Thursday, November 1, 2012

# 367 - Storm Aftermath Memories and Sandy's Fallout

Living through the aftermath of a devastating hurricane and all that it whips around with its destruction is not something that can be conveyed through words or pictures, not completely.

For 39 years of my life, I've lived in the Bay Area of Greater Houston. Hurricanes have come our way. The last for our area, Hurricane Ike, destroyed our home. We were in a mandatory evacuation zone, but several of us stayed for multiple reasons...the first being a tidal surge was most feared. The conjecture for the height of the hurricane induced tidal waters had been a major point for us because our street is one of the highest elevations in the area. From the weather station's reports, we knew that our street would be high up enough to escape a tidal surge, by a few feet.

Another reason for staying is that we had tried to flee during the last major hurricane evacuation and found ourselves trapped on the road, in the Texas heat, in extremely dangerous circumstances and with no gas stations open along the route to refuel. Resources were completely depleted. People did not anticipate having to sit in their vehicles for 10 hours straight, under the blaring Texas sun. Most people didn't even have enough water for such an unexpected "trip."

Essentially, for two days, people were trapped on the roads leading out of Greater Houston. It didn't help that officials had shut off all the back-roads that would have certainly alleviated road congestion for a city as massive as Houston. People DIED because of evacuation disasters. It made a lot of people realize that the hurricane itself did not cause deaths, but the evacuation crisis caused many deaths. Initially, people on the road were so hot in their non-moving vehicles that they sat and let the vehicles run so they could at least have air-conditioning. Eventually, many people had vehicles that over-heated and had to be pushed aside after they were given enough room to move the car a few feet because the traffic had finally inched up a tad within a five hour period. Tempers flared. Groups of people walked around, weaving in and out of the cars, as if to see if there were any supplies for the taking.

During horrible evacuation gone wrong, I had been behind the wheel with my two daughters. The three of us together, on the road for hours, while hauling a 30-foot first time to ever drive while pulling an RV. Of course, the three of us were fully armed. Even teeny-tiny Stefie had her 9 mm weapon at the ready. Most people on the road were having to relieve themselves --- without much privacy. At least we had an RV behind us that we would make very limited runs to, when desperate. People's pets were dying from heat exhaustion and they were having to dump their bodies alongside the road. I cannot express the trauma of the situation and the terrifying circumstances that this evacuation had introduced to us girls. I clearly remember being ready to defend ourselves and realizing that our main concern would be to not make an innocent victim out of a bystander, so many, all around us. And I thought the kid in the RV behind us, being arrogant about eating his Popsicle was a prime target for the desperation that surrounded their vehicle. Those parents certainly weren't displaying much intelligence in that moment when many people were dehydrated and feeling beyond panicked. So, the evacuation option was also not an easy decision, especially since we did not trust city officials to handle it any better this time around.

Also, we know that hurricanes move inland and carry themselves up into the state while bringing high winds that can devastate a city that is hours away from the coastline and point of land-impact. High winds are a certain danger. Those of us who are accustomed to severe coastal storms do understand the dangers of high winds. Not something to mess around with.

So, when Hurricane Ike rolled around, we and a few other people in the neighborhood decided to stay. Right or wrong, the decision to "hunker down" had been ours to make and I do not regret it, although the challenges it brought were downright scary. Regarding our decision to stay, we were ancy, for many reasons. Turns out, one of the ironic stories for our block had been our neighbors who had fled the hurricane and found a cozy hotel a few hours away. They talked about how they felt greatly relieved to be at a "safe" distance from the chaos. However, the hurricane moved across land and brought with it a fury that still found them as a tree fell onto their second floor hotel room and caused the ceiling to collapse. They were very fortunate to not have been injured. The hotel was in ruins, but crammed many of the temporary residents into a safe portion of the hotel on the bottom floor, but no one slept very well. They came back to find their house rather intact...a few shingles missing, a leak here and there, but nothing compared to the trauma of them fleeing. The most odd part of this happening is that their belongings that had been taken to the hotel were mostly ruined, while the belongings left at the house in the mandatory evacuation zone were mostly not damaged.

However, we had other friends who stayed and found themselves in a bid for life as their homes were swept off their foundations and washed out to sea. Fortunately, they could see the incoming waters rush in toward their house and they made a get-away in the nick of time. However, I would NEVER even considered staying if my house were in the zone of a potential tidal cannot beat the approaching ocean that will simply make a grab for you and take you back out to sea, permanently. As for the houses swept clean off their foundations, such sights are so hard for the brain to absorb.

Many of us with destroyed homes took supportive tours of each other's homes in the weeks that followed Hurricane Ike, and I remember one of my youngest daughter's friends had a mother who taught at the high-school...both my daughter, Stefie, and her friend, were in their Senior year of high-school. Like our home, their house was completely destroyed. None of us had a livable home. I had just seen their destroyed home, so she came over to walk through the stench of my own home and all she could do was stand there and cry. It's a moment I'll never forget. Neither one of us had any words to express our dismay.

