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Storm’s Coming. Send Out the Invites.

As storms become more powerful, is there still room for the traditional gathering of friends, family, and alcohol known as the hurricane party?

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Before Hurricane Isidore made landfall in 2002, the New Orleans Journal asked New Orleans residents how they were preparing for the incoming storm. One woman replied by checking off her grocery list: “apple-turnovers, pound cake, pecan bread, banana bread, beer, tuna salad, ham salad… and beer. Lots of beer. Did I forget that?” In his account of hurricane preparation, New Orleans journalist Chris Rose reminisced to NPR that during Hurricane Georges in 1998, he and his neighbors emptied their refrigerators of perishables for a two-day neighborhood cookout, stopping intermittently to go hit golf balls into the gale-force winds at the nearby golf course. “A hurricane party,” said Rose, “[is] a community affair.”

Hurricane parties are a staple of hurricane season in Miami, New Orleans, and throughout the Gulf and Atlantic South. Family, friends, and neighbors provision beer and groceries and huddle underneath the safest roof to ride out the storm (each hurricane season, alcohol sales at grocery and liquor stores spike when news of an impending storm hits the airwaves). Bars shutter their windows but refuse to close their doors. Hurricane parties have been reported as far north as New England, and before Hurricane Irene hit the East Coast in 2011, the New York Post observed masses of New Yorkers stocking their liquor cabinets “in hopes of getting blotto.”

Those living far from shores pelted annually by Atlantic cyclones often only see the aftermath of storms: images of devastation, death tolls, headlines that deliberately misinform or fear-monger.

Hurricane parties, then, may seem like the indulgent whims of hedonistic coastal residents choosing to ignore the advice of the weatherman and FEMA. They have certainly baffled researchers and anthropologists (one particularly feisty scholar called them “reckless” and “a dramatic excuse” to throw a party). Year after year they frustrate state emergency officials, who issue warnings against excessive drinking during dangerous storms. Yet calling them “parties” does not encapsulate their complexity. In places where hurricanes are simply part of life, hurricane parties can be a deeply communal ritual inextricably bound with storm preparation. They’re seasonal fetes that are less about getting drunk and more about camaraderie, food pooling, and safety in numbers. “Nobody keeps count of how many residents participate in such events,” quipped Rose, “but safe to say, it’s a lot of us, maybe even most of us who are left after you subtract the evacuees.”

Of course, not all coastal residents are in favor of such levity. Recently, for example, Publix created cookie cakes in anticipation of Hurricane Dorian, much to the chagrin of some customers, who accused the grocery chain of insensitivity. In response to the cakes, one person tweeted, “We need to move away from hurricane parties, toward go-bag-water-flashlights-and-shutters checklists.”

But for others, this light-heartedness is part and parcel of storm preparation. Several Charleston bars remained open to throw hurricane parties before Dorian, and communities in Savannah threw parties during the storm, as well. Earlier this year, when Tropical Storm Barry unexpectedly formed off of Louisiana, reported that various New Orleans residents were throwing hurricane parties in preparation for the storm. As Barry approached landfall, “Hurricane party” was trending on Twitter.

The hurricane party isn’t a 21st-century phenomenon. Its origins can be traced to just before World War II, when the rise of hurricane-resistant infrastructure and meteorological advances allowed for more accurate storm predictions. With no modern interstate system, many residents in the path of a hurricane lacked the ability to quickly and effectively evacuate, and so they stayed put.

After Prohibition laws were repealed in 1933, the 1930s and ’40s saw a “normalization” of various drinking and recreational cultures, including the at-home cocktail party, the neighborhood bar, and the three-martini lunch. Denizens of the Gulf Coast could now hunker down safely in a storm-resistant structure, with as much legal alcohol as they wanted. With better weather forecasting, safer houses, and drinking as an acceptable social behavior, the hurricane party began to thrive.

Around the mid-1930s, hurricanes were colloquially labeled as one-quart, two-quart, or three-quart storms, depending on how many bottles of liquor a household could consume while riding out the tempest. Newspapers flooded with reports from South Florida about residents taking advantage of the newly repealed 18th Amendment during hurricane season. Upon hearing the news of a cyclone over the broadcast, the Columbia Record reported in 1935 that locals “lock themselves in a safe place and get ‘blind’ until it is over.”

It wasn’t until the postwar era that printed tales of debaucherous and wild hurricane parties really proliferated. There’s a huge increase in archival newspaper reports starting around 1950. “During a hurricane,” suggested one Miamian to the the Baltimore Sun in 1952, “have a party!” The Times-Picayune declared that “there’s no better show than a rootin’, tootin’ hurricane and no more fun-filled experience than a hurricane party.” These affairs weren’t just happening at home, either. Luxury hotels and resorts also hosted hurricane parties. In that same year, an upscale Miami hotel offered free fare to its guests when a hurricane rolled unexpectedly through the city, and management threw a hurricane party, offering food, drinks, and entertainment to all the visitors at no charge.

