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Special Section~Isabel 2003
The Isabel Affair
By Rick Bailey

     When I realized that Hurricane Isabel was headed my way I could not help remember a little affair I had with Hurricane Agnus in 1973. The winds from that storm were not too bad from my recollection but the water was something else. Agnus dumped enough rain in Northern Virginia to put a 20-foot wall of water over the top of the Occoquan Dam, which in turn took out the bridge just below it for Route 123 and forced the closure of the bridge for I-95 further down stream to inspect for damage. That same storm also took out the Lake Barcroft Dam not far from where I lived at the time and the closer the damage got to my home the more personal I seemed to take it.

     Now with Hurricane Isabel, my wife, Emeline, and I had a difficult time trying to decide if we should evacuate our home in Williamsburg, Virginia to seek a safer haven to ride out the storm ... just like many folks from as far south as North Carolina to as far north as New Jersey. The forecasters could not seem to decide on whether Isabel would make landfall in North Carolina, or Virginia, or Maryland, but to me it seemed like a moot point since the storm had the potential to wreck havoc for 200 miles along itís unpredictable path. Because of these uncertainties, we decided that we would probably be safer at home or in a local shelter. We did not want to face this storm in an unfamiliar motel, most of which were booked as far west as Roanoke, Virginia, or worse yet, ride out the storm in our car somewhere along I-64 or I-95 with thousands of other evacuees.

     The day before the storm was projected to land, I secured everything out on our deck that was not nailed down, filled our bathtubs and bottles with water, checked our battery-powered radios, extra batteries and candles, and made sure we had enough to eat for a few days ... even though it probably would not hurt me to miss eating a few meals. With nothing else left to prepare for the storm ... we decided to drive down the parkway along the James River to eat a picnic lunch Emeline had prepared for the occasion.

     As we gazed across the river it seemed incredibly beautiful and calm with a slight breeze from the south and a beautiful azure-blue sky and a few white clouds passing overhead; it was difficult to even imagine that in less than 24 hours the river would flood over at least some of the parkway. After lunch, we continued to drive down the parkway to Jamestown Island and the old church where we were married three years earlier with the hope that both would be spared from the wrath of the hurricane that would soon be passing over the river and Jamestown Island itself.

     In the back of my mind, I felt confident that we would have no problem riding out the storm at our home because most of the houses in our subdivision are located high on a hill with plenty of low wooded areas surrounding our neighborhood to drain away the massive rainfall that comes with such a storm. Also it was comforting to know that the hurricane had been downgraded from a Category 5 storm with winds of 150 miles per hour or more to a Category 3 storm with winds of 100 miles per hour or less.

     I believe that our home and many others built within the last few decades conform to a building code that requires the structures to withstand 120 mile per hour wind, but when you do the math with a Category 5 storm, you donít have to be a structural engineer to realize that you come up a little short on the side of safety. Of course, one never really knows whether a structure will stand up to such a rating and with any luck, most of us will never have to find out.

     When we got home from our picnic, I decided to check around the walls of my garage to see if I could locate any of the anchor bolts or tie-down straps that attach the house to the foundation. I could not find one. Quickly I began to rationalize that they must have been installed in a tradesman-like manner, hidden within the frame walls that were covered. I reassured myself that I really didnít need to physically see them to know that they were in fact there. After all ... if you canít trust your local contractor to do everything according to code and your building suspector to make sure everyone is playing by the rules ... then who can you trust?

     Probably the greatest concern that I had about the approaching storm could be described in one word: TREES! As I sat in my wheelchair out on our driveway and looked at the ridge line of our roof that I estimate to be about 24 feet high, I could not deny that there was a much greater proportion of the trees showing above the roof-line than there was below the roof line, which was definitely not a comforting thought for me.

     The trees of concern were oaks, about 60-70 feet high and 24-30 inches in diameter at the base. Without exception, all were located less than 20 feet from our house, so if anything came our way, it would most certainly be a very heavy hit. Fortunately, we ended up with no broken limbs or fallen trees ... which was truly a blessing.

     Our only close call was a large oak in my neighborís front yard. It sustained some damage and leaned directly toward our garage and driveway where we normally park our cars. The night of the storm, I went out the garage door to check on the tree; it was very sobering to see it lean hard in every gust of wind that pushed it our way. As I closed the garage door and moved out of harmís way ... I would have been willing to bet money that the tree would be in our driveway before the sun came up in the morning. Fortunately, the next morning all I could think was: ďGee ... how nice it is to be wrong once in a while and this was definitely one of those rare occasions!Ē

     A few hours after the hurricane made landfall in North Carolina, the wind began to pick up here in Williamsburg and our electric power went out. The next morning, I rolled out a small portable generator that I purchased three years ago. I bought the generator because the memory of being without electricity for 10 days during the ice storm over the Christmas holidays of 1999 was still fresh in my mind. As best I could recall, having no electricity for that length of time seemed a lot like camping or sailing ... in that it was fun the first day but quickly turned into a bummer.

