Posted by Michael Hiteshew on August 21st, 2004 (All posts by Michael Hiteshew)
Ever been hurricaned? It’s interesting. Last week I had to travel to Florida. I barely pay attention to weather forecasts here in Maryland, so I was totally unaware of the hurricane brewing in the Gulf of Mexico. Duh. I got my first hint that trouble lay ahead on Friday morning, eating breakfast in a hotel in South Carolina. As I ate a big toasted bagel with cream cheese, CNN was reporting live from Tampa on the coming storm. Hmmm. Not good.
Since I was driving down I-95, I figured I’d be fine. I’d be along the Atlantic coast and the storm was coming ashore from the Gulf. How intense could it be, I reasoned, after passing all the way across Florida? Hurricanes lose power rapidly once they make landfall, don’t they?
Friday morning I drove through the rest of South Carolina and across Georgia. I stopped in Savannah for lunch since I had never been there. That was a smart move.
Savannah. What a gorgeous city. That this was once a wealthy city is immediately apparent. Block after block of beautiful old town homes and mansions. Wide medians full of trees and flowers. Squares abound. Picture a park, 300 feet on each side, brick walkways, bronze statues, tall trees trailing beards of spanish moss, fountains, tall flowering plants and magnolia trees. Surround that with brick, stucco and stone houses with high wide staircases, porticos with bronze lamps and ivied walls. Imagine miles of that, a new and different square at each block. For lunch I sat outside and had a spicy cream of crab soup and superb crawfish ravioli in an incredibly rich and spicy red sauce. Mmmmm. If you have the chance to stop into Savannah, do it. You won’t regret it. I’d also recommend Annapolis, Maryland and Kingston, Ontario for similar reasons. Easily among the most beautiful cities and best food in North America.
Later that day, I had passed through Jacksonville, Florida and was approaching the junction with interstate 4 near Daytona. It was dusk, and a large storm band made a wide sweeping arc across the sky. Can that be the front of the hurricane?, I wondered. Nah. That’s got to be down near Tampa right now. Can’t be. It was. Oops. Just beyond that, the sky was a midnight blue. Bolts of lightning were striking down brilliant yellow out of the darkness. I drove on directly into it. As (bad) luck would have it, improvements were being made to that part of the highway. The lanes were reduced to minimum width. I had plastic orange traffic barrels and construction equipment on my left and only a two foot road shoulder on my right. Beyond the shoulder the road sloped down and away into trees.
The front of the storm crashed over us like a wave. In a matter of minutes it was dark as night. Rain of an intensity that is hard to believe until you experience it. My wipers were on maximum but in the split second the wipers had passed over the windshield it was immediately coated with a sheet of water. The density of the rain and mist thrown up from wheels reduced visibility to about 40 feet. Everyone slowed to about 20 mph and switched on their flashers. Oddly, there was no wind. Only darkness, intense rain and continuous lightning. I would’ve pulled over except there was nowhere to go. I passed an exit but only recognized it after it was too late to take it. I’ve got to take the next exit, I thought, this is really dangerous out here.
I caught the next exit. My rotten luck continuing unabated, there was major road construction happening at the bottom of the ramp. Plastic barrels everywhere. I actually sat there trying to figure out where the road was while hoping the car that had followed me off didn’t slam into my rear end. I gave up trying to figure it out and just weaved my way through the obstacle course, barely able to see. There was so much water coming down so quickly it was more akin to driving through a creek in the middle of a monsoon than being on a road. I pulled into the first hotel I could find.
It wasn’t until I was standing in the lobby of the hotel, waiting to check in and watching the local news that I realized, yes indeedy, that was the ‘rain band’ at the front of the hurricane I had just driven through. ‘Waterfall band’ would be a better name. At that time the eye of the storm was just passsing over Orlando, about 50 miles southeast of me. That’s where I was headed. Then they aired some home video of a roof being torn off a building in Fort Myers. There was no way to sleep with a hurricane headed my way so I waited on the second floor walkway of the hotel for the show. Fortunately, I was on the side of the building facing away from the wind. There was no mistaking the center of the hurricane when it got there. Ever seen 100+ mph winds? I watched 40 foot trees bending over 15-30 degrees. The rain was coming over the roof of the hotel horizontally and disappearing into the marshland behind. It was impressive. Especially when you consider the storm had already passed over an entire state. We lost power and water around midnight and never got it back. That was last available hotel room I was to find in Florida.
I was in Orlando the next day. Almost the entire region was without power. Debris was everywhere, although most was of the tree branch, leaf and roofing shingle variety. Lots of trees down too. There was an area along I-4 where it appeared a tornado had touched down. Trees were twisted off at their trunks like apple stems. Convoys of trucks were streaming into the region from I-95. Most were utility line service trucks and the rest were from commercial tree cutting services (Asplundh, in particular) many of which were towing mulchers behind them. Most of the coastal towns I drove through from Daytona Beach on down to Cocoa Beach were without power although they otherwise weren’t damaged. The occasional gas station that had power had long lines.
One thing the experience did for me was change my perspective on disaster preparedness. Do you know what it is to wake up with no power, no phones (not even cell phones were working) and no running water? To wonder where and when you’ll get your next tank of gas? To drive for miles and miles through a region where there is no power and no water flowing? You get a whole new appreciation for the luxury we take for granted.
How thin the veneer of civilization.