A glimmer of joy in our pain, at least Deputy Dave and I already had a 30-foot RV that we'd owned for years and had removed from our acreage. Our salvation. Even local hotels were destroyed or so badly damaged that the city either shut them down or they were filled to capacity. It's hard for outsiders to realize that no hotels are available, usually within a 5-hour radius after a landscape altering storm.

The trip to bring our RV to our driveway had been terrifying. Even days after the storm, Deputy Dave's truck with the RV in tow was slowly swerving to avoid downed power lines, poles, road debris and more. The roads were vacant because people had still been warned to not return to the city; however, we managed to get our RV from a nearby place of storage and to the house. One police-officer stopped us, but really had no choice but to let us go. I'm sure he thought we were nuts, perhaps we were. But, before the city madness resumed, we had set up a place to stay...our beautiful home wasn't livable, but we had a driveway with ample room for an RV and that's where we would lay our heads for about 7-8 months during reconstruction. Immediately after the storm, we had enough gas to run the generator for the RV to have some air-conditioning and minimal lights, only at nightfall. We felt blessed.

For so many who have been impacted by Sandy, my heart goes out to you. I believe we were without electricity for a good two weeks. There was no water for several days. Of course, we knew how to prepare and had ample supplies on hand. The major problem was gasoline. Supply trucks would not be able to get through for a long while. Even with extra gas on hand, with the generator, it wasn't enough. We tried to cook as much food as we could as the freezer thawed, but the temperature was still high 80's, low 90's and that brings on sweltering conditions with the high humidity in a house that resembles a rainforest because the roof is no longer intact. Seeing parts of the sky when looking up at your ceiling brings an odd feeling.

I can say with certainty, the #1 thing I missed during the outages and destroyed property had been my washing machine. I could deal with hanging the clothes out to dry, but not having the electricity to run the washer was torture, especially with all the soggy, stinking towels, bedding, linens that we were using in an effort to salvage other household items. No running water meant we couldn't even hand-wash the stinking mess. I could see that having a source of fresh water nearby would have been a Godsend. Instead, we had to let the pile of dirty, soaked items lay ready for the time when water and electricity were again made available to tackle them.

As I watch the people from Sandy's anguish dealing with fires in the small community, I felt such sadness. As if one disaster is not enough...

Then, I know that Hurricane Ike and most Southern hurricanes leave us residents to deal with the heat --- which is incomprehensible if you've not encountered such weather after a hurricane...the stench, the unrelenting heat and can be oppressive; however, I cannot fathom what it would be like to have my house torn to shreds by a hurricane and to then be standing in freezing weather as snows comes down. Wet and cold...not a good combination.

I'm sure people who had firewood are at a loss to find their fire-wood soaked and not exactly ready to provide much needed warmth. It's hard enough to clean up after a hurricane, but the cold weather has got to complicate matters is a way that I cannot understand. Yes, I can comprehend heat-stroke and putrid smells from too much heat that speeds up things to rot, but freezing weather is not something I would want to battle either.

I have to admit, after our storm and after the storm that had previously hit Louisiana, Hurricane Katrina, I had been upset to read several ugly comments about people living on the Southern coastline or people living in an area that was prone to hurricanes...I have seen how it doesn't matter that you are a good distance from the coastline, we are all prone to bad weather. Even if you think you are far removed from the possibility, it's still possible. As I've always said, Mother Nature is not something any of us are immune to facing, no matter where we live. She often makes an appearance, in one form or another, so we should all be compassionate for the victims of such random destruction. At least, in our area, along the Southern coastline states, people are well-versed in the preparations needed for potential hurricanes, but I don't know if some states have an understanding of how far-reaching and devastating these storms can be, even if they are located well beyond the water's edge. I feel for people who could not imagine this storm hitting them so hard.

Here in the South, you never become accustomed to the threat of a hurricane; it never gets easier, but you do learn about survival in a different manner. You develop the wisdom of understanding the intricacies involved with deciding whether or not to evacuate and all that those steps entail...some people don't have the choice because of their jobs. My husband, he's a first responder, if you leave, you come back to find yourself jobless. Other people have jobs who do not feel the weather warrants an extra day of head-start evacuation to avoid the masses who will be clogging the evacuation routes. Some people have such poor health that the travel required will put them in more danger. It's difficult to also shut down a city when the target of the hurricane is often vague until it actually gets close to landfall. Naturally, if you live within beautiful sight of the ocean, that's an easier call to make..high-tail it outta there! But, for those living inland, it's often a decision that is a challenge to face.

