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TideWriters Tales
Special Section~Isabel 2003
Hurricane Isabel Tried to Top 1933 Hurricane 
By Catherine C. Brooks

     Until one experiences a hurricane with its forceful winds and waters, one doesn’t realize its power. I was a seven-year-old child in August 1933 when my grandparents lived a bit inland in Hampton, Virginia. (see http://www.chesapeakestyle.com/celebrate/aug03.html) Today both of my children, Wade and Susan Kay, and I live nearer Mathews’ inlets than my Granddaddy’s house stood. We are also nearer sea level in the Garden Creek-Winter Harbor communities than where my parents’ house stood on Billups Creek in earlier years. 

     We prepared for Hurricane Isabel as to our knowledge of previous storms. After all, the weatherman said the eye would pass west of Richmond. Perhaps the tide would go out like it did in the 1954 Hurricane Hazel, whose eye went through Crozet, Virginia. But we didn’t realize the girth of Hurricane Isabel, the size of Colorado, so we scrapped our idea to go to the western part of the state or even to a friend’s quest cottage in upper Mathews.  We would stay home, going to the second floor if the waters came too high. Preparations began Monday and continued through Wednesday, first packing photographs and placing them high in the rooms or on second floor. A neighbor, who lost her house by fire some years ago, advised me to save photographs before anything else since they can’t be replaced. I cooked several frozen packages of meat so we could eat if we had no electricity because we cook with electric ranges and ovens. Computers were raised off the floors, placing them on top of desks or tables, and on we kept with the work, lifting everything possible higher. 

     Still we weren’t prepared for the electric to go off at 8:30 a.m. on the day the storm headed our way. The leaves on the trees showed no signs of the wind blowing at our house at that hour. Thankfully, since I couldn’t purchase D batteries on Wednesday, I had one radio that still had good batteries. I tuned to a local station, listening to “Isabel’s” progress. 
Wade has a generator capable of supplying most of his house with power. He started it from its perch on the platform of a two-ton truck. Unless the roof blew off or creeks and harbors overflowed, we could live comfortably inside the house. It wasn’t long before my grandson, Bobby, drove in with Angela and their seven-month-old Katelyn to enjoy life with electricity. Little did they realize, they had left before the winds gained velocity enough to blow a limb from an aged maple tree onto their kitchen roof.
As the day progressed, I prayed and listened while doing some much-needed filing. The news release told me that the roof had blown off the operator’s house atop the York River Bridge, so authorities sent a vehicle with a bucket to rescue the man. They removed him before winds became strong enough to blow him into the raging river below.
All our automobiles and trucks were on the highest levels on our property. Susan Kay and her husband had taken one truck, their camper and the trailer, which she uses to carry samples for her window covering and slip cover business, all to my cousin’s property on a hill near Mathews Court House.

     My living area, which is part of Wade’s house, has a separate breaker box. So I slipped out of my door and into his entrance to see the latest news on TV. It wasn’t good: trees down, electric out west and south of us and high waters as far north as Norfolk, Hampton and Newport News, coming our way. 
Although one has prepared, when the force hits, it stuns. It wasn’t long before my daughter and her husband walked in, dripping wet with long faces.

     “It’s worst than ever, Momma,” she said, looking at me, “the furniture is floating. My good Bible was floating but I couldn’t reach it.” (My husband and I, when the children were younger, had fought over a foot of water in most of the first floor of the same house in the Ides of March storm in 1964.)

     I had no answer, but I took her in my arms with a great hug. We had each other.

     After a few words, she went to change into dry clothes that she brought with her. It was then that Bobby called, “Here the water comes across the field.”

     I rushed out of their entrance and up the steps into my door. I needed to check my kerosene lamps and put more things that sat on the floor up higher. Wade turned the generator off to avoid anyone being electrocuted when the water reached the receptacles. After a time, I heard the family moving into the 12-foot by 24-foot room opposite the pocket door between our living quarters. I knew the water had risen the highest floor level before it reached my floor. I stepped out of my door, realizing the wind direction had changed. I felt no wind or rain, standing under the eaves of the house. Water swished below me and winds howled through the treetops. How long would it last? The water came another quarter inch higher, then another quarter inch, finally stopping almost to the deck. I knew that my floors would stay dry unless it rose again in the night on high tide. 
With all of my early preparations, I had a cold but nourishing evening meal before I settled to read with the help of a flashlight. From time to time the phone that sat on a stand to my right rang: a tree had fallen but missed my friend’s house, or some folk had left their place to spend time farther away from the raging seas. It was still dusk so I looked out of the window to see the 20-foot-octagonal gazebo sail across the yard, with plants in its path slowing it down. Would it go through the grape arbor and on to the side of my son’s shop and office? Then it halted, a maple tree limb held it and there it still sits, waiting for lots of man power to move it back to its location.

