Natural Disasters: How the Navy, My Childhood Moves, and Empathy All Connect

My dad was Navy—this reality meant we did the moving thing, as every military family does, picking up and moving on every two to three years as dad was stationed somewhere new. I don’t feel special at twenty-seven (twenty-eight in about five days) because I had to move a lot. At the time, my crying fits and emotional responses likely mirrored those of someone going through some real tragedy. However, in hindsight, I have started to realize no matter what my current situation, I’m not special and someone else has a similar problem (which may be worse). The arc of my maturity is not the subject of this post, though.

Moving to different locations around the United States exposed me to different types of natural disasters. While I don’t think I’ve encountered all of the natural disasters that frequently plague each state I’ve lived in personally (not that I remember at least), I know I was at least made aware of them to the extent I was trained to handle them should they come crashing into my life.

The short list: ice storms, earthquakes, drought, wildfires, tornadoes, and hurricanes. In fact, I think the tarantulas you find in Texas should be considered a natural disaster all their own, but so far I haven’t been able to convince FEMA of the validity of my point.

What brought all this to mind is the drought and the wildfires the West coast of our nation is dealing with at the moment. California is one of the states currently battling fire and thirst, which is one of the states I lived in as my dad hop-scotched with us across the United States. It occurs to me now he had only a modicum of control over where we ended up, but at the time it seemed like his choices were made from a state of unexplained madness.

It is when we lived in California I became aware of drought, wildfires, and earthquakes. While I was young, and it’s true that I have only a few memories I can grasp mentally with any sure grip, I know that these types of natural disasters were real issues in the The Golden State. This is evidenced by the current fires ravaging California after a long period of drought. There are always rules for handling disaster, some of which I remember, and many of which I do not remember.

What I do remember from living in California is that everyone told you to head straight for a sturdy door frame should an earthquake hit. I remember being told to hold on no matter what. While this advice would probably serve me well if I visited California again today, it is nice to know there are entire books devoted to the subject of surviving earthquakes in California should I need a refresher course. For instance, I found one titled Living with Earthquakes in California: A Survivor’s Guide, written by Robert Yeats, in which he offers fairly similar advice to what I remember:

“The earthquake mantra is duck, cover, and hold. Duck under something such as a table or desk, and cover your face and neck with your arms. Hold on until the shaking stops. Teach this to your children, and make it part of your own family earthquake drill.”

Fires don’t strike my memory quite as hard. While the thirty seconds an earthquake may last seems vibrant in my memory, the days and weeks a fire in the West can last doesn’t seem to register at all. I find this odd. In fact, I want to say there was an earthquake while we lived in California, but I don’t remember it. If it happened, it is only known to me through the telling of stories, and that much seems to be forgotten as well.

Thinking back on my time in Texas, the memories that stick out most are of tarantulas, the Alamo, and the fact that Texas was obsessed with putting the squash on littering (“Don’t Mess with Texas—We Don’t Like Litter,” or something like that). However, the memories of tornado preparation are fairly strong also. The training I received for preparing for tornadoes was taught in the schools, enforced by running regular drills.

These drills generally included one of two scenarios. One, we would all file out into the hallways, line up against the concrete walls of the hall with our heads facing the wall, and crouch down into a ball with our arms over our heads. Two, we would all duck under our desks, crouch much in the same way, holding our arms over our heads. Either way, when the tornado tore through town, the best defense we had was a desk laced with chewing gum, or a hallway littered with elementary-grade graffiti. This always struck me as futile in the face of a tunnel of doom, but I did as I was told nonetheless.

I have this nagging memory that the safest place in the home (should you not find yourself being educated at the exact time a tornado hit) was the bathtub. I don’t even know if this true or not, but it is a memory attached to my neural patterns either way. Maybe I would be safe if I drove through Texas, encountered a tornado, and jumped into the nearest bathtub—or maybe I’d just be laughed at heartily. My only memory of a time a tornado was actually hitting our town is a memory that involves me standing in the community hallway of our military apartment building. There was no bathtub in this scene, and no real sense of dread that I remember. Perhaps I was young and dumb, unaware of my own mortality.

The relief here is that while we did live in an area prone to tornadoes, it doesn’t look like we lived far enough North into Texas to be considered part of “Tornado Alley.” Richard Dixon and Todd Moore give a brief overview of the idea of “Tornado Alley” in their article from Weather, Climate and Society:

“Tornado impacts have the potential to be experienced by communities all across the United States; however, their incidence is greatest in certain regions of the central United States. A region known as Tornado Alley that stretches from northwest Texas northeastward through central Minnesota and North Dakota and from central Colorado and Wyoming eastward to northwest Iowa and east Kansas and Oklahoma… is traditionally considered as having the greatest tornado incidence. In addition to the traditional Tornado Alley region, locations in the south and southeastern United States also are relatively tornado prone.”

Moving on from the dry heat of Texas, it would be easy to discuss hurricanes when I discuss our time in Virginia. The truth of the matter is that hurricanes were not the problem when we lived there. Hurricanes do hit that far North, of course, but we were plagued by ice storms far more often than we were plagued by hurricanes. In fact, while I remember a few serious hurricane warnings, I don’t remember being hit my a hurricane while we lived in the Old Dominion. I do remember one specific ice storm, however.

