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November 5, 2012

One nasty hurricane more than enough for one lifetime

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The Daily Star

---- — Hey, Sandy! Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

There’s no question that our region dodged a bullet with the most recent hurricane to blow our way. I wonder if hurricanes every couple of years are going to be the norm in upstate New York. It really seems unthinkable, doesn’t it?

I rode out a major hurricane once. I don’t intend to ever do that again.

It was 1983, and Hurricane Alicia came roaring across the Gulf of Mexico right at my (then) home in Houston. I lived on the second floor of a condominium in the southwestern part of the city. We were not told to evacuate because, well, hurricanes usually do not strike Houston, some 60 miles north of a hurricane’s usual “punching bag,” Galveston. But Alicia was different. It chewed through Galveston and was on Houston’s doorstep within 24 hours.

They take their hurricanes very seriously in the Lone Star State. My brother Jim and his wife (a native Texan appropriately named Sandy) were my hurricane preparedness tutors. In those days, every paper bag at the supermarket had a printed hurricane map on the front of it. Shortly after my arrival in the Bayou City, Jim explained to me what to do with it. You listened to your favorite TV weatherman give the day’s hurricane coordinates and then you marked it down on your grocery bag and tacked it onto your kitchen wall. Everybody did this. Including this newcomer.

That year, 1983, was the first time I’d ever heard about duct taping your windows to prevent shattering glass. It was the first time I ever heard about throwing your patio furniture into the swimming pool so you knew where it would be after the storm passed. About filling a bathtub so you’d have some “flushing power” when the electricity went out. About how “you can never have too many batteries.” About stocking up with Pearl longnecks and Antone’s po’boys for the “survivor’s party.”

And yes, I did all these.

I’ll never forget the front page of the Houston Chronicle newspaper the day before Alicia hit. No words at all. Just a full-page color satellite photograph of the hurricane. It completely filled the Gulf. Its white cloud mass covered the panhandle of Florida, Biloxi, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, the Texas gulf coast and the coast of Mexico. Believe me, no words were needed.

Alicia barreled into Houston on the night of Aug. 18. Of course, it came at night. It just added to the fear that soon consumed everyone. The wind howled like a banshee outside our doorstep, and the power went out almost immediately. It was August in Texas, so you can imagine where the thermometer went. Up to 90 degrees inside! 

The rain pelting the roof sounded like God was dropping a bag of tiny nails down upon us. When I stepped out on my patio I saw the fury for myself. It was raining horizontally. The pool below (yes, the one with our patio furniture in it) had whitecaps. Someone’s push lawn mower flew across the driveway about three feet above the ground. I hastily beat feet back inside.

Ultimately, Hurricane Alicia did $2.6 billion dollars in damage and killed 21 people. It ranks as one of the worst hurricanes to ever hit Texas and as the single worst storm ever to make a direct hit on Houston. The damage in the glass canyons of Houston’s futuristic urban center was so severe that foot traffic was banned for three days. More than 5,000 windows were blown out of their sills, raining glittering, deadly shards of thick commercial glass panes down onto the street below. Three thousand structures across the city suffered damage.

In hopes of helping to erase the nightmare of this storm, the name “Hurricane Alicia” was retired to the soggy heap of major disaster names never to be used again.

And so I can say that yes, I did actually ride out a hurricane once. And the next day when everyone emerged, we tiptoed around our property, quietly surveying the damage. Everything was twisted, gnarly and off-center. But we made it. We shook hands with strangers and went and visited our loved ones and friends.

Even though I will admit there was a certain undeniable thrill to muscling your way through an epic event like a hurricane, I will never do it again. It wasn’t worth the fear, the uncertainty or the risk.

And it certainly wasn’t worth the longnecks or the po’boys.

I’ll catch you in two ...

“Big Chuck” D’IMPERIO can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his “Oldies Jukebox Show.” You can find “Big Chuck” on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.