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Why Folks Didn't Evacuate Before Hurricane Ike

Like everyone else, I've been transfixed by images of Hurricane Ike: the flooding, the sideways rain, the wind that peels roofs from buildings like tabs from soda cans. And I've heard the stories of folks who ignored the mandatory evacuations and rode out the storm in their houses. It's dangerous, maybe downright certifiable behavior, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't make me homesick.

When I was growing up in South Texas, my parents threw hurricane parties whenever a storm came ashore. Everyone in the neighborhood would descend on our house, bringing beer and potato salad, fried chicken and flashlights. Someone usually baked a cake, the hurricane's name spelled out in icing. I'd play in the rain with the other kids.

My mother and her friends would deal cards at the kitchen table, do each other's hair and nails. My father always raised our garage door, so he and his buddies could sit in lawn chairs and watch the storm as if it were a disaster movie. Once, a huge fiberglass Dairy Queen sign cartwheeled through our front yard and all of the men clapped; another time, during Hurricane Allen, I think, a box turtle moseyed up our driveway and parked itself beside my father's boots.

The parties usually ended with me and the other kids watching our parents dance on the wet garage floor. By then, they were a little north of tipsy. They were drunk on beer, of course, but also on having tempted fate and having won. Even when the power went out, which it always did, my father kept a battery-operated radio on his workbench, and the dance continued with the couples holding flashlights. There are certain Willie Nelson songs that still conjure the scent of heavy rain for me, the sting and power and scouring beauty of 70-mile-an-hour winds.

Listen, I'm not discounting the misfortune and trauma that often rolls in with storms like Gustav and Ike — and the unimaginable, unforgivable tragedy that followed Hurricane Katrina is nothing less than an affront against our very humanity.

But you have to understand — it's not stupidity or insanity or even pride that keeps most people in their homes during a storm: It's hope.

You hope the life you've built can sustain what's bearing down on it; hope that if a window cracks or a leak opens up, you'll be there in time to fix it; hope that if someone calls for help, you'll be close enough to offer what they need. Mostly, though, you hope you'll get lucky, hope that when those who fled ask about the storm, you can think about raising a cold one with your friends and dancing with your wife and watching your son play in the rain. You hope you can smile and say, "Oh it wasn't that bad. It wasn't that bad at all. Nothing more than a little wind."

Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of the internationally acclaimed Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. He directs the creative writing program at Harvard.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Morning EditionAll Things Considered
Bret Anthony Johnston