Packing the Hurricane Kit

By  |  September 5, 2019

 

T

he summer stirs up storms of cosmic scale. An alien idling among the satellites could spy the fistprint of Katrina, of Harvey, of Dorian. With hurricanes also come grand raw-edged emotions: anxiety and dread, the undiscriminating love we call fraternité. This season can feel almost too unwieldy to hold in the imagination. Better, then, to start small, with a cardboard box, its postal labels or liquor logos duct-taped beyond recognition. Inside are items that can fit in the palm, and that we are told might save our lives during a cataclysm so large it blots out oceans. Let’s pack a hurricane kit.

Batteries. These heavy bullets are remnants from an age when every interesting Christmas gift required them. (Flashing lights! Tinny sounds!) What purpose do they now serve? Before my first New Orleans hurricane in 2012, I hit up Radio Shack; I still have the AAs, the AAAs, the Cs, the Ds, some of which have begun oozing gray fluid—maybe I should toss those. I didn’t have a cell phone back then, so I depended on an old-fashioned alarm clock; I guess in a worst-case scenario, I’d still be able to wake up on time? When you drag your kit off the shelf and it cracks a piece of furniture on the way down, you have too many batteries.

Battery-powered radio. This is gold, and will help lighten your load. Get rid of the C and D batteries and hoard those doll-sized AAAs. All you’ll want to do in the dead dark post-hurricane heat is listen to the jolly human voices of DJs as they stream the mayor’s press conference and occasionally reward you with Motown. (Some folks have a crank radio; that’s even cooler.) If you’ve been obsessively checking the news in the days before the storm, using your own expertise to decipher the spaghetti models (it’s definitely going to track west), the radio is a tether to the real world after the electricity goes out.

Candles. Turn a stifling power outage into a romantic rendezvous. Lose yourself in the pooling patterns of wax. Pretend it’s not a hundred degrees and you’re in a Swiss chalet with a mesmerizing tiny fire. And please, don’t forget the candlesticks. Someone out there has bought a pack of twenty tall candles from the grocery store, has failed to grab the accompanying holders, and has had to wedge the tapers between stacks of books covered in paper towels. Don’t be this person.

Matches. An absence of these is even less surmountable. 

Flashlight. If matches and candlesticks feel too old-fashioned, just dive into the pleasures of instant light! Here’s where those bigger batteries come in handy, if you’d like to illuminate your puzzle or the raccoon outside, or if you enjoy going on long walks at night through standing water and downed power lines. Lanterns are great for family meals, and headlamps are handy for playing cards and biking in the woods after the storm has passed. If there are any woods left.

Food in cans. The consensus is that canned food lasts a long time and can’t really be ruined. Longevity rarely correlates to deliciousness (honey being the exception, and sometimes marriage), but there are ways to temper this inevitable hardship. Red beans and black beans taste better than green beans, e.g., and most things can be improved by simple seasonings (pepper, lemon, oregano, hot sauce, chocolate syrup). Some have been known to enjoy Vienna sausages. To each her own. And sing along: don’t forget the can opener.

Food not in cans. Ever had an MRE (meal, ready-to-eat) pre-packed by the Department of Defense? Just insert the food pouch into the heater pack, add a couple of tablespoons of water, fold the heater pack and insert it back in the food box, and set it on an incline (a “rock or something,” the U.S. government suggests) for 12 minutes. Presto, vegetarian ratatouille! If military rations aren’t your style, stock up on food that tastes cool to the tongue, almost like refrigeration: applesauce, oranges, pudding cups. Or indulge in nostalgia: your neighbors won’t be laughing at your Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Oatmeal Creme Pies after four days of Saltines.

Water. Some abide by the gallon-per-person-per-day rule. This is lovely; feel free. Sling those jugs from Walmart. I prefer filling every open container in my house, from the bathtubs down to the jam jars. As the wind whips up, I can watch the ripples on their surfaces and imagine a T. Rex somewhere in the swamp, heading my way. (Speaking of open containers, some find a little liquor comes in handy under duress—or, depending on the hurricane’s path, boredom. Indulge until the edges of the storm go soft, but don’t let those edges disappear.)

First aid kit. Buy the Care Bears Band-Aids rather than the beige ones, which are called “flesh-colored” because Johnson & Johnson think only white people have flesh. Most injuries happen when you’re frustrated. Once the winds whip up, take deep breaths; move slow.

Finger puppet. Small enough to squeeze between two packs of D batteries, this critter will hide until the darkest possible moment, that hour after you’ve eaten the last Cheeto and before dawn comes to light the mangled world again with glimmers of renewal. It can be a giraffe or a penguin, wool or cotton, silly or weirdly forlorn. But when you stumble across it in a last pawing-through of the kit, you’ll be forced to stop and sit and remember normalcy. Put it on your finger then, and surprise someone you love.

Listing these items is an exercise in resisting fear. This July, New Orleans had a false alarm: Hurricane Barry spun impotently around the city, dry air from the north sponging up its rain, and a city that had flooded in a summer thunderstorm a few days earlier was spared, miraculously, from the threat of overtopped levees. We packed our kits hard; we hunkered down. We breathed shallow; we refreshed the weather blogs. The national news announced our imminent doom. We poked our heads outside; we went for strolls; we made cookies. We came out of hiding; we found the restaurants that were still open; we resumed our lives. The cans remained untouched, the batteries still in their plastic shells. I put the kit back on the shelf above the washing machine, where it sits like something radioactive: unwanted, but uncomfortably useful.

I passed through Mexico Beach last week, ten months after Hurricane Michael’s battering, and stopped among the shorn foundations to put my feet in the sand. For miles around, the pine trees had snapped uniformly at their knees, a forest in prayer. Church steeples still lay on the ground, blue tarps turned homes into extensions of the sea. A human’s arms cannot encompass that loss. We make small boxes instead; we attempt to foil fate, we laugh, and we wait.


“Tiny Travels” is part of our weekly story series, The By and By

 Enjoy this story?  Subscribe to the Oxford American. 

Katy Simpson Smith was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. She is the author of We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1750-1835, and the novels The Story of Land and Sea and Free Men. Her novel The Everlasting is forthcoming in March 2020. She is currently serving as the Eudora Welty Chair for Southern Literature at Millsaps College.