For the past 22 plus years I have written this column on Monday mornings. I usually get to my office early, close my door, turn on some classical music, and spend the next hour or so pounding out 1000 words. This is the way I’ve done it— week in, week out— never missing a week, for over two decades.
Even during Hurricane Katrina, when we lost power for 10 days, I was able to dictate the column on my phone and email it in. This past weekend I thought I’d be doing that again.
I sit here in my office on Monday morning, and it is quiet, dead-still quiet. Everything in the town is shut down. Hurricane Ida is passing 60 miles to the west of us as I type. We dodged a bullet. The people in Louisiana— and especially New Orleans and South Louisiana— were not so lucky. It appears that Southwest Mississippi got hit hard, too. We will know more in the coming days and by the time this column goes to print we will likely know the complete extent of the damage Hurricane Ida has wrought.
My first experience with hurricanes was when Hurricane Camille— a category five hurricane with 110 mile per hour winds— blew through my hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi in 1969. I had no reference as to what the damage meant as a seven-year-old kid. I knew there were fallen pine trees all around, and there was no television. But my main memories— during the two weeks we were without electricity— were that my mother, brother, and I got to sleep outside in a tent, cook with Sterno, and wait in line for dry ice, which was all new and fun to me.
When Hurricane Katrina blew through here 16 years ago yesterday, I was a husband and father with a four-year-old and an eight-year-old and a load of responsibilities. The kid’s memories were pretty much the same as my Camille memories. My son remembers it as the time we all got to sleep in the den in a makeshift tent.
My memories were not as innocent and carefree. I was a business owner, and our businesses sustained major damage, even though we are located 70 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico. The taproot of the southern yellow pine does not, and will not, hold up to 110 mile per hour winds, especially when the ground is soaked, and the water table is up.
In the 33 plus years I’ve owned restaurants in this town I have come full circle on my views of operating a business during severe weather or major holidays. For the first several years we kept the business open on Christmas Eve. We never did much business. But, at the time, I was young and foolish and felt it was a good idea to capture potential sales from people out and about doing last minute shopping. I was working 90-hours a week in those days, but I always took Christmas Eve off. When I would check on the crew on Christmas Eve, I always felt like Scrooge making them work on a family holiday I took off, myself. Eventually I just decided to close on that day, and I have never regretted that decision.
The potential storm situation is a more difficult call. In an instance such as a looming hurricane it’s a very easy call. But when the local weather people get excited over a minor weather occurrence, it gets tricky. I understand, if you are a weather person on a local TV station in Hattiesburg MS, your job is to basically come on the air three times a day, 365 days a year, and say, “It’s going to be hot and humid today. It may rain.” when it’s time for the weather report the following day it’s usually more of the same, “It’s going to be hot and humid today. It also may rain.” Hattiesburg really has four seasons: almost summer, summer, still summer, and Christmas. So, whenever there is a potential weather event, no matter how small it may be, the local stations break into regular programming, schools close, and many times it’s nothing more than an inch or two of rain and a little wind. In those instances, people obviously stay at home and don’t go out to eat. It’s only smart.
But that’s when the restaurant owner’s decision making comes into play. To stay open, or not to stay open? That is the question.
Many employees need the hours to pay the bills and make the rent. Others need to be home to take care of kids or their homes in bad weather conditions. Years ago, I complained about all the hype we got over small weather incidences that turned out to be nothing. And then in 2013 the local weather person issued a tornado warning. My knee jerk reaction was to be cynical and critical as they had been on a streak of nothingburgers and false alarms for several years. Though that warning turned out to be an F4 tornado that lay a path of destruction through my hometown as bad as either of the Hurricanes we had witnessed.
We made out OK, but since then I have always erred on the side of caution. I am older and wiser. It’s not worth staying open to serve a few people, even if team members need to make rent. We close at the smallest sign of trouble.
So, I sit alone in my office, feeling grateful that all of our restaurants are closed today. We dodged a bullet. The hurricane, now a tropical storm, passed to the West of us and we endured some heavy gusts and five inches of rain but nothing too severe. We pray for the people in Louisiana and Southwest Mississippi who were in the direct path of this massive storm.
The damage appears catastrophic. The Mississippi River rose seven feet and flowed backwards at one point. 911 services in New Orleans were out of commission. The Louisiana Coast is wiped out. Electricity will be out for at least three weeks, maybe more in certain areas. More than 20,000 electricians and linemen are on their way to the affected areas. The total extent of the devastation is not clear yet. But it’s very, very bad.
Extra Table will be gearing up to help supply mission pantries in many of the affected areas of Southwest Mississippi in the coming weeks. If you’d like to help, go to extratable.org and we will make sure that 100% of your tax-free donation will go to provide food and water in the affected areas we cover.
As for me, I am grateful that our team members are safe and secure. We will do our best to help our neighbors in need in the coming weeks.