Sunday, October 30, 2005

Slightly off-track..unlike Hurricane Wilma

This post really isn't motorcycle related, especially as the only riding being done right now is more to save gas rather than for the thrill. No, this post is a quick review of South Florida's recovery, as well as mine, from Hurricane Wilma.

Before this rant starts please don't get me wrong. I'm happy we all came through unhurt, I understand there's still pain and suffering in New Orleans and I can't even imagine being in Cozumel. None of this takes away from trying to live the life as you know it under tough circumstances.

Nearly a week has passed since Hurricane Wilma came through South Florida in all her intensity with the resulting devastation. It was a time spent without power, scrounging for ice and gas, as well as living with mixed emotions of expectations, worry and extreme, mind-dulling boredom. Emotionally there's been a mix of expectations of the power returning, worry from an unknown tomorrow and the boredom occupying your long, quiet days finding things to do.

The Storm
Having been out of the media loop for a week I'm not sure whether it was ever made official but Wilma was said to have been the worse storm to hit Broward County in over fifty years. No matter where you look the severe and unrelentless damage comfirms this. Even though you knew during the hurricane that this wasn't like anything before, certainly in the eight years I've lived here, it didn't prepare you for the devastation at every turn.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Unlike Katrina that brought definite warnings about it's severity, Wilma was going to come ashore on the west coast of Florida as a Hurricane catagory two and by the time it reached the middle, she would lose energy and dissipate to a catagory one or even tropical storm winds. No problem, we handle those four or five times a year.

But then something happened. As with all bad things, it happened quickly and in a blur. As quickly as the weather men could report it the storm would grow, not just in intensity but it size with the eye getting as big as Broward County itself. Contrary to all projections, not only did it come further north and hit Broward County dead on but with the force of a catagory three. Travelling across the state in the opposite direction of all the previous hurricanes it felt different as far as wind direction and surge expectations right from the start, but the actual length of the event from the feeder bands of high wind and rain arriving until the actual hurricane came and went, it was a long and nerve-racking time.

The Aftermath
I moved all the crucial stuff to my girlfriends place and readied to ride out the storm there since she never lost power in previous hurricanes, except for an occassional flicker. Even though the bright explosions of the transformers blowing along the street made me doubt when the power would come back on, I put my expectation at having lights by nightfall or most certainly by lunchtime the next day. You see, my girlfriend lives between Fort Lauderdale's municipal buildings and some hospitals, both up high on FPL's magical list.

Or so we thought.

The problem facing everyone without power by the afternoon of the first day was the melting ice and consequently losing any frozen food. Whether it was that they didn't buy any before the hurricane or realized it was an upcoming need, people started to line up at the Points Of Distribution (PODs to those in the know) for ice and water. The lines seemed to stretch for miles, of course bear in mind I was listening to television reports on my battery driven radio. With all the fury of the hurricane that'd preceeded it, the scandal of FEMA was being reborn here in South Florida. Not all the supplies were making it to the PODS or hours later if they did, leaving the masses waiting on promise after promise that the trucks were on the way. Reporters had a field day, local politicians pointed fingers and frustrated police sat around waiting to escort the emrgency supplies to the different distribution points. One of the few silver linings was the luxury of cool weather in the seventies with no humidity thanks to the same system that created such a monsterous hurricane in a small amount of time to begin with.

It's not until times like these that you realize how everything is connected to electricity.

You can't just go down to the local store and buy ice, so your only choice is to wait in line for FEMA distribution. If you take your car, a fifteen minute trip is now nearly an hour with the lack of working traffic lights making each intersection a long four-way stop and debris reducing three lane roads down to one. Don't use too much gas though, without electricity only one in a hundred gas stations are open, creating lines longer than those at the PODS, if thats at all possible.

Unlike Katrina, who seemed to hit only the poor or forgotten part of our society, Wilma was the ultimate vehicle for affirmative action, not only indifferent to race but didn't care about your wealth either. Expensive downtown condominiums had windows blown out as equally as more humble homes some social zones away. Driving past the gas lines brand new Jaguars sit bumper to bumper with Camrys decades old where regardless of what's in a persons pocket or their net worth may be, everyone's limited to twenty dollars of gas.

Lenin, your utopia lives and breathes in Broward among the remains of Wilma.

Still thinking power was only hours away, I elected not to jump in any of the lines and felt my half tank of gas would be just fine until everything got up and running again. Once enough time had passed for what was needed to get the major debris out of the road I decided to head up to my place to see how it faired.

