Ike and the
Seventy-some people were already dead before it even entered the Gulf of Mexico.
The late summer water temperatures added fuel and the storm swelled in size. Hurricane Ike spent almost four days in the gulf, growing in mass as it took aim at Texas. The class 2 storm made landfall at Galveston Island in the early hours of Saturday the 13th of September 2008. A massive storm surge swamped the coast up to Louisiana. It moved inland and brought destruction to Houston. Ike then turned its course, weakening just enough to be deemed a tropical storm, but that didn’t mean its threat had subsided. It began a menacing advance into the interior of the United States.
Four hundred and thirty miles north of Houston, on a mountaintop in Arkansas, I poked my head out of a large window-sized opening in a wooden buttress. Two stories below, the lead singer of The Wailers bounded back and forth across a stage, while his long dreadlocks danced against his backside. Looking out onto a darkened field, it took a few seconds to let my eyes adjust before I could perceive the large crowd swaying and moving in unison to the tight back beat of the drummer and the thundering bass.
The singer proclaimed this melodious incantation numerous times into the hot and humid nighttime air. A light rain began. I wondered if some of the rumors were true, about our location being in the direct path of a serious storm. I had no connection to the outside world. Our isolated location had no cell phone reception, which did not bother me in the least. It might be hard to believe now, but this was the era where small janky cell phones were only for occasionally calling people and sending pixelated text messages (or at least it was for me).
Anyway, nothing like being at a music festival being thrown by a nice and generous family who provided great hospitality to all the musicians, and not having anything to distract from the weekend experiences. Check out and tune in–I could get behind that.
The main stage faced south-southwest and was an impressive homemade wooden structure, wide and deep enough to handle any major professional production. Flanked on each side were three-story towers, each with an inner staircase rising to top viewing rooms. A roof ran from the top of one tower to the other, covering the entirety of the stage. Below the stage, and accessed from the back, were the green rooms, and most importantly, a large common room where all artists and crew were welcome. Here, the kegs stayed forever tapped and my cup stayed forever full.
It was Saturday night, the last night of the festival, and I was standing in the stage-left tower’s “crow’s nest” room, which was occupied by a dozen other musicians from around the country. All of us were talking general nonsense. Not that I noticed, but about half way through The Wailers set, the rain outside began to increase in intensity and then fell in a slanted trajectory as a steady wind blew from the south.
A couple songs later, the hypnotic drone of the reggae bass suddenly stopped, and an eerie silence followed. Everyone in the room immediately ceased running their mouths and crowded into the window opening. Below, the stage manager and some crew were hastily escorting the band members off stage. Even with the roof overhead, all the electronics were getting soaked.
“Okay… well, I’m getting out of this electrocution box!”
A random voice projected as several people started making immediately for the staircase. I didn’t object. I was thinking the exact same thing–a homemade stage is awesome and all, but I wondered how OSHA approved the thing really was. Somebody asked aloud as we rounded a flight of stairs, “What do you think they’re going to do about Umphrey’s?”
Very good question I thought. The headliner of the festival, Umphrey’s McGee, was due on stage after The Wailers. They were a midwest band that was quite popular in the underground music scene that we all belonged to at the time, and were on a steady trajectory of playing more and more prestigious festivals and venues.
We hit the ground floor and then scattered onto the gravel parking area out back. Stagehands were rushing around in an effort to ‘batten down the hatches’. I decided to make for my band’s bus, which was not close. Once there, I figured I could find out the answer to a much more important question than ‘what about the headliner?’
“What about our late-night set?”
My band, Blue Turtle Seduction, had been invited back to the Mulberry Mountain Music Festival to repeat what we’d done the previous year; throw a four hour party set that went into the wee hours of the morning, in which we hosted some twenty guest-musician sit-ins ... and we, the band, hung on for dear life. We pulled it off, and thus, there we were a year later, hired again to close the festivities down in a “late-night” tent sitting at the rear of the main stage field.
I covered the distance of about three football fields fairly quickly, but still was soaked by the time I made it to the shelter of our tour-bus-communal-apartment-on-wheels, which was parked to the west of the late-night tent. I changed clothes and reentered our front gathering quarters as our tour manager was addressing a couple of the members.
