the evening of Frederic’s approach and landfall in that treehouse. If there are pictures, I’ve never seen them. But I remember Nora packed us a picnic of melon slices and co’cola bottles so we didn’t have to climb up and down the slick ladder in the rain. I remember Richie standing under the carport, doing that thing old men do when a storm approaches: watching the sky. He was watching us, too, and I remember standing in the roughly swaying treehouse, holding onto and peering over the walls. The sky was metal grey and the rain came down in sheets, making Richie a dim figure in the lighted carport below us. 

I remember the sound of the rain and wind in the forest around us. I remember dropping peanuts in our co-cola bottles, as you do in the south, and gulping the bubbly liquid down fast enough to get hiccups. And I remember the ecstatic, drenched smiles on Tonia and Sean’s faces as we shivered and swayed in the hurricane.

No, I don’t know why.

I was living at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi ,Mississippi in August 1985 when Hurricane Elena danced in the Gulf of Mexico for five days. Nick was only 5 months old and Rocky and I were getting ready to PCS to Patrick Air Force Base (now Patrick Space Force Base) In Cocoa Beach, Florida (home of Major Tony Nelson and “I Dream of Jeannie”). Rocky had discovered the Air Force will pay you to move your household goods yourself, instead of paying professional movers, so that’s what he’d decided to do. I told him good luck, but I wasn’t helping since I had a newborn and common sense.

He’d already picked up the Uhaul and was loading our belongings into it when the first hurricane warnings were issued, with Elena expected to make landfall somewhere between Apalachicola, Florida and Grand Isle, Louisiana. Most weather services were predicting a landfall between New Orleans and Biloxi. It was Labor Day weekend.

In a moment of unstrained agreement, Rocky and I decided we didn’t want to try to live through a hurricane and hide in the shelters with little baby Nicky. We’d already planned for me and Nick to drive the Fiesta to Patrick, so since Elena seemed to be moving westward, we decided I’d head to Patrick early, stopping with relatives along the way. We loaded up, and Nick and I left for Pensacola to stay with Ruby Mae. Rocky stayed behind, guarding the van so no one would loot our goods. I don’t know why anyone would want our cheap goods, but I knew better than to argue.

Ruby Mae’s house in Pensacola

Hurricane Elena eventually made landfall as a Category 3 major Hurricane. Once she hit land she weakened rather quickly and dissipated in two days. By the time it was all over, an unprecedented 2 million people had been evacuated. She caused severe beach erosion all along the Gulf Coast and devastated the area’s shellfish industry. Nine people died: 2 in Louisiana, 2 in Texas, 3 in Florida, 1 in Arkansas, and one in the Gulf itself. The Gulf Coast suffered $1.3 billion in damages in 1985 dollars. An Exxon oil platform anchored off the Pensacola coast was torn off its moorings and was missing for most of a day.

I drove in bumper-to-bumper traffic for too long and tried to settle in at Ruby Mae’s. But she lived right next door to a place that sold sheet metal. They had layers of scaffolding supporting the sheets out in the yard. When the hurricane warnings started, the owners left, padlocking the high chain link fence behind them. I could hear the sheet metal bouncing and twisting in the wind and told Ruby Mae I thought we should go to Nita’s, farther away from the shore.

Ruby Mae didn’t want to leave her house. The sound of the metal sheets flapping around was seriously freaking me out. I imagined a flying sheet could just slice through the house in hurricane gale winds, and slice through whoever might be in the house. I called Rocky, telling him Ruby Mae wouldn’t move. He said he’d finished loading the Uhaul and had taken it to an empty parking lot and parked it there. I asked if it wouldn’t be smarter to have unpacked the goods back into the brick house we lived in. Rocky assured me they’d be safer in an unanchored truck in the middle of an empty expanse of concrete. I’m no scientist; what do I know?

While I was trying to talk Ruby Mae into moving inland, Elena turned sharply back to the east. New predictions said she’d likely make landfall anywhere between Pensacola and Cedar Key, though she was currently stalled. I bullied Ruby Mae into my car and dropped her off at Nita’s. Nick and I were going down to Tampa, where Rocky’s mom and dad lived. Elena came out of her stall and lazily turned south, gaining strength, essentially following me and Nick down the Florida coast. South of Tampa, Sarasota Florida was given orders to evacuate. More than a little spooked, I turned around and headed for Nora and Richie’s, safely inland.

Losing sight of her prey (me and Nick), Elena continued her rotation, reaching her peak intensity as she did: winds were clocked at 125 mph. She aimed herself directly back at Biloxi (maybe thinking I was heading back there?) and charged. She made landfall on the morning of September 2, still categorized as a major hurricane. She swept through Biloxi and continued northwest, rapidly losing strength until dissipating over Kentucky the evening of September 5.

Nick and I stayed with Nora and Richie until Rocky got us settled in at Patrick and sent for us. We did NOT go up into the tree house. The Uhaul full of our household goods survived the storm. Luck or science? So did our little brick house. In November, Hurricane Kate hit Apalachicola on the Gulf Coast as a Category 2 hurricane. Nick and I were safely on Florida’s eastern coast. There were no Florida hurricanes in 1986. Every hurricane since, I’ve spent in a safely land-locked location.

Forest in front of Nora and Richie’s house in Holt

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