August 20, 2004 (place)
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Thursday afternoon - an impromptu vacation
We checked our stock of batteries and filled rinsed milk jugs with water. I bought ice and stopped by a somewhat subdued Home Depot to buy a few bags of sand. After dinner (roasted pork tenderloin and garlic mashed potatoes -- yum!), I stacked the sandbags at the appropriate weak points and ordered everyone in to the pool. With six to eight inches of rain on the way, the prescription was cannonballs and sleepers for 30 minutes to blast enough water out of the pool to bring it down to an acceptable level. Then we polished off one of the two gallons of ice cream in the freezer.
Later, when Vix came home and the monsters were in bed, we checked the Weather Channel and the NOAA website. I usually trust the latter above all else since they don't rely on frantic daredevil weathermen and ratings. It's just the facts, ma'am.
So many hurricanes have looked like they were heading straight for Orlando only to jog to some other compass point, leaving the area rainy and not much else. Reports said landfall in Tampa Bay as a Category 2, with perhaps tropical storm and low Category 1 winds in central Florida by Friday afternoon. Schools also closed for Friday, bumming the boys only because it lopped a day off their Thanksgiving holiday. Still, it was easy to dismiss this as another false alarm, a sloppy rainstorm for a soaked region.
"Gee," Vix said. "You think everyone is overreacting?"
Friday morning - calm and peaceful
Lawn furniture got stacked beside the orchids. Wrought-iron patio chairs went against the west wall, keeping the brave drobbies company. The table itself I just flipped over.
SweetFaceBoy joined me as I pondered where to store our canoe, at the time resting nervously under a few pine trees.
"How about over there?" he asked. My neighbor's low cinder block fence on the south side of the yard would perfectly protect the canoe.
"Good idea," I said. "You've earned your breakfast."
We got on the roof, cleaned the corners, cleared out the gutters and collected any rocks he and his friends may have tossed up there. I trimmed away any branches from my neighbor's massive live oak that may start slapping away shingles. SFB, the apprentice woodsman, sawed the big branches in to little ones.
"I think this is all for nothing," he said.
"We'll have to see," I said. "I hope so."
My pal Koshi, a Weather Channel junkie, called from Los Angeles basically for the same reasons. "I'm worried for you guys," he said. "It's jumped to a three and moving fast, twenty to twenty-five. It's coming in around Ft. Myers."
I called my cousin in Cape Coral. Linda and her husband Richard had all their furniture on cinder blocks and windows boarded. While on the phone I heard from the TV that Charley had jacked up to a category 4. We made sure we had all updated and alternate land line and cell numbers.
Before Linda hung up, she said, "I'll call you after it passes to tell you what it was like."
Friday 6:36 pm -- couple electrocuted while saving meager belongings
It had drizzled a little as I was grilling, but as we cleared the table, the sky opened up with the first rain bands, evidence that the storm had jogged further south with stronger force and was now headed straight for us.
Unfortunately, the force of the rain had loosened one of the gutters. Remember the sandbags? These were stacked two-high at the back door leading in to my mother-in-law's room. The water started pooling at such a rate it was going to breach the levee in short order. So, barefoot and with lightning snapping all around us, I climbed a metal ladder with hammer and nails while Vix propped the gutter back in to place with a shovel. Two nails later, the gutter was back in place. In the doorway, clutching cups of ice cream, the three boys cheered.
"Nice job, Dad, but what'd you expect," SFB said as I dried off. "It's Friday the 13th."
Friday 8:30 pm-ish -- "It's coming, boys."
Everyone stayed out of the front of the house, where rain blew against the house like gravel from a bazooka. I put a towel under the front door where the rain was blowing in. Lights began to flicker. I checked my mother-in-law's door and the gutter -- everything was holding. From the crashing blackness I heard huge limbs and trunks crack and splinter, the sound of their falling absorbed by the maw of wind.
Friday 9:22 pm -- boom, boom, out go the lights
"Sure. We've done all we can. We'll be fine."
Three minutes later, the lights flickered once, flickered twice and then went out for good. I sure hoped our new windows would hold.
We stayed in the middle of the house, the family room. Phone lines weren't down yet. Koshi called. Yes, I told him, it is as bad as it looks on the Weather Channel.
"It's blowing steady at eighty to ninety right where you are," he said. I didn't doubt him.
The wind drove water down the chimney and past a closed flue. RunningHammer had the understatement of the night: "It's weewy stormy outside."
Then it got really quiet. Not still and balmy, but a light breeze and some rain. Closing in on 10 pm, Vixie and I thought maybe getting everyone thinking about bedtime might be a good idea. Everyone in our room. SFB and Vonda MaShone laid out sleeping bags at the foot of our bed. The wind cranked up again.