“They’re moving the Umphrey’s set to our stage… Get it all under the protection of the tent. And then you’ll go on afterwards.”
The question ‘what?’ entered my mind, quickly followed by the conclusion ‘fuck’.
Someone else half-jokingly, half lamentingly said aloud, “So you’re saying the headliner of the entire festival– is now opening for us.”
Our tour manager nodded. My stomach sank.
This went against the natural rules of the universe. When it came to a music festival, there were proven laws that dictated a smooth flowing string of events. The headliner would play rock-gods on a large stage in front of the capacity audience, their show would end, and the crowd would then stream back to their campsites. However, if a fraction of them wanted to eddy out, then there was a boutique band like us to entertain them in a club/bar size tent, letting them forget for a few more hours that the weekend was almost over.
I looked out the window and could see stage crew rolling rigs of equipment into the tent. My stomach turned again. I retreated to the back and listened to the rain pound the steel shell of our bus. For the next hour, my mind was a spinning anxiety wheel.
‘Whatever… you can do this… Oh shit, can we do this? Whatever, you can do this… Oh shit…’
Finally, I surrendered to the fruitlessness of the exercise and decided to grab a beer, head outside, and see how their set was progressing. Upon opening the bus door, I quickly realized it was not just raining–it was pouring buckets outside. I leapt over a large puddle and dashed to the tent. The walls had been pulled tightly down, in an effort to protect everyone and everything inside, but streams of water still flowed in on the ground.
I entered the rear entrance to find a full tent going fucking nuts. The band and the fans were all feeding off the energy of nature’s elements and the close quarters. I saw our sound guy who was admirably watching the scene and shuffled my way over to him. He filled me in on the unfolding set.
“Their light guy said the band is on fire! They’re all on scaled down rigs, and it’s like they’re back in college… playing like they have everything to prove to the world! Gonna’ be one for the books!”
He then smiled at me, “You ready to follow this?”
‘No, not at all’ is what went through my head, but I forced a smile in response. Back to the bus I went and returned to my anxiety lair in the back of the vehicle. After a bit of time, the voice of our tour manager brought me to the front.
“The production manager called it; music is done for the weekend. Way too dangerous he said… The sound board station is sitting in a lagoon… he should’ve never even let Umphrey’s play, he said!”
That was that–all my internal fretting for nothing. I felt a bit ashamed. Then a new realization occurred to me; we’d traveled a long way to be here, and now our one and only set was cancelled.
Someone passed out a round of beers, and another passed a bottle of tequila.
This was life on the road.
We all shot the breeze for a while, trying to downplay the last couple hours of nerves. After a bit, we became aware of the absence of rain pounding against our windows. The storm was letting up, which was good, because I needed some air. I exited and was surprised at how calm the scene now was. I made my way around puddles and mud to enter the tent just in time to see the crew loading up the last of Umphrey’s gear into a moving truck. I walked over to stage-left and congratulated the lead guitarist on the great set.
“Thanks man, that was fucking fun!”
His eyes glowed as he took a swig from a bottle. He deserved it; he’d played his ass off. I shook his hand and then joined another conversation nearby with some people I’d met two nights previous in Norman, Oklahoma. A group of festival goers pounded on djembes and bongos near the rear of the tent.
I’m certain, at that moment, nobody in the tent–myself included–realized that the weather event called Ike was, in fact, not over, and the current peaceful setting was actually a rotating hole called the ‘eye of the storm.’
Minutes later, the wind picked back up. This time it came out of the north–the opposite direction from where it had come before. I was talking more in depth with a musician from Oklahoma. The wind blew harder. Suddenly a woman ran into the tent with a determined look on her face. She hopped onto the stage, pointed to the ceiling, and yelled at the top of her lungs.
“ALRIGHT, LISTEN UP YOU FUCKING HIPPIES! STOP PLAYING THOSE FUCKING DRUMS AND GET OUT OF THIS FUCKING TENT RIGHT NOW! I FUCKING MEAN IT!”
