I decided, a few years ago, that if I ever again had to evacuate because of a hurricane, I couldn’t do it alone. A few days before Hurricane Ida struck, those of us who live on the Northshore—the community north of Lake Pontchartrain—were told to expect winds of 35 to 40 mph. with gusts up to 60 mph. I could live with that, so I wasn’t worried. I assumed I would have some gutter damage and maybe some minor roof damage (this sometimes happens where I live even if we have a moderate storm). But then the forecasts became more serious for our area, and I began to worry.
I made all the usual preparations—placed all the container plants against the deck wall, brought in the bird-feeders, wind chimes and nest bottles, and added to my bottled water supply. Later, I would fill the bathtub, have a bucket on hand, and unplug all the surge protectors. These are all dreaded tasks, but we do them automatically—it’s part of life in south Louisiana.
Some of my friends decided to stay, and those who evacuated at the last minute already had a full car. One of my friends invited me to stay at her house in a rural area, but I was afraid that there was no safe place there for my car. I had two major things going for me—a garage, and a house that stays surprisingly cool without air conditioning. But even with this advantageous scenario, I didn’t want to be in the house alone.
Emergencies often bring about odd circumstances, and so it was that my ex-husband and I decided to pool our resources. There are no trees where he lives, he assured me that the parking shelter at the condo building where he lives was safe from the wind, and—a real plus—he gets his water from the city water tower, so he knew that he would continue to have water even after the power went out.
For my part, I had lanterns and batteries and a power bank, and I had made a last-minute trip to pick up some extra food and some coconut water. I put everything I thought I would need in a couple of tote bags and drove to his place on Sunday morning, a few hours before Ida was expected to make landfall. The condo was much warmer than my house, and much, much less clean. I forgot to bring my pillow, and his pillows were slightly better than bags of concrete.
When we divorced, two of our cats (sisters, now deceased) stayed with me, and he took the other two, who are brothers. They were glad to see me—it had been a while—and one of them became almost kitten-like again.
I was troubled, though, because I knew that soon, I wouldn’t be able to drink coffee or wash my hair, and that I was going to miss at least part of the U.S. Open. That may sound trivial, but I’m a tennis blogger and sometime member of the tennis media, and throughout the years, hurricanes have interfered with my viewing of the year’s last major; I prepared for the worst.
Sunday, however, was almost pleasant. We had television, and we had the refrigerator and the microwave. I was able to attend my Sunday evening Zoom yoga class. The storm was moving very slowly, but it was a relief to learn that it was continuing to veer northwest. At 6:30 p.m., the power went out. A couple of hours later, Ida veered again, and this time, headed straight north; it was coming right at us.
Before a hurricane, the trees and shrubs sway gently, as if trying to keep the oncoming carnage a secret. The sky generally turns a bit green, and the air takes on a flinty smell. Birds, butterflies and dragonflies disappear. This was the scene for a long time, but then we heard the sound of serious wind, once the hurricane made landfall. Late at night, we were pummeled, though I felt safe in the condo. I couldn’t sleep, but at least I had a soft, gentle part-Siamese beside me. And I didn’t have to hear the dreadful sound of giant limbs cracking off of trees, or of entire trees hitting the ground—or worse.
I have sciatica, and have been in treatment for it for a while. I was getting better, but the stress of hurricane preparation made it flare; my ex had kinisio tape on his knee. Between us, we had two good legs, but we managed, with our lanterns and phones and a small supply of food.
I had never liked visiting the cats because I don’t like being in my former husband’s home. The effects of both the marriage and the divorce took their toll on me, emotionally and physically, and I still have anger toward him, and toward myself. But there I was, surrounded by furniture that used to be in the house that we shared. My former Asian-design nightstand is in his living room, as is the antique English bookcase. As I write this, I’m sitting next to a vintage side table that also used to be in our living room. My former chest of drawers is in the bedroom, and our coffee table is in front of the chair where I’m sitting.
The entire landscape is one filled with traumatic memories (he even kept my wedding flowers), and—after being here a couple of days—I began to wonder why I had come at all. To make matters worse, my ex-husband’s lack of self-care and his lack of interest in maintaining his environment had both intensified. The condo was so filthy, I finally swept the floors; I couldn’t help myself. Yet there I was again, in a frightening replay of a familiar scene—doing intense physical labor (while hurting), while he sat on a lounge chair and relaxed.
