Hurricane Michael and the Winds of Fate
“Too bad for those folks, but that’s never going to happen to me”. How many times have you heard that, said that or thought that? I have heard somebody say once we are all just one diagnosis away from not only a bad day, but a changed existence. This past Wednesday, a lot of us in Panama City, Mexico Beach and eastward past Apalachicola Florida, the North Florida Gulf Coast, learned that indeed, it can happen to you.
My Mom’s side of the family has been around Bay County since the late 19th century. Oh, I know what you’re thinking, so stop it. This was not karmic payback and, while we’re at it, get your mind out of the gutter. Anyway, as you may guess, I have seen more than a few tropical weather systems and events. If you have ever seen it rain in Florida, you know what hard rain looks and sounds like, lightning, thunder and all. I showed a guy in Alaska once a video of a pretty wicked thunderstorm and he was surprised. Rain in Alaska is like Windex spray, kind of just a mist. However, in all fairness, they have tsunami waves, earthquakes and really big bears.
Moving along, let’s talk about tropical weather events. What begin as tropical disturbances go on to become “tropical depressions” and from there to “tropical storms” they give proper names to. If everything goes right in the atmosphere, now we have a “tropical cyclone”, otherwise known as a hurricane. These now personalized hurricanes are then graded into categories; 1 through 5. The categories are mostly based on wind speed, as I understand it. For example, a category 5 hurricane must exhibit 10-minute sustained winds of around 158 mph. Stop right here for just a second; 10-minute sustained winds of 158 miles per hour. In most cases these hurricanes progress in intensity as they move across warm salt (ocean) water. The warm water is the primary fuel source for tropical storms. I called Jim Cantore to fact check this stuff, but they told me he was out standing in the water somewhere with a microphone and a cameraman. Let’s commend Jim’s courageous act in saving a fellow news reporter from high winds the other day. That guy hadn’t seen it rain and blow in Florida before I guess. Glad he’s ok and I’ve got it 10-1 on the big board he doesn’t miss that one again.
Now, after the hurricane is confirmed as the real deal, with a proper name and out there on the high seas, the weather folks with PhDs start talking about technical details; millibars, steering factors, shear, wave periods and reach and a lot of other meteorology detail. That’s when most folks sort of tune out and start staring at their phone. One thing cable TV and the internet have done is allowed almost all of us to learn things in snippets and bullet points. The fact that we live in a world where information is available in both scope and quantity in unimaginable magnitude and that a lot of folks still can’t answer even mundane questions is a mysterious paradox for another time.
TV clickers in hand, the Weather Channel becomes the oracle and, like Damocles, we all start calculating where that sword is going. A lot of things in life hang by a thread, some are just most obvious than others. It’s just one of those things you know is coming, just not where and when.
There appears to be an inverse relationship in individual historical memories and the actual mechanics of hurricanes; the storm’s erratic behavior and the actual historical record. For example, check your phone right now and ‘Google’ a storm named simply ‘The Great Hurricane”. That one landed on the coast of the United States in 1780 and was responsible for over 22,000 fatalities. Like closing your eyes for that 1 second left field goal attempt, we quite often believe our psychic powers will turn the storm this way or that. The fact that these storms almost always deviate, we believe, is proof positive of our collective supernatural powers. The big miss is they all end up somewhere, if even to head further to sea to eventually dissipate.
Last Wednesday, our luck ran out and we were staring down both barrels of a major hurricane event. It didn’t deviate, to any large degree, even as we began talking about the spaghetti charts, the European model and even Tarot cards. Luck was not with us this time. This time we faced a weather monster completely beyond our control as well as our understanding.
I found myself in my home with my brother in law. Our wives, their mother and Barry’s daughter bugged out to Lake Martin, Alabama. We had stayed to attend to several restaurants, not wanting to give in and lift our feet from the throttle because we were killing it. In America, more is almost a virtue and is certainly a common aspiration regardless of its’ value. Cost, whether economic, health or otherwise is the asking price for the endless pursuit of more. Even still, we had plenty of time to haul ass but then who would be there in case the race started again in the morning? In the pursuit of more, the obvious endpoint is all, which is impossible to attain.
I was awakened by my daughter at 5 am who was calling to tell me that she, her mother and their household were moving from the beach area to what we call town because it was looking like the storm surge might very well as predicted, maybe worse. It was as advertised but luckily for them it missed by what I would estimate as 15-20 miles, as the crow flies. Don’t get me wrong, I am very grateful that we all, in Panama City, ended up on the western side of Michael. A miss a major league umpire might make calling that low fastball just outside the plate. In short, not by much.
Barry came over around 9:30 am, or so, and we were snug, and smug, as we watched the Weather Channel on the big screen TV with the AC blowing and all was good, if only for a brief moment. The outer bands of Michael started to come ashore, I was making videos of 30 knot gusts and feeling almost as brilliant as I was at 16, the pinnacle of knowledge and wisdom. Then an obvious problem became even more obvious. The power went down, which was expected, along with that wonderful modern convenience, the AC. We were now blind. No more Weather Channel, no more position and track data.