She was not messing around. I smiled at the other guy; we took her cue, and stepped out into the open air. Whether she had a direct line with NOAA or not, she must’ve known something, because an abrupt steady influx of gale force winds raced across the mountaintop. The late-night tent rippled from one side to the other. Rain pelted the side of my face. As the wind velocity increased, another set of ripples coursed through the canvas tent roof and the support system strained under the new direction of pressure. One new gust after another and it couldn’t withstand. The ropes snapped and the whole tent collapsed aggressively upon the stage, the sound system, and anything else that had been in there.
And just like that, shit was getting real.
“HELP! I NEED HELP!”
A voice called out, but not from under the collapsed tent–it came from behind us. I turned around to see two people grappling and struggling with a much smaller structure–the late-night food vending tent. I gave the guy from Oklahoma a look. I could tell he was reluctant, but he followed me as I ran over. Several others had come to assist as well. We were all answering the good samaritan call. The rain returned with a vengeance.
“I NEED YOU ALL TO GRAB CORNERS AND HELP ME STABILIZE THIS! I CAN’T LET THIS TENT GO!”
I couldn’t tell if this guy was the owner or only a worker, but along with his assistant, he quickly took charge of us new recruits. And I quickly knew that I didn’t like his plan. I tried objecting, but it was hard to get my point across over the volume of wind and rain. He snapped back at me. I don’t remember what he said, but it didn’t matter. He was now acting like a commanding officer yelling at his troops to hold the line.
Water streamed down my glasses, so I took them off, put them in the pocket of my shorts, joined a thin, bearded person at a corner, and latched with both hands onto head-high flaps. Ten minutes into it and I was soaked to the bone, which is when I realized I had my flip phone in my other pocket. Fuck. My forearms were already getting tired as we wrestled with canvas and wind. Someone else yelled an objection, but our drill sergeant fired back.
“I CAN’T LET THIS STUFF GET DAMAGED, HOLD THE LINE!”
That’s not what he said, but that’s how I remembered it, and I assumed he was referring to all the cooking implements under the tent, which, at that very moment in time, seemed trivial to me. However, whether I liked it or not, we were all a team now and the window to bail on the situation had closed. Everyone else must’ve arrived at the same conclusion because no one ran. My bearded partner and I put our heads down and let the elements punish us while we held onto our sail. Occasionally, he would yell something to me and then I would yell the same thing back.
“This is crazy!”
“I know… This is crazy!”
And that’s the way it stayed for a while. Whether it was thirty or forty-five minutes, or even an hour, I’m not sure.
The wind blew steady in velocity.
The rain fell in volume.
The scene was lit by a floodlight attached some forty feet up a power pole that was about sixty feet away, in the direction of the main stage, and into the wind. I began focusing on the lines that ran from this power pole, and whether they were insulated, charged, or not, I got a bad feeling. We were being pummeled by water from above and from below, as drops ricocheted off the ankle-deep puddles. I yelled to my partner a hyper-obvious conclusion.
“I’m going to try talking to this guy again! We shouldn’t be out here!”
Suddenly, looking beyond him towards the main stage, something caught my eye and it was not good. About two hundred yards away, a merchandise tent finally gave into the pressures and shot drastically skywards. I couldn’t tell how high it was, but it was an air-bound projectile nonetheless and we were directly in its path. With a panicked glance, I focused on the power lines and then back to the incoming missile. Fuck.
Before I could yell or run, its arcing trajectory brought it just under the lines, crashed against the ground thirty feet away, and then blew quickly up against our tent. One of its poles struck someone on the other side. A voice screamed out in pain. I yelled to my frightened looking partner.
“Enough of this shit! Keep hold of the corner!”
I ran around to the leeward side of the tent to find our leader and his assistant still grasping tightly to their side. I yelled over the wind.
“Dude! We have to do something! This is fucking ridiculous!”
I expected a harsh reaction, but instead he suddenly looked like a panicked child who was way in over his head. He leaned in closely to my ear.
“I know man! I don’t know what to do! Tell me what to do!”
But before I could answer him, he came to his own conclusion.
“Hell with it, let’s just let it loose and get out of here!”
‘What? You’ve got to be fucking kidding me! I’m not about to do something we could’ve done an hour ago and avoided being out here in the first place.’
This was the answer that I wanted to say, however I answered with another.
“No way! We let go and this thing goes skyward just like that one! YOU’VE GOT TO BREAK IT DOWN!”
