by Diane Buccheri
Oh, what to do? Stay or go? It’s always a nerve wracking decision and after the decision is made, the following consequences are equally nerve wracking.
My nerves were never wracked in such a way before I moved to a small island of shifting sand surrounded by water though hurricanes have always appeared in my life. Having grown up in a wooded area of suburban Connecticut, a few category 1 hurricanes (the weakest category of hurricane force wind speeds) visited my Connecticut home, knocking down trees and power lines. Trees were crashed together and often knocked each other over, but I never felt life endangered. At college in southern California I was huddled in the dormitory during a western, Pacific hurricane (much to my surprise). The first floor of the dorm was glass enclosed and the glass got smashed in. School was canceled for a day or two, the Santa Monica pier was toppled, and the horses at the ranch where I was riding became spooked and not rideable. Oh, too, I went for a swim at the Santa Monica beach and found myself tumbled, pinned to the ocean floor, wondering if my neck had been snapped, and pulled out by my big, Hawaiian surfer boy classmate who had accompanied me to the beach that weekend following the hurricane.
Tropical Force Passion
Since those days windsurfing became a passion in my life and I’ve braved tropical force storms which had been hurricanes but subsided in strength by the time they forced entry to the Connecticut beaches where I ventured into their froth of wind and waves. What a thrill!
My first season on Hurricaneville Island, otherwise referred to as Cape Hatteras, or the Graveyard of the Atlantic, no hurricanes made their presence known. My boss that season suffered from hurricane phobia and reminded me often to work and generate as much business as possible while the sun shone because “you never know when it’ll rain” and the sun shone relentlessly.
My second season on the island brought even more business and I taught windsurfing until I disliked it. Where did all those students come from? Every time I snatched a breath, there was someone else wanting a lesson. I worked for the rainy days until Bonnie came. After her visit, the fall season was very slow and I found other work despite the warm and sunny weather. Just a few days of Hurricane Bonnie and business was wiped out until the next season. That’s all it took.
I heard Bonnie was coming, possibly. Well, was she or wasn’t she? First she was headed towards the island, then she seemed to be headed to Florida, then maybe, umm, who knows? The weather channel got everyone all hyped up over the possibility and the radio stations followed suit. My breath started to come in quick and short spurts. My mind started to freeze up. I raced here, there, what to do? Go? Stay? Will it be bad? Where would I go? Will the hurricane follow me? If I stay, do I stay in my house backyarded by Pamlico Sound or go to higher ground in the woods not far from the Atlantic Ocean?
Safer or Sorrier?
No sense in taking a chance. I packed and headed out my street towards the highway in an attempt to save myself and my dog from the grip of Bonnie when the car went ka-put. Yeap, that’s right, dead. So there it stayed. Fortunately it was on high ground right in front of the post office where many of the islanders park their cars for possible flooding due to storm surge. About a week later, a friend commented, “wow, you’ve been at the post office a lot lately!” I chuckled and explained.
Instead of driving mindlessly to somewhere away from Bonnie, where ever that would be, I bought a lot of canned goods amongst a flurry of panic stricken shoppers at the local grocery store. That grocery store is normally a relaxed meeting place where acquaintances run into one another and stop to chat, learning back against the sun splashed wall. Not that day when everyone’s eyes were wide open, and their movements were fast and tense, not much conversation passed except, “you’re staying?” “Yeah, I guess so.”
We boarded up, a bunch of us friends, in a brick house deep in a maritime forest and waited. And waited. And waited. The dogs, just meeting for the first time in such confined quarters, snapped and did their territorial thing then got used to sharing space with other dogs.
To keep my worried parents calm far away in Connecticut, I called every few hours with the latest update. Day and night, the weather report was heard by television and weather radio. Flashlights and kerosene lamps were ready set. Just a little wind and rain for a day then nothing.
What? Did it go by? No. “This is the calm before the storm,” I was told by a seasoned Hurricaneville resident.
My parents’ voices were tight. They blamed me for living on “that island.” Eventually, my mom told me that my dad hadn’t spoken for three days. Not one word. Well, sor-ry.
After the first day of waiting, I piled all the household items three feet or more above floor level. The tide can invade and flood houses virtually with no notice. Tired of the anticipation, I took my dog out for a long walk to the water’s edge. Waves were roaring and crashing onto the hard beaten sand. There was no other sound. Just the constant roar. A reminder that a storm was lurking just off shore.
