Sunday, August 17, 2008

It's Hurricane Time!

According to the current projected track as of this writing, Tropical Storm Fay is following a path eerily similar to Hurricane Charley in August 2004. If it holds, we could be seeing some exceedingly nasty weather Tuesday night.

One area where Mr. Lucky and I have never seen eye to eye is the gas tank. I like to fill it up once it gets down to half a tank. He prefers to wait until he has to get out and push. He claims it’s a holdover from when he was an impoverished 19 year old who could only afford a couple bucks’ worth of gas at a time. Funny how this seems to be the only aspect of his youth he still clings to.

When we went out for Sunday donuts this morning, I noticed the fuel gauge showed half a tank, and told Mr. Lucky we should top it off. He disagreed. Half a tank, he said, was plenty.

“You say that now,” I replied, “but after all the driving you’ll be doing between now and Tuesday morning, you’ll be down to ‘E’ in no time. And in the meantime, Fay will strengthen to Category 1 and there’ll be a mass stampede to all the gas stations. You’ll be waiting in line for hours to get gas, and that’s assuming they don’t run out before you finally pull up to the pump. Then the storm will come and knock out all the power. Without power, the gas pumps won’t work. We’ll be stuck with no gas. And I’ll have something new to hold over your head till death do us part. I’ll bring it up every time we have an argument. Do you really want that?”

“You and your melodramatics. You’re caught up in everyone else’s mass hysteria,” he grumbled. “You’ve bought into all the media hype. And I know what you’re about to say, because it's what you always say--that if I’d been here for Hurricane Charley, we’d still be waiting in line for gas.”

At the time of Hurricane Charley in August 2004, we were living in military housing at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, an installation surrounded on three sides by water. Mr. Lucky, however, was deployed, leaving me with two autistic boys ages 15 and 7. Our Chrysler minivan had half a tank of gas when Charley was over Cuba; I filled it up anyway. It was a Wednesday.

I didn’t go anywhere else until Friday morning, when Charley had entered the Gulf of Mexico and had it sights set on the Tampa Bay area. I’d just put the boys on the school bus when Mr. Lucky’s supervisor called (the people in his office kindly checked up on me while he was deployed) to give me a heads-up: The base commander was expected to issue an evacuation order around noon. Most people would not leave until that order was issued, if at all.

For the next hour I paced around the house, watching the weather map of Florida on the TV with the entire Gulf Coast trapped inside “The Cone of Doom”, debating with myself what to do. I could not take my boys to a designated local shelter where there would be crowds of other people and children. The chaos and unfamiliarity of such a place would agitate both boys (see previous blog entry). Torn from their vital routines, they’d be running amok and screaming all over the place and I’d be constantly chasing them down, trying to keep them from running outside, grabbing other people’s food, wrapping themselves in other people’s bedding. They wouldn’t be able to play the video games or watch the DVD’s that make them sit still for more than a few minutes. They wouldn't sleep, even with their meds. And if they didn't sleep, I wouldn't either; and I'd be in even worse shape to keep them from fleeing the shelter or otherwise terrorizing the other shelterees.

They needed to be in a safe place that was familiar, with familiar people who understood them, where the routines and securities of home could be easily replicated.

That place was their paternal grandparents’ house, 200 miles away in Valdosta, Georgia.

The idea of driving that distance with those boys, without Mr. Lucky, was very daunting, but I had to do it. It was obvious from the Cone of Doom that we couldn’t stay at MacDill. In the end I was so knotted with anxiety and dread that I didn’t want to wait until the base commander issued any order. I figured I might as well pack up and get it over with now.

Around 10:30 am, I loaded up the minivan with the boys’ food and meds; their bedding and clothes, and their favorite toys. I locked up the house and left the base. As I did so, I noticed a long, long line of cars winding from one street to another, all waiting to get into the base gas station where I’d filled up the day before yesterday.

I drove to the boys’ school, pulled them out of their respective classes, and by high noon we were on I-75 headed north. The traffic wasn’t too bad; it was typical of an ordinary early Friday afternoon. Baby Bear rocked in his seat the whole time. All was well until we reached the other side of Gainesville and ran into heavy rains from the outermost bands of Tropical Storm Bonnie, that swept into the Panhandle that same day.

I slowed to a crawl as the road disappeared in a curtain of heavy rain. That’s when Baby Bear decided to do his usual Houdini with the seat belt. He took off his clothes and started slithering all through the minivan, digging and tunneling and burrowing like a giant worm. This was very upsetting to the Crown Prince, who yodeled and thrashed in the front seat next to me.

It was almost like that scene in the movie Jurassic Park, where the guy gets trapped inside a vehicle with a dilophosaurus—also in the midst of a tropical storm. Picture me in that same scene, with the vehicle on a busy interstate and two dilophosauruses—complete with spitting!

This went on until I found the next rest stop. I parked, but left the engine running—which in my frazzled state probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but I had this nutty fear that if I turned off the car, it wouldn’t start up again and I’d be stranded with these two boys. I blame it on that ridiculous complex I acquired when our Ford Aerostar broke down in the middle of nowhere in Texas on a Sunday afternoon when everything was closed (again, see previous blog entry).

Do not lock that door, Karen, do not lock that door . . .

After exiting the vehicle, I ran around it in the pouring rain to open the sliding side door, and Baby Bear shot out as if he’d been fired from a cannon. He was nearly naked, wearing only his diaper. I chased him halfway across the parking lot before I finally caught him, and even then I had a hard time keeping a grip on him—he was slippery not only from the rain, but from the perspiration he’d generated from over two hours of rocking. Once I got him back into the minivan, I didn’t even bother putting his clothes back on—I just wanted to get him buckled back in and get the heck back on the road. I strapped him in with two seat belts, wrapping them around him and looping them over and under each other every which way to make him work for another escape. We resumed our journey. He stayed put until we arrived in Valdosta around 4 pm. The evening news showed traffic leaving Tampa and St. Petersburg almost at a standstill.

I don’t know how I did it, but I did it. And I’m glad now that I did it. But I hope I never have to do it again.

Charley made landfall about 24 hours after we arrived in Georgia. Until a couple of hours prior, it was expected to hit Tampa/St. Petersburg, but changed course and hit Port Charlotte instead.

Fast forward to this morning’s donut run. After picking up the donuts, Mr. Lucky turned into the gas station, which was a little more congested than usual. (I wonder why?)

Was he caught up in everyone else’s mass hysteria? Had he bought into all the media hype? No, he just wanted to shut me up, God bless him.

For tranquil is the life of the husband, and wise is he who appeases his wife with the affirmation that she is always right.

1 comment:

Phyllis J. Towzey said...

Can't even imagine if you and your two boys had been stuck in the late-evacuation traffic jams. Smart Karen! I think you are amazing, by the way.

We evacuated for Charlie too. Couldn't risk being flooded in and without electricity, since my mother-in-law was with us then and not in good health. We evacuated to Orlando - so of course Charlie missed St. Pete altogether and hit Orlando.

Guess we'll see what Fay brings.