Monday, March 3, 2008

Chapter Forty-Two

Beep . . . beep . . . beep

Beep . . . beep . . . beep

The broadcasters in your area in voluntary cooperation with Homeland Security, the FCC and other authorities have developed this system to keep you informed in the event of an emergency. This is not a test.

Beep . . . beep . . . beep

Beep . . . beep . . . beep

They have been hearing that signal off and on since yesterday. Hurricane Josephine, now a category 4 storm, has been wreaking havoc on the west Gulf Coast for the last two days. The storm began as a mild tropical wave off of the coast of Africa. Originally it was moving west so quickly that everyone expected it to remain disorganized and be ripped apart by wind shear. However, as it moved through the Greater Antilles it slowed down and began to strengthen, turning into a tropical depression when it was between Haiti and Cuba. After paralleling the northern coast of Cuba it became a tropical storm. After getting into the warm, open waters of the Gulf of Mexico it too less than 24 hours for it to become a hurricane.

It was making a beeline for Mississippi when it suddenly slowed and stalled out due to a frontal trough of low pressure that turned the storm to the northeast. But when the trough outran the storm, steering currents collapsed leaving behind a stalled, strengthening hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico.

No one is quite sure which way this storm is going to go. It is nearly stationary. Rainfall totals are currently ranging from about one inch down in Key West, FL to over ten inches and rising in Manatee Springs State Park in Chiefland, FL. The outer bands of the storm are producing some strong tornadoes and several trailer parks have reported bad damage across a wide area, including two to the immediate north and one to the immediate south of the Chapman’s neighborhood. Pinellas County has been dealing with storm surge as has the entire shoreline of Tampa Bay. The last tide is reported to be seven feet above normal in the Bay, which means lots and lots of flooding and property damage all along the coast and intracoastal waterways.

There are areas of Pinellas County that have already become islands form rainfall alone, cut off from the rest of the county by more than 5 feet of water where drainage ditches and pumps are clogged and inoperative. Intersections are impassable, even if you are crazy enough to be out in the weather and give it a try. All of the Bay bridges are shut down due to high winds, further cutting off Pinellas. Major damage is being reported on the Howard Franklin Bridge and the Memorial Causeway. There are a large number of wash outs along the Intercoastal Waterways.

MacDill AFB has at least two feet of standing water all along the water way that surrounds the base. Any grounded jets and other aircraft have been tied down or moved into storm resistant hangers. Not much other information is coming in from the base.

Bayshore Drive is almost totally flooded out. All of those retirement condominiums and expensive homes facing the water always have been a disaster waiting to happen. Palmetto Beach and Hooker’s Point, two areas immediately adjacent to the Port of Tampa, are suffering appalling flooding. Because of the low-lying topography, any flooding reaches very far inland. What makes it worse is that these areas have traditional areas of town where the working poor lived. They were seeing significant revitalization during ’06 but the ’07/’08 real estate bust quickly ended the trend.

All major roadways are under flood advisory. Many secondary roadways are impassable. There have been several reported roof collapses in some commercial strip centers and warehouses in the business districts. Downtown Tampa is completely flooded and the Channel 10 news building has been evacuated. Davis Island is completely cut off and that means that Tampa General Hospital will likely suffer significant damage.

Several schools, formerly used as hurricane evacuation locations, were converted to panflu treatment facilities. Now hurricane evacuees have no place to go. Not only that, the close environments of the typical evacuee facility is totally against the strict social distancing protocols that are in effect. Some churches, not strictly approved as evacuation locations, have opened their doors but are asking people to bring food and water to share as they have nothing to offer but a roof and a dry place to lay down.

So far the part of the Hillsborough River that runs through parts of Tampa, Temple Terrace is not flooding. There are a few flooded homes, but this is due mostly to people who refused to take advantage of the natural flood resistant areas when they were building. Outside of the city and into the outer parts of Hillsborough County it is another story. The Alafia River and the Little Manatee River are swollen and are expected to crest somewhere around 10 feet above flood stage. In the north of the county, the Hillsborough River, at Morris Bridge road, will likely crest at two feet above flood stage and at Zephyrhills the river it will be four feet above flood stage.

Scott, Sissy, and their kids are suffering through the storm like everyone else. So far there has been no major damage that they can tell. Scott and Sissy do have to struggle out into the storm when wind driven debris is tossed into their yard or thrown against their fence. Several people must have tried to set their rain barrels up to catch water as some barrels have rolled down the road and smashed against their house. These they brought in to save damage and to see if they could be returned to their owners later on. With this wind those types of mistakes are foolhardy and will cost plenty. As the wind really began to whip that first day, Scott and James decide to go ahead and bring in everything – including the bathtubs they are using as raised gardening beds. It is a wet and muddy mess, but when the winds really start howling in the night, they are thankful to have already had the task out of the way.

