Anxiously Awaiting Isaac: Louisiana Gets Ready for a Hurricane

Just in time for the seventh anniversary of Katrina, Isaac barrels up the Gulf to a region that has learned to take storms seriously

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Sam Wolfe / The Stuart News / AP

Rose Paffenroth, left, who lives in Vero Palm Estates, gets a hug from neighbor Sue Stiles after a tornado severely damaged a row of homes in their community in Vero Beach, Fla., Aug. 27, 2012.

UPDATED: Aug. 28, 2012

As Hurricane Isaac lumbers through the Gulf of Mexico toward the Louisiana coast, residents have been told to expect a day’s worth of tropical storm force winds and in some areas up to 16 inches of rain. The storm, which could make landfall as a strong category 1 hurricane on Tuesday evening, is expected to drench everything within its 200-mile radius. Anxious Louisiana residents flocked to stores for supplies that could get them through the worst of it, from plywood to board up windows, to generators to keep electricity running, and alcohol to soothe frayed nerves.

Although Isaac may not wind up as bad as originally projected – over the weekend there were forecasts for a category two storm – most schools across the state announced they would be closed Tuesday and Wednesday. Still, for a state that was hit by Hurricane Katrina seven years ago and Hurricane Gustav three years after that, it is little wonder that The Weather Channel is running on a near-continuous loop in some homes as the storm inches closer to the shore.

PHOTOS: Tropical Storm Isaac Heads Toward Louisiana, Mississippi

Storms bring back memories, after all. One of my favorite bits of family lore involves that time in 1979 when my father stubbornly refused to evacuate our home in Ocean Springs, Mississippi in advance of a category three hurricane called Frederick. “We can’t leave,” he told my mother, as the storm swirled toward us. “We have to protect the house.” Five giant trees fell through the roof that night. My then four-year-old sister slept peacefully through the ruckus as I, then six years old, whimpered formercy from underneath a pile of blankets and pillows.

As Isaac bears down on the Gulf Coast, I can’t help but think about that night. Baton Rouge, where I live, may not get much more than “a little wind and rain,” which means different things to different people in these parts. But my mother has already called to see whether I’m leaving town yet with my husband and seven-year-old daughter. “You better get a hotel reservation somewhere as soon as you can, before all the hotels are booked,” she told me, the tension in her voice all-too-palpable. “You need to eat up all your ice cream in case the electricity goes out, and fill the bathtubs with water and…did you buy batteries?”

(MORE: 6 Apps for Tracking Hurricane Isaac with Your Tablet or Smartphone)

Seven years ago, Mom left New Orleans before Katrina hit. The hotels were booked. She hadn’t eaten all the ice cream in her fridge. But she did manage to pack three days of clothes, her cat, her 80-pound Airedale and most of her Louisiana State University football memorabilia into her car before she drove east.

Panic has a way of crystallizing priorities.

“Batteries?” I asked her. “Yes I bought batteries, and toilet paper and water and bread and a whole bunch of things that won’t require cooking. It may not be bad, but you never know.”

I learned about the unpredictability of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico at an early age. What’s it going to do when it gets out in those warm waters? Will it get bigger? Stronger? Which way will it turn? And by the way, turn, damn it! There’s a football game on Saturday night! These were the things that grownups talked about in my family. They’re the things I talk about now as I wonder whether this thing will peter out or force us to hunker down and ride it out. One friend told me to worry. Another friend told me not to worry. A third friend blasted her husband because he couldn’t get the generator to work. Our neighbor came by to inform us that our neighborhood was usually one of the first to get power restored during a storm, so not to worry. “We don’t even have a generator,” she said.

(MORE: 20 Years After Hurricane Andrew, Storm Costs and Ideology Loom Over Florida)

“Storms used to be fun,” Mom told me. “You’d buy a bunch of booze, have a hurricane party and ride things out. Now, I don’t want to live through another one.”

Shortly after noon on Sunday, two women shuffled to the checkout line in my local supermarket, their arms loaded down with bottles of wine. A man called his wife on his cell phone and told her that the store was out of her favorite wine. “What other kind would you want? Quick, before they run out of everything,” he joked. There was plenty of toilet paper, water, batteries and bread to be had.

“Prepare for the worst and hope for the best” is the mantra around here. Right now, it’s quiet and the sky is blue, but it may not stay that way for much longer. “It’s the calm before the storm, Paige,” my mother said. “The calm before the storm.”

(PHOTOS: The Most Destructive U.S. Hurricanes of All Time)

This story was updated to reflect the upgraded status of the storm.