We Don’t Want to Know: A Hurricane Wilma Story

It was a year ago that the Asian tsunami hit. What have we learned? We haven’t learned to be prepared for natural or man-made disasters. We weren’t, and aren’t, prepared for hurricanes. We weren’t, and aren’t, prepared for terrorist attacks, despite the billions stolen from taxpayers and squandered by the Bush regime. We aren’t prepared for the horrrific depression that this looting and waste will soon produce. We aren’t prepared for the next flu epidemic, which is as inevitable, sometime in this century, as the dawn. We aren’t prepared for $8/gallon gasoline and the end of oil. We aren’t prepared for anything.

Things are the way they are for a reason. We aren’t prepared because we don’t want to know what might happen, and because we aren’t prepared to bear the cost of being prepared. It is in our nature not to be prepared, to take things as they come, to live for the moment. And while the cost of not knowing is astronomical, as the tsunami and Katrina and all the other catastrophes that we deal with, badly, every day, shows us, the cost of knowing — what we are doing to this world, and the consequences of those actions, from the abuse that is happening behind every closed door on the planet to the great extinction that we are precipitating — is even higher. We don’t want to know. We don’t want to hear about it. That is knowledge we cannot handle.

We want someone to tell us everything will be all right. Some politician, corporatist spin doctor, or priest, always will.

As a remembrance of the tsunami, of the cost of not knowing, here is a first-person account by Brad Mills of his encounter with last October’s hurricane Wilma, that he’s given me permission to publish.

South Dade had at least a week to prepare for this storm. The local media kept repeating that it would be a 4 going into Cancun, Mexico then move across the Gulf of Mexico, dropping to Cat 3, then 2 and about 1 when it made landfall. Unfortunately, most folks here bought that, and did little or nothing to prepare. Not that I’m such a great guy, but I do go with my gut feelings: get ready for a 3, likely a 4. Food, water, fuel stocked up, including little snack cakes and the like that we’d rarely buy (comfort foods are great later on!)

Prep: Fortunately, son Chance and myself had pruned our very large Black Olive trees out front a few weeks ago. These would have been goners. While they made it through last month’s Katrina (Cat 1 here) they would have been shredded in this storm, broken like so many others.

We spent several hundreds on plywood for our pastor’s home, and the recent widow across the street from him. We hung the plywood, cut trees and hauled off many truckloads of branches. Notably, we purchased this plywood on Tuesday PM; there were no people looking for the stuff then. One man asked me if we were getting ready for the storm, and we affirmed. The look in his eyes was amazement, and it told me he thought we were fearful zealots.

Wednesday my wife pulled several hundreds out of the bank; after the storm there is no power, no ATM’s, and no one will take your credit/debit cards. By Thursday we had all the vehicles filled, and twenty gallons awaiting deployment in the five-gallon containers. Generators were eyed over, oil checked, etc. It was notable no one was tanking up.

Friday we’d finished cutting trees at one lady’s house. This one, and the one across the street could be finalized in about 20 minutes each, should the storm actually continue on its track. Overkill? Paranoid? I had these words directed at me a few times during all of this. I explained I was preparing for a 4 and hoping for a dry run. After all, good training is invaluable. This taught my entire family once again how to go about getting prepared quickly and efficiently.

Our home is a cinch to secure for a storm; it takes longer to re-arrange the garage to accommodate a car than actually getting things closed up. We did use duct tape around the back door; this was a good thing. Just another fine tuning to the process.

Saturday: We killed power to the outside AC unit, wrapping it with heavy plywood. If you know anything about AC, a single pinhole will cost you several thousands; for less than $100 and about ten minutes, it’s cheap insurance. Shutters drawn and ready, there was not much else to do.

