Thursday, September 1, 2011

Just another day in paradise

When it comes to hurricanes, there's both good news and bad news.
The good news is that, unlike some unfortunate forces of nature--like tornadoes and earthquakes--you get plenty of warning when one is headed your way, with what seems like ample time to prepare.
The bad news? You've got plenty of time to worry about it, too, with absolutely no guarantee that any of those preparations will do any good.
In last week's column, I wrote about the beginnings of the worrisome wait that started when the local weather guys got wind of the tropical cyclone named Irene. Now, while I'm probably about as well versed as any midwestern weather-watcher when it comes to tornadoes, thunderstorms, blizzards and ice storms, I was a total tyro when it came to the water-based biggies called hurricanes. We anxiously accepted advice and information from virtually everyone we met. With our stretch of island just five feet above sea level, the danger of flooding was paramount, not to mention the havoc that might be wreaked by 100+ mph winds and double-digit rainfall.
Forecasts varied during the week, and for awhile, it looked like the storm might miss us to the seaward side. But as Irene moved closer, she took a westward jog that, once again, put us right in her path. A mandatory evacuation beginning Friday morning was announced, and we hustled around, doing a bevy of pre-storm chores that included sticking giant X-shaped swaths of duct tape on each and every window to eliminate--as much as possible--shattering glass when the winds hit. We taped cabinets and drawers shut, too, and packed and secured in closets those valuables that we couldn't take with us. We took pictures off the wall, items off shelves and counters, and moved the deck furniture and our gas grill indoors. In preparation for the expected tsunami-like storm surge, I packed, hung and tied down every item in our ground-level garage to prevent them from being swept away by the raging torrent that neighbors told me might sweep through that space.
Assuming a power failure was imminent, we emptied our refrigerator and freezer, pulled the main electrical breaker and turned off the water supply to the house, as well.
Then, finally, we skedaddled, just as one of the first heavy bands of rain and wind began sweeping across our coast.
I felt kind of empty--even guilty--inside, feeling like we were deserting a home that we've come to love in the few short months we've been coming here. But there was nothing we could do.
Unlike the many evacuees who were forced to take shelter in high school gyms and church halls, we were lucky enough, with the help of my hotel-executive niece, to have secured a hotel room in Greenville, North Carolina, just over 100 miles away. That seemed like plenty to me. After all, when you're 100 miles away from a tornado or a snowstorm, you're just as likely to experience a sunny day with no bad weather in sight. I figured it might still be kind of windy and rainy, but not nearly enough to prevent us from visiting friends in the area, and maybe seeing a movie or going out for dinner.
A major hurricane like Irene casts a broad shadow that stretches far beyond its main path. While Greenville is miles inland, it was still buffeted by hours and hours of incredibly heavy, unrelenting rain and swirling, dangerous winds that uprooted trees and damaged homes in every direction. We spent most of Friday night and Saturday monitoring television and online reports, hoping for some word as to the conditions on North Topsail Beach. But no one knew, as the island was deserted all through that stormy night and day.
30 hours later, the sun came out.
A news release from the government of North Topsail Beach said, "The Town is reporting minimal structural damage from the storm."
In a happy bit of circumstance, Irene's power diminished just a little before reaching our shores. Instead of the super-destructive, maelstrom she could easily have been, Irene had fizzled just enough to limit damage to shingles, siding, decks and other relatively minor occurrences.
A friend called Patrick. He had been on the island. Our house was still there. It looked OK.
And really, it was. One window had been pushed outward in its frame by an odd, powerful combination of wind and suction. The entire railing of our top-floor deck tore free, and we sustained some ceiling damage from leaking roof seams. The garage shows signs of a bit of a flood, with traces of sand and other flotsam indicating where a stream of mixed sea and rain water made its way through the front door and out the back.
But there's nothing that can't be fixed, and we are already anxious for things to be back to normal.
We discovered, too, that duct tape residue on window glass is one of the most stubborn materials known to man, resisting all efforts to remove it until someone clued us into the judicious use of the wonder-substance known as WD-40. It will probably take some time before we remember just where we stowed and stored all of our possessions in our haste to protect them in the hours before the storm hit. In fact, one such last-minute storage solution could have produced the weekend's most memorable story.
We had errands to run and friends to see, so Patrick and Susan beat us back to the beach by a few hours on Sunday. He called, shared a preliminary damage report, and noted that he had been to the supermarket to partially replenish our larder, and was planning on fixing some dinner.
A few minutes passed.
She: Quick, call him back.
Me: Whaaa?
She: Tell him not to turn on the oven until he looks inside!
Oh yeah.
One of the last things I did before leaving the house was to disconnect the wireless router that provides our home WiFi. With all of the drawers and cabinets already taped shut, there was just one secure place left.
The oven.
I suppose I could have a returned a piece of parbroiled electronics to our internet provider with some sort of plausible explanation.
But I'm glad I didn't have to.

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