Last year, a young woman from Michigan interned where I work. Right before she left, I asked her what she thought of Mobile. “Pretty good, ” she replied, “but it rains all the time.” As we who live here know, she was exaggerating. But not by much. Mobile routinely tops the list for the rainiest city in the United States, on average measuring 67 inches of annual rainfall — that’s better than 5 feet — and 59 rainy days. And above-average years are not uncommon. Significant weather events can push those totals to truly stratospheric levels. Who can forget 1997 and Hurricane Danny, the infamous “rain ’cane, ” that dropped nearly 40 inches while stalled over Mobile Bay? And then there are those bizarre systems, like the giant S-shaped storm this past April that inundated Mobile with more than 10 inches in a matter of hours, the third highest daily total in local history.
I am convinced that one of the keys to happiness here is a love of rain. It is, after all, endlessly entertaining and has many moods. In the summer, it’s so predictable you can set your watch by it. Every afternoon, the heat and the thunderheads build, before merciful cool gusts auger refreshing downpours that last only minutes. Then the sun returns, chasing away the clouds and steaming off the wet pavements and buildings. The following morning will more likely than not be sunny and pleasant, until the great cauliflower-shaped storm clouds pile up again to restart the whole cycle.
If the storm is big and sustained, Downtown flooding is sure to follow, and everyone knows the problem areas. Though a headache for Government Plaza and inconvenienced drivers, this flooding is as much a part of our city as the heat and humidity that precede it. I never will forget driving through a summer downpour on Old Shell Road back in the ’90s with my then-new boss. As enormous raindrops smacked the windshield and giant black ponds dotted with live oak leaves forced us to the center of the road, my boss suddenly began laughing and pounding the wheel. “I love Mobile!” he shouted. “It’s so tropical! It’s so fouled up!” It was the only intelligent response, and I shared his joy.
Fall is our dry season, but winters can be wet. December rain is different from July rain. The days are overcast and gloomy, and the precipitation comes down in a fine chilly mist. If it’s a bad El Niño year, cold winds lash the treetops, and slanting needle-like drops punish exposed skin. Morning brings fallen branches, leaf-plastered windshields, clammy cold and wet pavement that might not dry for days. Even northerners and Canadians complain about this rain — a 40-degree phenomenon that invades the bones and pierces the heart. The best antidote to such days is to cuddle up with a good book in a pool of yellow light.
Fortunately, Mobile’s reputation for rain doesn’t seem to adversely affect our spirits. We are not like Seattle, which has less rainfall but more cloudy and rainy days. Those mizzling days-long rains are rare for us. Not for nothing do we tell visitors to the Gulf Coast, “If you don’t like the weather, wait 15 minutes.” Yes, it rains a lot, but when it blows over and round Mr. Sun paints the western horizon in fiery hues, you’ll be glad you came, and you just might want to stay.
John S. Sledge is the author of “Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart.”
text by John S. Sledge • photo by Sherry Stimpson Frost