Waiting for Ike

The five stages of hurricane anxiety.

Water crashes over a barrier in Galveston Bay. Click image to expand.

For much of the recent past, Texans in general and Houstonians in particular have viewed hurricanes with a degree of machismo. No one was still around to testify to the power of the Great Hurricane of 1900, the one that destroyed Galveston Island and paved the way for Houston to replace it as a boomtown, and few storms that followed were anywhere near as devastating. Over time, in fact, Texans got used to staring down their storms; they committed to staying put, to covering their windows with plywood or marking them with menacing masking-tape Xs, and to hosting foolish if festive hurricane parties. Storms still wreaked havoc—upending trailers, creating widespread flooding, paving downtown Houston in skyscraper glass—but most people accepted them as a normal if problematic part of life here, like mosquitoes, humidity, and the Bush family.

Then came the 2005 hurricane season, with Katrina in August and, not quite a month later, Rita. Within a few weeks, Houston was overwhelmed with evacuees from one angry storm and then dodged another one that ravaged the state’s southeast coastline, costing billions of dollars in damage and inspiring widespread nuttiness and worse as tens of thousands of Houstonians tried to flee at once with no discernable plan other than to “git.” Whether residents attributed the cause of these disasters to global warming, god’s wrath, or simple bad luck, one thing’s for sure: Our attitude toward hurricanes has changed. Every big storm now arrives with a post-Katrina psychopathology, a kind of pre-traumatic stress disorder that can be likened to Kübler-Ross’ famous stages of grief. As Ike rolls in, I’m watching it reach full strength.  The stages are as follows:

1.Anticipation. This phase usually accompanies the arrival of hurricane season, the six months—that’s half a year—from June 1 to Nov. 30. Symptoms include a disturbing excitement over the possible arrival of a deadly storm, as evidenced by an obsession with hurricane-tracking maps and various weather blogs, like skeetobiteweather.com, wunderground.com/tropical, and stormjunkie.com. This phase can be accompanied by an increase in hairsplitting arguments over a) who best remembers Hurricane Carla back in ‘61, b) the differences in mph between Category 3 and Category 4 storms, and c) whether the Houston Chronicle’s weather blogger Eric Berger has surpassed legendary TV weatherman Dr. Neil Frank in the reporting of hurricane minutia. (Question from reader: “What do you think about the CLP5 model?” Berger: “It’s not a model, it’s a combination of climatological and persistence, hence the name Clipper. Discount it heavily. Let me put it this way, if a new model can’t substantially beat the CLP5 model at forecasting it’s tossed in the rubbish bin.”)

2.Shopping. This phase usually shows up about a week before a storm’s proposed arrival. It is precipitated by a futile search for the camping lanterns and flashlights purchased but unused during last hurricane season, followed by budget-breaking expeditions to Target and/or Walmart and/or RadioShack in search of storm “necessities” like bottled water (penny pinchers just fill the bathtub), esoteric canned vegetables that will never be eaten, five-day Igloo coolers, more flashlights, and, for gourmands like my friend and food critic Alison Cook, Parmalat boxed milk. (Cook doesn’t settle for canned limas left over from Hurricane Rita: “Good wine is a must at my house,” she recently blogged of her Ike preparations, “as are a couple of favorite cheeses and a loaf or two of excellent bread—the extra swaddled in heavy-duty aluminum foil and frozen, to be extracted from the freezer after the electricity fails.”) As the storm gets closer, store shelves will resemble London after the Blitz. Don’t even bother asking for a hand-crank transistor radio. This phase is often accompanied by Bargaining, as in, “If I spend $150-plus on hurricane supplies, the storm will go elsewhere.”

3.Denial. Sets in as soon as the storm does not take the hoped-for turn to the north, south, east, or west—that is, doesn’t go elsewhere. In this phase, locals note the clearness of the sky and ignore the stillness in the air. They also avoid well-meaning but anxiety-producing phone calls from faraway family and friends who want to know “how you are doing down there.” Typical responses include “They always turn in another direction” and “I left last time, and nothing happened.” Or, as one stubborn resident of Galveston told Eric Berger after the mayor declared a mandatory evacuation, “I ain’t goin’ nowhere. I’m not goin’ to let them move me like they did for the last one.” (The “last one” being Hurricane Rita, which left more than 100 people dead in Texas.) These days, deniers make theirs virtual by cracking Ike jokes on Facebook, e.g., “Y(Ike)s!”

4.Panic. Often concurrent with Stage 3 and can result from skipping Stage 2. Sufferers often exhibit symptoms while enduring endless checkout lines in ravaged Targets, Walmarts, etc., as they overhear shoppers’ cell-phone conversations laced with false bravado. (“It probably won’t make landfall as a Category 3.”) Fistfights can erupt as gas stations run low on $3.50-per-gallon gas; catatonia can ensue when local weather reporting goes 24/7 (Those waves in Galveston? Still pretty placid 48 hours out!) and Houston Mayor Bill White stars in a funereal recitation of the ZIP codes requiring mandatory evacuation. Delusions can also be a problem—imagining you will still have Web access when the power goes out, for instance, or thinking you need to bring the gas grill inside when the kitchen stove is powered by… gas. Some will try to escape by calling the local Four Seasons Hotel (see Shopping, above) or various Texas Hill Country resorts, but by now they will all be booked.

5.Acceptance. This phase begins with a seemingly endless round of voice mails—on the recently exhumed nonportable phone—announcing closures and cancellations of virtually everything, including but not limited to school, psychotherapy (“Well, I could see you, but the elevators won’t be working and the electricity will be off …”), yoga classes (“Namaste”), and the dinner party scheduled back in March. It is time to move the gas grill and potted plants into the garage. It is time to capture the semiferal cats with pillowcases and carry them into the newly renovated bathroom, which they will destroy. It is time to admit that the only thing on television for the foreseeable future will be drenched, wind-lashed reporters in very silly rain gear or spotlight-happy public officials, like Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee. The only option now is to wish friends and even unpleasant neighbors good luck and batten down the hatches. Or, as the suddenly omnipresent FEMA operatives say, “Shelter in place.”