As Hurricane Isaac swept through coastal Mississippi Wednesday night, I sat at Rhonda Gamble's dining room table trying hard to ignore the smell of spicy shrimp Creole.
My stomach felt empty after a day of hurricane reporting. And as Gamble chopped celery, bell pepper and onions — the trinity of Creole cooking — I ached to finish my story so I could eat.
"I'm done!" I announced, as I sent the story to my editor.
"Then you're ready for shrimp Creole?" asked Gamble, who I'd met only hours before. "I also made apricot nectar cake."
That was the start of a cozy evening in Waveland, about 40 miles east of New Orleans. Storm flooding prevented me from returning to my hotel, and Gamble gave me pajamas, a toothbrush and a fresh towel.
We watched the Republican National Convention as we talked politics, family and hurricanes.
In Waveland, they know a thing or two about hurricanes.
This 6,500-person town was ground zero for Hurricane Katrina, and for Isaac, which this week flooded local roads and toppled street signs.
It's a place where everybody knows each other's business, and "if they don't, they make it up," Gamble said.
They also help each other, especially during storms. Lucky for me, that kindness extends to strangers.
Gamble, 54, and her husband Jay had spotted me that afternoon — soaked and somewhat alarmed — at Scafidi's Wheel-In diner, the only place open during the storm.
"I knew you weren't from around he-yah," she later teased, with her New Orleans drawl. "You looked like you could use some help."
Her instincts were right. Minutes earlier, I'd survived a harrowing clash with Isaac.
In search of a good story, I was making my way toward the neighboring town of Pass Christian, which suffered devastating floods during Katrina.
I began to have second thoughts as I climbed the 85-foot Bay St. Louis Bridge, the wind battering my rented Nissan Armada. As the bridge descended, I slammed on my brakes and cursed.
The St. Louis Bay sprayed violently in the air as it engulfed the road. I couldn't reverse because I was exiting a bridge, but I also couldn't drive into the rushing water. It was a flash flood.
I shifted the SUV into 4-wheel drive, catapulted over the median and forced myself to breathe as I drove back over the bridge. I stepped into the diner to slow my beating heart.
In a stroke of serendipity, that's where I met Gamble.
"You're welcome back here anytime," she said, as she hugged me good night. "The door is always open."