Though not as angry as before, the gusts delivered the final body blows to trees and structures. Transformers which had not blown earlier, did now, defeated.
Another 20 minutes and it was all over. In under an hour, Hurricane Charley, moving at an amazing 20-25 mph (normally hurricanes move at 10-15 mph) ripped through my neighborhood. Vix and the kids camped in our bedroom, and I stayed up for a while looking for cracks and leaks throughout the house. None found. I wondered what the morning would look like.
Saturday - "Who did this to us?"
My backyard was a boneyard of pine, japanese ear and oak branches, each the size of a decent-sized tree, 30 feet long at average. The pool had about three inches of leaves and twigs on the bottom. The blown-over fence had chunks bitten out of it from the falling limbs. I got on the roof. Not a shingle out of place. No power lines or broken glass in the yard.
After I give the all-clear, Vix comes out with the boys, and Tiny Granny holds Hammer's hand down the walkway. He stops halfway to the sidewalk.
"Granma," he said. "Who did dis to us?"
MaShone pointed to the massive pine tree against the fence. "Did that tree always lean like that?"
I went over to it. Sap oozed from a crack running two feet up the trunk. I can fit my hand in a gap under the tree. In effect, Charley uprooted this 70-foot pine tree and dropped it back in. It's useless roots won't keep it upright through the next decent thunderstorm. Better check the NOAA website for the weekly forecast. Oh, that's right. I can't.
Back in the front yard again, neighbors walk in the street and check on each other. Some seem hungover from a cocktail of relief and anxiety, kicking aside twigs and crunching acorns underfoot as they stumble through a museum of disaster. This is the birthing season for squirrels, and we found a baby one dead in the street. Others were rescued and placed in shoeboxes and eventually driven to shelters.
Vix walked the neighborhood with the boys and met up with our carpool family. Where once there were five ways in and out of our neighborhood, there is now one. Some people can't get out of their driveways, let alone streets, at all. We do not live in the most densely wooded neighborhood, but still we have nine massive oaks toppled, some bringing up sidewalks, driveways and water mains.
I fielded calls from friends and family before the spotty phone service leaves us completely. Cell phones became little more than useless pieces of plastic. Our water was out too. We did not open the fridge unless we absolutley had to. Luckily, TinyG brewed a thermos of coffee before the power went out so I fortified myself with a couple of cups and few bowls of corn flakes before heading out to clean up.
By now chainsaws and generators drowned conversations in the middle of the street. Having neither, I swung an axe from 9 am to 1 pm. The boys pitched in, taking turns sawing the skinny branches in to easily removeable pieces, RunningHammer making his own pile of twigs and leaves. Vix and her mom raked and swept and bagged the front yard.
SFB found an enormous moth with a damaged wing. "Can we keep him?" he asked. "I could put him in a jar with some leaves and a screen on top and I could feed him bugs or something until he gets better." After explaining that the moth probably gets his food from living flowers and plants, he placed it gently in a shady safe spot on the playset. When we checked back 15 minutes later, it was gone.
The bruising heat wilted all three boys. Knowing that cranky boys and sharp implements don't mix, I suggested the pool. Our budding engineer, MaShone, propped the skimmer pole across the pool, and the two big boys dove to the bottom, retrieving huge handfuls of leaves and branches. Vix emptied the fridge of cold cuts, making us a giant plate of sandwiches, apples, grapes and chips. Then she went in search of coolers and ice.
Boys out of the pool, axe and saws and clippers in the garage. Once again, rain waterfalled over the gutters and crept up the sandbags. Damn! I didn't clear the gutters of pine needles when I checked the roof.
I stood there much like I did many hours ago, soaking wet, barefoot, perched on the sandbags, every three minutes deadlifting a 40-gallon trashcan full of rain and dumping it 10 feet away in the grass then racing back to the eaves amid the lightning. Every so often the door would open.
"Dad, when are you coming in?"
"Not until this passes. I'll be in real trouble if your grandma's room floods."
Later: "When it stops raining, can we go over to Kevin's?"
Even later: "Da boys won't wet me pway wit dere Wegos."
Way later: "You need a towel, Dad?"
Once I was inside and dry, we killed the last of the ice cream before an early dinner. More sandwiches. I had a couple of beers while I boiled water on the grill. My boss called -- can I come in tomorrow to work disaster recovery? Hmm. Time and a half? Sure.
Reports first stated that we'd have power by Tuesday and school would resume Wednesday. This was insanely optimistic, given the damage. One school a few blocks away had the roof completely blown off, and most likely the logistics of dispersing the children must be hairy at best.
