Monday, September 21, 2009

Blowing in the Wind

Twenty years ago today I was sitting in my office, minding my own business. Okay, so I was a little bored. At that time I was my county's Director of Elections and it was a non-election year. It was an odd job: work for what seemed like 24 months in an election year then sit, doing inventory or speaking to high school students in non-election years. I was on lots of committees and did a lot of reading in those off years.

The phone rang at 10 a.m. and a cheerful male voice asked, "What ya doing?"

"Holding the chair firmly to the floor to defy gravity," I jokingly replied.

"I could use some help. Think you can lend me a hand answering phones while I get ready for this storm?"

Receiving my Chairman's blessing to be "lent" to another department, I crossed the street to the Courthouse ten minutes later. It wasn't just any department, mind you. It was Civil Defense., which still brings to mind visions of cold war fall out shelters. In fact, at that time, there was still one of those old black and yellow fall out symbol signs on the basement wall. Yes, civilly defending the county means working in the basement. Later on, I would be glad.

The caller had been Vic Jones, the Director of Civil Defense. I'd known Vic since I was a dispatcher with the Highway Patrol and he was a Sheriff's Deputy. He knew I could handle multiple phone lines and panicky people while remaining calm. That day he was without a secretary, as her husband was military and they'd been transferred the week before. So I showed up and sat at a table with three single line phones. None of them had lights or a hold button. They were your basic black Grandma's phone from the 1950s era. At first answering them wasn't a problem. Later on, it would get um...odd. At the peak of activity there in Civil Defense, I literally had to lay my hand on top of a phone to figure out which one was ringing by the vibrations. As the night wore on, I would answer two phones at once, ask if everyone could hear me and give them the same information at the same time.

My hometown is almost 180 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean. That should've been enough to calm all fears. If Charleston got hit by a hurricane, we'd get a bad rain storm. Maybe a limb or two down. Even as we prepared, Vic joked that we were going to feel silly in the morning when nothing happened. I had a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach, nonetheless.

I had no idea at 10:00 that morning I would remain in that basement until Hurricane Hugo had marched ashore overnight and rendered my community unrecognizable.

After Hurricane Katrina I know many folks don't want to deal with hearing war stories about hurricanes. Most people feel a momentary, passing pity...a split second of humanity when the brain sighs, "Oh man, that's awful!" followed by a trip back to the kitchen for dinner or a snack. With so much media today, overkill's victim is...well, the victims of a storm. They need help, can't communicate, are frantically looking for family and feel like they've been cut off from the world. Because information goes out, but it doesn't come back in the same way. But you don't know that. You know their town looks like a bomb went off, but hey, it's not your town so let the National Guard and FEMA take care of it. That's what tax dollars are for, right?

But 20 years ago, Katrina was the exception to the rule. Katrina was a Category 5, the worst you can get. Hugo was a Cat. 4....and tore up a huge swath of S.C. as it toured the state. 180 miles inland. All the way to my front door. When I was growing up, the "natural disaster" of all conversation was "Remember the Blizzard of '73?", which was amazing simply because we didn't get snow, much less almost 3 feet over night. Total gridlock.

But after Sept. 22, 1989 the new phrase became, "You know, before Hugo...."

Before Hugo, I had electricity. After he bounced through, I didn't have power for 13 days. We lived in the country, our water came from a well. Hubby brought home a generator from work, we hooked it to the well and filled up containers, then helped the neighbors fill up containers as well. We had an above ground swimming pool and it's water was hauled indoors to flush toilets. Sponge baths were a pain, mostly because the water was so darn cold! On the 4th day, I experienced true love: hubby boiled water on a camp stove so I could take a bath!

None of the photos I took came out because the film was bad. But I have enough memories to last a lifetime. I can still see the old dog pen lodged high up in the tree it usually resided under . There, on the 3rd branch, was the bird feeder, still hanging just as pretty as you please, as if nothing had happened. We were lucky to only lose a few branches...and the power. I use to tell people it was as if God had placed his hand over our home and protected it while I sat in that darkened basement, answering phones and trying to reassure people that morning would come. That we would face whatever happened together.