He looked at me and contemplated my suggestion. He regained his composure, stood straight, and ran around to each group giving his new command. I don’t know what he said, but in my imagination he kept with his drill sergeant tone.
“OKAY YOU MAGGOTS! HOLD FAST WHILE WE BREAK THIS SHIT DOWN!”
I rejoined my partner at our corner and the two worked on the inside, dismantling poles and such. In just minutes our entire group was pulling the canvas to the ground, slowly deflating our sail. The wind began working in our favor; instead of filling it with air, it was now forcibly blowing the canvas against the ground and his cooking set-up underneath.
The job was done.
My partner split one way as I yelled at my musician buddy and a couple others to follow me. We all sprinted towards the bus, I blasted the door release button, and we sprang inside.
It was a sudden one-eighty shift in vibe.
Music played and there was a party going on with my band members, crew, and people from other bands.
Things like, “holy shit, where have you been?” was yelled. I grabbed a beer as I shuffled through. I went to the back and quickly took off everything I was wearing and threw the sopping wet mess into the bathroom. My phone was dead for good, but I didn’t care at that point. With a fresh, dry set of clothes I rejoined the group up front. Our road manager had already outfitted my soaking wet acquaintances with band t-shirts.
To my left, an easy-on-the-eyes friend from another band sat on a bench and smiled. She handed me a flask. I accepted graciously, took a long pull, and then looked to my right. The musician from Oklahoma, who’d reluctantly joined me in the ridiculous task, stared back. He seemed shaken up.
“Dude. I think that’s the most intense thing I’ve ever done in my life–I feel like I need to call my mom.”
I smiled and handed him the flask.
I’m not sure how long Ike raged on, but the storm ran its course as we partied in the safety of our twenty-three ton steel tank. Finally, the wind died down and the rain stopped. People began exiting to their respective camps to survey the damage and members of our crew began retiring to their bunks.
I was still too adrenaline amped to even think about sleeping. There was a knock at our door. It was my tent-corner partner and I stepped outside to greet him. He now had a long wooden staff in his right hand and wore a straw oriental hat. With his red, natty beard and his new implements, he suddenly looked to me like a young Gandalf.
In a slow draw, he told me his name and said, “I’m a shay-man from east Oklahoma.”
I couldn’t help myself–I laughed pretty loudly.
He answered with a gleam in his eyes.
“A shaman from the ranch lands of Oklahoma.”
I put my hand on his shoulder.
“Okay, how about we go for a walk and check out the damage.”
We walked around, and I did my best not to laugh at his staff. Eventually my adrenaline subsided and a deep tiredness overtook me. Around daybreak, I retreated back to the comfort of my bunk. It was only hours later that I was awoken by a strange sensation of bus movement, but I quickly fell back to sleep. Many hours later I awoke again somewhere in Tennessee.
Upon coming to the front and joining the group, I learned earlier that we’d been stuck in the mud and a bulldozer yanked us out. Most importantly though, they told me that no one had been seriously hurt during the storm. A tree had crashed onto a tent, but its occupants had been taking shelter in their vehicle. And someone’s car had been smashed, but the owner had been in a tent.
That Sunday, as we traveled east on Highway 40, Ike wreaked havoc in the Midwest, all the way up into Canada. It would go down on record as being the second most damaging storm in the United States to date, just behind Hurricane Katrina. The storm totals for the entirety of Ike were 195 dead–112 in the U.S.–and an estimated $37.5 billion in damage, with $29.5 billion belonging to the States. It was the second most active tropical storm to reach Canada since records had been kept.
I reflected upon the previous evening, as I watched the hills of Tennessee pass by my window. Another crazy night had come and gone.
Years later, I can now say I wish I’d talked more to the Oklahoma ranching-shaman about the future during our damage-surveying stroll. Being that he was a mystical person and all, maybe he could’ve gazed into the threads of the universe and warned me that Tropical Storm Ike was just the beginning of our troubles for that tour.
However, I did not. And since we had no warning, we continued unsuspectingly east, toward more trials and tribulations.
This was life on the road.
I don’t know who took this picture. I found it online. At the time, I was sleeping in the bus in the background. The white canvas is the remains of the late-night tent. The gear is the PA system that had been under the tent… And this mess up front was my rodeo ride.