The cloud cover helped keep the house cool, and everyone fell asleep easily.
Sunday-- commence parallel reality sequence
On the way home, police directed traffic through the main intersections or drivers nervously negotiated the less treacherous ones, relearning how to do a four way stop. It was so totally dark I didn't realize completely where I was until I was nearly home.
Another night all huddled together, but the temperature was rising so this would change soon.
Monday -- Famous last words: "I'll be back in a half hour."
We're members at Costco, and I called them to see if they were both open and had gas. Yes, they were open and a tanker should be there in about a half-hour, come on down! Cool, I thought. I'll leave now and be one of the first folks in line once gas is available. As an afterthought, I picked up the newspaper from the driveway and tossed it in to the passenger seat. Good thing.
When I arrived, remarkable cheerful Costco workers and a barricade of shopping carts directed me through the parking lot, around the back to the far side of the store where the line began. I shut off the engine to preserve whatever fumes I remained. Half an hour later, a manager walked through the line explaining that the truck was stuck in highway traffic on the way from Tampa. Should be no longer than an hour. Some people left the line and cars pulled up, as if that would lessen the effect traffic had on the truck. I, however, couldn't move. My car wouldn't start. Out of gas.
After reading the paper twice, even articles I had no interest in, I pushed my car through the winding makeshift aisles to the pumps. (And I was worried I wouldn't get to work out this week.) One guy helped me for a bit, which was nice.
Three hours after I parked in line, I filled up and drove away. A few minutes later, I stopped by a Home Depot to pick up some much-needed C batteries. A 40-minute wait just to get in to the store, which was running on generator power alone.
Once back home, Vix left to get some food and search for gas. "Good luck," I said. "Bring the food back first and we'll see you tomorrow."
Forty-five minutes later she was back, fueled and with food. "Food took the longest because everything is picked over and I had to stop at two places for ice," she said. "There was no line at the gas pump. In and out in five minutes. Ha-ha!"
All three boys and I began a nightly ritual. After taking a cool shower and climbing in to clean undies, we sat on the couch with the battery-powered TV resting on my stomach, the antenna touching my head or foot for the best reception and watched the Olympics. Marvelling at these athletes doing exactly what they were born to do became our lullabye. I let the boys sleep where they laid.
Tuesday -- the search for Spidey
Amazingly, the garbage and recycling trucks managed to make it through our neighborhood. Also, I realized that we are the only people on our street. Everyone else has somehow secured a hotel room locally, gone to the beach or camped out at someplace with a/c. So far, we were OK at home.
In order to keep the pool -- our daytime saviour -- swimmable and non-toxic, I head down to the pool store for jugs of chlorine. With no power, and therefore no pump running, adding a jug evey other day and keeping the sides scrubbed should do the trick. Just to be extra safe, I double the amount of chlorine tablets in the floating chlorinator. Since we spent most of the day in the pool if we couldn't find someplace cool to go to, bleached hair and stinging eyes were a small price to pay to avoid any pond water grossness.
To abide by some rhythm of normalcy, SFB goes to his weekly drum lesson. The music store has power and air conditioning so he gets his own respite. Afterwards, we picked up a friend of his, swung by the house to get MaShone, bought Slurpees, and went to the local movie house to see Spider-Man 2.
In the midst of a blinding downpour, we ran from the car to the theatre. I noticed a lot of people streaming from the doors. Hmm, I thought. A lot of movies over at the same time. At the ticket window, even before I could open my mouth, the girl behind the glass said, "Wret klzdert nwodtymk. Au trznfrmr wjkild jzt nwqo."
Giving up on the microphone, she spoke at the pass-through. "We're closed. A transformer blew just now."
We crept across town on streets clogged by damaged intersections. At one of them, a bakery handed out bags of free bagels, much to MaShone's and my happiness. Unfortunately, all four theatres we trekked to were closed. In order to salvage something out of a day that was swiftly becoming a bummer for the guys, we went to our favorite local Italian diner where we had spaghetti and pizza along with several other families living in the dark and heat, feasting and watching Michael Phelps win the 200-meter butterfly and the girls whirl their way through the gymnastics competition. For a moment, in cool air and with full bellies, we all forgot about stifling homes, rotting food, boiling water and the constant drone of generators, and cheered with amazement at every athletic feat.
Wednesday -- Can anyone tell me what day it is?
I played phone tag with the tree service we hired to take the wobbling pine tree down. Every time I left my house I fully expected to see it crashed through the power lines or puncturing my roof.
