The older I get the more I worry about the important things, the life changers. Buying my first house marked the start of this new look at values. From then on, the prospect of being sent by my newspaper to Nags Head when hurricanes threatened no longer stimulated the adrenalin of adventure. Now, I hoped someone else would get that assignment. The prospect of losing my own home took all of the fun out of looming disasters.
Fun was in very short supply the second week of September, 2003, as my community braced itself for the arrival of the season's biggest hurricane, a category five monster raging across the Atlantic on an arc that included Virginia in its landing zone. We'd been threatened by other hurricanes since my move to Gloucester in 1978, but none had given us more than a light brush before arcing up the coast and back out to sea. The forecasts for this one, dubbed "Isabel" by the National Weather Service, offered no such comfort. The storm's predicted track never wavered as the hurricane's rotating mass of lethal winds closed in on our coast.
For the first time since I'd bought the house I screwed sheets of plywood into the window frames. My wife and our kids arranged to stay with friends up-county from our lowland neighborhood, which invariably experienced some flooding during heavy rains. With the storm's landfall imminent, my editors assigned me to spend the night at a local firehouse to report how the volunteers coped with potential catastrophe. We herded our six or seven cats into the house before we abandoned it for the night.
My world flipped upside down and around and around the night of Sept. 18 as I lounged on a cot in the firehouse trying to make sense of the crackling radio chatter from the county's emergency dispatcher. One of the calls began to dominate our attention as it developed into a harrowing narrative of a family stranded on the roof of their house as floodwaters rose around them. The house was less than a mile from mine.
I rode with the ambulance crew that headed out to rescue them. We followed a ladder truck that tried to lead us through a flooded intersection as we neared the stricken family. The fire truck couldn't get through, so we had to turn back. An Army National Guard vehicle with a higher wheel base tried, as well, and failed. Eventually a sheriff's deputy and a state trooper reached the family by wading through rushing water that reached their armpits. They'd gotten near the floating rooftop in a small boat, which they used to bring the family to safety.
Next morning the sun was out and the air was still. Isabel had moved inland and away from us. When the tide went out and the flooding receded from the major roads, I headed home, my stomach sick with dread over what I might find. We'd received reports by then of entire homes in my neighborhood swept away into the York River during the night. Utility trucks, many of which had come from neighboring states and as far as Georgia, blocked the end of my road. Falling trees had pulled power lines down, and this debris had to be cleared before I could get home.
When at last the road was clear, sometime that afternoon, my dread grew exponentially with each house I passed toward the other end of the road, where we lived. Relief whooshed out in a massive sigh when I saw our little bungalow still standing and apparently undamaged.
Floodwaters had risen to within a hair of entering the house through our front door. The cats, scared but safe, feigned indignation. I lost manuscripts and books from my office in a converted garage, and the flooding had ruined some heirloom photos and garden and lawn equipment in another outbuilding. We were without power several days, and the cleanup took weeks. We've moved since to higher ground, but years later some families were still living in FEMA trailers in the old neighborhood.
Hurricane Isabel at our door - 2005
A week before Isabel, I wouldn't have thought I could handle even this relatively minor disruption of our lives. That we did, that we adapted overnight to an uprooting of our equanimity and that we coped and got on with our lives has given me a new comfort of mind I wouldn't have imagined before then.
I've returned to a softer, more comfortable life. I don't want to have to go through something like Isabel again. Yet, I feel more confident now that should some unthinkable mishap decide in its whimsy to pay another visit I might once more find the resources within to abide.
This true story is included in the collection If the Woodsman is Late, copyright 2012 by Mathew Paust. Click on title for more information.