Odd memories, part 18

For one of the Ancient Lore posts back in April, I mentioned an accident of timing regarding the end of my tenure in Florida, and so I expand upon it here – which will segue into another story. I’m sure you’re brimming with anticipation.

Florida is known for a lot of things: alligators, giant anthropomorphic mice, manatees, people of questionable judgment, but perhaps the most well-known is being ground zero for countless hurricanes. While I lived there, no such storms came through, but almost immediately upon getting a new job in NC and moving from the state, Hurricane Ivan looped through the southeastern US before returning to the Florida coast area where I’d lived. The effect wasn’t too bad overall right there, at least in comparison to previous storms of renown or infamy, but it still left quite a few signatures throughout the area – and I know this firsthand because, very soon after it had passed, Jim Kramer and I made a trip down to gather up the remainder of my belongings.

The first things we noticed were the billboards. Interstate 95, southbound especially, is liberally infected with numerous billboards announcing all of the charms of the state, such as reduced cost passes to Disney World, the largest alligators in some arbitrary demarcation of area, and what god is going to do to you iffen you don’t accept his love. The vast majority of these had been blown down, in part or completely, and so the scenery on the drive was greatly improved (too bad the winds did not stretch far enough north towards the South of the Border region.)

Where I’d lived, the impact was fairly negligible, the damage sporadic and manageable – the apartment complex itself lost a couple of palm trees and about half of its decorative pennants, but nothing else. Most of my day was spent packing, since we had very little time to spend down there, but after a bit we managed a brief trip out to my old stomping grounds on the Indian River Lagoon. Here, the effect of the winds upon the waters of the lagoon and their impact on the banks was quite visible, though by no means devastating. Yet one bit of evidence was striking.

beached sailboat following hurricane Ivan by James L. KramerAlmost right against the shore, propped over by its keel in less than a half-meter of water, was a decent-sized sailboat, testament to the depth the water had achieved during storm surge. It needs to be said that the region can be waded for better than a hundred meters out, and that there’s no marina anywhere near this location; the closest was several kilometers away across the sound to the southeast, though on occasion people would moor near a fishing dock down by the causeway about 3 km south. While the boat is christened as from Orlando, that’s quite a ways north and inland, so I’m confident that it hadn’t been swept to this point from there, and had been moored someplace closer. I could not resist clambering onto the rear ladder and posing cheekily, but for some reason Jim shot this at an angle to get most of the mast in the frame, which looked odd to me so I leveled it here.

Upon running into a resident soon after, we were informed that getting it out of there was going to take some time. While I had imagined that they’d have to dredge a channel just to clear the keel and float the boat, he instead said that they’d probably lift it with flotation bags and tow it out that way – but the high-tension power lines were way too close for that tall mast to be near. The power lines ran right off of the water’s edge – you can see three of the support poles above the gazebo, and though the closest poles are hidden in the palms, one of the wires can be seen appearing from behind the fronds and extending out of the frame; my typical entry spot for wading, just two dozen meters back along the shore from where this was taken, occurred right by the base of one of the power poles. The metal mast might swing within a dangerous proximity to these wires, and contact wasn’t necessary; such high voltages could arc easily across a gap, and in fact I’d photographed extraneous current arcing visibly, and noisily, from the wires across the insulators at night. So, the power would have to be shut down first, and these were the main lines feeding the coastal area. I never heard what the end result was, or how long it took them to extricate the boat, or whether they simply removed the damn mast before messing with it.

The author hamming it up, by James L. Kramer
As we headed back out the next day (with three cats protesting for the first 45 minutes,) we stayed with the coastal road flanking the lagoon for several kilometers, and saw countless stranded or newly-sunken boats, damaged docks, and extraneous unidentifiable structures in the water – the storm surge had clearly been pretty potent. What’s curious to me as I think about this is that the lagoon is a narrow brackish sound between the mainland and the barrier island, not three kilometers wide, and the storm surge had to have come up at least a meter to carry and ground the boat where it was, not to mention all of the other detritus we saw. It seems odd that such a narrow body of water could essentially shift enough to increase the depth at one side so significantly, and I’m a little sorry I wasn’t there to see it.

The saga continued soon after that too, since 2004 was a bad year for storms, and only a few days after we’d picked up my belongings, Hurricane Jeanne drove straight into the Florida coast, not far enough south of that region, and did a hell of a lot more damage. During my few years in Florida I’d witnessed nothing more impressive that a serious buttload of thunderstorms, but the two hurricanes that struck the region flanked the brief visit that completed my evacuation from the state.

