Hurricanes I Have Known

With Hurricane Irene disrupting the East Coast of the States and heading toward my brother’s house and my girl cousin’s house in New England, I’ve been thinking about my experiences with hurricanes. Commentee Bob H. asked me in an email if I’d experienced hurricanes in New England. Here’s the story, Bob.

I’ll have a construction post soon. Promise.

Here in Panama, we live at about eight degrees north of the equator. I have read that hurricanes historically haven’t come below twelve degrees, so other than some extra rain from the big low pressure of Irene, we are sitting this one out.

But I do know what hurricanes can do. I grew up in New England, and was about six years old when on August 31st, 1954, hurricane Carol passed through our small town. Carol was a CAT-3 storm and I remember it very well. I remember the power going off, and I remember my father making a fire in the fireplace and I remember making s’mores as the wind howled. My mother had a way with emergency preparedness; got sugar? I especially remember scouting the beach after the storm, and dragging home an enormous amount of junk, treasure, and building material for my tree house.

My tree house was in a big swamp maple in the back yard right next to our garage. I must have had a bazillion eight-penny common nails in that casa. I remember taking my allowance every week and riding my bicycle to the lumber yard. I always asked for Eddie because he knew my father. “I’d like two pounds of eight-penny common nails, Eddie,” I would exclaim. He would always ask, “Are these for your father or for your tree fort?” “They are for my tree house, Eddie,” and I would ride my bike home with a “heavy” two pounds, more like 5 pounds as I now know. Eddie was a saint. Anyway, with all those nails, my tree house weathered the storm with nary a board blown off. Meanwhile, our old garage was gone with the wind, not a board left standing. And so started my building career of overbuilding.

I had a big rope hanging from the maple just below my tree house and I would swing past the garage like Tarzan. My father took this photo of me before hurricane Carol (click the photo for clearer view ~ use back arrow to return).

Here’s a photo of my tree house above the garage debris after Carol. You can see the rope I was swinging on in the previous photo. My tree house is still standing!

Some years later I had a different kind of fort. But I won’t get into that.

Hurricane Carol was the easy one.

Just before the previous photo was taken in Vietnam, I was stationed in Gulfport, Mississippi. I was due to leave for Vietnam that day, but hurricane Camille was due to make landfall right in our back yard, so the flight was cancelled. I was single at the time and had been standing night watch for some of the married guys who needed extra time with their families. I was dog tired and at about noon I went home to my apartment on the beach in Pass Christian and went to bed. I had been sharing the apartment with three other guys, but they had already deployed to Vietnam. I was to close up the apartment and turn in the keys. The apartment was directly across the highway from the beach.

I slept soundly and long. Some time after dark, I woke to the sound of wind and rain. Apparently, I had slept through the evacuation call.  The lamp on the bedside table wouldn’t turn on; the power was off. I swung my legs off the bed and put my feet on the floor. I was ankle deep in water.

Wearing only my olive drab service issue skivvies, I made my way in the dark to the front door. The knob was difficult to turn, but I finally got it. WHAM! The door was ripped out of my hand by the force of waist deep water that entered the apartment.

Oh expletive deleted. I had to get to higher ground. I started to move away from the door, but in the wind, and the rain, and the sea, I was immediately disoriented. No, I would not try to make my way up the street. Ah, the second floor. I inched my way along the outside wall until I found the outside staircase to the second floor. Up the stairs, and at the first door I found, I put my shoulder to the door and forced it open. The apartment was vacant.

Still only in my skivvie bottoms and now quite cold, I crawled on my hands and knees to the far wall of the living room. The layout was exactly like my apartment below. In the pitch-black dark I found what seemed to be a towel, probably left over from cleaning who knows what off the toilet. But I wrapped it around me and felt a bit warmer. Ever try to get a towel to cover your entire body?

Cynthia said that she tried once. She was at a private girls’ college. The bathroom in her suite wasn’t working and no one was around so she walked naked to the bathroom down the hall to shower. After her shower, as she was leaving the bathroom, she heard the call, “Man on the floor.” Well, her towel wasn’t large enough to cover both her top and um, her bottom, so she did the only thing she could. She draped the towel over her head so she wouldn’t be recognized and walked back to her room. Nice save, Cynthia.

Back to Camille, some time passed and all of a sudden over the din of the wind and rain, there was an enormous crash. I was covered in water, glass from the window, and who knows what else. Fortunately I was covered with the who knows what towel. I felt around in the dark and figured out that a large tree had blown through the wall and window of the apartment. Oh expletive deleted. Close call.

I made my way to the back bedroom and again sat on the floor. More time passed. I was shivering cold and wet and, um, scared. This was nothing like Carol. Where were the s’mores? Then, again in the darkest starry night only without the stars, there was another crash. Chunks of drywall (I recognized the taste) and glass and who knows what came at me and another something came through the wall. I moved a foot or two and felt a large metal object. It was a car bumper. You know, the big, old, triple chromed kind. And the car was still attached! Oh expletive deleted. Close call.

So after I gathered what I could of my composure, I turned tail and crawled to the center of the apartment and got into the bathtub. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy hadn’t yet been published, but I was nonetheless happy to have my towel. I sat in the cold porcelain tub for what seemed like an eternity.

The walls and roof were creaking and being torn off around me. I know because I was being pelted with rain and blown by the wind. I hunkered down real low.

Eventually the eye of the storm passed directly over Pass Christian and everything became calm. But it was too dark to move anywhere else in the apartment, and as I discovered in the morning, there was no more apartment other than my tub.

I wish I could go on telling about the second half of the storm, but honest to Biloxi, I don’t remember another thing until dawn.

At dawn I woke up. Or returned to my body. Whatever. I could almost make out forms in the retreating darkness. As it got slowly lighter, I could see, well, everything. The walls, roof, and floors were completely gone. As were the other neighboring apartments and apartment complexes and the supermarket next door. The only thing on the beach near me was an ocean-going freighter of some sort, beached on high ground beyond my bathtub. Nothing was recognizable. I had lost everything except my life. Not a bad deal I guess.

After I gained my composure and finished wondering how my bathtub remained above high water, I slowly picked my way down the pyramid pile of rubble that supported my second floor porcelain sanctuary. Barefooted, skivvied, and toweled, at sunrise I made my way maybe eight blocks up what was left of the street to a friend’s house. I knocked on his door and when he answered, I said, “What’s for breakfast?”

I never did return the keys to the apartment manager.

Hurricane Camille: August 17, 1969. CAT-5. Winds 190 mph (at the time, I heard 212 mph. Felt like 500 mph). Camille was the strongest landfalling tropical cyclone ever recorded worldwide.
YouTube Video

That’s all for now.