What kind of people would wait for a bus in a Hurricane?
O.K. aside from the Hurricane, how was Florida? Alright aside from the $160 speeding fine, how was Florida? O.K. aside from all your photos going missing, how was Florida? Someone asked Kit, who was my trusty companion on said jaunt to Florida on how she enjoyed the trip and she had to think awhile, then finally said “I wouldn’t go again”. It was one of those moments. Unspoken fragile barbs that said “It is all your fault I didn’t have a good time.” Of course if I had those photographs I could have shown her smiling, laughing even moments before the ‘big’ wave knocked her for six and sent her sprawling for yards down South Beach Miami.
Perhaps she hadn’t intended to come back bruised. ‘See my tan,’ were probably words she would have liked to use, rather than ‘I’m black and blue’. But I can attest she was laughing before the wave hit her. So was I, until something large and grey bumped into me and I had this major heart attack scene where I had thought I had come face to face with a shark. Alright, I admit I scrambled shorewards as fast as my sad little arms could get me, expecting my toes to disappear any second. Only from shore could I look back and see five dolphins laughing at me, swimming so close to shore that we could see them open their mouths to eat the fish that were actually jumping into them. Now that is what I call convenience food. It was one of those remarkable days, at the end of the trip, a Thursday on St Augustine North Beach. The air is thick with acid from the red tide fumes which makes us cough, there are dead fish on the beach and no sensible Floridian would swim in this, let alone breath the air, but we’d paid for this jaunt and we were going to have a good time. Even if it kills us.
We knew there was something special going on when we saw the fish massing on shore and literally tossing themselves towards the Pelicans that swooped in from all sides to eat dinner. Dolphins, a perfect swell on the tide, a blue sky and 85F in mid-October, how perfectly impossible in England at this time of year. I thought then that this was too good to be true.
At midnight the rain started and Hurricane Irene had arrived. Hurricanes are strange. One imagines something like a tornado, but this was just a huge weather system that spread right across Florida and the Gulf bringing tropical torrential rain, flooding roads and farms. We knew we’d better leave a day early to get to Miami airport. We drove for 300 miles in this torrent of rain and wouldn’t you know it. Bang. A tyre blows at 80 mph. Actually Kit and I thought something had hit the roof of the car, neither one of us thought of the tyre until I lost steering capability. I had to hurriedly pull over on the busy Interstate 95 and change the tyre. Trucks were rushing by six inches from the car, sending great waves of water over us. The rain was sloshing around the car, rising by the minute. (Florida is actually at sea-level) and when I got the tyre out it was one of those stupid small emergency ones. The jack didn’t have anything to turn it with and right then I knew I was going to get hit by a truck and die. Turning a jack with a Parker pen isn’t easy, but anytime Parker want to send me a new pen for mentioning that it can lift a Mitsubishi Charisma off the road is fine by me. Of course Converse All Star canvas shoes aren’t that great for jumping up and down on the new stiff wheel nuts either! Occasionally I’d hear Kit scream ‘Hurry up you are going to die” and “It only takes Jenson Button 3 seconds to change four tyres”. It wasn’t the kind of encouragement I could have used either. Around 45 minutes later when I finally tightened the nuts and threw the debris in the trunk, we set off for Miami again. The road was now completely flooded and we could see in the distance the lights of Miami suddenly go out. It was going to be a long night.
We crossed the Bridge towards South Beach at around 116th street which was my stupididy as this seemed to be where the flooding was worst. Streets were completely inundated. Powerlines were down, telegraph poles skew all over, palm trees were actually flying past us as I drove through four feet of water. Someone close to my ear was yelling at me to ‘stop this isn’t safe’, but I could hear my long dead father’s voice in my head saying ‘keep going when driving through water, don’t let the engine get wet, don’t give the car an excuse to die on you’. I ploughed on, creating bow waves across the street, heading southwards.
Kit had this thing about wanting to stay in one of the art deco hotels on Ocean Beach Boulevard. O.K. anything to keep the peace, but I was favouring the Best Western which seemed to have electricity around 94th, but no, I was urged on past dead cars, (later we found out about eight dead people electrocuted by the downed power lines) and fallen trees. All around us the wind was whipping up trouble, taking out billboards, windows, phone lines. Roads were blocked every which way and it was a navigation nightmare. As we approached the forties the water was shallower, this area had to be an inch higher. Amazingly there were people waiting for a bus. What kind of people would wait for a bus in a Hurricane? I wonder if that was the bus we saw flooded and abandoned around fifty blocks northwards. Nearby we could see people getting out their surfboards and boats to get around. Florida old hands know the routine.