juvenile eastern grey squirrel Sciurus carolinensis being hand fed
Not this squirrel, but just as aw-inspiring.
Which is not to say that I haven’t had my own hurricane experience. In 1996 when I was living in North Carolina (the first time,) Hurricane Fran drove straight inland and hit my region pretty hard. I was caretaker of an animal facility out in the boonies a bit, and also on-call for animal emergencies (because I hadn’t been paying attention to the weather reports – we were hardly in a normal hurricane zone – and switched shifts with someone.) As the rain began beating down, I managed to get the emergency van stuck in the mud of the property, because our landscaper was completely incompetent at, like, getting grass to grow. This had little effect on my duties – up until about 5 AM, when the 911 radio/pager began going berserk. With the van mired up to its axles, I couldn’t do a hell of a lot, but it didn’t matter much anyway. We were not on the radio network, meaning I couldn’t contact 911 dispatch by radio and had to telephone them instead; this proved entirely pointless for the next two hours at least, because the lines were jammed. Later on in the day, someone stopped by the complex and introduced himself as a 911 dispatcher – I recognized his voice. He presented me with a baby squirrel that had been displaced from one of the thousands of trees that had fallen across the county, including a massive one across the driveway of 911 dispatch itself. That was what they had been contacting me about, so everything was cool in that aspect at least, and I had the necessary stuff to care for a baby squirrel so it received immediate attention.

The power had been knocked out by all this, of course (but somehow not the phone lines – ask your grandfather what those are,) and it remained out for just shy of an entire week. Since I was security for the complex, which stupidly had only electromagnetic locks on the one building stuffed full of valuable equipment, I couldn’t even leave, and had to live there without power. Fully half of my job duties entailed computer bookkeeping and reports, so they weren’t happening. But much, much worse, I contracted some nasty little illness just a few days after the hurricane passed through.

The initial thought was a black widow bite, since the swelling on my thigh and the symptoms seemed to fit, but I’ve since heard that it’s impossible to tell, and the wound was high enough on my thigh, well within the leg of my shorts, that it’d be unlikely I’d get bitten by a spider up there, so the more likely culprit was tick-borne bacteria. The general effect was extreme lethargy and a tendency for my muscles to seize up if they weren’t used, and the day I almost couldn’t get out of bed told me I’d better see a doctor (that, and what I took to be a swollen lymph node in my crotch.) I was prescribed the antibiotic doxycycline, and I could have sworn the doctor told me to take it on an empty stomach. The first night, I downed a dose and went to sleep, fitfully in the sweltering heat of the bedroom, even with all of the windows opened in the cabin.

As I was to discover a few days later when I actually read the directions from the pharmacist, you always take doxycycline with food, because it has a wicked impact on an empty stomach. That’s foreboding, that is. That first night, I was awakened at roughly one AM by my wristwatch (ask Christopher Walken what that is) by what sounded like someone knocking on the door. Thinking this might have been the police or the power company checking on the house, or possibly someone looking to loot the place if they determined it was empty, I forced my seized muscles out of bed and over to the front door, where no one was to be seen at all. Then, the nausea hit, and by ‘hit’ I mean, ‘like a truck,’ and I violently dry heaved into the bushes alongside the door no less than five times. If it was someone looking to rob the place, they were undoubtedly scared off by this vocal performance, especially given how religious the area was and that I certainly sounded like the popular concept of demonic possession. “HuuurrAARRRHHHGGAAAHHHHAAAAAuuuurrr… [*pant* *pant*] aw fuHHHUUUAAAARRRRGGGGEEEAAAAUUUUhhhhrrrrjesustapdancingchristonamotorboat…”

I spent several minutes just sitting hunched over on the step, sweat pouring down my spine despite the chill night air – which, mind you, wasn’t circulating into the house in the slightest. Hurricanes scare all other weather away for days, so the skies remain clear, the wind never blows, and it basically becomes as still as a desert. Even as the temperature dropped at night, the air simply couldn’t circulate into the house and I spent each night sticking to the bed with sweat, on top of the illness which had me feeling pretty ratty without the nausea. And that performance recurred twice more in the next day before I noticed the instructions on the bottle…

When the power first went out, I avoided opening the fridge, attempting to keep its insulating properties as intact as possible. After two days, I began cleaning out as much as I could eat before it went bad, still leaving the freezer alone. After four days, I knew the freezer was a disaster area and refused to open it, getting the faint hint of what awaited me even as I got near its closed door. I ate a lot of bread crackers and such, and cooked some hotdogs outside over a campfire to wrap them in tortillas. The power came back on just seven hours shy of a full week without, and I gratefully switched on the fan and enjoyed the breeze. I will note that I been gathering water from the nearby pond in buckets so I could flush the toilet, so they needed a good scrub, as did I. But the freezer I let go another week, to completely freeze solid the horror within – which didn’t exactly work, because it affixed it to the bottom and sides and I still had to thaw at least portions to get them out. It was bad. I’m sparing you the details, but will tell you this: if the power’s out for 48 hours, clean out the freezer immediately.

Hurricanes, man.

P.S. I found out it wasn’t a swollen lymph node when it burst and began discharging a day later, and eventually left behind a subcutaneous hollow that I can still feel. I have no idea what that was all about. No, it was not ‘puberty,’ you asshole…