We had a number of mishaps. I misplaced the salve I use to calm the sciatica, and I also lost the adapter that plugs into my MacBook charger. One of our lanterns broke. I discovered that my current phone could not be plugged into my power bank. When I learned about this, I panicked, because I do not have a USB charger in my car, nor does my ex. My car’s cigarette lighter was providing only a light charge; we discovered that the lighter in his car worked better—but it still took hours to charge the phone.
I had a yoga mat, a hard-to-charge phone, some dry shampoo, several bottles of coconut water and some beans and apples. But I was in a safe place, and my car was safe. Texting and Twitter took on a whole new meaning for me as I heard from concerned people in all parts of the country.
After the storm, I began spending more time on the balcony, where there was sometimes a light breeze. The power came back on in the condo after a few days and we found an open grocery store, and stood in a very long line to buy a few supplies.
We stopped by my house, which a neighbor had already told me was intact. Debris was everywhere. I looked at my bathtub, still filled, and wondered whether it was worth returning to a cool, clean house, but with a limited supply of water. I decided that it wasn’t. I was exhausted, uncomfortable, overheated, in pain, and disgusted, but I realized—perhaps as I never had before—that water was more essential than anything.
My house used to be on a hospital grid, and was therefore in the first 10% to get power back. It has since been removed from the grid, and this time around, it was in the final 10% to get power. I had been through this before, during Katrina, and some primitive part of me knew that I had to stay calm, and accept the reality that I was going to be very uncomfortable, perhaps for a long time. And to also accept the reality—yet again—that some wounded part of me was not operating in my best interest when I married the person who was sitting in the recliner, snoring loudly, oblivious to the fact that he was living in a trash pile.
It wasn’t all bad. I was able to spend time with the large tabby who had been living with cancer for two years. The bed I was given was comfortable, I retrieved my pillow from my house, and I sometimes slept, although my ex’s idea of a comfortable room temperature was several degrees different from mine and I frequently woke up in a sweat. The Siamese mix, who had originally been “my” kitten, slept with me every night. When the power came back on, I watched the U.S. Open.
My former husband has no pots and pans, no knives or cooking spoons or anything of use for cooking, in his kitchen—not even salt and pepper. I made another run to my house and grabbed a tomato knife, an egg cooker, and—of course—a salt shaker and a pepper grinder. I became a kind of mad scientist of cooking; somehow, we managed to eat.
The once handsome tabby, now shrunk by illness, began to fade rapidly. My ex fed him with a dropper, took him to the vet, monitored him constantly, and gave him his meds throughout the day. I thought, for the thousandth time, about the two weeks when I lay in bed with thyroid disease, weak, with burning skin and labored breathing, and he didn’t as much as offer to bring me a glass of water.
Resentment and betrayal, like hurricanes, wreak considerable damage. And, as with hurricanes, some structures cannot be rebuilt. This is true of the structure I call Self; I am not who I used to be, and the walls of my current existence feel both unstable and suffocatingly confining. I wondered, as I have wondered for years, why I had ever married this man, and why I had failed to notice that my confidence, my energy, my very essence, were being worn away, like water on a rock—year after year—until I believed that I had no choice but to remain in the marriage.
By the time I did leave, I barely recognized myself. I’m still not sure who I am, or what happened to the parts of myself that were destroyed by years of living in a state of high tension, while being neglected, ignored, and chronically emotionally abused.
I have since had the house that we had lived in together—and which my former husband also completely neglected—totally renovated, and during the pandemic, I had it partially re-furnished. But it still feels haunted, even after living in it by myself for several years. It’s very comfortable, and it reflects my taste, but there are ghosts that are sealed into the walls, and no amount of sheet-rocking or painting can completely remove them.
While I was sitting in the dark with my ex, with whom I shared a tense Katrina evacuation, I thought of those days in 2005, when we didn’t know if we still had a house, yet we felt fortunate to be safe and alive. And I thought of the day that he packed all of his things, and—with two of our cats—left our house forever. I still had a house, but it was a gravely neglected one, and I certainly didn’t feel safe.