We turned our backs to the omnipresence and with that, my hair was flung in my face and I felt pushed from the rear. I gasped. She was here.
Into the house we ran and with that rain poured down and the wind increased to the pitch of a howl. The heat grew to be intense. Feeling like I was suffocating, I spent the night on the screened in porch where the wind and rain pervaded and kept me wet and cool. Not much sleep was to be had with trees bashing limbs and crashing in the yard and onto the roof. I was ready to flee from the porch into the brick house at the slightest crack of limb or trunk.
First, the television went blank. Then we listened to the local radio station giving reports of emergencies due to the storm such as people falling on wet surfaces and cracking ribs, skulls, and one drowning incident where a fisherman reaching for his nets from a dock, was over swept by the tide and wind and was knocked unconscious, to join the fish forever. No ambulance could make it to the injured person and no Red Cross shelters were located in this often evacuated and hurricane endangered place. There is no safe enough location on Hurricaneville for a shelter.
Next, as I was realizing our helpless isolation, the radio station went dead. On I turned the weather radio, always reminding its listeners to keep plenty of batteries available for such circumstances. Before long, that too, which is supposed to be our everlasting guide and supportive informer, went speechless. The tower was blown over and all we had were each other and the dogs.
Stories from past storms and from storm “parties” led to high school craziness stories and onto Vietnam War stories until everyone had enough. We played cards, ate bits and pieces of things, sweated, and napped. After three days, Bonnie left with a whisper and scattered her trail behind her with broken wind flown things, rain water, and ocean over flow.
Wading my way through the flooded streets, holding my bag over my head, it took quite a while to slosh home. Along my way, people came out of their houses to assess property damage and to wave with new found smiles and comradeship. Glad that one is over. Glad we made it through, they meant. I spent the rest of the day picking crabs, fish, and baby shrimp out of my pooled front yard. Dumping them into the Pamlico Sound fifty yards away, seagulls swooped down and greedily swallowed the saved victims before they had a chance to swim away. I persisted, nonetheless, in my lifesaving efforts and was befriended by a neighborhood animal-itarian (one fiercely against cruel acts done on animals by humans).
Like I said, the tourist season never fully replenished itself that season but I didn’t mind, having had my full for that year.
The following year, this one as I speak, I was at the vet’s office with my sick dog and expressed concern. “What if a hurricane comes?” A long trip in the car is very stressful to my aged, beloved furry friend. “There won’t be any hurricanes this season, I’ve decided,” he smilingly assured me. Good! I eagerly accepted his prophecy.
With that, within a few moments actually, we heard the radio warning for Hurricane Dennis announced. No!
Yes. Well, maybe. He could go out to sea. Or he could increase in intensity and, hit. I’d just written an article for a local publication expressing the dire need for the groins and dunes to be repaired and rebuilt to protect the island from imminent ocean over wash and the creation of new, pending inlets where inlets had previously existed. The sands here are constantly shifted by powerful wind and water changing the topography and geography, re-arranging the one main road (Highway 12) and shutting down businesses due to structural damage. Action needs to be taken, I urged in my article. The next major storm will cause the island to become two. People will be stranded. Schools and medical centers will be unreachable. Hurry and do something.
No time. Hurricane Dennis was on his way . Go or stay? Will it be wretchedly hot, unbearably so for my elderly, unwell dog? Will windows be smashed in? Will the tide invade my one story home, leaving us to swim about from room to room? What if a tornado whips up, as often occurs when hurricanes make land fall? Will the roof blow off?
Panic stricken, I made my way to the main road to find it backed up to the island’s ends with evacuating tourists. Well, that’s it. I won’t leave today, I thought. I’ll wait to hear what the storm is doing tomorrow. There’s plenty of time before it’s predicted to “hit” by tomorrow evening to leave or make preparations to stay.
So I went to bed, confident all was okay at least for the next twenty-four hours. At 3:45 in the morning I awoke with a start. It’s here. The winds were whipping rain in through the air conditioner and lightning flashed dramatically outside. No chance to do anything. No choice in the matter of staying or leaving anymore either. The road had already been ocean over washed and two islands took the place of one. Then I heard the bridge to the next island leading the way to the mainland was already damaged and unsafe to travel across . . .
