When the typical long, hot, dry spell of late August encompasses the central Pacific coastline of North America, the transition to clouds and major rain events is never immediate. A gradual overcast build-up of many days normally precedes the actual down pouring of real rain — at least until this day.
It was another bright and sunny morning, one of many in a row, and I mentally planned the work routine as I often do while walking up the hill to the forested woodshop/studio where all my artworks begin and end. While approaching the day’s project of production carving-for-dollars, I was abruptly distracted to a side project and drawn by an irresistible urge to carve waves and moving water.
Admittedly, I am sometimes distracted from my planned discipline with callings of greater inspiration, but this move seemed of an unusually intense focus. Not an ordinary undertaking, the planned sculpture featured a breaching humpback whale with cliffs in the background, and of course the ocean swirling beneath. Many months would be required to sculpt an entire log section four feet in length and two feet in diameter, dissecting hundreds of pounds of a rare, dense, hardwood.
The three dimensional whale was already released from the core of the tree remnant, and there were many options to pursue; details of the whale, seabirds, the cliffs, trees on the cliff tops, cleanup work all the way around. But I was drawn to the challenge of carving the movement of oceanic water around the whale, and set to the task. Relishing the curves and flows of imaginary wave action, I guided the gouges and grinder bits through the wood surface as the aromatic chips covered the floor.
While caught up in the intensity of creating flowing waves of wood, I hardly noticed the gathering dark clouds. Even with the large bay shop door open I was taken by surprise when a freak downpour of steady rain suddenly hammered the shop roof. Rushing outside in disbelief, I soaked in the heavy, humid air of the summer downpour. At least an hour of steady rain finally dissipated with some last valiant sputters and by early afternoon the freak storm was over. After this unprecedented weather event, the skies cleared and returned to the long stretches of blue sky and sunshine.
The main cities of the area are a mere five miles away as the crows fly [and they do, nesting in nearby woods every evening after scavenging the towns on the bay] and were unscathed by any precipitation. Only one inland town located over the hills and into the Coast Range recorded rainfall that afternoon, and true to the season, the entire county lavished in many more days devoid of clouds and rain.
It was a strange weather event, but stranger things became clear as time progressed. Two thousand and seven hundred miles to the southeast, a monster storm had made an early morning landfall that same day, blasting the shoreline with hurricane winds and drowning the landscape with tsunami surges of the sea. It was August 29, 2005, and the storm’s name was Katrina.
I had given little or no thought to the historical hurricane that day, since it was too soon to know that it was seriously historical, until I watched the television news that evening. I discovered destruction beyond belief while watching the camera crews scan the gulf coastline from news helicopters. The causeway of the main coastal highway across Bay St. Louis, where the very eye of Katrina landed, was twisted wreckage, and in many places, completely absent. Cameras running nonstop swept east to the adjoining town, which looked like a giant had scattered an endless box of toothpicks along what was once prime coastal habitation.
I could see my cousin’s neighborhood on the inland side of the highway, and there seemed to be a scattering of buildings and a few houses still standing back against the tree line. I was comforted by the reassurance that he would have evacuated, as he always had in the past when hurricanes threatened. Or had he? With the intensity of the storm and its destructive aftermath, I felt uneasy about the slightest possibility that he had stayed behind.
Dave was not one of many scatterings of cousins that one barely knows, but the bosom buddy of my childhood, a constant comrade sharing hours of tracking deer in the snow covered hills, of living on trout while hiking in to mountain lakes and camping for days at a time, alone in the wilderness. We shared our first great overland travel adventure unaccompanied by adults at 13 and 14 years of age. In essence, he was like a brother without all the infighting and emotional trauma that a real sibling at constant close quarters would normally include.
A quick call to his frantic mother verified my worst fear; Dave had not evacuated! He had grown tired of many false alarms over the years, when he had evacuated only to find his home unscathed by the many hurricane landings. This time, he was nonchalant about the approaching storm and refused to leave, even though she had pressed him to evacuate with numerous phone calls.
Thus began a tirade of day after day, back and forth phone calls for updates and queries, but with no word from Dave. Finally, five days after Katrina hit and on my birthday, I received the call, “Here’s a birthday present for you,” was my Dad’s greeting, “Your cousin Dave is alive and well.”
On the day of Katrina’s landfall, as the forceful winds swept around him and water began filling his low lying, two story house, Dave had known this was more than the ordinary hurricane. The roof was refuge from the floods but impossible in face of the wind, which was busy flattening most of the dwelling in his town.
Bivouacked inside his own home without an axe or chainsaw, there was no way out, and he knew he was caught in the clutches of fate as the water slowly and steadily chased him up the stairs and fully engulfed the main floor of the house. The steady onslaught of the surging flood came up to his knees, up to the edge of his bed. At that point, in his own words, “I was ready to take a big gulp of air, and dive down the stairwell,” facing his own demise head on.
And then it stopped. Slowly, and with the same certainty the mass of water had when engulfing the house, it began to recede. Comforted by the water level dropping, Dave fell on the bed to escape the sheer exhaustion wrought by the monster cyclone that was busy flinging mortals into the depths of the dark underworld.
Two days later, after the storm surges left only pockets of water and extended marshes, a neighbor returning to check on his house gave Dave a ride to the nearest relief shelter. After two more days, Dave, a software engineer, finally phoned out from his nearby workplace of Long Beach.
In the same time frame that I was carving water in a freak northwest downpour, my cousin was at the mercy of drowning storm surges from the sea. Telepathic vibes? Maybe, but I will leave that for the discretion of you, the reader.
Where on Earth?! Pass Christian, Mississippi; Coos Bay Area, Oregon