The Storm: It was a normal night’s work; my plan was to perform my due diligence and leave around three AM, which would be sane and reasonable. My supervisor stopped by to advise me that was not going to work; we were ‘Essential Employees’ and disciplinary action would be forthcoming should we depart early. Besides, we could sit around after the normal quitting time and make overtime. So we watched the lights go on and off all night — hardly ‘essential’ activity. (I’m an ex-USAF Security Policeman, trained for mass casualties, terrorist attacks, etc.) Angry, I decided if I left at three (write me up, who cares?) that it would endanger the half of the shift who’d follow (mutiny?) with me. I do not desire anyone’s blood on my hands. I smoldered about this, then decided to leave at around seven, the normal quitting time. Quietly I finished, told my boss I was leaving. “You’re nuts!” was his only comment.

I checked the wind and so forth outside the shop, walking a full minute in it. There was enough morning light to see a few hundred yards. I knew that I could make the drive. Would the car hold up? Would there be things in the road? If trapped, wrecked or whatever, I would be totally on my own. Oh, it was blowing good, and all my co-workers said certain things to me (such as “I’ve got big balls, but not that big!”) but once in awhile, you need a good reality check. In Lance Armstrong’s book Every Second Counts he describes a place he has in Texas with a fifty-foot cliff. Every so often, he jumps off this into the water below — just enough to see if he’s really real. I decided on the reality check.

I’d love to say I prayed every minute of the drive; I did not. The first two miles were not bad, then it became like a video game. Too bad I didn’t have a dashboard camera like the police shows do — it would be a keeper for sure! As I barreled 60+ MPH down 35 zones, flying through intersections, the debris began to grow heavier on the road. Every two or three blocks a transformer would explode in front of me, temporarily blinding me whilst slaloming around downed trees. After four or five of these, I was totally unnerved. “Stop it!”, I said as loudly as I could. What do you know, that was the last bright blue flash of the ride. I saw one single car on the road, at 88th. I owned the road.

Strangely, this felt very close to driving through a bad ice storm, like going from Muskogee OK to Ft. Worth TX in December ’83. Or perhaps that’s the extent of my white-knuckle every-tiny-turn-of-the-steering-wheel-counts experiences. It was familiar, and then again, new to me all at once.

Heart beating as fast as it could, I turned onto 152nd Street. There’s a golf course there, and the netting from the driving range was flapping like giant flags across the sky. Then I saw more trees down, much too big to drive over, and no reasonable way over/around. OK, little car, sorry for the abuse, but we’re going home! Up over the curb, slinging mud and going through who knows what, I eventually gained 102nd Avenue. Almost home — I could walk from here in about fifteen minutes! Suddenly, it was white-out conditions. Huge sheets of rain kept me from seeing the end of the hood. As soon as there was a moment’s let-up, I nailed the gas, covering the hundred or so feet I could see. A few minutes of this, and the ride was about over.

Finally near home, I cell phoned the wife to open up the door, and I was in the driveway. My 12.5 mile ordeal was done, and I’d made it alive! I saw my neighbors’ brand new gate getting beaten in the wind, so I woke up the son. We gave the little Toyota one last job, placing its bumper against the gate to hold it still.

Inside, grabbing the camera and a cold beer, I called my boss. Not to be an “I told you I’d make it” smart aleck — I knew he would be concerned. We fired off a few photos — the video cam’s battery was dead (arrrrgh!) Once the winds ‘broke’ (I felt the eye had passed, well North of us) it was off to bed. My heart and adrenaline pump finally settled down.

Afterwards: Wind still blowing pretty good about 3 PM. We opened up some shutters, and moved the car out of the garage. Generators were summoned; it was now time to go into Phase Two.

So we went into that night knowing I’d be back at work. Flashlights were passed out, the kids getting push-to-light ones so the batteries would last. We hung a couple of these break ‘n shake light sticks, an eerie orange glow over the bathroom, and over the ‘bunker’, our downstairs room, surrounded on all sides by concrete.

The next day it was good, we re-gained cell phone ability though the landlines were down. The battery operated TV yielded some information on the damage, but no apologies for the misleading ‘Cat 1’ info. Just where to get your ice and water, and wisecracks on FEMA/Bush.