My husband's aunt lives in West Virginia, in the Washington D.C. area. She is alone as her husband passed away a few years ago. The storm approached and she found herself suddenly in a house with a large tree slicing through her house and landed on her master bedroom bed that she'd just left. Of course, there's more than just a tree through her house to deal with...all the incoming rains that lasted for hours become the secondary, yet more penetrating disaster for her to confront. She's in her late 70's, so we are thankful that she made it to the neighbor's house to ride out the storm and to find refuge until the area can be confronted. I wish she'd been in the basement from the moment the high winds started, but I don't think she's been through a storm with such a punch as Sandy landed.

For those of you who are out there and suffering from the aftermath of this superstorm, I pray for you. For those of you who have lost someone due to this storm, my sympathies are deep and sorrowful for your suffering. For those of you who are standing in the midst of massive loss which includes the loss of home and personal contents, I do understand that the rebuilding process will take a toll...I pray for you. For those of you who have no electricity or connection with the outside world and are suddenly dependent on a battery-operated radio for information or for word-of-mouth information...we will be waiting for you to rejoin us, and I hope help gets to those people as soon as possible to lessen their hardship.

Time is needed to recover from such a traumatic event. Time, energy, money, infinite patience, neighborly assistance, exhaustion...all of it will be needed to get back on track. For our area, two years after the storm, our neighborhood still had people living with blue tarps attached to their roofs because there had obviously been some sort of hitch with their insurance process. The ability to re-bound after a storm of great magnitude is not so easy. Many people will still be trying to put their lives back together as others are sick of hearing about the storm's devastation. Some people won't have a choice but to keep facing it for a long time.

Again, it's difficult for those who are not living in such devastation to fully grasp the realities...the lack of manpower, the lack of available construction crews, the lack of roofing company specialists, the lack of supplies in stores, the lack of freedom that comes with an area being devastated, the lack of incoming supplies due to damaged roads, the lack of hardware items because everyone needs them all at once...lack is something a storm-ridden area will come understand. But, there is more to be found in the midst of such awful circumstances. Like we discovered, many people will get to know their neighbors better than ever as they try to share their resources and their company. Some will know what it is like to defend their neighborhood as looters try to take advantage of a horrific circumstance. Some will sit huddled together and will laugh at the most inappropriate things because their minds must find some comic-relief in the middle of the pain.

For those of you who eventually are given the blessing to re-join us in blog land, share your stories and just've gone through an ordeal of historic significance. Sandy will not be forgotten.

Times like these make me happy to enjoy simple moments. Enjoy them while you can.


Kathryn Ross said...

A moving and powerful recounting of personal experience in such trauma. I have endured two massive hurricanes, now - Hugo in SC 23 years ago - and now Sandy on the Jersey shore, (with smaller ones in between). Miraculously, the Lord protected us each time for His purposes. Through all the destruction - I pray greater purpose be revealed and joy restored to so many lives and communities affected. Bless you for sharing your stories - hope they prove to encourage others that there is life - albeit altered - after the storm.

Dee said...

We, too, live in a hurricane prone area. We have weathered many hurricanes and hope to weather no more. But, we will not evacuate - too many horror stories of people not allowed back to their homes when they can see them within reach. So, I guess we will stay and if we get blown away - at least it will be from our own home. And as far as the heat and humidity after a storm - words cannot describe it.

LindaG said...

Amen. said...

Kathy - I sure do rememeber hearing about devastating to be subjected to so much natural disaster. It takes great strength to endure such trying times. It's hard for some people to understand the reason we don't all turn and run...some do...but most of us understand that natural disasters are part of our world. I know the Northeast will eventually rebound, but hard times are certainly ahead. i hope they remain patient and know that each step of progress might be slow, but things will get better. Thank you for your kind, uplifting words...from another Hurricane victim who really gets it.

Dee - I can understand the "hunker down" stance because it is scary to leave everything behind when the threat of leaving could be greater than the threat of staying. I guess each person has to decided, on a case by case basis for their own situation. As for us, it seems we have made our decisions for our own reasons. I'd have to see the size of the storm and the tidal surge expectations, if they were more than Hurricane Ike's, I'd be out of here. We still lay low in the house, use furniture to block ourselves from the impact of any broken windows and glass. People in our neighborhood weren't allowed in for days, as we were trapped inside the neighborhood and not allowed to leave our yard. But that was fine with me. And there were looters. One of our friends a few blocks away sat in the dark, in his driveway, with his shotgun (no a/c so couldn't stay inside house) and he caught a couple of guys kicking in the window of a neighbor's house across the street. Needless to say, my friend kept them from doing business as they realized people were on guard around here. It is awful that creeps like that exist. Truth is, the police can't protect a neighborhood during a storm...the houses are evacuated and the criminals have freedom to go at it. I will also choose to say, whenever possible.

Linda - You said it! Amen! May the Lord be with all those who are suffering and keep patience high among those who are being tested. It's not easy to live with the aftermath of such a storm.