1969, A Hurricane Vacation To Remember

Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon in July of 1969.  I was 6.  My parents had been planning a family vacation to Biloxi, Mississippi.  We were headed for the beach, which was going to be my first ocean experience.  Somewhere between July and August, the plans changed.  Our mailman, Mr. Dombroksi, suggested that we go to Ft. Walton Beach, FL instead, claiming that the beaches there were much nicer and less crowded.  Having never been to Florida, and really trusting the neighborly wisdom of our postman, my parents plotted a new course for a week long stay in Ft. Walton Beach, the crown jewel of the emerald coast on the Florida panhandle.

Around mid August, we packed our 4 door 1966 Chevrolet Impala and off we went.  Little did we know that we were headed directly into the 15th deadliest U.S. hurricane of all time, and one of the first named hurricanes on record, Hurricane Camille.  Ironically, the hurricane made landfall very near Ft. Walton Beach just as we rolled out of our driveway.  As we headed southeast from our home in North Little Rock, AR, we were on a collision course with the westerly tracking Camille.  We stopped in Biloxi, got evacuated from our motel, and drove on to Mobile where we hankered down until the morning and drove straight on to Ft. Walton Beach against traffic in the driving rain with turbulent cross winds rocking our Impala. My dad seemed to know what he was doing.

We finally made it to Ft. Walton Beach, which had been rocked pretty hard by Camille.  The aqua blue Islander with boarded up glass sliding doors facing the beach looked deserted.  The owners were truly shocked to see us and wondered how on earth we managed to survive driving through the path of a Hurricane.  I think my dad said something like, “ah, it wasn’t so bad”.   We were the only guests – many had cancelled though a few were due to arrive later in the week as Camille weakened and vacationers from Dixieland and environs recovered from the historic storm.

As Hurricane Isaac makes a similar path through Florida, disrupting the Republican National Convention in Tampa, literally raining like hell on the GOP parade, I am reminded of just how dangerous the Gulf Coast is for U.S. residents and vacationers alike.  And it makes me wonder whether the Obama administration is up to the task of responding to the destruction from high winds, and flooding caused by tidal wave storm surges and relentless amounts of rain.  New Orleans, despite billions in new pumps, is still highly vulnerable. In 2005, Bush the Younger responded so late to Katrina that the Canadian Mounties arrived first,  followed closely by Harry Connick, Jr., who couldn’t believe that there was not a single American agency or boot on the ground to help.  No boots on the ground, just some horse hoofs.  It was chaos as the walking wounded wandered around looking for help, any help.

Let’s hope Isaac is no Katrina and that President Obama effectively manages the aftermath.  Although hurricanes should not be politicized, in this campaign season with the superpacs and all, anything goes, so the Team Obama and Team Romney responses will be captured and packaged to lure Independent voters.  One will claim the GOP was insensitive to the plight of the hurricane victims and should have cancelled the convention.  The other will argue that the President caused the hurricane, that it is proof that he is soft on the cloud seeding Iranians.  The Dem. Superpac could counter that Hurricane Isaac is a message that global warming is for real and here to stay, thanks to the science deniers in the GOP.

One thing I remember about my 1969 vacation brush with Camille was getting a free week by the owners of the Islander; after all, it was good for business to have a few guests to create the illusion of normalcy.  And also, it was the least they could do to make amends for the condition of the motel and the beach that was crawling with the nastiest and smelliest Sea Slugs you have ever seen in your life which had been washed ashore as a parting gift from Camille.  I also remember some kid, younger than me, running through a sliding glass door and getting all cut up.  He was ok in the end, just a little stunned. I think that family got a free week too.  And the other thing that stuck in my brain for all these years was seeing all the destruction of Camille on the ride back.  At the tender age of 6, it was all very exciting and terrifying.