Before the Storm: How Do You Know When to Go?

Before the Storm: How Do You Know When to Go?

Before the Storm: How Do You Know When to Go?

Even on the eve of a Category 4 hurricane, choosing to leave is never easy.

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Covering Climate NowThis column is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration cofounded by Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

I first got word about the Storm That Would Become Ida when a dear friend texted me on a Wednesday night at the end of August. She sent me a screenshot of ominous clouds gathering in the Caribbean headed to the Gulf of Mexico. I promised her I would keep an eye on them, and I remembered that just last summer she’d had a harrowing experience with a hurricane that intensified overnight on the Alabama coast. I thought that, perhaps, this might be her trauma talking.

I didn’t know then that this would become the strongest storm to hit Louisiana since the 1850s, damn near making it to Category 5 status with peak winds of 172 miles per hour, that it would reverse the flow of the Mississippi River for three hours and devastate the power grid, leaving more than 1 million Louisianans to swelter in the post-storm heat. I didn’t know that the storm would remain fearsome long after leaving Louisiana, generating a tornado outbreak in the mid-Atlantic and even a tornado touchdown in Massachusetts. I didn’t know that within 24 hours, I’d be doing the incredibly painful calculus of deciding whether to stay or go.

That Wednesday night, I wasn’t thinking about leaving, largely because I’d fought too hard just to be there. I’d lived in New York for 15 years, and the past five of them had been marked by chronic homesickness, made acute by the pandemic and an especially harsh winter. In all that time in the North, my heart had remained in the South, and I became desperate to be whole again.

I’ve had a crush on New Orleans—this city both haunted and enchanted—since I was a child. I was born and raised in Alabama, and my extended family is still there, but my mother, brother, and I moved to Mississippi when I was 9. Where I grew up, nearly 200 miles north of New Orleans, the Mississippi River constitutes a fluid border between Mississippi and Louisiana, and New Orleans is the closest big city. I could see the city’s influence on the region just as well I could see the region reflected in the city. So, when my lease ended this July, I packed my things and bought a one-way ticket.

When I landed in New Orleans, I could breathe better. Freed from the shadows of skyscrapers, I felt taller. After a few weeks, I could walk better too, and I had to wonder if I’d been struggling to recover from a running injury for the past few years or if my homesickness had been physical too. When I told New Yorkers I was moving to New Orleans, they said, “But you’re not from there.” When I told people in New Orleans I was from Mississippi, they said, “Welcome home.” I greeted everyone I passed on the street, and my heart grew a new size each time they asked how I was doing. I heard crickets at night, and I wept. I was so, so happy to be here. I didn’t want to leave, not yet.

By Thursday morning, the meteorologists and climate experts I knew were worried about the Storm That Would Become Ida,  scheduled to make landfall in Louisiana on Sunday. I was torn between the wisdom I’d gathered from a lifetime of watching storms in the Gulf, and the knowledge I’ve built from being steeped in climate work for the past eight years. The first one told me that a storm that hadn’t even reached tropical storm status on Thursday couldn’t possibly get that much stronger by Sunday. The other told me that today’s storms are not like old storms, and that the Gulf, which had recently been on fire, was feeding extremely warm waters to the already powerful cyclone. I tried not to think about the fact that Sunday was August 29, and the last time I was in the region on August 29, 16 years ago, Hurricane Katrina came ashore.

When I went for my morning walk on Thursday, no one was talking about the storm, let alone about evacuating. By the time I went to my evening yoga class, however, the way that people asked “How are you?” had a new, heavier weight. We were expecting a Category 2, but didn’t know if it would be named Ida or Julian. Stores had begun to ration water. Snack aisles were sparse. Liquor stores were busy. Still, only one person I knew was planning to leave, and, by her own admission, she’d have left for a thunderstorm if it looked at her the wrong way.

By Friday morning, the air was charged with something I couldn’t readily recognize. It wasn’t fear or panic or sadness. The best way I can describe it is an “urgency” mixed with “purpose.” People were clearing storm drains, boarding up windows, and dropping off supplies for their carless neighbors (like me).

Now, we were expecting a Category 3, and we knew her name: Ida. Folks were saying it could even be a strong Category 3, bordering on a Category 4. A Category 3 is serious. Hurricane Katrina was a 3. Hurricane Zeta was a 3. We couldn’t realistically hope for the storm to weaken, only that it would change course, which we couldn’t do in good conscience because that would send it to another storm-battered place on the coast. Lake Charles, for example, is still reeling from Hurricane Laura last year. Almost everyone I knew was talking about leaving now. My phone exploded with offers for rides out of town or to go get supplies. I made plans both to stay and to go.

Whenever there’s a storm like Ida, people from far away wonder, loudly and aggressively: Why do they stay? It’s a question that raises another: Have you ever been in love? Yes, there are those who stay because they don’t have the means to go, but then there are so many who stay because they don’t have the heart to go. In New Orleans and the surrounding region, so much of the decision to leave or to go is animated by the trauma of Katrina, and the pain of long-term separation from a place people love with a depth I’ve never seen. I knew journalists who wanted to stay because they wanted to tell the story right. I knew ex-Marines who wanted to stay because they wanted to help their neighbors. I knew older folks who stayed because they were simply too tired to go. Again.

That afternoon, the city issued voluntary evacuation orders. I started packing. It was a struggle to decide what to bring and what to leave. If I packed too much, was I willing the worst into existence? If I packed too little, was I being too cocky? Should I bring my yoga mat or my hula hoop, or should I forget about exercise altogether? Should I bring books? How many? How much hair conditioner?

I gave away the perishables from the groceries that had been delivered just the day before, and I accepted a ride out of town from my friend Jé. We were leaving at 5 in the morning. She was going to Florida and dropping me off at the home of the same friend in Alabama who first texted me about Ida. By Friday evening, the Category 4 status was all but confirmed. By the time I went to bed, there were rumors that it was already too late to go—less than 48 hours after that first text about those weird clouds. I closed my eyes and hoped for a miracle that I knew wasn’t coming.

Late that night, the rain and wind outside rattled my windows, and I texted a friend who’d stayed for Zeta last year: “This is just regular rain, right?” She wrote back immediately, to confirm that no, Ida had not come early, but that she too was triggered. I breathed easier, but didn’t sleep.

When Jé pulled up the next morning, it was still dark out. The rain had relieved the humidity. The air felt soft and carried the sweet and floral aroma from the petals that fell off the camellia tree in front of my house. It was so hard to imagine anything bad happening here that I was almost tempted to stay. But I am a Southerner. I know that awful things happen in beautiful places. I recognize a siren song when I hear one, and I knew there was only so much time before the roads got clogged. I looked up at the windows I’d X’ed out in duct tape the day before, and said goodbye for now.

This is the first of a two-part series about Hurricane Ida. The next will explore the chaos of evacuation, the agony of not-knowing, and the problem with “resilience.”

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