Scott also closes all of the security shutters on the rear of the house and re-boarded the remainder of the windows they had been forced to open because of the heat. The security shutters are on the outside to prevent window breakage, but the makeshift security boards on the rest of the house are on the inside. So far no broken windows, but they can’t count on that staying true. If they do lose a window, Scott has some Plexiglas to patch the hole, but they’ll have to watch for wind-driven water damage until he can get it repaired.

As the storm progresses they lose a screen off of one of the windows and a screen is torn on the lanai. Scott has an extra screening in the shed for the window, but Sissy figures the lanai is going to require some darning and ingenuity to fix. Their pool’s water level, that has been down over two and a half feet, is now nearly over flowing. Water is pouring in from the rain, water off the roof, and water that has swamped the backyard. For now, the canals, ponds, retention areas, and lakes that surround their neighborhood are taking all the rain and holding up. Only one subdivision close to them is being threatened. Tiffany Lakes is an upper scale neighborhood that has had consistent problems with flooding over the last 10 years. There are no pumps to help this time and no place to pump the water to even if they could.

Scott is worried about their septic field collapsing. He does not want anyone in the yard barefooted until things are dried out and he can tell whether anything has started bubbling up or if something nasty has been washed into the yard. Actually he wants everyone to use rubber goulashes until he says otherwise just to be on the safe side. Sissy thinks it is a good idea if for no other reason than it will keep gross stuff from being tracked inside. The outside disinfection station that they had built at the first sign of the pandemic has really come in handy. Most of their family takes showers outside now rather than make a muggy mess inside. This way, so long as it is muddy outside, they’ll clean up before coming inside to keep from tracking anything in. That is if the privacy fence walls make it through the storm intact.

When the wind really starts to kick it up a notch, Scott and Sissy move their family into the center of the house where there is a bathroom that does not have any windows. They bring a couple of twin mattresses to reinforce their protection as well as some plastic sheeting in case the ceiling begins to leak, although they hope it is unlikely as there is a double roof over this portion of the house from a previous building addition. They move all the linens out of the closet and load it as full of food and dry goods as they can manage and even put stuff in the bathtub underneath a sheet of plywood. The kids all go to sleep in there with the walls blocking the sound of the storm raging, while Scott and Sissy prowl around the house.

"I wonder how Barry, Tom, and their families are holding up," Sissy whispers, to keep from waking any of the kids.

"They should do OK. Both are solid men and they have done as much storm prep as we have. Tom doesn’t have any trees in his yard except for some small citrus trees. The rest is just greenery. Barry has that one big tree, but he has been pruning it all year to cure wood for cooking fuel. We’re the ones with too many dang trees in the yard. I know we are bound to lose that long, tall oak that has started leaning," replies Scott just as quietly.

"At least it is leaning away from the house. But if it falls it will block the road."

"Well, its not like there are too many people out driving."

"Funny dear. Ha ha. Seriously though, are you worried about any of the rental properties? I know you all spent as much time as you could at them, but with delayed maintenance items to deal with and few supplies …" Sissy’s own concern is reflected in her tone of voice.

"I’m worried about all of them; especially that one out on 113th street. That area floods in a bad rainstorm if they don’t have the pumps going. You really think they are going to be able to keep the pumps going during a hurricane?"

"We’ve done good to keep things up as well as we have. You and the guys are breaking your backs to make things better every time you go out. There is only so much we can do. You aren’t superman. "

Before Scott can reply they hear an audible crack from the front of the house and peek out to see that the top of an oak that stood in their neighbor’s yard has snapped off and landed in their driveway, just missing one of their grapefruit trees. As the last of the weak light leaves the sky, Scott and Sissy bolt the door and retreat to spend the remainder of the night watching over their children. Goodness only knows what they are going to find come morning.

A couple of days later Sissy finds it easier to recount their storm damage in a letter to her cousin than she did trying to tell her parents, who she luckily reached via email on the laptop the morning after the storm passed through.

Dear Sadie,

I don’t know how reliable the information is that is getting out. All our news here is local. We aren’t even hearing much from the state level. All the national and international news has been run off the air by the storm coverage. To be honest I’m not even sure when or if this letter will make it out. But, with nothing but extremely intermittent power and downed phone lines as far as the eye can see, I’m trying to let family know what has happened with whatever resources I can scrounge up.