     One of the fun things you learn about having a back-up generator is that it needs regular maintenance, you need to store enough gasoline to power the generator for an extended period because fuel is generally not available when the power is out, and ... the gas must be fresh or less than a few months old. So ... over the period of the last three years, after dragging the generator out to run it for one hour on each of 36 monthly occasions, changing the oil six times at by-yearly intervals, plus recycling I canít remember how many gallons of aging fuel through my car so I could refill the storage containers with fresh gas every couple of months ... the moment of truth finally arrived.

     Fortunately, the generator started on the very first pull and ran at full throttle without missing a beat until I shut it down a few hours later. Because we moved to Williamsburg less than a year ago and I have been spending much of my time unpacking boxes, painting walls, hanging pictures and other fun things since then, I had not yet taken the time to wire the generator into our household electrical system. In a pinch, I used a heavy-gage extension cord to plug our refrigerator and microwave directly into the generator. But there was one small problem: as I looked up and down my street .., now cast in total darkness ... I could not help but think about my neighbors. Surely I couldnít power my house with a 9 horsepower generator, let alone an entire street, but there had to be a way to share my good fortune with at least some of my neighbors.

     With the use of a long heavy-gauge extension cord belonging to the neighbor behind me ... we managed to keep the refrigerators cooled down in the two homes directly behind me and at timed intervals, the two homes directly across the street. I offered to do the same for the neighbors on each side of our house, but they had little in their freezers and declined my offer. Generators are very noisy so sharing the electricity with your neighbors is somewhat analogous to inviting them to your party so nobody will call the cops and complain.

     Later that same evening we invited our neighbors for dinner to be cooked on the grill on our deck. Thanks to the beautiful steaks brought over by our neighbors across the street, Lynn and Walter, and the four bottles of very fine wine provided by our neighbor next door, Jill, we shared a delightful evening of good food, good company and all of us became very pleasant in the process.

     The following morning Jill, next door, still didnít have electricity, but she somehow managed to prepare a delicious breakfast for Emeline and me along with other neighbors living down the street. Later that afternoon, the electric power was restored, and I suspect that we all promised ourselves that we would not wait for another hurricane before we invited our neighbors over again.

     The electric power was restored just in time because not having the extra gas to run the generator and boot-up my computer, I was beginning to experience a serious email deficit and all of the early-warning withdrawal symptoms associated with it.

     After the storm passed and the power was restored, one of the only items remaining on my to-check list was my new car. Emelineís car was safely parked in our garage, along with our generator, my riding lawn mower or all-terrain power wheelchair, as I like to think of it, plus a lot of other stuff tooooo numerous to mention, but there was no room left for my car.

     Several weeks earlier I thought it might be time to upgrade my 92 T-Bird with a younger, low-mileage 1997 T-Bird. I located and bought such a car a couple of days before we realized that hurricane Isabel was heading our way. Much to my liking, the 97 T-Bird has a power moon-roof like many other cars I have owned in the past and with no room left in our garage and the hurricane rapidly approaching, I thought it would be an excellent opportunity find out if the roof leaked by parking it in front of our house. During the hurricane I understand that we had about 10 inches of wind-driven rain ... much of it sideways ... and now it was time to open the car door and either let the water pour out or see if the interior remained dry. As I approached the car with some apprehension, I could not help but notice how clean the exterior was as a result of the power-washing it received from Isabel. When I opened the door ... much to my delight ... I found the interior to be as dry as the bar at the Baghdad Hilton!

     My father, Lay, often told me that intelligence, education, hard work and preparation were the secrets to a good life, but ... that you couldnít beat having good luck. Another close friend, Ben, made a similar remark about having good luck. He flew many missions in the Pacific during WWII and never received a scratch, while another airman he knew was shot down on his first mission, rescued and returned only to be killed by anti-aircraft fire as he sat next to Ben during their very next mission!

     When I stop to consider how extensive the damage was from this hurricane throughout several states it is truly a blessing that the it did not make landfall with winds of 150 miles per hour and that people did not suffer far greater loses of property and life.

     So when it comes to having an affair with a hurricane like Isabel, I am of the belief that you need good luck. Also, I would suggest that you figure out what she wants to do and stay the ... out of the way while she does it, which incidentally, seems to work equally well with women. 

© 2003 Richard Bailey All Rights Reserved


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