Monday, May 11, 2009

In the Eye of the Storm

We got our first clue that things might be getting a little, well, intense, when we flipped on the car radio.  We were in Carbondale Friday morning to attend daughter-in-law Geri’s graduation ceremony, where she received her Ph.D. In sociology from Southern Illinois University.  They were really looking forward to the trip, having moved from there last summer to Moorhead, Minnesota, where she is an assistant professor at Minnesota State University and son Colin is an executive chef.  Moorhead is located just on the other side of the river from Faro, North Dakota.
That’s right, Fargo. Home of the great flood of 2009.  After a winter filled with raging blizzards and -30 temps, and a spring made famous by icy, 42-foot flood waters courtesy of the now-famous Red River of the North, they were anticipating a fun-filled weekend that would include a chance to enjoy some real spring weather, plus visits with the many friends they made during Colin’s time as an undergrad at SIU and, later, when they returned for Geri’s graduate work and Colin’s continuing career as a chef in several of the area’s coolest restaurants.  Colin had even published his proposed dining guide on Facebook, where he listed all the places they’d hit while in town.  About the only thing they wouldn’t have time to enjoy was a chance to go camping, which was one of his favorite things to do when he lived in the area.
We arrived late in the day on Thursday and awoke Friday morning to rainy, windy conditions.  Geri had an appointment, so she headed in one direction, while Colin, the grandkids, Megan and I headed for the mall to wait out the rain.  After an hour or so, the storm let up, with the sun even peaking through the clouds a bit.  So, we left the shelter of the mall and headed for our morning’s destination, Makanda, a tiny, mostly forgotten town tucked in a valley in the middle of Giant City State Park, which fills most of the area south of Carbondale.  Makanda is home to a thriving arts and crafts movement, and Megan and I were looking forward to a chance to do a little looking and shopping in the several small shops that inhabit an old boardwalk in the downtown area.
We were driving through the winding, up-and-down road that goes to the town when the wind started picking up again.  
“Turn on the radio,” I said to Colin. “Let’s see what they’re saying about the weather.”
The voice we heard was that of a local radio weatherman.  He sounded kind of confused.  And more than a little concerned.  He was saying that he had never seen storm quite like the one that was now in the vicinity, a comma-shaped front with an actual “eye” producing a brief lull that would soon be replaced by heavy rain and winds in excess of 90 to 100 miles an hour.
In other words, we were about to experience a heckuva storm.  One that would later be officially designated as an “inland hurricane.”
We decided the safest course would be to head back to town.
Rain was falling and the winds were picking up when we finally climbed out of the valley and onto U.S. Highway 51, the one “main” road that travels into Carbondale from the south.
Then it hit.
I live in Galva, so I’ve seen my share of high winds and bad weather.  But I’ve never experienced a storm of such intensity, especially while riding in a car.  With high winds buffeting the car and the air filled with small debris, we finally pulled over and stopped at a county-road intersection, along with several other vehicles, as we gaped at a veritable wall of wind and rain that was approaching. 
We could do nothing but sit, watching in awe as the wind plucked trees from the ground in the woods on both sides of the highway.  A power pole across the intersection from us suddenly sagged, leaving wires draped over the road.  The car rocked violently, as we waited and prayed.
Gradually, the intensity of the wall of wind subsided a bit.  
“We need to get back to Carbondale,” said Colin, who, of course, was thinking and worrying about Geri.  But that was easier said than done, as every path heading north proved to be blocked, either by fallen trees and branches or utility poles, and even by a flooded creek that washed out the road.  We spent a couple of hours attempting to find a clear route, all the while trying to reach Geri via cell phone, which proved fruitless and did nothing to improve Colin’s state of mind.  The car radio told stories of massive damage to Carbondale and the areas to the east and north, which, of course, was exactly where Geri was headed when she left in the morning.
We finally heard from a friend of theirs who had a better cell phone connection.  Geri was safe, and just heading back into Carbondale. She would meet us at the friend’s apartment.
Enough time had passed that hustling crews had cleared portions of highway 51, so we were finally able to pick our way back into the south edge of the city.  Along the way, we saw mile after mile of uprooted trees and utility poles, along with houses and barns torn apart by the wind.  
Not long after we reached the apartment, Colin and Geri were reunited.  She had her own story to tell, having spent time in the basement of the business she was visiting, followed by an extra-slow trip to town on a highway filled with fallen trees and, even, a semi that had been blown over on its side.  The power was out throughout the city, and still is.
Megan and I found our way out of town later that day and headed home with our granddaughter. Our grandson spent the night with a high school friend, while Colin and Geri, determined to get some enjoyment out of the 16-hour drive from Moorhead to Carbondale, planned to hole up with their friends in their darkened apartment.  But then, in a flash of inspiration and with an attitude that says, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” they did something else.  Something that didn’t require electricity or open-for-business restaurants.
They went camping.

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