First off, our family is very lucky to have the solar battery re-charger we originally bought for camping. And, I’m glad Scott went ahead and got the bigger one than the one that I was willing to make do with. It helps keep the cell phone and lap top batteries charged. The DSL lines are still operating, as are the Fios lines but sometimes a connection is still hard to get. A couple of cell towers have been lost, but you can still get a line if you sit and try over and over and over again to get past the busy signals. We’ve left messages and email for those we can; but, like us, many people are dealing with lost or intermittent services.

Scott and a lot of the men (and women) in the neighborhood have been doing their best to get all of the roof repairs dealt with around here. No one that we know lost their whole roof though there are news reports of some that were caused by tornadoes a little north of the county line. No one in our neighborhood even lost any roof decking, but there are some torn shingles and ripped away gutters. A couple had their ridge vents damaged and lots of folks have minor soffit and fascia damage. We are lucky, no outright leaks, but the rain was blowing so hard at one point that it was blowing into our ridge vents. As a result, the back bedroom ceiling got pretty wet as did all of the insulation immediately above that room.

We’ve removed all of the wet insulation and opened windows and attic accesses to try and get things dried out. We rigged up a kind of pulley system with an old bike and fan so we can keep the air circulating up there. Hubby is trying to locate a spare car battery that we can alternate with the van charging them to use with a power converter we have. If we can do that then we can stop taking turns pedaling the bike. The heat and humidity is so bad we can only take 10 minute shifts or we risk heat exhaustion.

Everything is just so humid. I made up a chlorine solution from the pool chemicals we had left over and sprayed the rafters and the underside of the roof decking so hopefully we won’t have to deal with mold and mildew on top of everything else. Boy, does that stuff smell. I was wearing one of Scott’s painting respirators and I still got dizzy. We had to evacuate the house for a couple of hours just to let things air out. We all sat in the backyard and drinking warm blackberry shrub and swatted the mosquitoes.

There are several downed trees on our street. Even if there was fuel for the chainsaws, there aren’t any replacement chains and even Scott’s are nearly too thin to sharpen one more time. Everyone is getting a real work out with hand saws, axes, and hatchets, cutting limbs and trees – some really huge – down into lengths that can be stacked for drying and curing. We lost one good-sized oak in the front yard and had two more large pieces of trees land in our driveway. Thankfully, the trees didn’t strike anything important, but they made a hideous mess to clean up.

All of the canals, lakes, and ponds flooded around here and are still well above normal, but no one that we know was flooded out. A few came close, but nothing got in the house. The family that lives directly across the street from us is sitting on their back porch fishing for their dinner in what used to be a rose garden.

We did have one of our rental properties flood. In fact, the whole area where the house is located flooded because the city failed to keep the pumps on. It could have been worse. The water didn’t get above the baseboards and that saved the walls. Scott just had to rip out all of the carpet and padding and most of the linoleum had to come up as well. The tenant is just grateful that she still has a place to live. She said that a concrete floor is easier to sweep than carpet anyway. Thank goodness for realistic people.

Get this. Scott had wondered how to get rid of all the wet carpet and stuff when the tenant said just to leave it because someone would steal it eventually. Hard to believe, but that is exactly what happened. What on earth would people want with old carpet padding and rolls of drenched carpet? The smell alone would knock a skunk out.

Several of our other units came close to flooding and there is some roof damage at various units, but nothing catastrophic. Scott and his crew have been dividing their time between our properties and our neighbors’ houses. There is more work than you can shake a stick at and they’ve got requests that will take them ‘til next Juvember to fill if they could take all of the work orders. We keep wondering where are all the itinerant workers and self-employed people that did this before the pandemic.

The scary part is that of those people who have been paying their homeowner’s insurance, few are getting any response back from their policy carriers, us included. Lawmakers have stepped in to try and help but they aren’t making much headway either. There is something bad looming. We already knew that the life and health branches of the insurance industry have all but collapsed, but now the property insurance companies look to be going the same way. I’ve heard that even Lloyd’s of London is not paying out. Thank goodness we planned for a lot of self-insuring, but we had still hoped that we were over-reacting. We may still be in a shortfall. I have no idea if we’ll receive the recompense we insured for.

Another thing, I think we are going to be in trouble this winter if people are counting on their citrus fruit. A lot of the small, green fruits were knocked off the trees by the ferocious wind and rain. That’s not the worst of it. A lot of people’s gardens are wrecked. We didn’t lose too much that was not about ready to give out anyway since we bring in all of our containers every night. Some of the stuff I had in the landscaping took a beating, but I don’t plant anything there that isn’t really hardy. I’ve had to reset some plants, but overall the damage to our garden efforts is mild, if not exactly minor.

