Hurricane Vignettes

By Tom Neale, 9/6/2007


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Tom Walks Away From a Boat They Thought To Be Safe
We’re all feeling it: the fear, the dread, the awe when the first monster hurricane comes alive and plows its way across the ocean and into our consciousness, reawakening the acute awareness of nature’s malice and our own utter helplessness. These things hang with me all year long, because I’ve experienced so many. It’s hard to erase the images from my mind, even during deep winter.

I remember seeing the huge mast from the 65 foot sailboat, wrapped like a spaghetti noodle around one of the few pilings left still standing at the docks in Chub Key, Bahamas. It was shortly after Andrew. The marina there is widely considered to be a good hurricane hole, but not for an Andrew. The sailboat we didn’t see. Only its shimmering crushed image under the surface of the water.

I remember all the dead dogs and cats and rats around the fallen power lines, downed by the same hurricane, snaking across the wet earth, on the same island.

I remember talking to a friend who rescued couples from several boats that had taken refuge in another “hurricane hole” for that storm. All the boats were lost and the people were living in the jungle, without means to call for help. My friend happened to see them as he was flying over, on his way to a salvage job. If he hadn’t, they’d probably have eventually been found, but only after many days of a very miserable existence.

I remember traveling down the ICW north of Charleston SC and seeing all the pine trees cleanly snapped off, as if by a gigantic lawn mower, around 15 or 20 feet above the ground. It had been a huge beautiful forest, and now it looked like so many giant toothpicks broken in the middle, but still standing. I wondered why until I realized that they were snapped off by the winds of Hurricane Hugo, snapped off at the water line of the storm surge.

I remember the fall we went south down the east coast after Hugo. We’d had to leave a tenuous anchorage in the Waccamaw River at 3:00 AM to feel our way down Winyah Bay and out to the ocean between the dangerous jetties of the bay’s inlet. The ICW was unusable from there down to Charleston because of the storm. The Ben Sawyer Bridge, an aging swing bridge that should be replaced by a high rise, had been lifted from its foundation and spun like a top and planted askew over the channel. The floating docks from a marina on the east side of the ICW had been lifted, boats still tied to them, and deposited in a hellish jumble in the marsh on the west side of the ICW.

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I remember riding around Homestead Florida after Andrew. Our boat was nearby and we were waiting to cross over to see what was left of the Bahamas that we so loved. Friends who had lived (and barely survived) in Homestead gave us the tour. It was like the scenes you see in movies of a world—or what’s left of it—after a nuclear holocaust. And when we did cross the Stream to find the things I’ve already described, we first saw that Cat Cay was demolished while, Bimini, but a few miles to the north, was largely unharmed. Hurricanes are so fickle. And sometimes they seem to have a heart, we thought, because Bimini was a village island full of people while Cat was a very exclusive resort club island with far fewer people remaining as the storm approached. But I dare not let myself think that the hurricane has a heart. They are not kind.

I remember seeing my first boat, a little 12 foot wooden skiff, after Hurricane Hazel. A huge pier had extended far out into the river, about a block down the bank before the storm. I’d pulled my beloved boat up to the edge of Main Street to be sure it was out of harm’s way. Almost every timber of that dock had been carefully disassembled, and, instead of being washed up on the shore at the foot of the dock, had been pulled down the shore and piled onto my boat by Hazel.

I remember the snakes crawling out of the marshes and up into the streets, crawling into the yards and slithering under and even into the houses when hurricanes rose the three rivers around the small town where I grew up. Many were poisonous. Some, such as the water moccasin, were water snakes. “Why,” we wondered, “couldn’t they just stay down there with all the water where they belonged?”

I remember sailing around the British Virgin Islands when Lenny formed up in the Caribbean well to the west. “No problem, Mon,” was the refrain. “Hurricanes don’t travel from the west to the east. They don’t go that way.” I remember telling them this one was going to. I could feel it. I could tell from looking at the sky and feeling the wind and looking at weather maps. I remember huddling for shelter in a house listening to rocks clatter down the side of a mountain as Hurricane Lenny, indeed traveling from the west to the east, passed close by, briefly a Category 5 monster, killing people at sea and ashore.

I remember driving around in a friend’s pickup truck after Hurricane Isabelle in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula of Virginia’s western shores of the Chesapeake. We’d been enduring the two week long aftermath of the storm on our boat in relative comfort and ease. Many of those ashore had no electricity or running water or ice or gas for almost two weeks. We were fine because we were on a well stocked boat and we’d survived the blow.

Where the Tornado Tred

I remember looking at the paths of the tornadoes. You could see where they’d churned within the storm. The path chosen by each tornado was clearly marked. You could tell by the snapped and twisted trees, power poles and road signs. During the hurricane, we knew they were there, they always are. But you can’t see them because of the rain and you can’t hear them because of the roar of the hurricane’s wind—unless they pass over you or very close to you. And then you know they have found you, although that knowing may be only a brief knowing as your life ends. And I always wonder, why this time, they didn’t come my way. They could have just as easily taken a twist or a turn to bring them over my little spot. And I never count on luck for the next time.

Andrew was so tight it was almost like an immense tornado. It devastated Cat and, relatively speaking, spared Bimini. It flattened Homestead and, relatively speaking, spared Miami. Hugo and Katrina were broad monsters, as was Dean. Their paths of destruction were much wider. They come in different sizes and strengths, these hurricanes. They seem to come and go, live and die as they please, despite our best efforts at figuring them out. But whatever the odds of a hurricane doing this that or the other, the bottom line is that those odds don’t matter if you happen to be the one in their grip. These are but a few of my remembrances of hurricanes with which I’ve been involved. There’ve been so many more. And I never get used to it.

Be Glad You Weren't Docked Here

I watched a news clip a few nights ago of happy tourists disembarking planes in Cancun. Some were saying, “Oh, we’ll take the chance.” Others were saying, “Hurricane, Oh I didn’t know about that.” And this was a couple of days before Dean was forecast to make landfall in the area. Dean had been heading for the area for days. And I wondered, “What planet are these people coming from?” Fortunately (for Cancun), Dean hit a bit further south. So perhaps there are a few more people who came away with a false sense of security and who won’t take the next hurricane seriously.

I suppose that you and I, in a perverse sort of way, are a bit luckier than most, because we have boats and hang out or even live on the water. Most of us are much more sensitive to the danger of these storms than is the case of much of the rest of the population. But we’re all virtually helpless—sometimes completely helpless—when they, by their own twisted choice, on their own time schedule, with their own brand of super power, come our way.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale