Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Ike: Part the Second-The Teeth of the Wind

The preliminary ablutions out of the way, it was time to ready ourselves for the actual event. My wife couldn’t get off of work till Thursday, so that night our preparations began in earnest. Bags packed, food gathered, snacks stashed and flashlights distributed. We were ready.

While I would rather have stayed at my own house, I knew that my wife would need to be with her mother at a time like this. If she was going to be there, then that’s where we all would be. I had boarded up our windows, and said a prayer over our house as we pulled out of the drive headed to MiMi’s house. On arriving at the Maison du MiMi, I couldn’t help noticing that there were no boards on the windows, no tape, nothing. It was beginning to look “not too safe” to me, and the helicopter hangar was looking pretty good about now, since Ike was bearing down on the Galveston Bay area like an ill-tempered second-grader. Since he had already thrown a sizeable tantrum on Cuba, he was promising to make someone’s life miserable.

We decided that with this hurricane bearing down on us as it was, pretty unmistakably, we would be better of in the Houston Helicopter hangar. The owners have been friends of my wife’s family for many years and they welcomed friends and family to their large hangar for safety. The building is rated for something like 150 mph winds, and thus the best place for riding out a storm.

There were 5 helicopters and eight or nine private automobiles in the hangar by the time we got there; the owners, one of their daughters, her husband and two of her kids, all of whom brought a separate vehicle. Then our little entourage with two vehicles, and later another friend of theirs arrived in a Prius. Plenty of space.

I dashed out at one point to bolster our supplies of snack food with an order of hot food; Popeye’s Chicken was open, and doing a brisk business. I pulled into the parking lot, only to find that the staff had locked the side door and was only serving drive-thru orders, and the line looked like a used car lot. I sneaked around to the other side and made my way in to the store, and there I stood with about ten other folks. There we waited for the fried bird to emerge from the grease. I got the “Meal Deal”; really the “deal” was for the Church’s; sixteen pieces and some side orders for over thirty dollars. Highway robbery! But what can you do, I paid and zoomed back to our haven.

The wind was blowing in the 20 mph range when we got there, with some pretty interesting gusts, and surprisingly little rain. On the paved helipad and driveway the grit from the street driven by the wind had a sandblasting effect. Our little dogs explored on their respective leashes, and the mood was rather light and reunion-ish. I hadn’t seen some of these people since our kids were really small, and the catching-up was great.

The afternoon progressed, as did the wind, and we adjourned to the inside of the hangar with the wind whipping past the door. We watched scores of birds battling the wind to roost in stands of trees; dove, scissortail, starlings, grackles and sparrows. There was speculation on the speed of the flight of the doves and further speculation that even I would possibly be able to drop one with a shotgun, were it not for the windage factor!

The wind picked up, and the decision was made to close the doors and move all of our camp gear to the command center offices. Up a set of steep stairs on either side of the shop was the command center, with a large conference table, a couple of huge maps of the Texas Gulf Coast and offshore coordinates, a refrigerator and sink. The large room was surrounded on three sides by offices of varying sizes. These would be our bivouac areas for the duration.

We waited for the storm, glued to the radio or television, hearing stories and anecdotes from storms past. The wind grew wilder and at about 7:30 p.m., the power went out. The big natural gas generator came on automatically to power the essential components of the command center, but not the air conditioning units. Those would seem to me to be essential, but I am not the one who ordered the generator installed. We did have a small 7500 watt diesel generator set up outside in a covered truck, and he was called into play at this juncture. This generator enabled us to set up the fans who stood at the ready to keep us alive in the command center, which quickly became quite stuffy.

The TV news people had been working everyone to an absolute frenzy, emulating Dan Rather during Hurricane Carla in 1961, standing out in rising water being battered by waves and wind. Wayne Dolcefino, ever-intrepid reporter for the Eyewitness News Team, was on the seawall in Galveston, bleating into the microphone about the storm surge and the increasing wind and the inherent danger of standing right where he was standing. There was even some footage of brave Geraldo Rivera standing on Seawall Boulevard being knocked to the street by a wave. Our group hooted and cackled as the tape was played back a couple of times, to our great delight. I could have watched that for another half hour or so. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. A group of Galveston firefighters were standing by their truck, and a trio hurried over to him to help him up. When it was clear that he was all right, one of them remarked that it was “about time to get off the Seawall”. Gold.

Other reporters throughout the night would venture into waist-deep water that eventually covered all but the highest points on the entire island, and I sat breathlessly awaiting a passing rat or snake to climb up their slicker. Alas, on that point I was disappointed.

The studio anchors and weather people weren’t much better, and I feared that if I heard another newsman, newswoman, city official, county judge, state representative, passing motorist or parakeet utter the term “hunker down”, I would run screaming into the face of the storm, completely “un-hunkered”.

The storm inevitably progressed as these giant unstoppable forces of nature are known to do, and we sat in rolling chairs, chasing the oscillating fans on their appointed rounds, waving like wheat in the breeze. One by one, the denizens repaired to their hot little pallets in the makeshift dorm. Only a couple of us hardy (?) souls stayed up to watch the snowy television and track the slow progression of the eye of the storm to landfall.

From the offices, we could hear the wind blowing outside in gusts, and occasionally hear the rain slashing, but down in the hangar, the experience was a fearsome combination of the relentless howling and moaning of the wind at the giant bay doors, the crashing of the louvered vent fan at the end of the building, and the sound of the rain just hammering the outside of the steel shell we were in was alarming. I made a couple of passes through the hangar at different times, to make sure the fiberglass skylights didn’t blow in and wreck any cars (they didn’t). The wind-driven water was coming in under the doors making glassy pools in the eerie semi-darkness.

Due in part to the heat and my shoulders knotting up like frozen briskets, I only managed about two hours sleep that night, mostly in fitful twenty to thirty minute stretches. Not one of my best hurricanes. The last one I sat through was Alicia in 1983 and I got a full three hours of sleep, in longer stretches. Of course, I didn’t have a house and family to worry about. Also, this time, my parents and sister were riding out the storm down in Alvin. Needless to say, there was a lot running through my mind.

Saturday slowly dawned, the wind slowed back down to about 30 mph, and the little dogs were about to explode. My daughters and I went down on the side of the building that was sheltered from the wind, and let them run a little and, uh, other stuff. The small one had to patter through the puddles, too, like any other youngster.

As everyone started moving around, we assessed whatever damage there might have been; one window got sucked out after a tiny crack appeared in it. We boarded that up the best we could, but the worst of the storm was over. By about ten, some of the folks wanted to make a foray around Friendswood to see what sort of damage their property might have sustained. With some space cleared, I figured it was time to move the vehicles and try to get out while the getting was good.

We packed our provisions and headed out to try to make our way to our homes to see how we had fared.


DammitWomann said...

WOW! Scarey time for y'all. Your writing is so good though that I could even imagine being there with you. Great post!

Anonymous said...

Big Toe...
I have the same reacton about how they over use the term HUNKER DOWN.I rode the storm out in Alvin Texas about 25 miles from Galveston and it was pretty scary. I have ridden out quit a few storms growing up in Friendswood. The flood of 1979 was the scariest of all. We lived in a two story house and we had 8 feet of water in the first floor. We Hunkered Down in the second floor. We rescued many neighbors through the second story window. One of the neighbors were the Houston Helicopter Family, they rode up in a small boat and we pulled them in through the second story window. We had a total of 11 people in the second story. We were the all rescued in a boat and taken to the front of the nieghborhood. waiting for us was a Houston Helicopter that flew us all to pasadena where we rented a hotel room and then went to a car dealership that another nieghbor owned and gave each family a car to use. What great nieghbors we had. In our house with the 8ft of water we had never lost power. That was the most scared I had ever been. I am so thankful that we only had roof damage and that is nothing compared to some people that lost everything.

aA said...

Big Toe, that's a big story! It's amazing what we can get through, like it or not.

The people that I know that have lost everything (or nearly everything) are taking it one step at a time with incredible courage and grace!

Howlsatmoon said...

I stole this somewheres....figgered you'd like it: Top Ten Reasons why Hurricanes are like Christmas
Number Ten:
Decorating the house (with plywood).

Number Nine:
Dragging out boxes that haven’t been used since last season.

Number Eight:
Last minute shopping in crowded stores.

Number Seven:
Regular TV shows pre-empted for ‘Specials’.

Number Six:
Family coming to stay with you.

Number Five:
Family and friends from out of state calling you.

Number Four:
Buying food you don’t normally buy . . . and in large quantities.

Number Three:
Days off from work.

Number Two:

And the Number One reason Hurricane Season is like Christmas:
At some point you’re probably going to have a tree in your house!