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Night of Ivan

Here’s some of what happened while you were away during Hurricane Ivan. By late Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 14, the day before the hurricane was supposed to hit, the town was already looking empty. Not, however, at Mandina’s on Canal Street, which is crowded on a normal night and especially crowded when it is the only restaurant in the neighborhood still open. Mandina’s regulars are not the sort to flee just because of a mere evacuation order. As usual, patrons crowded the bar and looked up at the television’s scenes of the interstate jammed with vehicles heading west. Through the dining room’s smoky haze, those at the bar could look out the picture window at vehicle-free Canal Street (except for the big red streetcars, which were going to stop running shortly). Later that evening, with the city largely shut down, some neighbors gathered on a porch, drank wine and shared storm stories. I wondered if I should take down the porch swing for fear of it being battered by the wind but decided to wait until the next evening, when the storm was supposed to hit. Television that night consisted of one topic: Ivan. At Mandina’s customers stared at the big swirl on the screen with the suspense of watching a football game. Would that front coming down from the north make the big play, pushing the swirl to the east? Rah, rah front! Wednesday morning the news was ominous. Officials from New Orleans and Jefferson Parish held a televised news conference to announce curfews and to tell those of us still here to brace ourselves. Other than the warnings of impending doom, the day was nice and the sky cheery. With a city curfew order in effect for 2 p.m. and with nowhere to go, all there was to do was wait. I again started to take down the swing but decided to delay a little longer to allow for more porch time. By late afternoon the city had been living the drama of an approaching killer hurricane for almost 72 hours, as though a giant claw had swooped down and lifted our lives off their course. Our world had stopped, and nothing else mattered – other than survival. And then suddenly the suspense ended. By late afternoon the TV meteorologists began to confirm what those of us still in town had expected: Ivan was turning to the northeast. There would be winds, but we would be spared. Around 10 p.m. the breezes started to kick in. Now, I thought, was the time to take down the swing, but I decided to sit on it a bit longer to watch the weather and to experience nature’s oscillating fan with winds coming and going – an occasional gust and then nothing. Three kids came down the street trying to ride their bikes into the wind and looking worn from their experience. Tree branches swayed, power lines rocked, but nothing broke. The ultimate sign of the storm’s meekness was that at this hour, which had been projected to be the moment of our destruction, the local TV stations returned to regular programming. As I swung on the porch the evening could have been Christmas Eve, for all was calm, all was mild. But then, seemingly from nowhere, came an explosion, a loud thunderous noise that sent us running to the street to see what happened. A telephone pole had crashed to the ground, barely missing a parked car, but bringing down with it wires, which now draped the street. My evening now had purpose. I stood at the curb and waved a lantern at passers-by, signaling them to avoid the web. For nearly an hour I manned my post until a fire truck crew came to move the wires. How was it that this wind that barely made trees flutter could fell a telephone pole? Mightier than Ivan were termites that had hollowed its base. All that was needed was the storm’s gentle push. Ivan may have even saved lives that night by clearing the streets, making it safe for the pole’s inevitable tumble. Thursday morning the storm was gone. Minus their people, cities are somber places. At the Lakefront, all the restaurants were closed except for West End Café, which opened at 10 that morning, serving a limited, pencil-written menu that included a pasta dish called shrimp Ivan. A walk on the levee provided the best show in town. The lake’s waters had lapped over the roadway and flooded the nearby picnic areas. Pictures of it, seen through the narrow vision of a TV camera, implied the city was submerged. In fact the 20-foot levee we walked on was the real story, easily preventing the water from going any further. Later that day people began re-entering their lives. Around town plywood-covered windows were being liberated. My post-storm reconstruction consisted mostly of putting yard plants that had been stored in the shed back in place and reopening the shutters. There was one renewal task that I was spared. I never had gotten around to taking down the swing.

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