Dr Dolly’s Mine Your Memories Column #2

Your Disaster Stories

By Dolly Haik-Adams Berthelot © 2021

In 1999, my husband took a deanship in frigid Plattsburgh, NY, about an hour from Montreal, Canada, and I did a double life, staying part time in our Pensacola home. Being in a new area re-tickled my garage sale passion, which had been dormant for a few years. Beyond the joy of treasure hunting, tag sales are great ways to encounter the natural chatter of strangers and quickly get acquainted with a place and its people. While eavesdropping and interacting, I learned about the worst ice storm ever to hit that lovely region of the Adirondacks—just the previous year.

So EVERYONE was still talking about it. Remembering it aloud, reminding each other of experiences. That’s a very human thing to do. It’s one way of preserving history, of sharing history, of learning from history. I realized that I could never quite be part of that community just yet, having missed this profound shared experience, which so bound people together. Disasters do that, just as wartime does, being in battle together. Even in an area known for extreme winter weather, that 1998 ice storm remains the worst on record. For me, it was only hearsay; that hearsay and coping with much less rigorous conditions helped send these Southerners home after two years. But I did enjoy exploring, listening, and learning. The most shocking detail I remember of that ice storm was that some people who had fireplaces had to burn their furniture, even antiques and heirlooms, to survive the subfreezing weather in homes too long without any other power. That fact made the dangers, the horrors, stunningly real.  

Such details belong in your disaster stories, whether you are sharing them aloud or writing them down, or having a professional craft them into a story to cherish and pass on. What will future folks learn about the historic crises in your family, neighborhood, town, city, or region? What did you or others learn from the experience? When a blizzard, hurricane, tornado, wildfire, flood, earthquake, avalanche, or volcanic eruption turned your life topsy-turvy, how was your world flipped upside down? Be specific. What changed? Was anything transformed forever? What did you fear most? Miss most? Did you or others actually gain anything? For what were you particularly grateful? Who did something memorable? Something disturbing? Something infuriating? How did you behave? Are you particularly proud or ashamed about anything? Be sensitive, perceptive, and brutally honest, with yourself and with your listeners or readers. Good stories require that. Be frank, and generous with concrete details.

Immediacy is another valuable trait in any story, the sense of being there, right now, and taking the reader with you. You achieve that using descriptions that waken all the senses. One way to get there is through vivid memory. The Memory Movie/Memory Video exercise I introduced with last month’s “Love Story” column can adapt to any kind of story, including your disaster tale. Hear my guided process here and creatively apply it to any experience. However, if circumstances possibly allow, and you can manage the presence of mind to snatch those details while in the midst of a crisis, calamity, or catastrophe, all the better. Admittedly, while desperately running from a wildfire or trying to stay afloat in a flood or hold on for dear life in a tornado, you are not able to take notes, probably not even mental notes.

But nervously waiting for a hurricane to hit or sitting in a relatively safe place as it roars around your home for hours, you may, in fact, be able to take notes. Shivering or sweltering in your powerless home, you might be able to actively tune in to what you are feeling, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and saying—and scribble like crazy! That tactic may even be consoling or therapeutic, relieving some anxiety and terror. Quickly jotting down random words or phrases may calm you then and be really helpful later.

The aftermath of the crisis also offers much to experience, observe, and capture, as my one-month-later follow up to Hurricane Ivan shows. I could have worked a lot harder years later to remember, reflect, and recapture some of that experience, but how much better to grab it while living it! Details are clearer and that vital sense of immediacy is built in—because it’s real! Note that staying in present tense can add a sense of immediacy. Read Ivan the Not Only Terrible here.

Photo by Buffy Williams

I never expected to face an ice storm in Pensacola, but sure ‘nuff, one snuck up on Florida in 2014. Now, it was nothing compared to that Plattsburgh doozy, or to this year’s shocker that would devastate much of the South, but Pensacola was unused to such things and totally unprepared, so it brought the area to its knees for a couple of days, closed bridges and interstates, kept everyone home, mostly inside. Besides the fear of not being able to get to a crucial medical appointment across town, what struck me most was the unexpected aural beauty of ice melting. In Plattsburgh, and before that in Germany, Austria, and East Tennessee, I became enthralled with crunchy snow, and sparkling ice cycles, and the frozen artistry visible below me while walking gingerly across an iced lake. But who knew I’d find a different wintry masterwork in Pensacola? Click here to hear a brief snippet of me reading from a post-widowhood chapter of my upcoming memoir IMPERFECT LOVE.

Beauty may not be paramount in the minds of Texans, Louisianans or others suffering through a much more treacherous winter storm in 2021. Beyond the hours and days of recent TV news and weather video, family and friends with no power for subfreezing days, 40° bedrooms, and burst pipes have helped make the horrors of this painful weather event real to me. Multitudes are thirsty without water, hungry without food, and homeless, freezing on the street wishing they had 40° bedrooms. An amazing snowflake photo my niece Buffy Williams captured with her Android S10+ reminds us of the potential gifts amid the challenges. I hope many who experience this Southern rarity—or any other of the earth’s rising climate upheavals — will preserve details for posterity—the terrors, the miseries, and just possibly, the beauty and the blessings.


Header Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay.