Friday, June 02, 2006

Hurricanes like Hurricane Katrina in Hurricane Season

When I was a kid everyone in south Florida loved to tell the same tired old joke: "Why do they call them hurricanes?" Pause. "Because if they were named after boys, they would be called himicanes."

The process of indoctrination was so thorough with me that when they finally started naming hurricanes after boys, I felt a little saddened that south Florida would be short one stupid joke.

By the time I was 10 years old I could remember several large hurricanes. I have long since forgotten their names. Maybe "Betsy", "Donna", "Himalaya". I have no idea.

My grandparents lived south of Miami in a new sub-division. They had a large half-acre plot of land, a nice 3-bedroom house, a swimming pool, and palm trees and pine trees in the back yard. There were two large flower beds where my grandmother and great-grandmother and stuff. There was a lime tree on one side of the house.

One year a hurricane blew through and we all huddled in the garage. I thought it was both scary and cool. People outside of Florida thought we were crazy, but south Florida houses are often built of cinder-block on a slab of concrete. The roof might cave in but the walls will usually remain standing. And, yes, I saw plenty of pictures of what Hurricane Andrew did to the wooden and cinder-block structures. And that house was many miles inland anyway.

Well, we weathered that storm okay. When the eye passed over my grandfather went out to look at the back yard. All the trees had been knocked down. I remember looking out at a yard filled with downed timber and thinking I would never be able to play there again. My favorite palm tree, which was huge (to me), was also laying on its side.

Then the rest of the storm blew through and when we went out to look again all the trees were standing up. My grandfather's neighbors were the only people who believed him when he told that story again and again. Those trees continued to live long, healthy lives for years afterward.

I think there was another hurricane where my mother brought her best friend over to our apartment for a hurricane party. We lived in an apartment building at the time that was part of a nearly block-long arrangement of such buildings on a Miami Beach street. All the apartments were at least 6 feet above street level, and these were two storey buildings. My best friend Edward lived in the apartment right across the hall from us.

So we sat huddled in the living room that year, lighting candles, listening to our moms cackle the way mothers do when they reminisce about things children aren't supposed to know anything about, and the we played a small battery-operated radio. My mother didn't like the songs the DJ was playing, so she picked up the phone and called the radio station.

Her friend was surprised the phone actually worked. So was Mom. So was the DJ. He took her request and spoke to her on the air. We were just so thrilled. I think the song Mom requested might have been "Misty" by Johnny Mathis. She was a big Johnny Mathis fan. So, we got to hear Mom's song before the radio died out.

The next morning we woke up and all the kids ran over to the window. Men were out walking around the street in what for them was calf-deep water. It would have come almost up to my waist in a couple of places. The moms in the building almost had to tie the kids down to keep us from hitting what looked like the funnest body of water this side of paradise. I didn't quite understand why they were concerned about "downed power lines". After all, we had no power, so there should have been no power in the lines, right?

Well, I stayed high and dry that day.

When I was in college I reminisced about my hurricane adventures one day as I worked on the college paper. Some girl was sitting there listening to me reminisce and some guy who didn't like the fact that she was enraptured by my tales of fallen trees asked me the name of the hurricane.

"I don't know," I said. "I don't remember the names of these storms."

"Was it Hurricane ...?" he asked, naming some storm.

"I don't know," I replied. "Where and when did it come into land?"

He tried to take my head off. "You're so full of B.S., Michael. You never went through a hurricane."

Oh. I'm sorry. I didn't realize I was supposed to take notes. So I must have made it all up.

I spent a few years living in Georgia. Georgia doesn't often see hurricanes, but it gets quite a few ice storms and tornadoes. One year a tornado ripped through Kennesaw, GA right near the university I graduated from. A friend of mine lived in the neighborhood that got hit, so I drove over to check on his family as soon as it seemed safe to go outside.

There were downed trees and ruined rooves along the road. The devastation was pretty bad, and the building hardest hit was the one you'd think could weather most storms: an industrial facility built with cinder-block on a steel frame. The tornado had peeled the roof off the building and shattered one wall. Fortunately, this was a weekend, so no one had been inside the building when the wind blew through.

I got to my friend's house and joined him in the back yard where he was taking in a view of the local golf course.

That was the first time you could actually see the golf course from his house because the tornado had ripped through the back yard and knocked down all the trees. And there had been a substantial band of trees between his property and the golf course. The wind just mowed down several hundred trees like they were grass.

My friend had been working in his garage, cutting some wood for a project. He turned off the table saw for a moment and heard a train rumbling by. "Damn trains!" he thought to himself. "You'd think they could find a better time....Waitaminnit. There aren't any railroad tracks in this neighborhood."

