Volume 38, Issue 10, October 2003
Until September 19 at 2:06 p.m., I labored under a misconception. I had always secretly harbored the suspicion that the so-called hurricane codes, in effect in Dade County, Fla., in Texas and (very soon) in Long Island, were designed more to help sell hurricane-resistant products than anything else. In my mind, at least, the codes allowed our industry to sell some value-added products with safety as their goal. They probably weren’t necessary, but wouldn’t hurt.
On that Friday afternoon, as I stood before the 82-year old house near the Potomac River that I had helped restore, I learned just how wrong I was. Before Hurricane Isabel, I thought man could always make its fair fight against nature. He can’t. It isn’t even close, nor will it ever be.
Isabel started out as a category-five hurricane. She attacked the Potomac here as a category two, yet her winds were clocked at 105 mph. There was devastation that I could not have even imagined. The house across the street from mine was ripped in half and condemned. Before Isabel, the town had six restaurants. Now, it has one. People lost their homes and the little town lost its boardwalk.
My house, luckily, sustained no damage inside as it sits up a bit higher than most other houses on the block invaded by water that day. But the area’s largest employer, a 25,000-square-foot restaurant on the river about one-quarter mile away, did. It was totally destroyed and a good part of its debris—nearly two tons in all—ended up one-quarter mile away in what was my yard. Now it is a graveyard of walls, roof trusses, furniture, olive jars and beer bottles—still sealed but half full from the pressure.
When first approached on the day after Isabel, the street looked like a war zone. I remember feeling guilty for all the times I’d looked so nonchalantly at pictures on television showing this kind of devastation. On television it looks like a bunch of stuff all over the ground; up close, it is someone’s life.
To watch my neighbors was heartbreaking. The images won’t soon be forgotten: the brick mason who had painstakingly built an exquisite wall around his cottage upon seeing the wall had washed out to sea; the neighbor who thought he’d gotten all his valuables above the 18 inches of water in his house realizing he’d forgotten to lift the trunk with his baseball card collection out of harm’s way; his next-door neighbor looking for his two-month-old puppy that he was sure had been swept away when the wind and the water broke through his house.
“I used to like that movie ‘Titanic’,” he said with a joke to mask his concern, “but I’ll never watch ‘Titanic’ or the ‘Poseidon Adventure’ again.”
“How do we fix this?” I kept asking myself.
How do you get back to normal when you realize normal can never be what it was?
There are little indignities to living through a disaster that, thankfully, I’d never known. Like the inability of those not going through it to understand, and in some cases, the total lack of
“The house was not damaged,” I told the lady at the insurance company over the phone, “but the outside is destroyed.”
I wasn’t going to call at all, but the company had been running radio and newspaper ads all week telling me to call its 800 number because they wanted to help.
“We can take care of almost all the debris, but I don’t know who to call to lift the roof beams and walls in the yard so I can unblock the front yard,” I continued.
“Well, I wouldn’t know that,” the “helpful” representative answered, “and you wouldn’t have coverage for it anyway. Goodbye.”
The lack of electricity for a full week meant that people most tired and dirty from all the cleanup couldn’t get a cup of coffee or a hot shower or wash away the day in any way.
The gawkers were the final indignity, coming from miles around on the weekend to see the disaster. Our tragedy is their diversion. After awhile, my neighbors started yelling out to the cars, urging them to help in the cleanup, and a few did. People took pictures and videos of our block as if we were animals caged in disaster’s zoo. I took pictures of only those who asked me to, but I could not bring myself to take any others.
Seeing the actual aftermath of a hurricane is a humbling experience. Only that morning, I’d advised against boarding up the windows because, I puffed, “it’s the debris that breaks windows, not the wind, and there is only water in front of the windows.” Little did I know or expect that Isabel would tear buildings the way a hand tears bread and send them three miles away. How stupid and blissfully ignorant I was about all this.
I know a few more things than I did last week. I know that hurricane-resistant products are good things and can save lives. The more we can use them, the less pain their owners will have to bear; I know, too, that if a category three or four or five ever heads my way, I’ll be picking up my photo albums and running away as fast as I can before it hits, because nothing will stay standing after it’s gone. I know that people go on, some because of courage and some because they feel they have no other choice, but they do go on. And I know that the sky, the air and the river look beautiful and full of hope the next day.
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