Our chayote vine was shredded by the wind. The entire backyard except were we built the raised beds had ankle deep water. Its still early enough in the season that we can replant, but folks will need seeds to do so. I haven’t replanted with my seedlings yet because there is still muddy places in the yard.

As far as the path the storm took, the eyewall never came any closer than 60 miles off of Tampa Bay. It finally got going north again and made landfall at Biloxi, Mississippi but it had dropped to a minimal category 2 by that time. Even so, not much info is coming out of Biloxi. They really didn’t need this. I think Josephine is down to a Tropical Wave again and is somewhere near Kentucky. My family up there say they’ll welcome the rain as they desperately need it.

Hope you and yours are still doing well. We’ve been Blessed and wish the same for you all. I’d best get up and get going as the laundry hasn’t learned to wash itself yet and there is a ton of it to do.

Your Florida Cousins

After finishing the letter Sissy asks Scott if they are going to listen to the radio. She is pretty sure the next Devon McLoud segment is supposed to be aired tonight.

As the family listens to the news, they find that weather isn’t just an issue in their neck of the woods. Many geographical regions are experiencing weather phenomena that are no longer mitigatable because of the lack of municipal utilities such as water and electricity.

Devon McLoud’s latest installment highlights the cascading and sometimes unusual effects of this. He reports that while in Colorado observing one of the new "neighborhood schools" during recess for a completely different story, one of the adult sentries guarding the complex made a signal and the teachers and older children quickly shepherded the younger children back indoors and closed all the doors and windows despite it being a warm day.

As I stood wondering what was going on, one of the young men acting as sentry ran over and told me to follow him. He rushed me back up into his sentry tower – one of a series of armed hunting blinds erected at the four corners of the school yard.

I had no idea what was going on, but suspected the sentries had spotted a danger to the children. They had, but it was not at all what I expected.

The young man pointed out a large black bear that was making a beeline towards the school. When I asked if this was a common problem, he told me that it was one of the primary reasons they installed the tall fence and sentry stations around the school.

I was aware that a wide area of the state had suffered a late freeze in June that killed off a lot of the wild berries in the surrounding hills and mountain. That was followed by lower than normal precipitation, contributing to a drought that was already in its third year. Lack of rain has dried up most of the grasses and roots. Lots of people who had counted on hunting and gathering to supplement their meager and dwindling supplies are suffering. The young man explained the rest of the situation to me.

"The lack of food has been driving the bears down into the valleys. The people still living up in the hills got hit first. Its not just garbage the bears are into, since there isn’t much of that around. Now they are so desperate they are busting into houses. The bears have gotten more aggressive the closer it gets to them going into hibernation. Bears are omnivorous, they’ve been feeding on the weak and small. Pigs, chickens, goats, you name it. They’ve also killed and partially eaten an elderly couple that lived right on the edge of the National Forest about five miles from here. And in the next town over, they’ve lost three small children to bear attacks. A friend of mine was mauled and killed right before the town put up this here fence."

When I asked him why didn’t they just shoot the bears he said, "We do if we have to, but ammunition costs money and the bears are plentiful. They haven’t fattened up enough yet to make them worth killing for food, though some folks have. You also have to be real careful with bear meat because it can make you bad sick."

Later, the man in charge of the town’s small militia force told me that their town’s goal was to hold out until November when the bears go into hibernation. "We don’t want to deplete one of the major predators. Heck, it’s the damn bears that helped us deal with the dog packs and all the feral cats. There’s a price to pay for environmental balance. We’ve been educating the town folk and we are already planning work crews to help people reinforce their home security with things like shutters, reinforced doors and the like. But that’s for the winter after we’ve gotten the last from scavenging all the empty houses and ski resorts and backyard gardens. Hopefully, when the bears and cubs come out in the spring we’ll be ready for ‘em."

The situation faced by this town, and others like it, only re-enforces that the biology of a pandemic goes beyond the direct effects of the virus itself. A pandemic can disrupt environmental factors such as food chains and artificially maintained living conditions. These disruptions can be furthered magnified when naturally occurring, cyclical phenomena – such as weather patterns – come into play.

I’ll investigate this further as I make my way over to the Mississippi River. I’ve been hearing stories of paddle wheelers again being used on the Big Muddy, and I’m looking to ride one down to the Gulf of Mexico. I’ll let you know if I get to play Samuel Clemens or not, so stay tuned.

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