Everywhere we turned Kit was taking pictures of falling trees, a bewildered Pelican sheltering in a pond on a busy street, people struggling to cross roads, wind-whipped waves across the road, stranded cars, animals. Your average holiday snaps. I wished I could be taking shots too but I was too scared to stop the car. On fourteenth, just after the world’s worst restaurant Wolfie’s, we turned toward Ocean Boulevard and found the Art Deco Penguin Hotel, which in sunnier days overlooks the beach . This twilight it overlooked Armageddon. Sand and sea was lashing the shore and things were crashing around everywhere and occasionally you’d glimpse a person clinging onto to something to stop them from joining Dorothy someplace over by the yellow brick road. I secured us a room, ground floor. They weren’t keen, maybe because were were dripping wet. Or something to do with the receptionist was called Frau Luger and had escaped from a Frankenstein movie. This was possibly the only restaurant open in South Beach that night too, so that was great, as long as we didn’t need a seat. Turns out the place is full of Germans playing cards. Even weirder, the Germans all seem to know each other and the German speaking waitress indicates that they have all come from the same car assembly line in Bavaria to holiday together in Miami. I wondered if the Ford Focus assembly line workers do the same? Is only me who finds that weird? For some reason Germans seem to resent any other nationality wanting to sit down and eat at a table, but eventually one has to pee and you race for the chair and sit there and the waitress quickly slams down a knife and fork to indicate that this is now your spot! Kit found a place opposite me pretty soon and we shared the last half-chicken being cooked in Miami that night. It was pretty tough going.
Since we were already soaked we decided to go for a walk. Well I did. Kit followed not wanting to be a wuss. Of course if we’d known how dangerous it is to walk around with power lines threatening to fall into the street and kill you, I might have heeded Kit’s quite sensible advice to “let’s go to bed and read’. There are physical difficulties in walking in a Hurricane. But I had always wanted to do that and now we have.
By the by, sand whipping off the sea at 120mph can make your legs bleed. We staggered off the beach to shelter a moment by some trees as Kit screamed in pain (O.K. we both screamed, we were being sandblasted to death and who was it who said, let’s wear shorts. Oh yes me – Dummy head)). Right here was a great point to watch what wind pressure can do to buildings. Two new apartment blocks were acting as a wind-tunnel and new windows were bulging under the pressure. Had anyone been in them and tried to open a window either they would have been sucked out or the whole building would have collapsed. It was remarkable. Thrilling to watch the wind vortex – sucking trees out of the ground and lobbing them towards powerlines. On Kit’s orders we fumbled our way back to the hotel and had to kick the door a while to make them open it again. Seems opening the door makes EVERYTHING fly around the entire hotel and Germans get pretty upset seeing their cards and money stick to the ceiling. We got glared at as once again we stoood there flooding the lobby as water cascaded off our clothes.
We went to bed. The wind howled. The shower stopped working. Water seeped under our door, windows and metal slammed all night, just to make sure we stayed awake to enjoy every moment.
And then… In the morning it was a bright and sunny day. The sun shone out of a bright clear sky. The Atlantic Ocean was a smooth as silk and if it wasn’t for the palms trees being hoisted off the deck and armies of manicurists clearing the streets, it was the most normal day. Collins Avenue was almost dry already and we went to our favourite Diner located at around 10th and Collins and ate a breakfast on the side porch as we read the Miami Herald. Some kind of anticlimax really. The last moment of Hurricaneness was handing back the car. Alamo Car Hire has literally hundreds of cars in the lot. Over half of them were underwater. Might be some good bargains there if you like soggy upholstery. We checked in, we left.
Me. I miss swimming in an ocean everyday, in clear warm water. I miss feeling warm and relaxed. Holidays disappear as you fly towards home. Only by looking out of the window at the miles of flooded farmland do you realise that Hurricanes can do a lot of damage over a huge area. But by the time you land you wonder if it ever happened. Only the two suitcases of wet clothes serves as a reminder. We are in normal life now. One of us would never go back but niether of us will ever forget Hurricane Irene.
© Sam North/AKA Hawksmoor 2000 (reposted 2017)
Author of Another Place to Die: Endtime Chronicles
The Sam North Novels
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