Early reports of hurricane parties are often characterized by a pervasive sense of apathy regarding the severity of the weather. When Tropical Storm Item was set to roll over Miami in 1951, a conference of 50,000 American Legionnaires decided to cancel their events and throw a hurricane party instead. Said one Legionnaire, “People in Miami don’t worry about a hurricane, so the Legion won’t worry about it.” Many even took place outdoors, on the beach. At Miami Beach during 1965’s Hurricane Betsy, parties rumbled across the sand where “people tried to fortify themselves against fear with booze.” Across the Gulf, New Orleans received the brunt of Betsy: It was the worst storm the city had seen, and the damage it wrought was not surpassed until Katrina.

But hurricane parties weren’t accessible only to wealthy tourists and middle-class suburbanites. Historically, people from all walks of life have taken part in hurricane parties, and the locations run the gamut: cafes, bars, military bases, oil rigs, dorm rooms. Some writers have framed the hurricane party as a kind of egalitarian space. In 1981 Lionel Mitchell, reporting for the New York Amsterdam News, one of the oldest African-American newspapers in the United States, reminisced about his experience at a 1962 hurricane party: “It was the first time students, liberals, faculty couples, bohemians, musicians, creative people could get together under cover of the 100 mile-an-hour winds on an interracial basis with no fear of police raids or reprisals of any sort.”

That isn’t to say that hurricane parties are utopian spaces, or that everyone in a storm’s path sees it as an opportunity for festivity. Those who suffer most from powerful cyclones are often low-income and communities of color. In 1969 the Philadelphia Tribune reported that Hurricane Camille destroyed the homes of many poor African-American residents on the Mississippi Coast. “Negroes in Mississippi do not have ‘hurricane parties’ when such storms come through their communities,” wrote the Tribune, “Such ‘parties’ are for wealthy white folk.” Instead, black residents of this region have “praying parties.” Residents of Pass Christian, many of whom had retreated inland to ride out Hurricane Camille, returned to their property in ruins. When it comes to hurricanes, the ability to be vulnerable and emerge unscathed is an immense privilege.

Twenty years later, history’s most famous hurricane party supposedly exemplified the dangers of ignoring storm warnings. It happened during Hurricane Camille in 1969 — or didn’t. According to legend, residents in recently constructed Richelieu Manor Apartments in Pass Christian, Mississippi, decided to stay in their homes together, despite repeated warnings to evacuate. The party’s sole survivor, Mary Ann Gerlach, claimed she saved herself by clinging to a sofa cushion after the storm surge pushed her out of the building’s second-story window. Though the veracity of Gerlach’s story has since been questioned, media outlets and local governments took the tale and turned it into a cautionary one. With a “real” hurricane party disaster to point to, municipal governments cited the Richelieu as a reason to heed all official storm warnings.

The hurricane party of the 21st century might not look materially different than ones thrown 50 or 60 years ago, but environmental circumstances have drastically changed. Climate scientists have reported a “detectable” increase in Atlantic hurricane activity over the last century, and evidence suggests that hurricanes have become more potent since the 1950s and 1960s. In Southeast Texas, which suffered major flooding last week from 43 inches of rain dumped by Tropical Storm Imelda, climate change is responsible for increasing “extreme rainfall” events; climate change also increased the destructive power of Hurricane Harvey, which hit Houston in 2017 and resulted in more than 75 deaths. As one teenage climate change protestor noted at Houston’s City Hall last week, a business-as-usual approach no longer works: “Our so-called natural disasters are no longer entirely natural... this is what being on the front lines of climate change looks like.”

But despite the risks and the potential of more powerful storms, hurricane parties might still persist as a cultural practice because of the communities they foster in the face of fear. Google “hurricane party” and you’ll find countless guides, recipes, and op-eds, all claiming to have the best ways to ride out a storm. Before Hurricane Harvey, some Texans took to social media to boast of early-morning beer and supply runs. Said one Twitter user, “I got beer, wine, rum, peanut butter & crackers. We may be floating on a mattress with squirrels, but at least it’ll be fun!” In 2012, the Miami New Times kicked off that year’s hurricane season writing, “Frankly, there’s no better time to booze it up and bond with friends than during a disaster when no one has to work and the Internet is down.” Residents across Florida threw hurricane parties during 2012’s Hurricane Isaac and 2016’s Hurricane Matthew. During 2017’s hyperactive hurricane season, hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Nate all saw reports of parties (as well as official warnings not to throw them).

Although they don’t all devolve into bacchanalian madness, hurricane parties often involve a collision between survival and leisure. “Hurricane parties are meant to ease the stress,” writes one Texan, “by inviting family or friends to your boarded up or shuttered home.” While they certainly aren’t a solution to problems caused by climate change, hurricane parties are a momentary means to cope with the hopelessness this crisis can bring. They’re a blip of joy, perhaps, amid anxiety and chaos.

When the New Orleans Journal surveyed residents before Hurricane Isidore in 2002, the last respondent brightened: “My grandfather loved hurricanes.” He invited everyone he knew to their home, and threw a big party where they cheered behind plywood-covered windows. And his grandfather would say to guests, “Enjoy the wind, enjoy the wind.”

Hannah C. Griggs is a writer, researcher, and critic from New Orleans. She is currently pursing a PhD in English at Emory University.
Carolyn Figel is a freelance artist living in Brooklyn.


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