NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER / CREATIVE COMMONS 2.0

Waiting for Harvey

Letter from New Orleans.

It’s unusually cool tonight. This often happens, before a hurricane or tropical storm — the breezes blow away the muggy air that’s been sitting on the city for weeks, and clouds rush past whatever sliver of moon there is. They’re in a hurry, those clouds. Meanwhile, we sit here and try our best to be patient.

So much of the hurricane experience is waiting. It’s not like a tornado, that sudden dervish of terror flinging aside cows and bathtubs, rending homes in a matter of seconds. You can see a hurricane coming. In this case, we’ve known we might get something for several days, watching in horror while Houston sinks under a blanket of water. I spent all day yesterday refreshing my Twitter feed, staring at images like the ones I know so well from Katrina. An elderly woman sits in an easy chair, knitting, water up to her chest; a man carries a woman to safety through a river that once was a suburban road.

When I finally went to bed, I couldn’t sleep. I just lay there listening to the sound of my heart in my chest.

Tonight I was in Rouses, our regional grocery store, to load up on supplies for whatever’s left of the storm. I walked around feeling panicky, unsettled, and I ended up buying stupid things. I know what a hurricane cart is supposed to look like: bags of chips, bread, lunchmeat, ice, bananas, cases of Coke, liquor, like you’re going to the world’s worst Boy Scout picnic. But I live alone and couldn’t seem to make myself buy all those sliced deli meats that (in all likelihood) will just go bad before I can eat them. So of course I ended up with smoked salmon and spring rolls — comforting, but idiotic if the power goes out — and wine and about 20 packets of ramen, which I suppose, in the worst-case scenario, I can always eat raw. And water, four jugs.

No one seems to know what’s going to happen. Earlier this month, a bad summer storm revealed that the pumping system in the city wasn’t working at full capacity, and parts of the city flooded. I watched — again on Twitter — as water approached the first floor of friends’ homes. I know people whose cars are still in the shop from that day, when more than a foot of standing water filled the roadways in some parts of town. The indie movie theater I like closed down for a weekend after water rose ankle-deep in the lobby where I often stand and contemplate popcorn.

Still, we’ve been told the pumps are mostly fixed, and these things are unpredictable anyway. It’s hard to parse the difference between a freak occurrence and a threat. Meanwhile, I know the third-floor walkup I live in is on high ground. During that recent flood, I kept walking down the stairs in my bathrobe to see if water was gathering in my street, but it just kept running down the drains like always. For better or worse, I have the sense that I’m more or less safe here.

But the thing Katrina taught me — and I write this on the eve of the 12-year anniversary of the storm that forever changed me; a dark little symmetry I’m trying to ignore — is that in a hurricane, things drag out for a long time … but can change quickly. It’s that waiting again: watching to see if the storm will tack left at the last minute, sick with uncertainty about how much danger you’re in. In the end it’s the uncertainty that’s painful, plus the grim awareness that everything might not, in fact, be okay. And the threat comes from more than just the weather.

So I’m here at home, with my hand-crank radio and my smoked salmon and my four jugs of water, which is either excessive or probably not enough. I’m keeping my phone and laptop charged. I know it’s crazy, but I might even fill my bathtub before I go to work tomorrow. (I’m a journalist, so we still have work — the mayor asked most of the city to stay in.) I’ll keep a sixer of beer and a jug of water in my car, in case I get stuck at the office. I may even bring my sleeping bag.

I make these small preparations, while I wait, almost a routine. I wish they helped me feel less afraid.

Edit Wednesday: The storm passed New Orleans without incident (a little rain, a little wind). But sooner or later I know we’ll do this again.