17 September 2017

Road Trip

Shortly before Hurricane Irma struck, I closed shop and ran, thinking Alabama looked pretty desirable as the massive storm trampled South Florida. I’d gassed up a couple of days earlier, fortunate because stations in Orlando and along the interstates had closed for lack of fuel. I came across a full-sized bus (like a tour bus) abandoned on the Interstate, which made me wonder if it had run dry.

I shot north on I-75 fighting rain and high winds. Before hitting the Georgia border, I turned west on I-10 churning as much distance as possible from the hurricane. Past Tallahassee, my gauge read a quarter tank and it had become obvious no place had fuel. News article had mentioned people driving until they ran out of gasoline; I didn’t want to be one of those gamblers.

Angel from Alabama

The first of a series of quiet heroines helped out, an Alabama emergency services operator who monitored shelters not only in her state, but took the time to look up Georgia and Florida as well. With her guidance, I turned back toward Tallahassee and located a refuge in a Baptist Church… closed… but a sign offered directions to a Red Cross shelter in a nearby elementary school. They squeezed me in and gave me a cot. A women lent me a blanket and sheet.

I’d brought Valentine, my 30-year-old cockatoo. His old travel case was long gone, and pet stores and Walmart had been sold out of pet carriers and cages for days. I nested a couple of plastic baskets and later borrowed a plastic kennel from the Red Cross until I could buy a cage.

Through our stay, the pets were universally well-behaved– several dogs, a kitten, a gecko, a fish, and Valentine. A couple of adults could have taken lessons.

Do Unto Others

Bunker living comes with unspoken rules, mainly a duty to intrude upon others as little as possible and likewise ignore annoyances as much as possible. Good citizens don’t notice tetchy babies, major bra adjustments, and peculiar pajama habits. Really, it was okay that one lady chose to spend day and night in her pajamas… there wasn’t much to do anyway. I have little knowledge of other guys, so I never guessed any male past the age of eight wore pajamas. Now that I’ve witnessed man-jammies, I’d consider legislation outlawing them.

Several of us wanted to shampoo, but we encountered an unanticipated problem. Sinks for 1st and 2nd graders are only knee-high to an adult. It just ain’t possible.

Restrooms presented an additional problem. Florida classrooms are built very differently from their northern counterparts. Schools in the cooler north are constructed with indoor corridors and inward-facing rooms, more like a hotel than a motel, where the latter’s room doors open onto a walkway. Florida schools usually take the motel approach with outward-facing rooms opening onto sidewalks. That meant people visiting the loos had to force their way outside and stagger through driving winds and rains. Fortunately, a teachers’ lounge contained a couple of indoor restrooms, so one could choose to queue up or brave the elements.

Can you hear me now?

Unlike Houston, Irma disrupted phone land lines. Cell service and SMS (texts) still remain spotty… sometimes one bar, sometimes zero. The most reliable communications has oddly been wifi, although with so many people using it at once, the internet crawled.

Here the etiquette rules broke down when one hardheaded mother tried to stream Barbie videos while the rest of us simply prayed for email to respond. Worse, she let her daughter play video games on her tablet keeping others awake at three in the morning. As residents and Red Cross volunteers begged her to shut down the racket, she slept– or pretended to sleep. I offered ear-buds, an offer ignored.

Next day, some of the ladies tried a quiet chat with the young mother who pointedly turned her back. Later, those frustrated women were seen stirring a cauldron, chanting into the winds and wearing odd black hats. Soon after, that mother vanished. I’m not saying there’s a connection, but…

Cross at the Red Cross

Another complained loudly and bitterly about the Red Cross, especially that they weren’t feeding us, which seemed strange since they provided coffee, food and snacks 24-hours a day. I think she meant they weren’t offering seafood and chateaubriand, but she became so belligerent, volunteers refused to deal with her without a deputy present. A worker asked if I could speak with my wife– she camped next to my cot. When I explained I didn’t know her, the worker said, “Lucky you!” As soon as the main crisis abated, the sheriff’s department escorted the overstressed woman and her son away, reportedly to a homeless shelter. Potential murder mystery material here.

I don’t know if it’s related, but as I was driving through the fringes of the hurricane, a radio broadcast urged people not to donate to the Red Cross. I don’t know what the hostess’ issues were, but frankly, the Red Cross became my heroes and heroines. Not only did they feed and shelter people, but they cleaned up after us. Criticize the ladies (and men) of the Red Cross, and I have a few words to say about it.

One young father was proactive in cleaning up, getting kids involved and he himself swept up, but as local all-clears were given, nearby residents walked out, leaving the cleanup to volunteers. I discovered most out-of-state Red Cross helpers pay their own way to drive into disaster, deprivation and danger to help others. If that’s not quietly heroic, I don’t know what is.

The Kid in Me

Children liked me mainly because I haven’t grown up. My reply to people who say “You’d make a great father,” is no, I simply make a great uncle.

The young dad who helped with the cleanup was terrific with the kids. On a stage at one end of the auditorium-cum-cafeteria, he organized dodgeball with the kids. Somewhere he found a scaled-down basketball goal, a huge pink dollhouse perhaps 4’ by 4’, and a similarly-sized kitchen cabinet/oven/dishwasher/sink/refrigerator play set. While little girls climbed all over the dollhouse, the boys were a bit frustrated with the lack of boys’ toys except for Star Wars action figures. Then the boys decided the kitchen set sorta, kinda looked like a castle. Thus it became Darth Vaders’s palace quarters.

I’ve now moved into a motel, although phone and SMS problems persist throughout this area. Calls drop, the internet crawls, and text messages arrive jumbled if at all. Minor stuff. People are safe and dry.

