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A whirlwind date – with Hurricane Irene

The tale begins in June 2011 as we started to plan a trip into the Eastern States of America during late August and into September. On our journey we would meet with friends in New Jersey before moving to Williamsburg, Virginia and then to Edisto Island, S. Carolina. To complete the return to Canada we would visit family in Atlanta, Georgia and finish with a short visit to another friend in the northern part of Virginia. Little did we know then just what would unfold in late August.

As our departure date moved closer we had all the vacation stops confirmed. All we had to do now was pack the car and head to the States. Checking the weather through the Internet for the areas we were to visit was a last item on the “to do” list. All seemed fine, except the small warning sign that caught my eye on the S. Carolina page. A tropical depression had formed in the mid-Atlantic area and was flagged for possibly becoming a hurricane. Oh well, I thought, it has a huge area in which it could go – so why would it possibly come my way! So off we set happily looking forward to some R & R and seeing friends.

A couple of days later when we arrived in Berlin, NJ and met with our friends Mary & Lew they greeted us with news about the storm. The tropical depression had strengthened into a tropical storm and was expected to become a hurricane…and was headed for the Eastern States. The way a hurricane develops is classed by the wind speeds around the eye of the storm. As the speeds increase the category level changes, from tropical depression, to tropical storm, to a category 1 hurricane and through to a category 5 hurricane. This storm had been named Irene and the track was becoming more certain to have some impact on the areas we had chosen to visit.

S. Carolina was being spared from the main onslaught but N. Carolina and parts of Virginia and into New Jersey were in the path of the hurricane. We helped Mary & Lew with some of the early preparations. We checked their emergency supplies and made a list of things to buy. Water, candles, flashlights & batteries, food items that didn’t need cooking and so on. Then we headed to join the line ups in the stores. It took more than 3 hours to do the shopping, far longer than normal such was the demand for these items. It was all good-natured and calm in the stores. There was certainly no real panic from the public, just an air of expectation. After our return to their home we placed the emergency equipment strategically around the rooms.

The television was tuned to the weather channel almost permanently. The news came that Cape Hatteras in N. Carolina was going to be the landfall point for the now level 3 hurricane and this was directly south of our present location. It was estimated to be about 24 hours until it was upon us but the level would be reduced to 2 by then. Our next destination was also almost due south, between the hurricane and us. Things didn’t look good for the next stage of our vacation.

The next day Lew and I started to make the outside as safe as possible. All the small moveable objects, flowerpots, garden ornaments and the like were brought into the garage. Then we secured the deck furniture and the BBQ to the deck railings. We didn’t want a repeat of Dorothy’s problems in “The Wizard of Oz” with falling debris landing on somebody!! Already the wind was becoming stronger and the showers heavier and longer. The trees in the small wooded area at the back of the house were starting to sway and shake. Nothing we could do about them except pray for them all to stay upright over the next 24 hours.

By early evening Irene had hit Cape Hatteras and the forecast indicated that the “eye” of the storm had deflected slightly northeast and so it would no longer pass directly over us. Its path would be just offshore from Atlantic City some 20 miles east of us. We told Mary & Lew of a time in 2006 when we were visiting the island of Kyushu in Japan when a category 3 typhoon, the Pacific name for a hurricane, passed about 100 miles from the island. The windows shook and rattled ferociously and seemed to bulge with the pressure. Trees were blown down and some roofs damaged. So being this much closer made us wonder what was going to happen. Their home was built far more sturdily and had double-glazed windows plus the roof was differently constructed to the smaller houses in Kyushu.

The wind was now very strong and I’m sure howling through the trees at the back. Night was upon us and so we couldn’t see out and the double-glazed windows kept out most of the sound. We could see the rain was extremely heavy and constant. We watched the weather news and saw the reporters struggling to stand as they gave eyewitness accounts of the hurricane passing through. Rather them than me. At 10:30pm we lost hydro and were pitched into total darkness. Where had we put the flashlights? A quick check around to make sure that fridges & freezers were tight shut and that the pump in the basement was working alright under emergency battery power and we decided to try to get some sleep in case anything else happened during the night.

I woke at 5:30am and found Lew checking round again. It was still dark but the wind noise was quite loud now, even inside. We could see the rain still relentlessly teeming down and hoped that the drains around the house were coping with that much water. We manage to make some coffee on the gas stove and sat talking while we waited for the dawn to give us a glimpse of the outside world. Gradually we could see more and more and the trees at the back were really bending and swaying viciously. None had come down within our sight range, which was heartening. Lew had purchased a windup radio and we managed to find a local station. The hurricane was down to a level 2 (around 100mph) and just offshore slightly NE of Atlantic City. So it had passed us by a few miles and was now heading for New York. We knew that the anti-clockwise winds would still be affecting us for another 6 hours or so but had the worst passed already?

There was still no power in the house but the gas stove was working so breakfast was taken and we all felt a little more relieved at riding out the storm so far. The heavy swirling clouds raced across the skies but the rain was abating gradually. The deck was strewn with small branches and twigs from the trees but nothing of a dangerous size. The gardens were very wet from the immense amount of water that had fallen during the 24-hour period. We chanced a quick visit outside but were amazed that the winds were still very very strong and we quickly dashed back in again. No heroics needed…just common sense. Around 3pm the power came back on and we checked around again to make sure we’d turned all the lights off. The power had been off for just over 16 hours but later we learned that for some folks it had taken many days to get theirs back on.

As the storm headed further NE other areas suffered some terrible devastation and fatalities and so we can count ourselves fortunate to come away so unscathed. Our journey to the next destination showed how many trees had been brought down along the way. Many people were deprived of more that just a power loss and a days loss to part of a vacation. We were lucky and thank Mary & Lew for having a well-built house and for the fact that we were kept safe. Nature is beautiful in many ways but it is also very powerful and should never be taken for granted.

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