For some strange reason, I kept a journal that year. I read it last week. Wow, the things I'd forgotten! People will laugh at your words of caution until it gets dark and the wind starts to blow. Common sense cares not what the weather is doing if there's a sale at the Mall. [I kid you not; a woman actually called us and asked how long she could shop. My exasperated co-worker told her, "Until you drop!"] Word to the wise: NEVER use a port-a-john unless you're desperate. NEVER EVER use it if the last man in was a National Guardsman carrying a newspaper. :)

You know you're in a disaster when a newspaper reporter puts down her pad and starts helping answer the phone. You're reminded that reporters are human too when her eyes fill with tears of frustration because someone waited too long to leave and now it's too late. More than once I swallowed hard while issuing the calm declaration that the individual should crawl in the tub, [the bathroom is the most structurally sound place, thanks to pipes], stay away from windows and place a pillow or blanket over their head.

The one thing Hugo didn't maim was the human spirit. For every "stranger" that stood on either side of you in that moment of "What the hell?!", you worked shoulder to shoulder until all of you could move forward again. It was a long, messy road back. For weeks all you heard was the sound of generators or chain saws. The woods of my childhood looked like toothpick forests.

And yet the oddest thing for me would be the wind. Or the absence of it. For that night, down in the basement, surrounded by 8 other people working to keep things together, we only heard the wind once. At the peak of the storm, which spun off so many small tornadoes that the Air Force Base couldn't keep count, suddenly everything in the room went silent. The phones stopped jangling, the walkie talkies went quiet and we all looked around at each other, wondering if all the air had been sucked out of the room. And then we heard it. One, long scream of wind as it rounded the corner of the building. The man next to me whispered, "Oh shit!", as the rest of us could only nod. We knew it was out there, but we couldn't hear it.

And then, as suddenly as the wind had made it's presence known, everything sprang back to life and drown it out. It took me a while to realize what a gift that basement had been. For years after Hugo, whenever the wind got up above a breeze, people's eyes began to nervously dart about, as if Hugo could return. I remember looking at them, somewhere between puzzled and wondering what the heck was wrong with them. Then one day it hit me. Their reaction was normal.....I was the "abnormal" one. I was one of the few souls in the entire town who would never be shaken to my core by the sound of wind because I hadn't spent the whole night listening to it destroy my surroundings.

So tomorrow as the newspaper looks back, I will do a mental review. Of the stories in my head. Of the people who were safe, but too terrified to realize it. Of those who were compassionate and took in their neighbors. Of those brave souls who looked disaster in the eye and almost nonchalantly dealt with it. Of people from other states who sent aid AND threw a picnic for those of us who volunteered when it was all over. Did you know Firemen are always the first to show up when it comes to disaster volunteers? They're generally followed by the Salvation Army, survivors of other disasters who can empathize and a very wonderful guy from West Virginia who hooked up our power. I will remember trying to convince FEMA, "Yes HURRICANES can come this far inland!" while adding in agitation, "Look, SIR, the only difference between us and Charleston is the Atlantic Ocean! It didn't quite make it here."

I only worried once, when a very tall, large muscular man wearing a straw hat and Hawaiian shirt barged into our Emergency Operations Center and yelled [in a VERY deep voice!], "Where is [insert my name here]?!" When I meekly raised my hand, he strode over, grabbed by hand [I assume, since mine seemed to just disappear in his] and said with a smile, "Hi, I'm Smith from the U.S. Marshall's Service. I've been talking with you on the phone." Before I could answer or retrieve my hand he added, "I've talked with enough damn're the only person I've dealt with that makes any sense." With that he turned to his staff, pointed me out and ordered, "You're only to deal with her, understand? And for God's sakes, don't let FEMA anywhere near her! I need to work with someone with common sense. "

Years later Civil Defense would get a new name and a REAL space for handling emergencies. We've had trainings and are ready for whatever Mother Nature throws our way. I was surprised when I toured the space to see that Vic had a sign on a door reading FEMA. When I asked why, he smiled and said I should check out their office space.

It was the bathroom.

'Nuff said.


steven said...

hope this is powerful writing - you have not only an extraordinary story to tell but a real gift in telling it. i have never faced extreme weather outside of major snowstorms. the only hurricane to reach anywhere near where i live did so over fifty years ago - hurricane hazel. people died then as well but it wasn't like hugo or katrina. your story leaves me overwhelmed. i feel privileged to have read this - truly i do. thanks. steven

Susan at Stony River said...

Wow, what a thing to live through--but to work in the middle of things is something else. Thanks for sharing those memories!

I cannot believe it's been 20 years.

Janie B said...

Wow! You really brought your memories to life. Very well written, Hope. I hate that so many suffer during those natural disasters, and there doesn't seem to be anything we can do about it. Here, we have strong winds, ice storms, and tornados, which is plenty, believe me. But, I've never experienced hurricanes...too far inland. Thank goodness. I hope you never experience another one.

mapstew said...