But… good news.

Yesterday, I received word power has been restored in my neighborhood. Reports say others on the street received damage including a tree crashing through the roof of the ladies who live opposite me. Fortune may have been with me this time as my house is reputedly intact.

I’ll head home but not before car repair. In the blinding rain on the interstate, I ran over a sailboat or a cow or a 4x4 or something… and it popped loose a fender on my old Acura. Once that’s dealt with, I’ll make the return journey. Gas stations have been getting fuel, although running out by afternoon. At least I won’t have the pressure of a hurricane.

I've gone through Hurricane Andrew and later three devastating hurricanes in a row: Charlie, Frances, and Jeanne. This time, evacuating was the sensible step with such a huge storm and dire predictions. Camping out in my badly damaged house for two weeks in 2004 was bearable, but 13 years later, I was not excited to repeat it.


At least three dozen people have lost their lives in this storm. Those in the Caribbean didn’t have the option Floridians enjoyed to get the hell out of Dodge. It’s easy to forget how fortunate we are. There’s a fine line between a mini-adventure in a hurricane bunker and a catastrophic disaster.


  1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Leigh. Best wishes for a safe return home.

  2. I am so glad you and your cockatoo survived unscathed. Sounds, too, as if you have acquired many potential villains and heroes for your next stories!

  3. What an adventure, Leigh! And like Janice said, much good fodder for stories.

  4. Good hurricane story. I remember Audrey, Betsy, Camille, Katrina, Rita and Gustave. We were the only ones on our block to not evacuate for Ivan.

  5. Leigh, so glad to know you're safe and that (it sounds as if) your home might not be damaged. (Last time I heard from you, I think your plan was to ride things out in Alabama.) Please keep us posted.

    As Paul said, what an adventure!!

  6. Glad you're safe and sound and that your house is (reputedly) okay. Best of luck on the return.

  7. You're very fortunate indeed. Thanks for sharing these stories and these perspectives. A great column here.

  8. Thank you, Richard. Now I hope Maria or whatever follows dissipates before it wreaks too much damage. I can’t complain about Tallahassee… it’s a pretty nice place when the politicians are gone.

    Janice, I was tempted to open with an imagined scene of two of the most obnoxious people dying off, while a little sparrow of an elderly lady tucks away her Miss Marple and fingers her empty digitalis vial.

    Paul, I imagine some of the long-suffering Red Cross heroines might have engaged in wishful thinking. It’s pretty serious when they won’t talk to an inmate… er, resident without a deputy present. The deputy assigned to our center was a nearly 6’ tall, solid woman. The wise wouldn’t mess with her.

    Oh man, O’Neil. You’ve been through the mill. Neither of us should have difficulty coming up with character names– we can simply draw upon hurricanes and tropical storms.

    John, buffeted by winds and rain, I realized I couldn’t make it to Alabama on a single tank of gasoline even with a tail wind, but that ’Bama girl helped save the day by looking up shelters. A couple of miles from my house I noticed many dozens of rail tanker cars on sidings. I had no idea what they were carrying, but it would have been nice if they’d contained fuel. Lack of diesel juice and gasoline has been a major problem throughout.

  9. Quite a story, Leigh. Glad Valentine took good care of you.

  10. Bill, thank you. I know you know a bit of what it’s like. It does keep life interesting.

    Dale, things are gradually working out. Dealing with one issue at a time isn’t the most productive, but it helps me keep track.

    Art, thank you and you’re welcome. I’m grateful Irma wasn’t a whole lot worse.

    Rob, I appreciate it and I’m glad you kept things glued together. Valentine travels surprisingly well. He enjoys the companionship and receives much more attention than normal. He’s quite the flirt with the ladies.

  11. Thank God you're safe, Leigh. And what stories: crises bring out both the best and the worst in people, and I vividly remember an overnight bus trip where (if a poll had been taken) 99% of us would have tossed a certain passenger off, preferably at 60 mph.

    BTW, Southern California schools are set up the same was as Florida ones - all classrooms and restrooms face out to sidewalks, which is great unless there's a bad storm (CA winters are rain, rain, rain) or you want to keep an eye on the kids (by jr. high everyone was out on the blind side of the building smoking - all kinds of stuff).

    Glad you're back on line, Leigh.

  12. Thanks for letting us know you're okay, Leigh. I've been watching your FB page every day to see if someone would update everyone on what happened to you. It sounds like a bit of an adventure, especially in patience with some of those women you had to deal with. I'm glad you're okay. Safe journey home!

  13. Leigh, nice column. You tell a great story. It should get you free drinks in a few writers conference bars.

  14. Eve, “smoking - all kinds of stuff.” Ha. That bus trip sounds like a joy. I gather you didn’t have enough rope and duct tape?

    Vicki, someone once said you shouldn’t marry someone until you’ve played Monopoly. That’s even more true of nursing staffs… hospital stays seem to bring out what’s really inside people. Most people were grateful to have the help and assistance, but that one person seemed to think of the Red Cross members as servants (as opposed to people who like to serve in the helping sense). Facebook would have been a good vehicle for letting people know what’s going on, except for its overhead. Often emails would take several minutes each to load and answer, but Facebook turned out to be very ponderous as the bits of data crept in and the computer patiently tried to paint the screen with what it could. Thanks for checking on me!

    RT, I’d also love to buy the staff a drink… or an entire dinner. I failed to mention a couple of large, extended families had extremely well-behaved children. One family was Asian and the parents were shy, but they took a liking to Valentine. When they eventually let their girls off the leash, they set good examples for the boys.


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