Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Chapter Thirty-Four

All day Scott and Sissy have been listening to the solar radio while they do their chores. They keep it in the sun where it can maintain its charge, but they also have several rechargeable batteries prepared, as well as a second radio that operates on a crank dynamo just in case. And they have neighbors coming by to listen from the other side of their privacy fence.

It started as a typical tropical wave off of Cape Verde, Africa. As it moved westward it turned into a tropical storm, and received its name - Edouard. And then it became a hurricane, rapidly intensifying to Category 5 strength. But at that point it was still well out in the Atlantic and nearly 1,000 miles from any land. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) frantically tracked its movements to try and give the public as much warning as possible in case it made landfall. They nearly lost a NOAA plane and its crew doing so. No one could say for sure what it is going to do. The track is very wide and its strength makes it unpredictable.

As the day progresses the hurricane loses some of its strength when it scrapes the Caribbean, passing over Guadeloupe, the Leeward Islands, and St. Croix, weakening to a category 3 when it makes a brief landfall at Vieques, Culebra, and the eastern tip of mainland Puerto Rico, while undergoing an eyewall replacement cycle (ERC). The storm continues to weaken after leaving the warm waters of the Caribbean to a category 2. But any hope that it will dissipate all together is short lived as it quickly re-strengthens when it passes over the Gulf Stream. Five days after leveling Montserrat, Edouard smacks head long into the East Coast of the USA.

Originally forecast to come ashore in Savannah, Georgia the storm takes a belated northeast turn towards Charleston, South Carolina. The storm makes landfall at a place called McClellanville, South Carolina late in the evening as a category 4 hurricane with 135 mph winds.

The family listens to the reports coming in from all over the Caribbean and the East Coast, detailing the destruction and the response - or lack of response - of rescue operations.

The Caribbean, except for a very few privately owned islands, has reverted to very primitive facilities since the pandemic began. Most island infrastructures have collapsed so accurate reports on loss of life is the subject of much debate. Several mass graves have been noted, but it is unknown if these are truly victims of the hurricane, pandemic flu victims who were recently buried, or cadavers that were washed out of existing cemeteries. On Montserrat, 90 percent of all buildings are reported destroyed, but again, the veracity of the statement is unknown as civil unrest was severe in the opening days of the pandemic and continues in the aftermath of the hurricane damage. Heavy rains have caused severe flooding in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Nearly 30,000 people are reported to have been made homeless as a direct result of the hurricane. There is no infrastructure or international aid in operation to affect ready resettlement for these victims.

Scott and Sissy are horrified by the newest reports of extensive damage in Charleston, South Carolina. Many barrier islands where some people retreated to as a way to control their exposure to panflu are completely cut off from the mainland. Bridges are down. Boats have been pushed inland. A twenty-foot storm surge is said to have wiped some islands completely clean of all buildings, roads and inhabitants making them appear virginal and newly risen from the ocean. In addition to the storm surge along the coast, inland areas are reporting in excess of 10 inches of rainfall.

Federal services are already stretched too thin to address the pandemic, much less suddenly expand to address hurricane relief. There is no significant Salvation Army or Red Cross presence to go to the aid of residents, having collapsed months ago due to lack of volunteers and physical resources. Local services tried to get the warnings out to the public in the days preceding the storm’s landfall, but lack of electrical services - which means no television or radio for most people - prevented the warnings from reaching everyone, especially those in isolated rural settings. Staff from local law enforcement agencies and fire department personnel went street to street with megaphones trying to encourage people to evacuate with only limited success. Two hundred and fifty thousand should have evacuated, but it now appears less than half that number did. Some mass transit and school buses were pulled into service to get people out but some of the transports broke down or ran out of gas before reaching their drop off points. Most people wanted to know where they were supposed to go with no public shelters? Would their homes be looted if they left and couldn’t get back?

It was fortuitous that the worst of Edouard’s fury is spent over a sparsely populated rural area of South Carolina near the Frances Marion National Forest. After the storm, hundreds of trees are found shorn off at the 15 to 20 foot level. Everywhere streets are reported strewn with mangled debris and household goods. There are also bodies amongst the flotsam.

The storm did not just hit coastal areas. . Berkely County - 80 miles inland - reports wind gusts to 120 mph. Even 200 miles inland the storm still packs winds up to 100 mph. Charlotte, NC was the next major metropolitan area ravaged.

As the Chapman family and their neighbors listen, the State of Virginia is reporting torrential rainfall and Sissy thinks of her cousin Sadie and whether she and her family are safe. Their roads flood in snow melt. How will they fair at the hands of a tropical storm? The last weather report has the storm heading north towards Canada. All everybody in the neighborhood can think is "that could have been us" followed closely by "are we next?"

"Wowee. That coulda been us." Barry exclaims.

"Yeah. We do not need those kinds of problems. Besides all of the obvious stuff like people suffering, I’ve got a list twice as long as my arm of delayed maintenance items that would make a storm hit that much worse. That second-story roof over on 13th keeps me up at night. We can only patch it so much. Another bad storm and I don’t know what’ll happen." Scott adds with a weary sigh.

"Only can do so much. I still can’t believe that chick was letting her kids climb on the roof in the first place. They were just sitting up there pulling up shingles when we drove up."

"Don’t even get me started. Man, don’t get me started. Its like no one cares anymore as long as their kids aren’t bothering them. Johnnie can get going sometimes when he is restless and needing to burn off some energy, but I’d never let him climb on the roof, much less start destroying the freaking house!"

"Yeah, my granddaughters can drive me buggy on some days. It’s actually been a relief to be able to get out even if we are working like mad men and sweating like pigs. I don’t see how my Serena and Ann do it."

"Yeah, Sissy isn’t looking too good lately either. I don’t think it’s the kids though, at least she says it isn’t. She is the only one in the house that didn’t get sick – you know back when everyone else did – but she is the only one that hasn’t seemed to recover. I’m getting worried. I’m thinking about seeing if there is a private clinic where she can go for a check up or something. Her dad started having heart problems in his 40’s. I don’t even want to think about what could be going on with her." Scott says with a deeply pensive look on his face.

"Don’t put the cart before the horse son. It don’t look that bad and we aren’t going to let it get that bad. You want Serena to talk to her, in case, you know, its female stuff?" Barry offered.

"Sissy is pretty up front about that stuff with me, but yeah, see if Serena will talk to her but tell her not to say that it will get back around to me. Sissy might put up a front so I don’t find out how bad she is feeling. I already know, but if Sissy thinks it is something in particular, she isn’t saying. I need to know if there is something I can do about it."

"Come on Hoss. I’ll finish this, you pack up. I got a line on a job from a man Serena used to work with. He needs some stuff hauled and it sounds like he doesn’t care what happens to it so long as it gets gone. Might be something in there worth our trouble."

Scott agrees and starts loading tools back into the van all the while thinking, "God I don’t know what I’d do if something happens to her."

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