There was a ripple effect I noticed. Because thousands of people were without power, the places they went to escape the heat worked overtime. The local 24-hour diner had their wait staff working 10-hour shifts seven days a week. Fire departments doubled as ice-distribution centers. Grocery stores increased their staff to handle the second run on items as blocks of homes regained power.
After another day in the pool and puttering around my orchids (they have never received such attention), I drove across town with the boys and saw that Spider-Man 2 I promised. As we took cold showers or jumped in the pool in preparation for sleep on sleeping bags over tile floors, we tried to be thankful that we still had a home.
Thursday -- where everybody knows your name
Vix had a day off and lugged our laundry to a lucky friend's house. She dragged the boys along for a day out of the heat -- they are extremely tanned and their hair is white. She managed to find a hotel with availability on Friday.
The tree guys arrived to take the drunken pine tree down. They removed a fence and their climber went halfway up the tree before being called down. Their tractor blew a hydraulic line as it drove off the truck. Saturday, maybe Sunday they could come back.
SweetFaceBoy and MaShone went to a buddy's house who had power. SFB was tentative. "Don't you want to go?" I asked.
"Yes, but I want the adults to get a good night's sleep too." Man, I love that kid.
After assuring him that we would be fine, Tiny G, RunningHammer and I went to the all-night diner just in time to see the convoys of power trucks and cherry-pickers head to the jai alai fronton parking lot for the night. Hammer was such a regular at the diner the last week that when the waitress saw him, she said, "Chocolate milkshake, coming right up."
That night, if we became as still as lizards, we could feel a breeze through the open windows.
Friday -- I GOT THE POWER!
When Vix called again, I told her I was going to stay at home and not meet her at the hotel. I felt nervous about leaving my home in an abandoned neighborhood. She asked that I call her after work once I'd re-iced the coolers, just to reconsider.
With four bags of ice in the trunk of my car, I rounded the corner to my neighborhood to find it stomping with enormous power company and tree service trucks. They've got to be in my backyard, I thought. Sure enough, my street was thick with the trucks and in my backyard stood five gallant arborists, one of them high in the japanese ear tree, cutting the nightmare of branches from the power/phone/cable lines.
This group was from all over: Kansas, Georgia, Texas, Nebraska. Apparently, they got lucky and were now a day a head of schedule. The recovery process was at the block-by-block stage. Tree crews went in first, clearing lines of damage. The linemen followed, checking the lines for safety and their ability to hold any current. Finally, a power company rep double-checked everything and ensured the correct voltage coming through the lines before flipping the switch to the homes.
I called Vix to let her know what was happening. If we get power, I told her, I'm staying here. The crew cut the lines free, and the linemen slipped in. My mother-in-law was still at the house, and she flirted with the tree guys as they packed up. I gave them a spare bag of ice. It was like I handed them a C-note. When I looked back up at the lineman, he was gone. I didn't know whether that was good or bad.
On the street workers stood milling about their trucks, mumbling about dinner and a good night's sleep and hopefully going home soon. My neighbor ran up to her house. She had parked a block away and was only really stopping by for a change of clothes. "You think we're really going to get it back today?"
Then Flirty Granny walked up with a smirk and a freshly lit filterless Pall Mall. She had wiggled her way in to the good graces of the hunky Kansas tree guy, who wandered over to one of the lineman to learn when maybe we could get the lights back on. "Within the hour," Tiny G said.
I was getting caught up with my neighbor when I saw her porch lights pop on. "Look," I said. She screamed and hugged me. I looked at my house. My lights were on too. I screamed and hugged her back. I checked my watch -- 7:40. One hour and forty minutes shy of a full week without power.
The air-conditioner, of course, I immediately turned on and cranked down to 72°. Handyman note: after prolonged periods of non-activity, clean or replace all air filters in your system. No sense dispersing mold and mildew through the house.
Then I turned on the pool pump and set the timer to run for three days nonstop. I plugged in TVs and PCs and respectively turned them on and booted them up. As for the latter, I was never so happy to hear a cooling fan. I called Vix and yelled, "I got the power!" Her screech of joy came across almost as static, and I heard the boys whooping and jumping on the beds. She decided she would stay there overnight as the house came down to a tolerable level.
I stood on my sidewalk, cheering and applauding the trucks as they rolled past, off to rescue another few blocks before nightfall makes it impossible. A few of them honked back in recognition. Heroes, every one.
Later that night, watching the Olympics in color, I could not stop smiling as I walked in to rooms, turning lights on, turning them off, standing under vents and fans. We had come through it OK -- the boys were incredible, we helped our neighbors and they helped us, we became resourceful and patient. I won't deny that it was a pain in the ass for a week, but we could sleep in our house and no one died.
At 2 am, I woke up cold and happily reached for a blanket.