I’m camping in my newsroom, filing live updates about Hurricane Laura and keeping spare pencils on hand because ink bleeds. Life almost seems normal.
LAFAYETTE, La. — When a new hurricane is coming you think of the previous ones, memories of the hurt, the fear and the lessons they brought. That’s what I’ve been doing — remembering while reporting on Hurricane Laura.
I wasn’t a reporter in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina caused unheard of devastation in and around New Orleans and then when Hurricane Rita came barreling toward my hometown in 2005. I was a freshman in college and wouldn’t even start writing for my college paper until the next semester.
As Rita got closer and closer to Sulphur, Louisiana, and the surrounding area, my family hit the road, some to other family in Texas and some to me in Natchitoches, about two and a half hours north of Sulphur on a normal day.
My boyfriend at the time (now my husband) also evacuated in my direction, but his hand-me-down car overheated just outside of DeRidder after hours of sitting still or barely moving in evacuation traffic.
A lifetime of hurricanes
He called me to come get him, and I made it there in record time as one of the only cars headed south. Because we were 18 and thought we knew things, we decided to keep going south and get on another route, which unsurprisingly turned out to be a terrible idea that had us rerouted and rerouted again.
After a 14-hour car ride through the pitch-black night and back roads of Louisiana with nowhere to take a bathroom break, he and I pulled in to the parking lot of my dorm in the middle of the night.
My mom was livid. She hadn’t been able to reach either of us on our little Nokia cell phones because, unbeknownst to me, cell service was down. Eventually, we all headed inside to spend the night in my dorm room. Mom got my bed, of course, and I bunked with a friend down the hall.
That wasn’t my first hurricane experience, having grown up in southwest Louisiana, nor would it be my last. Three years later I was a reporter, covering Hurricane Gustav’s impact on central Louisiana.
Gustav closed my university and flooded many homes in Alexandria and Pineville. As a college senior and The Town Talk’s intern, I joined a photographer and walked through neighborhoods, interviewing people as they dumped wet carpet on the curb.
In 2012 I was back at The Town Talk, no longer an intern, and up by 5 a.m. for my shift of monitoring road closures and other emergency updates about Hurricane Isaac. The storm never really got to us, but we were ready nonetheless.
Then last year I had a similar experience waiting for Hurricane Barry as a reporter for The Daily Advertiser in Lafayette.
A photographer and I spent long days in Vermilion Parish, alternating between emergency responder meetings inside the courthouse in Abbeville and driving out to Intracoastal City to interview people whose lives are on the water.
A familiar kind of crisis
All of these experiences came to me Wednesday night as I added update after update to our live file about Hurricane Laura. I thought about those storms as I inflated my air mattress and set up camp in the newsroom in Lafayette, a safer alternative than my Acadia Parish home (that my husband and kids already evacuated).
I also recalled the devastation I saw once I got back to Sulphur soon after Rita and the very slow recovery of our area. I couldn’t help but remember it all as I scrolled Twitter this morning and saw Laura’s aftermath in Lake Charles. The picture of the Capitol One Tower (the Hibernia Tower when I was a kid) with most of its windows shattered really got me.
Today I have hurricane lessons as both a south Louisiana native and a reporter. I know to grab both the Ziploc bag of birth certificates and a pencil to write with because ink bleeds when your notebook gets soggy.
These seem to come naturally to those of us who have been through it before. We automatically revert to that training and routine of evacuating or covering a hurricane.
Because of that, the past few days of working long hours, sifting through reports and interviewing people filling sandbags have felt more normal than the past few months. It’s so strange to say that.
This year has been anything but normal for all of us — “unprecedented,” we keep saying. The COVID-19 pandemic is like a blizzard for me and south Louisiana; we don’t know how to handle it.
The ongoing threat of the virus has meant doing something “normal,” like covering a hurricane, in a different way. We’re constantly reminded by our editors to not only avoid dangerous high-water situation but also to wear our masks and keep our distance.
It’s another level of prep and anxiety rolled into one for everyone involved, the reporters and the people impacted by these devastating storms. But it’s necessary.
The public needs to know what’s safe and what’s not, to know what has happened to their fellow humans.
Those people deserve to have their stories told, and that is something we know how to do. This time we’ll do it in masks.
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