This is when the devastation hit me. Wilma truly was unlike anything that'd come before. Even with Andrew the area that was impacted was contained, but I knew from listening to the radio that what I was seeing had occured in the counties north and south of Broward, not even thinking about the west coast of Florida.

She picked apart everything. Huge canopies three car lengths long that hung over the entrances of stores were ripped off and thrown to the other side of the street. Lamposts lie in the road one after the other, knocked down, perfectly aligned where they fell. Trees that had withstood all the storms before broke, fell or even looked like dynamite had been placed in the trunk ten feet off the ground splintering everything outward when it was detonated. With the trees being as tall as sixty feet entire roads were nearly blocked. Poles holding transformers lay on the ground too, wires winding anywhere they fell giving an ominous sign of when electricty would really be coming back. It's not that these things fell that was stunning, but that they were still there hours later meaning the people that normally clean them up are off doing more important things. Not a good sign.

A favorite bar and what some would consider a landmark had the front complete smashed in and Wilma renamed it from Mai-Kai to Ai-Ka with her windy fingers. It was rare to see any of the large plastic box displays that sit in front of business or on poles, intact. The lucky ones still had the pole and metal frame intact, less fortunate were bent or thrown hundreds of yards away. The ornate plastic that lit the businesses names colorfully was nowhere to be seen. Office buildings some twenty stories high had entire sides where all of the glass was blown out. A large object crashed through the window of a Rolls Royce dealership and onto a classic model. A stretch limo flipped like a toy car in a childs sandbox.

We all see this kind of damage on TV when a tornado or hurricane strikes somewhere, but unlike anything before, this was constant over three counties. Not just one tree for neighbors to come and look at but numbers of them, everywhere you looked ripped apart by Wilma.

As I drove into my complex anticipation grew at the sight of trees and roof tiles littering the road, crackling under my tires with each sound threatening a puncture. We'd lost a lot of tree's in the last hurricane and obviously the surviving one weren't strong enough to withstand Wilma. Fortunately my place was okay and without power of course. My biking buddy wasn't so lucky with a tree falling on his truck and an even larger tree thankfully falling harmlessly into the street. I was on my second beer wiht him and the crowd that had congregated at his house when someone mentioned the seven o'clock curfew. Looked like I was bedding down there for the night! Without the worries of ice, gas and what was going on out in the real world, the night was full of drinking, barbeques and card games.

The rest of the week wasn't as much fun though. The growing realization that power was an unknown amount of time away, the lines at stations growing longer as the gas in my tank was getting smaller and ice still something that couldn't be bought but given after waiting in long lines. The day started with a cold shower and only the search for supplies broke up an incredibly boring day. The night ended in bed at around 9pm, after all how much reading can you do by candlelight.

Frustration came with the head of FEMA and Govenor Bush saying the public should've been better prepared and not relied on handouts as much. Two things can be said to that. I'm sorry I can't make ice last longer than is physically possible and if everyone had bought enough to survive this long, well there wasn't enough food in all the stores to handle the need before the storm.

Don't get me wrong. I'm happy we all came through unhurt, I understand there's still pain and suffering in New Orleans and I can't even imagine being in Cozumel. None of this takes away from trying to live the life as you know it under tough circumstances.

Getting back to Normal
Even though I had my back up plan of the three quarters of a tank in my Deuce, a rather short gas line of only thirty-five minutes had my girlfriends tank filled and we ran back with my car to fill it up at the same station.

As much as I wanted to get out on the bike, motorists are treating non-powered intersections as four-way stops, that is when they remember to! Theres the ever present danger of being hit from either a car running the four way stop or crashing in from behind when they don't realize you are in fact observing the intersection. What even counts as an intersection has everyone with differing opinions.

Although my girlfriend got her power back all the 110 watt stuff is working, but heavy appliances aren't. There's really no question about waiting, with the manpower already limited from the storm, calling an electrician out on the weekend would be selfish and fiscally dumb!

Everyone I talk too agrees that things are definitely getting better, but in the next breath we talk about all the work that needs to be done and the time it'll take. Though not as long as the flood victims of New Orleans, commerce and life as we knew it before Wilma was being counted in weeks which quickly form into months.

As things return to normal around my physical life the cyberworld will come back to what it was too! If you'll excuse me now I'm going to have the first warm shower I've had in a week!

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