Winds increased with the coming of day and blew straight at the house’s front. Things toppled over and the third floor of a garage across the street was ripped off and landed in my front yard. Rain poured down in torrents soaking me to a wringing, dripping state within a five second excursion to walk my dog. We had to wait until the eye of the storm arrived when things would suddenly become deceptively, ghostly quiet.
I called home and with forced, rather convincing cheerfulness, told my parents everything was fine, not to worry. Hanging up the phone, I proceeded to bite my nails and aimlessly dart about the house, looking for a nervous outlet, preparations to make for the possible soon arriving doom.
…And Then There Was Dark…
Without warning, out went the electricity, then the radio, then the all informing, necessary weather radio. The wild cat who lived at the nearby beach became a domesticated indoor cat happily sleeping on my couch, adorning it with his stretched out cat beauty, and contentedly using the homemade kitty litter box. Birds and mice were axed from his hunted meal fare and dog food accompanied by milk became the regular menu. Easily, he became my lovely reformed pet, much like My Fair Lady.
Celebrations occurred that night. Neighbors knocked on the door, wearing rain gear, and invited themselves in, one by one, or by the two’s, for the inevitable hurricane party. We all laughed with sighs of relief, ready even, to go back to work the next day with the storm’s quick exit from the island. That was a fast one.
Not so fast! Dennis came back! With a fury he turned back from his sea going course and announced he was not done with us. His energy let up now and then but renewed itself over and over through the next five days.
The living room rug was a wet, soaked sponge. Washing only one dish, the kitchen sinks were flooded due to the pipes being backed up with rain water drenching the ground. I kept watch several nights as the tide crept up three of the four steps leading to my front door. At one point, my neighbor and I decided to leave because of expected further flooding. We got into her truck and found the water on the road was already too deep to traverse. Home we stayed. Even one of my friends put on her wet suit and laid in the interior doorway, awaiting. . .
With a threat of a tornado finale, Dennis finally wiped the island clean, departing the Saturday evening after his early Monday morning arrival. No celebration party took place then – that could jinx the situation. We crossed our fingers and slept lightly, awaking to a sunny, shiny day.
A week and a half later, Hurricane Floyd began threatening our lives which had not yet returned to normal. The flooded yard dried up, leaving barren flower stems and mangled grass. Mosquitoes swarmed all living creatures. Even the neighborhood pets got sprayed with useless OFF. Going outside was an uncomfortable menace.
Very little business was capable of being conducted on the island despite the fact that residents and tourists were both allowed back on. The new inlet once again closed, just slightly enough to immediately pave a new road. Only roofers were busy, very busy, doing emergency repairs before the category 4, just short of category 5 meaning catastrophic, Hurricane Floyd loomed his threatening force near us, able to devastate the island and its life.
What to do ? Oh, what to do? Leave! But, maybe Floyd will hit land south of us, go inland, and die. Which path to evacuate by? Maybe we’ll only experience a tropical storm. Maybe we’ll have tornadoes. Most of all, flooding was the biggest scare. The dunes were weak and damaged, the ocean roared incessantly in our ears, and a fifty foot wave was reported somewhere out at sea.
Time to go. I put all my household items up high. Packed a very bare minimum of necessities and valuables. Jammed my newly wild become domesticated cat into a carrier and drove with him and my just beginning to heal and strengthen dog for fifteen hours.
The entire U.S. southeast coast had been evacuated, making highways parking lots. Lives were endangered more by people leaving their homes and getting stuck on roads in traffic. Torrential rains made the road invisible and slippery with the beginning of floods.
Had a sledge hammer hit my head? Did I have knives in my stomach? The dog panted and the cat wandered about the car, intrigued with present happenings.
Wanting to do nothing but lie down, I drove, and drove, and slid, and blinked my eyes to better see the nearly invisible and flooding highways, chased by Floyd, pushing onward to safety. He had hit the south and chased me up the coast. There was no stopping. Each new state I entered issued a mandatory evacuation. On I pushed until I reached home on the Connecticut coast. There too, the winds howled and rain fell in torrents. Flooding was everywhere along the eastern seaboard.
Floyd was fast. He left as soon as he came and out we went to a sparkling, newly green world the morning following his nightly retreat after hitting us in Connecticut merely as a storm.
Once again, what to do? Do I journey back to Hurricaneville to finish out the season or wait for it to pass? For today, I write sitting not on sand facing the wide blue sea but on green grass with big maple trees overhead swishing in the breeze, my dog at my side, the cat in the house. And tomorrow?