As bad as the weather seems here most of the time, it never gets THAT bad.

Great story. And well done YOU!


hope said...

Thanks Steven...the story almost seems bigger in retrospect. I guess it's because at the time you're so busy doing that you don't have time to think about what's happening. Ironically, I have a picture of Hurricane Hazel. Seems my very sensible Dad, who was in the Navy then, decided that he and his buds would go topside to TAKE PICTURES of Hazel at sea! I still have a photo of waves coming OVER the fantail of his ship...thank heaven his C.O. decided they should return below decks.

Well Susan, I promised to wait until you got back home before mentioning hurricanes. Now you know why. ;) 20 years? Seems impossible!

Janie B. I did find that my compassion level rose...and it's pretty high to begin with. The worst part was hooking up the t.v. to the generator long enough to watch the news....and "discovering" that the world was going by without you. Yep, once is enough.

Map, tis an odd moment to have lived. I have lots more stories, but I'll shut up for now. And man, I could've used an xxx or two that night! :)

Bill ~ {The Old Fart} said...

Wow, what a moving well written story. It's as if I was there with you.

It also brought back memories of a really horrible Hurricane in Nova Scotia in the Early 1970's. I thought sure the house was going to come apart. It was one of the few times I was really scared.

Glad you lived through it, and nice that you got recognition from the Fellow from the US Marshall's Service.

Rachel Fox said...

Have you sent this to your local paper or magazine?

Brighid said...

Very interesting post. your such a doer and a helper. We need more like you.

Anonymous said...

I think you're wrong - or at least I hope you are. I don't think we should ever try to explain away compassion fatigue or downplay natural disasters because of location or comparison to previous ones.

But I'm also a realist at times.

The reality is that this was a great and thought provoking posting.

tonyb said...

When the dust settles, who will carry the mantle for disaster survivors?
This should help understanding:
What do you expect in case of an insured loss? Are You Disaster Ready? (hurricane, tornado, earthquake, flood, fire, etc.). President Obama affirms government's laissez-faire policy with his telling response:

hope said...

Thanks Bill. The weirdest part, which almost seems wrong, is that one's compassion level RISES after a first hand experience. I always considered myself compassionate... but I still think I got better after Hugo.

Rachel...funny you should ask. Beware of having friends in the newspaper business. :) I told one I'd kept a journal in 1989, which due to where I was during Hugo turned out to be interesting. So on the front page of today's newspaper is "Tracking Hugo: Civil Servant's journal chronicle's storm's approach, aftermath". The photo is horrible but being allowed to tell my side of the story makes up for it. :)

Ah Brighid, you're so sweet! It's I worked for 2 weeks in that office and spoke to the head man every morning. And yet when it came time to be paid, he wanted me to [a] take sick leave like everyone who STAYED HOME had done [b] wanted me to prove I'd been there. Hmmm, he spoke to me every morning, thanking me. Good ol' Vic got so angry he marched into the man's office and saved me.

Thanks Matthew. I think it's that "southern girl" thing that comes to the forefront so many times: we're expected to do the right thing for the right reason but we're not allowed to make it appear as if we're patting ourselves on the back. I still have a hard time saying, "I did this..." as fact, without feeling that someone is thinking, "Tooting her own horn, huh?" :)

Um, I'm going to do the polite thing and not delete tonyb's commercial. I'll check his site first. ;)

Dan. said...

Hope, that made brilliant reading (in respects to your writing, not the actual event)When you was describing how you only heard the wind once, but how powerful it was when you did, it actually made you feel tense to read the words on the screen.

Over here in the UK, we hardly ever have extreme weather to worry about. So we never have to know the hardship that events like this can bring, and thankfully never will.

Titus said...

I'm so impressed to be underneath the Blues Brothers.

But to business: what a fabulous read, hope, and like Rachel I was going to write "one that needs more sharing" but then the latest post tells me it has been.

Your ability to recreate events for a reader is outstanding. Top hole for the story, and yes, well done to you for that night.

hope said...

Dan, I work with a group of ladies from England and every time they use the word "brilliant!" I smile. What is common place for one locale is not the norm having anyone attach brilliant to my name is an ego boost. Thanks, I needed that.

Thanks Titus! I do worry sometimes though that I "appear" in too much of what I write. Then again, first person stuff is easier if you've suffered through it. :) Today I wish I could just give Vic and Maj. Holloway a hug but they've both retired.