I recently asked Twitter what I should blog about and the answer from the very lovely TheBoyAndMe was ‘an exotic holiday’. That threw me because I don’t tend to do exotic but it did get me thinking about all the various trips, working holidays and adventures I’ve been on over the last 10 years or so. I realised that there was one trip that I’ve never really shared with the world as it was back in 2004 before every minutiae of our lives were posted on Facebook or Twitter. It was perhaps one of the most interesting trips I’ve ever had not only because it was to a lesser travelled part of the USA but also because it was interrupted by Hurricane Ivan. Ivan happened almost exactly one year before the better known Hurricane Katrina, and ”caused an estimated US$18 billion (2004 USD, $22.1 billion 2012 USD) in damages to the United States, making it the fifth costliest hurricane ever to strike the country”.
I went to the States to visit a friend who lived in the southern most tip of Alabama. You may or may not know that Alabama borders Florida and has a coastal region: it was that coastal region that I was lucky enough to visit.
I flew into New Orleans (a three hour drive from my friend’s house in Foley, AL) and the first thing that struck me was the heat and humidity – it was extremely uncomfortable. However, on the return journey three weeks later I didn’t have the same problem – clearly, my UK adapted body just struggled initially. As I was staying with a local, I feel I experienced the real south and not a tourist trail. I went to the beach, ate in local restaurants, drank in some dodgy bars and enjoyed being something of a local curiosity. It didn’t matter what I said, the locals just wanted to hear me speak ‘British’. I developed a liking for Bud Light and Coke Zero (Zero wasn’t introduced to the UK until a few years later). I sang Karaoke for the first time ever and wow, what a karaoke night! There was a drum kit, bass, guitars and microphones – you and your mates really could have a blast. I sang No Doubt’s ‘Don’t Speak’ to a some hairy hells angels, it was epic. I’ve been hooked on Karaoke ever since.
The beach at Gulf Shores is amazing, the water is warm and the sand is white. I was warned to stay out of the water and sunrise and sunset due to sharks (I didn’t really like this bit), so I played beach volleyball instead. The surrounding area was exactly as you see it on TV, wooden jetties jutting out into the river with small children playing on them. My friends mother had a speed boat, so we went out on a trip and pulled into a wonderful little beach diner just on the water’s edge. I had locally caught shrimp washed down with a beer, one of the best lunches I’ve ever had. My friend and I travelled to Atlanta, Georgia and had a nosey around there, whilst there the Hurricane warning came in and we had drive the 8 hours back to Foley to prepare the house for the Hurricane Ivan. Furniture was moved, all the windows were taped so that if they broke the glass wouldn’t shatter. Once this was finished we all drove the 8 hours back to Atlanta to ride the storm out as the local government had ordered everyone to evacuate. The only physical part of the Ivan I experienced was as it dumped a load of rain in Atlanta as it passed over – it was rain like I’ve never seen before and I stood in it momentarily, feeling it run down my face.
When we got back to Foley the clean up had already begun but the devastation was still evident. The worst I saw was when I went with my friend’s family to offer support to their friend who lived the a very exposed area on Fort Morgan Road. The scene that greeted me was awful – the house was in tatters. The boat in the garage had somehow been picked up, spun around an entire 180 degrees and then dumped on it’s side. The woman who owned the house was quiet and solemn, I’m normally very quick to whip out my camera but I felt it would be insensitive to photograph her property. I often think about her. We returned to Foley and I offered to help my friend at her work, she worked in a supermarket and as the power had been disrupted they had a store full of spoiled food. I dug in and worked as hard as I could to help clear up the mess and get some normality back to the people.
I left less than a week after Hurricane Ivan but the experiences I had and the people I met during that time are often in my thoughts. It was a year later that Katrina struck the Gulf of Mexico again, this time landing in New Orleans. Having seen the impact that Ivan had on the area, I watched the TV with great interest and sadness. I year prior to Katrina I had been there eating breakfast in The Clover Grill and experiencing all the city had to offer. Weirdly, I feel kind of privileged to have been part of the community when Ivan hit.
Oh and if you were wondering the sky really is so blue in Alabama: every time Sweet Home Alabama comes on the radio, I am taken back to the three weeks I spent there and all the people I met. They’re good memories and I hope to go back one day.