As 30 knots became 50, it kept increasing still. It was game on, a game we were unprepared to play. In very short order, Michael brought it, hard. Although we didn’t know it at the time, we were on the western eyewall of one of the worst, and most powerful hurricanes to strike the United States. By being on the west side of the eye (center of circulation, you can Google that too) we would get the highest winds Michael produced, just not the storm surge, (let’s leave out the science stuff like axial rotation, either ask Cantore or go back to Google). Hurricanes in our hemisphere rotate counterclockwise, so the winds we were getting were from the north. Since the Gulf of Mexico is south of Bay County, that is an important factor even if it’s self-evident.
By 1pm our time (CDT), we were looking out and seeing nothing but white mist blasting past our glass enclosed observation post. The intensity was like something I had never seen before and the mist was really water vaporizing due to the lowest barometric ever recorded and the 150+ wind velocity. I got the feeling we had entered another dimension entirely and tried to Google the stuff about the multiverse but the cell signal, along with every other modern communication device available to us was long gone. I think I could have thrown the iPhone 7, 8 (whatever it is) at least 70 yards, but the throw was against the wind.
We were at the event horizon, if I may borrow that phrase from our physicist friends, and you know what they say about the singularity. Can’t know is the basic premise I think. We watched, as conditions allowed, century old canopy oak trees go down like they weren’t even part of the earth, defying our previously held certainty that that just didn’t happen. This, I believe, was when we recognized that our physical surroundings, our community, would forever be altered. We were taking direct hits from what sounded like large solid objects (they were) on the north side of the house as Michael screamed past us like a Formula One race car. Eventually, that stopped, almost, simply because there was nothing left standing to blow into us. Yes, it was weird.
After the big show, Michael moved off to the north and east and we began to see a bit more clearly and gazed at what had just been obscured by vaporized water. To my eye, I was reminded of images from WWI and the place both sides called no man’s land. As foreign to me as early 20th century France after the Battle of the Somme.
Right there, before our eyes we surveyed an alien landscape. I cannot recall any specific thought, or feeling, except that things I once considered permanent features of my world were forever altered. The reality, or at least my perception of it, was something I couldn’t identify. The shoreline was littered by boats, big and small and the pines trees looked like they have taken airbursts from artillery, snapped 15 to 30 feet from the ground like you see in the movies.
After a hurricane crushes you and your community as it makes its’ way inland, you are left with a deafening silence. All the usual ambient sounds and noise you are so used to having is very notable by its absence. Like turning off the music in a loud and boisterous bar. Everyone just goes silent, uncomfortable without the cover of noise. Often, we can accept things on an intellectual level, yet the emotional acceptance lags far behind. Kind of like the old saying, “you gonna believe me or your lying eyes?’
Luckily, I had Barry and as soon as the night passed, and the sun rose, he began dismantling the damaged garage door, bent up like an 8 iron around a tree, and clearing the debris he could from our path out. He navigated us out of the neighborhood, over all sorts of debris both natural and man-made. We went through yards, empty lots and intersected streets from vacant lots and alleys. Even in mid-October, when the sun comes up so does the heat and humidity. After a couple of days of sweat, dirt and pieces of organic stuff of unknown origin, we smelled like onions with scrambled eggs for brains.
We were lucky, we are lucky. I like to say we are blessed. After hours of doing the zig and zag traveling north, we made our way to our loved ones who were at Lake Martin, Alabama. A few of us made it out but many more are still there. When you take away electricity, potable water, food and fuel even for a day or two, you begin to see cracks in civilized behavior. No debit or credit cards, no stores open and no earthly idea what your kids will have for supper, things get tense very quickly. Even the best and most efficient disaster relief takes time. Time that moves as slowly as you remember the boring Sunday afternoons of childhood.
One of the worst and least accurate forms of evidence is eyewitness testimony. At least it is on TV. My memory is that I witnessed and survived a natural disaster I pridefully, and wrongly, thought I had experience and knowledge of. I had neither. Look at the media coverage of the devastation of the Florida panhandle from Panama City to what they call the Big Bend. I watched some of it from Alabama with a weird sort of detachment with some strong emotions occasionally welling up. I cannot explain it, but I can try and at least give you all reading this my perspective.
I feel for those left behind and pray for the families who lost people and for those who just don’t know. Send your thoughts, prayers and anything that is needed, each to his own ability. Our plans are to provide whatever support we can for our team members, many of which now have no homes to return to. I don’t know exactly how we will do this, but we will figure it out. We are all here together and all we have is time and one another. The material things quickly lose the value you might have believed they had. When you don’t have the necessities of human life, you’ve got trouble. Let’s focus on the important and forget, at least for now, the popular.
God Bless You All………
Postscript: Mrs. Poohs and her bodyguards went yesterday to check the house and the business locations they could get to. When she got back, she asked me if my oak tree forehead wound was caused by the oak branch that breached the north wall into the master bedroom I had slept in. After Barry and I left, somehow, from somewhere, an oak branch pierced the wall and ended up on the pillow where my big head (small brain) had been only hours before. There are no coincidences and I won’t even attempt further comment.