He dropped his tools and ran for the house. Out of the corner of his eye, he swears, he could only see a huge white wall of dirt and dust where his back yard was supposed to be. He didn't stop to gawk. He joined his wife and kids in a groundfloor bathroom. The tornado dropped out of the sky with no warning, blitzed across a half mile of houses and structures, and then vanished.

The last hurricane where I actually went through the storm would have to be Crazy Ivan. I lived through Ivan twice. Ivan hit the Florida panhandle in late 2004, while I was staying in Panama City. They called it Crazy Ivan because all the tornadoes went in the wrong direction. And it was the meanest, ornieriest storm I've ever seen, since it swept way up north, passed out to sea, and came back around to give the Florida panhandle a second helping of unwanted rain and wind.

Ivan was a killer and it only barely touched Panama City. That was the storm that came ashore near Mobile and Pensacola, knocking out a few bridges and limiting traffic along Interstate 10 to one lane each way for a long time. You don't often see a hurricane cut a swathe that far across land, but lately it seems like all the big ones have been cutting large swathes.

In 2004, Florida was hit by five large storms. The first one was Tropical Storm Bonnie. Bonnie caused a lot of distress and destruction, but the news nedia stopped mentioning the storm. Bonnie, Charles, Dennis, Frances, and Ivan. Those were the storms. I remember them well.

One of my nieces asked me to go driving with her the day Ivan came through. I shouldn't have said yes, but we were in another niece's house, waiting for the rest of the family to show up. Some people had already left out of boredom (which I was grateful for, as my idea of hurricane supplies doesn't include beer, much less the smell of too many opened beer bottles).

What is it with people having to suck up as much beer as possible right before a hurricane? Don't they know what happens when you drink beer? Don't they know what happens to the plumbing when there is a hurricane? Mixing beer with a hurricane is about as stupid as you can get, if only because you most likely have no place to relieve yourself.

But my niece and I went out for a drive in the rain. Since Ivan was expected to hit land over 100 miles west of us, I figured if we drove east we'd at least stay out of the path of any tornadoes. I didn't realize how big Ivan actually was until we were about 30 miles east of Panama City. We turned on the radio to get a weather report and the station we tuned to said a tornado had just touched down in a town we were heading toward.

Okay, mixing afternoon drives with hurricanes ain't too bright, either, but we turned the car around. I was fairly certain the tornado would follow the traditional path and head away from us.

Well, my niece decided she wanted to see how high the waves were on Panama City Beach. Keep in mind that Ivan's landfall was still supposed to be hours away. Yes, we were in the northeast quadrant, the most dangerous zone, but we were supposed to be far beyond the eye of the storm. You could still see sunlight in some parts of the sky.

So we headed out to the beach and pulled up to a stop in a little parking lot. An SUV pulled up beside us. I told my niece to stay in the car, and she was tempted for all of 2 seconds to open the door. The waves were coming in high. In fact, the entire beach had vanished beneath the huge surge (yes, that's a very dangerous part of the storm, too, but the police had not yet closed off that part of the city).

Well, a woman stepped out of the SUV with a minicam and attempted to stand upright. She struggled against the wind and barely managed to get back into the vehicle. That's when my niece had had enough.

We pulled out and headed back toward her sister's house. The sky was still light and pretty clear. My niece was driving. As we came off the bridge separating Panama City from Panama City Beach I looked out into the bay and saw a huge black cloud just drop down and cover almost the entire bay. Tornadoes normally go in a northeast direction. This one should have intersected with our path.

I glanced over at my niece and she was just focused on the road. I silently prayed for a miracle and we rounded a curve in the road. I kept looking over my shoulder.

"What are you looking at?" she asked.

"Pull over," I said.


"Just pull over."

So she pulled over and I got out of the car, walked around to her side, made her switch places with me, and drove back to her sister's house. The tornado I had just seen swept out of the bay, leaped over a naval base, and came down on a restaurant where it killed someone. On the west side of the water. It went in the wrong direction.

And remember that first tornado I mentioned? It hop-scotched across the landscape and touched down in the neighborhood where the family was supposed to wait out the storm. It literally leaped over my niece's house as we were driving back. That tornado cut a northwest path across Florida, as did all the others.

We spent the next day waiting for tornadoes to pass us by. Some of them were killers, and even people who did everything they were supposed to suffered harm and loss of life in that storm.

So, today in Houston the television stations ushered in the official 2006 storm season. They urge people to be prepared to flee or stay, depending on what happens. Yeah, you kind of have to be ready. But you really have no way of knowing what to be ready for.


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