I still don’t get it — If you don’t consider you are on your own a minimum of three to five days after a major storm, something is wrong. We had gotten off easy with last month’s Rita, and Katrina. These were warnings, forebodings of times ahead. Yet affluent people in new SUVs lined up for the freebies – water, ice, and hot meals. No, I still don’t get it. I still have three of the original five gallons of ice in the deep freeze.

Then there are minor stages you go through after assessing the immediate house damages, checking on friends and looking over the assets you have on hand (working generator, automobile, food stocks, flashlights, etc.) It quickly becomes obvious we Americans are power junkies. Example: A few days into this thing, one of our girls told me “There are some girls out front wanting to use the phone”. Sure, it’s a crisis, and I’m pretty liberal with help.

Outside, a young lady with a baby in the stroller looked at me. “I hate you so bad right now!”.

Hmmm, “OK, what did I do this time?” — wondering what this total stranger was upset about.

“Well, you have electricity, a phone that works, and a cold beer!”

“I made up my mind after Andrew I’d not be caught flat-footed by a hurricane again”. And then I looked at her, wondering where her generator was.

We did not get the worst of this storm; Broward County (North of us) took the brunt of it all, windows blown out of high-rises, etc. So I felt very fortunate, having gone through Andrew some thirteen years ago. I don’t live for these storms, but they do happen, and it’s just better to be safe than sorry.

Speaking of sorry, here’s another story: I awoke one afternoon soon after the storm and lumbered outside to give the generator and general landscape a once-over. I saw a long extension cord going across the street to that neighbors’ house, with cars running over it continually. Knowing that was not a good thing, we told the neighbors we’d bring them a spare generator instead. These folks speak only Spanish, so communication was simple and difficult at the same time.

Once in place, I advised them they had about two hours of fuel, and would need more. Chance and I returned home, cutting branches and cleaning up the yard some more. Later, the neighbors came, saying the generator was not working. (Sigh) — across the street we go, and after much tugging and juicy swear words at the machine, I spied an old gas container sitting there. “So, where did you get the fuel?”

“Oh, it came from the boat”. A glance at the boat’s motor told me the tale: A two-stroke outboard engine — meaning the fuel would be pre-mixed. Besides, these folks had lived across the street three or four years, and I’d never seen this boat out of the yard! So I figured the fuel had to be at least two years old, or more.

We packed the generator back to our garage, drained the old fuel (now known as ‘weed killer’) and attempted starting. No dice, and after much tugging on the rope in the now-dark night, I gave up. Next afternoon after my ‘morning’ coffee, I took apart the carb and cleaned all the garbage out. One tug on the rope and she was running! Excited, I went across the street. “Oh, that’s OK, our brother brought us a brand new one!” Sure enough, pretty and yellow it sat there, ready to run.

I’m not sure it ever ran, but who knows? It was one less thing to worry about, and one more generator available. So we took it down the street to folks whose generator had not been run since Andrew — thirteen years of old fuel clogging up every possible thing. But that’s another story. Yeah, sorry for folks who think up such things.

Well, enough about the daily rituals of generator oil changes, deep-freezer temp checks and the like. It was a good run. We did not miss a beat; our total outlay was less than $500. One week later: Power On!

Pretty much ’nuff said. That’s all we had to put up with — we cleaned up all the debris from the yard, got the grass mowed, etc. The kiddies went back to school two days later, and man, nothing like having the PC back and a hot shower any time I like!

Brad understands the cost of not knowing, and of not being prepared. If only we were all so wise.

Images: Hurricane Wilma photos, from Reuters.

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2 Responses to We Don’t Want to Know: A Hurricane Wilma Story

  1. Here in Thailand I am trying to prepare our family for a possible outbreak of bird flu. This has the potential of becoming a global epidemic of devastating dimensions – or it could just not happen… And there is no way of knowing if it will take place or not. That’s the problem. But I can assure that finding reliable information on bird flu and how to prepare is not easy here in Thailand for an expat family…

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Alex: I can’t add anything to what I already wrote in my previous post on Preparing for the Flu Pandemic.

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