This I Believe

Hal - Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Entered on July 11, 2007

I believe in my Louisiana front porch.

The Governor never suggested that the non-evacuating residents of this city write their social security numbers on their arms to expedite the process of identifying their dead bodies. This city, while southern, is too far inland to ever be subject to a mandatory evacuation order. But when the hurricanes roll in, we still feel them. They knock out power, they down limbs, and they rustle rooftops. And then they roll out, sparing us the levee breaches and storm surges that plague the coastal parishes.

When the back-end cloud cover lifted on August 30, 2005, the post-storm summer sun seemed inordinately intense. With no electricity to cool the house, it seemed logical to pass the time by climbing onto the roof for a shingle inspection. Mistake. It was sweltering.

When night finally fell, the neighbors on the street took position on their respective front porches. In this bungaloid neighborhood, where every window has been painted shut for fifty-odd years, the porch was the only place to breathe on a night like that. I could hear the creaks and moans of porch swings and rocking chairs, but I couldn’t actually see anything, save perhaps a distant candle or roving flashlight beam. When I lit a candle, my immediate neighbors stole fleeting glances, wondering what decent young man would venture outside in his underwear. I desperately wanted to explain to them exactly how hot I was and how the combination of tepid beer and generator exhaust fumes will make you do just about anything. A mosquito buzzed and I swatted at the darkness.

I was miserable.

In the following days, news accounts revealed the horrific goings-on in New Orleans. The spotty cell reception improved and as the teary and troubled phone calls arrived, it quickly became apparent that it was time to change the sheets in the guestroom and locate the air mattresses in anticipation of my westbound pilgrims. The air conditioner kicked on and the phone rang. “Of course you can bring the dog,” I answered.

Their arrival date was certain. Their departure date was not. They unpacked their under-packed bags and took position on the porch — the only space large enough to comfortably accommodate everyone. It was there that I became audience to the exchange of their profound worries and concerns. And as I tried to relate, the mosquito bites didn’t itch as much, the fallen limb wasn’t nearly as big as it first appeared, and not one roof shingle was missing. What had been missing was my perspective. If those porch conversations taught me anything, it was that my first, post-storm night had not been miserable. They were the miserable ones.

And it was a timely lesson, too, because a second Category Five would soon enter the Gulf. In three weeks’ time, a new and larger group of pilgrims would arrive – this time, eastbound. When their caravan turned onto the street, my Louisiana front porch was swept and ready to receive them.