     The wind howled southeast harder than earlier. My roof is a solid sheet of a synthetic poured material, and I feared it was ripping off to learn later that the cupola had split into two pieces, sliced like you would a biscuit, half of it jumping down my roof. It damaged where it hit to the point of need for replacement.

     When we built the addition to my son’s house for my living space, we extended it to the front of the house with a partition 12 feet back, containing a large pocket door. We opened it since his house had flooded except for the higher-level equal in height to my quarters. My younger grandson, Johnnie, had joined our family group so we numbered nine by the time we opened the pocket doors. The four younger family members scrambled upstairs to the two beds and makeshift crib. Susan Kay and her husband, Edgar, each climbed on a sofa in my living area to get any sleep possible. My son slept upright in a chair with his feet on an ottoman while his wife laid on a love seat with her feet in a chair. I lay in bed awake and tried to pray.

     With all the roar of the winds as the night progressed, I dozed when possible. Eighteen hours it howled, with the wind velocity registering 110 miles per hour in a part of Mathews.

     The tides receded by late morning except for waters held in vacated houses with swollen doors and windows retaining it.  Earlier Bobby had left in his truck to find an unexpected need for baby Katelyn, carrying a chain saw in the truck’s body. Every road had trees across them so he, like other young men that he met, removed the obstruction so they could continue their journey, piling the debris on the roadside.

     Susan Kay and Edgar checked their house in mid morning, finding the water had risen to over three feet. Furniture had tossed to and fro. Chaos was the only description. Yet her woolen rugs had stayed atop the sofa above the water, and her reproduction Tiffany lamp—the last thing her daddy had helped her make before his fatal accident—fell but unto a soft upholstered furniture piece. It could be saved. But they couldn’t move back into the house until months of work had been done. Later that day, they went to pick up the camper to place on Wade’s property, but trees blocked the driveway to the yard where it sat. So they would have another night on Momma’s sofas. 

     By midday, Wade had the generator chugging while he turned one breaker on after another for safety. And before dark, he ran a heavy extension cord from the generator to my pole lamp and refrigerator. Unlike the previous 24 hours, we again enjoyed some of the twenty-first century’s luxuries. But we didn’t realize we’d wait two weeks for full power to return without the chugging noise of the generator day and night. Then phone lines carried static or went dead, reminding us that once my generation didn’t have phones to dial, enabling us to talk with others across the miles. Without a cell phone, you lived in your small space for some weeks.

     By evening the roads had cleared enough for Wade to take his wife, Susan, Susan Kay, Edgar and me to view the damage. We saw buildings leveled, trees across houses (two were Wade’s rental properties), water lines marked their height the day before on house after house and rubbish galore laid on road sides and in fields and yards. Boats from somewhere sat in the midst of hayfields; propane gas tanks dotted here and there; 500-gallon oil drums sat in other fields; picnic tables had vanished; and most docks were ripped from their moorings and gone visiting uninvited. I came home thankful for a place to lay my head and food to eat.

     Some found their automotive equipment either hard to start or dead. By the following week, lines at a local car dealer’s and maintenance shops blew one’s mind. The servicemen may get to their one o’clock appointment by three o’clock due to interruptions. Meanwhile insurance adjusters continue to place totaled notices on automobiles whether the insured plans to buy the vehicle back or let them tow it away. I kept mine with the starter replaced, having oil and transmission filters and fluids changed, and trusting the electronics aren’t damaged.

     The last weeks of September and first weeks of October, workers have worked long hours, clearing debris of all sorts; Dominion Virginia Power, assisted by workers from numerous states, have restored poles, transformers, wiring and power; insurance adjusters still come to view the damage; and telephone repairmen will be working for weeks to come. Some may be back to normal by Christmas, but for others it will be well into 2004.

     Saturday evening, October 11th, the Fannie Owens-Martin Diggs Sunday Sunday-School Class of Bethel United Methodist Church invited members of the community, whose lives had been affected by Hurricane Isabel, to dine in their fellowship hall. Before we left, one said something to the effect of, “We attempted to give you something to talk about besides the hurricane.” Everyone laughed because the storm effects had ruled our conversations.

     Whether Hurricane Isabel was worse or not as bad as the unnamed hurricane of August 1933 is debatable. Officials said in Garden Creek area that the tides were one foot or more higher than in 1933. We have no beaches to hold it back now. While in other places, reports prove they were lower, and no one clocked the wind speed in the county back then like they did on September 18th. The victims suffer while others carry on the work, but Hurricane Isabel won’t be forgotten. 

© 2003 Catherine C. Brooks. All rights reserved. Contact Catherine Brooks @ 

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