As a general courtesy, and to conform with the the conventions and norms of keeping you, our gentle and good readers, apprised of our status during this time of emergency, I probably should start by briefly noting that we are all safe and sound, and that despite the absence of the modern conveniences of power and running water since around 8:00 p.m. Thursday, we are just fine. But what kind of story would that be? Allow me to regale you with tales of peril and woe and show you the sights of sheer horror that have plagued us these past few days. (How’s that for a hook?)
While there was no smell of napalm in the morning for Robert Duvall’s Lt. Colonel Killgore to savour, and we failed to see any brimstone of Biblical fame, the island suffered a series of classic end-of-days events. On Thursday, as the windward side of the island braced itself for the arrival of back-to-back hurricanes Iselle and Julio, an emergency announcement sounded across the airwaves to warn motorists and residents alike of a raging brushfire on the leeward side. Then, I kid you not, that famous scale of Mr. Richter registered a 4.5 event on the island’s westernmost coast and the shutdown of the local geothermal plant led to the release of a good quantity of hydrogen sulfide gas into the environs, blanketing local neighborhoods. Quite a day for emergency personnel.
Houses Screwed Plywood Over Windows for Protection
(As a side note, this all brought back fond memories of my days conducting ground search and rescue missions with the Appalachian Search and Rescue Conference (ASRC) in Charlottesville, Virginia, and my stint with a volunteer firefighting company as I trained for my Emergency Medical Technician certification in Fairfax County, Virginia. It stirred something inside me that has long lay dormant.)
The East Side Story
Well…I cannot comment much more on events on the west side or the gas release, but I can share a thing or two about Iselle, who graciously allowed herself to be downgraded to a tropical storm of an order just below hurricane threshold before making her entrance on our edge of the isle. Let me preface my tale by reminding you that we are lodging about four blocks from the island’s eastern coastline and in the district hardest hit by the event.
For starters, as you can probably imagine, it was loud. It was also very wet. We did not get sufficient sleep as we monitored the hand-cranked emergency radio through the night and listened to the show outside. Some residents of our neighborhood who lived even a little closer to the shore moved to government-run storm shelters at slightly higher elevation. And had we remained indoors, that is all I could say. But no… We are newspaper carriers now, by golly, and the news must get delivered!
I received a call about 1:00 a.m. from the company driver who drops us our bundles. He passed along that the company was recommending we make our runs as early as possible because, at that time, the situation was expected to get even worse as the morning unfolded. Fair enough. He said he would call to wake me the minute he departed for our drop location.
The call never came. My regular 2:30 a.m. alarm sounded. I called the driver, I called the press room, I called the circulation manager; no calls went through. My cell phone scrolled a message, “Emergency Calls Only.” The network was locked down.
So…I grabbed the boy, a rain coat, a flashlight…we jumped in the Jeep. With a somewhat maniacal look in my eye, off we went about 3:00 a.m. (Did I mention that the rushing winds were still very loud and the sky was flush with liquid sunshine? Should I note that clearing crews had not yet ventured from their cozy beds?) I reflected on that scene in Jurassic Park…the one with the big guy scrambling into a Jeep at night in monsoon-like rains and 4-wheeling down rough roads only to be eaten by a dinosaur. (You know that was filmed in Hawaii, right?)
Turning left out of our parking area, we proceeded a few hundred feet before being confronted by a downed tree. Road completely blocked. We turned around.
A few hundred feet in the opposite direction we encountered a downed power line across the road. Although we were aware that all power was out for miles, we prayed that those driver’s ed classes were correct regarding a vehicle’s grounding and how to traverse a live wire, and we made sure neither of us was touching metal before coasting over the serpentine obstacle. No singed hair. No smell of burning human flesh. Phew! We continued on.
Now to fully appreciate the scene, you need to understand that our current neighborhood is a vast grid. When you randomly drop telephone poles and trees across some of the roads of this grid, and string electrical and phone lines across others at about 3 feet off of the ground, you create a rather challenging maze. Without an aerial view, we truly had no way to know how to get out of the neighborhood to the highway. We spent 30 minutes racing down passage after passage of this vast maze only to be faced with insurmountable barriers. We could not find our way out. We turned back. I tried to call and text our contacts at the paper, but the phones would not come back to life until late that morning.
Around 7:00 a.m., we made another attempt with the bride and our eldest replacing the boy, and I grabbed a camera for your general entertainment. By this time, the rains had abated and the wind had moved on to tickle other locales. The sun was up and, though cloudy, visibility was good enough to witness the carnage in full.
Our Front Yard
This attempt began much like the first. The key difference was that we were not the only ones on the road at this point. There were neighbors with chainsaws and lots of neighborhood pedestrians all helping to clear the roads. Time and again, we parked, got out, helped clear trees, drove a little distance, parked, got out, etc. Finally reaching a road that would take us all the way to the highway took more than one hour and a successful call to the newspaper folks (who gave me some navigation tips from employees who had managed to escape our neighborhood and make it into the office).
We arrived at our drop point to find that our bundles had accidentally been scooped up by a new employee of the store where the bundles are left each day at 0-dark-thirty, and they had been mixed in with the store’s normal paper bundles. So…a few minutes of sorting and counting and we were on our way to our next adventure.
“What was it like?,” you ask. Well… Have you ever gotten a downed power line stuck on your car and had to perform “creative” maneuvers through a field to shake it off? Have you ever inched your vehicle under a tunnel-like canopy of fallen trees, dropping two or more tires off of the hard surface into very wet and soft ground in order to snake your way through? How about this one… Ever zipped under large trees suspended above the ground by the power lines that they fell across? No? Well…me neither. Until this morning, that is.
Keep in mind, this is all after Iselle was downgraded to a tropical storm from a category 1 hurricane and that, days prior, she was characterized as a category 4 weather event. (I am confident that our rental house would not be standing if we had faced Iselle during her full fury as a category 4.)
At the end of the run, it was time to celebrate. We were not only alive, the Jeep did not suffer any noticeable damage, we were able to service all of our 120 some customers (except for 5 who were located in a totally impassable area), and we were able to meet some of our customers and hand their papers to them as they cleaned their yards (with many expressing surprise and gratitude that their papers had come through). Though the sun was up and skies had begun to clear, not many venues were open to help us mark our achievement, being either flooded or without power, but there is one place you can always count on here…
And how better to end such a morning than with a plate of Johnnie cakes that are each the size of your head…
…and a big ole plate of blood sausage.
So where do things stand? I am feverishly wrapping up this rough post at the nearest McDonald’s, the only place where I can find internet on this Saturday morning, while the girls do the wash at the laundromat across the street. At home, we have no electricity or running water, but plenty of rain water in our multi-thousand-gallon cistern out back. Free spring water for drinking remains available and the gas pumps are still operating. Things are a little rough, and we are likely to remain out of touch for a while, but this is great preparation for our next transitional phase up at our property base camp. On the upside, the storm’s high winds have made wild food even more plentiful (we snagged 12 free avocados on our paper run this morning).
The roads are largely passable now, but there is no ice to be found anywhere, leaving refrigerated and frozen foods in various questionable states. Last night, we rushed out to the nearby fire department after a radio announcement noted the availability of free ice and tarps, but we arrived too late; it was all gone. It is time to start exploring the dizzying array of varieities of Spam that I previously wrote about.
And now we wait…
For running water…
For the next hurricane, Julio…
We will keep you all posted right here, infrastructure permitting.