The Storm Didn't Turn (Justin Stewart)
Based on a true story and inspired by Mary Oliver's poem, Hurricane.
The Storm Didn't Turn
“Boys, Grampa is on the morning news,” mother shouted from the living room. I ran out in my underwear and there he was on Channel 11 live TV, wearing his sailor hat, a yellow slicker and white shrimp boots. The rain and wind had already begun. A last hold-out on the Texas lands end being interviewed about the brewing 1983 Hurricane Alicia just two days from landfall. Looking like the captain of a ship, he was already my hero.
“I think it’s going to miss us, they always swing east just before landfall.” The pretty reporter peppered him with the usual weather-approaching questions on the stilted porch, forty feet off the ground. Brand new and set to open just days later, the Bright Lite Bait Camp was the realization of his dream. “If it don’t turn, reckon I’ll get behind the levee like everyone else,” he said, “but I think it’s gonna turn.” “Boys, say a prayer Grampa gets behind the levee,” mother said. “That storm is not going to turn.”
In addition to entrepreneur, Grampa was the entire volunteer fire department for his little municipal utility district at San Luis Pass on Follet’s Island. He had moved to the island to start a new life after a near-death car accident with an 18-wheeler that split his forehead open. Coupled with a divorce and retirement from Houston’s Armco steel mill, he now fished deep blue water offshore, talked on CB radios about wind directions and dodging squalls, and fought brush and house fires at all hours. Like a captain, he’d be the last to leave his island for a storm.
He called mom that night from a cheap hotel in Clute, just beyond the levee, outside Lake Jackson. The storm didn’t turn like he wanted.
Us kids spent the next two days at Aunt Sheryl and Uncle Walter’s big, strong ranch house in northwest Houston. The eye came straight up I-45 and tornadoes spun off through the suburbs. The eye even came over the house. Aunt Sheryl let us go outside for the 20 minutes of calm. The sky was blue and the light was dreamy as it refracted through high clouds onto the shook landscape. My ears popped as all five of us cousins ran to the rope swing that hung off the big oak tree. Aunt Sheryl hollered for us to get back and we ran into the house, I didn’t want to be last. No one acted up. Cypress Creek swelled in their backyard beyond the bayou road, but it stayed in its banks back then.
Grampa lost all of his store except the two dozen strong pilings that held it up. They stood wooden and naked but for the empty and bent bolts. The store was to be insured just before the grand opening, days later. We didn’t hear much from him for weeks after the storm, he was too busy, overwhelmed. A corner of the roof on his beach house blew off. This was oddly good fortune as it allowed him to apply this insurance money back into the store. A tarp covered his home till the following spring. He was in survival mode; post-hurricane is primal. I rode down with Mother to visit him just two months after the storm and the Bright Lite already had walls and a roof again, she hugged him and told him he looked 20 years younger. Men and women rebuilding their houses drank coffee in the mornings inside at the store-to-be, and beer in the evenings on the porch that looked over the pass and onto Galveston Island. The toll on the bridge to Galveston over San Luis Pass was lifted for months, so the Bright Lite served as a meeting ground for both sides of the pass, two different counties.
We drove home the next day and as we accelerated over the levee, miles inland, mom said “say a prayer for Grampa, he is carrying an awful heavy load.” I pieced together a child’s prayer and then rested on the memory of the captain I saw on live T.V. that one morning before the storm.
Hurricane Alicia was the only major Atlantic hurricane of 1983, the first hurricane to hit the United States since 1980, and the costliest Texas hurricane since 1961.