But I survived, as did he. And now, suddenly together—after Hurricane Ida had come and gone—we drove through familiar neighborhoods, now wrecked by fallen trees and downed power lines. It had rained relentlessly all summer, and the pine trees—heavy with water—toppled with the first strong winds. The water oaks are hollow, and they, too, came down with little prompting. The local landscape was one of downed trees, sawed logs, branches, cables, pieces of roofing, and dozens of large trucks, all surrounded by men in bright vests and hard hats.
Nine days after the power went out, electricity was restored to my house. On the tenth day, I moved back, though I had no Internet or cable television, and very poor cellular power. Fortunately, the house and property had sustained only very minor damage.
The day after I moved back, the tabby received a euthanizing injection, leaving my ex with the inevitable questions about whether he had done the right things at the right time. I assured him that he had, even while I remembered so clearly that when the tabby who lived with me had received that injection—under far more ambiguous circumstances—I was extremely uncertain about whether I had done the right thing, and I had received no reassurance or sympathy at all.
We are each who we are. We are capable of changing, but some of us choose not to do so. The man with whom I shared a home and a life for seventeen years is no more capable of offering compassion or reassurance than most of us are at withholding it—and he sees no reason to change.
Outside my window, there are piles and piles of tree debris, most created by Hurricane Ida, but some created by the power company and the phone company. Some cables are still down, their multi-colored wires hanging amid the dead tree branches like party streamers from a celebration gone very bad. It would be several days before I had Internet and cable television, and my cellular power remains weak. I was, however, grateful to have a roof and lights and air conditioning and a working refrigerator.
Those of us who live in south Louisiana are known for being resourceful and resilient. We turn upheaval into song and legend, and tragedy into Mardi Gras float designs. Having lived through so much chaos and destruction, we possess a layer of acceptance that, during hurricane season, feels like a second, impenetrable skin.
But it isn’t. Like all skin, it can be stretched only so far, and it is vulnerable to punctures and lacerations. And major hurricanes, with all the bureaucratic and political disasters that accompany them, produce generational trauma—much like the traumas of war—that penetrate and infect that skin. Those of us who survived Katrina will never be the same people that we were before August 29, 2005. And every new disaster adds a layer to the shared trauma.
Toward the end of the U.S. Open, I had to publish lengthy blog posts. I took a couple of trips to the next town in order to use the wireless service at a major coffee shop. But for the final long and complicated posts, I returned to my ex’s condo, where Internet service had been restored, and where I also did one final Zoom yoga class. I was grateful to be there, and we had dinner together one last time.
I do not know the effects of trauma—either from Katrina or from our wrecked marriage—on my former husband because he does not recognize such effects, nor would he talk about them if he did. I sometimes envy him for that. After we made our decision to dissolve our marriage, he said that he “felt bad for a while,” as he prepared to move. During this time, I slept on my home office floor, listened to angry woman music via earphones, watched TV on my iPad, and experienced the beginning of a process in which my body seemed to detach from the rest of me.
These days, I pick up the limbs that continue to fall all around my house, and wait patiently for the parish trucks to come and pick up the many piles of debris. There are limbs stuck in trees that will blow down when I least expect it, creating more work. There is no debris where my ex lives because there are no trees. There were no plant containers to protect because his balcony is bare—nothing to blow away, nothing to get smashed, nothing to mourn.
I still have plenty to mourn as I continue to sort through the debris of my marriage and its aftermath. Divorce was a humbling experience, as was living in stressful conditions for ten days with my former spouse. In an emotional sense, a hurricane is a great equalizer—leaving all of us anxious, inconvenienced, and in the dark. It is also a reminder of our interdependence, and of how our priorities can shift at the crack of a limb or the fall of an oak.
Diane Elayne Dees is the author of “Coronary Truth” (Kelsay Books), as well as two forthcoming poetry chapbooks. She also publishes Women Who Serve, a blog that provides news and commentary on women’s professional tennis throughout the world. Diane lives in Covington, Louisiana, just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans.
© 2021, Diane Elayne Dees