Prompts: “Covering Gustav, The Storm Of The Century”

Me photographing a sheriff's deputy fixing a roof leak during the height of Hurricane Gustav.

Me photographing a sheriff’s deputy fixing a roof leak during the height of Hurricane Gustav.

Prompts is a joint creative exercise between my friend Matt W. and I. We will choose a different subject at the beginning of each week and post no more than 500 words on said topic on Fridays. This week’s topic: Describe a time you overcame fear.

We slithered south toward the Gulf of Mexico on a deserted two-lane highway – the sheriff’s spokesman, the Washington Post reporter, and I in the spokesman’s cruiser – dodging fallen tree branches crisscrossing the road. Power lines sagged into ditches. Water rested atop yards like sheets of paper. Darkness choked the land. Our headlights might as well have been the last lights in the world. In the backseat the reporter from our nation’s capital peppered the spokesman with questions about our area as he drove. I already knew most of the answers before the spokesman supplied responses, at turns playful and dismissive. We were deep in the heart of bayou country, among the first to lay eyes on the aftermath of the so-called “storm of the century.”

As Hurricane Gustav entered the Gulf of Mexico in September 2008 I considered evacuating north, riding out the storm, then pondered evacuating again. I am Cajun. Cajuns are notoriously stubborn about leaving south Louisiana regardless of a storm’s ferocity. I don’t know why. It’s not like pirates are going to steal our shit. I evacuated for the first time for Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Three years later, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin described Gustav as “the storm of the century” and “the mother of all storms.” Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency before the storm hit. Meteorologists forecast winds between 130-155 mph pounding our severely eroded coastline. A part of me, at age 23, wondered if staying to cover the storm for my newspaper amounted to a suicide mission.

Ultimately, the lack of fear my coworkers from Oregon, Jersey, and Florida exhibited convinced me my fears were overblown. I embedded with the local sheriff’s office at their headquarters. Once there, I heard reports detailing the storm’s weakening approach. Those reports proved true. The storm dumped rain for 10 to 12 hours but did not produce the wind gusts feared. The most exciting (and harrowing) development happened when a roof leak necessitated a sheriff’s deputy climbing a ladder to repair the leak – in the middle of 90 to 110 mph wind gusts. The deputy fixed the leaf and descended the ladder, with equal care. I stood watching from a crouched position, the wind trying with all its might to topple over my 220-pound frame.

The storm, fortunately for south Louisiana, wreaked less havoc than the initial reports suggested it would, and soon I reunited with my coworkers. We slept on cots at the newspaper for the first few nights after departing the agencies we embedded with. We worked upwards of 90 hours apiece that week, counting the storm’s build-up and days after it landed. A sister newspaper from Alabama sent us food and even beer, if memory serves. The experience united us. We were a small band of mostly twenty-something reporters who had survived something together, and in the process shared vital information with hundreds of thousands of people living in our coverage area.

Not two weeks later Hurricane Ike flooded parts of our coverage area. Gustav, it turned out, had prepared us well.

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