The ice storm in question knocked out the power for a few days. I have vivid memory of being bundled in dozens of blankets, sitting on our couch, my childhood cat Princess even burrowing in an effort to keep warm despite her fur coat. The ice was thick on the streets for days—so much so that you could slide barefoot down the streets for a bit of childish fun. A power line came crashing down on the first day of the storm. I remember the power line not because it contributed to the freezing temperatures in my house for days, but because on the day it crashed, my dad turned right instead of left, avoiding his truck (and himself) being crushed beneath it’s weight. That’s how I remember him telling it, anyway, though I wasn’t in the car, and childhood memory can’t always be trusted.

It’s interesting that when I went looking for research on the ice storms in Virginia, I don’t find the same types of information I found when I researched California earthquakes and Texas tornadoes. There are no preparation instructions or incidence guides. In fact, the majority of the papers, articles, and books I found in my research into Virginia’s ice storms revolve around trees. Yes, trees. It seems that scholars are much more interested in the effects these ice storms have on the trees than they are in the people surviving them. I don’t suppose this is unexpected—with a clear head and a little common sense, most people have a good chance of surviving an ice storm.

The last type of natural disaster I came to be familiar with is one I still have to prepare for on a yearly basis. My dad’s final stop on his tour with the Navy landed us in Florida—a place I never left, while I have moved around the state some. Hurricanes are the big issue here in Florida, of course. In fact, when I still lived at home, my parents and I dealt with one of the big names in Florida hurricane history—Hurricane Ivan.

Hurricane Ivan destroyed a major portion of the I-10 bridge where we were living at the time, Pensacola. It smashed boats together in large docks like they were crackers in a bowl of tomato soup. People were out of power for weeks on end after the hurricane. I know we were out of power for some amount of time, though I honestly can’t remember how long. While evacuation was encouraged from early on, I remember that my family chose to evacuate fairly late.

Much of the preparations for hurricanes involve shoring up foundations in expectation of flooding, taping or boarding windows, and finding a room in the house that isn’t surrounded by trees outside. I remember taping across windows in X formation, trying to strengthen them against the high-powered winds we were expecting. While we only ever attempted to evacuate once that I remember (too late, as I explained), we hunkered down for our fair share of hurricanes in those last years I spent living with my parents—my high school years.

Ivan may have been the big one, but it wasn’t the only one we survived. The effects of the storm went well beyond what I could understand when we returned home to find three trees on our home, a terrified puppy in our garage (we found him just days before the storm hit and could not take him with us, so we secured him the best we could and hoped for the best), and a house without power. The obvious effects weren’t the only ones to consider, though, as evidenced by this report released after the hurricane:

“Three quarters of houses in each county were damaged. Households in Santa Rosa and Escambia lacked basic utilities, including regular garbage pick-up, telephone service, and electricity. Fifty-four percent of households in Santa Rosa and 27% in Escambia reported using a generator. The most commonly self-reported health conditions were sleep disturbances in Santa Rosa (54%) and upper respiratory problems in Escambia (46%).”

Yes, it is obvious the well-rounded insight of my seventeen-year old self was not yet developed to its fullest potential. I saw a house with a bunch of damage and the inconvenience of having to haul ourselves over to my best friend’s house for showers and food (they had a generator). People were literally trapped in our county, though. Water was contaminated. People had died. Homes were destroyed in their entirety by flooding and high winds. Kids I knew had to move to other school districts to live with family in homes that were damaged, but at least not destroyed. Hurricanes are the natural disaster I have the most vivid and jarring memories of, plus the natural disaster with which I have the most hands-on experience.

My dad was Navy—in this way, I became familiar with several natural disasters familiar to several different regions of the United States. While we may each live in one particular area where there is only one or two natural disasters we have to potentially prepare for, it is important to remember that natural disasters touch every area of the nation. They may be different, but they are present, placing their hands on the lives of people who are just trying to live out their daily lives.

It may not seem that the front page story about wildfires in a state thousands of miles from us is relevant to our life. In a way, it is relevant. As people in California battle drought and fire, those of us in Florida could find ourselves battling our own natural disaster in a couple of months as hurricane season begins. Perhaps it is as simple as having empathy for others. While not everyone will have the experience with multiple types of natural disasters as I do, they have experience with at least one type. It is this common experience that keeps us all connected, making each front page story about natural disaster our own personal story.

Sources I used, dudes and dudettes:

Dixon, Richard W., and Todd W. Moore. “Tornado Vulnerability In Texas.” Weather, Climate & Society 4.1 (2012): 59-68. Environment Complete. Web. 24 July 2015.

Tesfaye Bayleyegn, Amy Wolkin, Kathleen Oberst, Stacy Young, Carlos Sanchez, Annette Phelps, Joann Schulte, Carol Rubin, Dahna Batts, Rapid Assessment of the Needs and Health Status in Santa Rosa and Escambia Counties, Florida, after Hurricane Ivan, September 2004, Disaster Management & Response, Volume 4, Issue 1, January–March 2006, Pages 12-18, ISSN 1540-2487,

Yeats, Robert S. Living With Earthquakes In California : A Survivor’s Guide. Corvallis, Or: Oregon State University Press, 2001. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 24 July 2015.

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