The Gleeful Gourmand: Shelter From the Storm

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Shelter From the Storm

Unless you’ve been living under a rock this past week, you know that Richmond was rocked by an earthquake on Tuesday, and is now in the throes of Hurricane Irene. Hurricanes we’ve seen here before. Earthquakes, not so much. I heard the quake before I felt it. I had just turned the dishwasher on after cleaning up our lunch dishes, and my first thought was, “Huh. Something is seriously wrong with our dishwasher.” In the next second I thought, “Wait a minute, that sounds more like a jet plane landing in our front yard.” Then I felt the shaking beneath my feet and I automatically knew that it was an earthquake (having been in two before in Hawaii).

I yelled for Liam who was in the dining room watching the tea set rattle on its tray, and he met me in the hall where I scooped up the girls from their pack n play, and herded us all under the doorjamb in the guest bedroom. It felt like it went on forever, and the house really shook. Apparently it only lasted 15 seconds. Nothing broke, just some paintings knocked askew.

But what’s really interesting to me was what I was thinking about just before the quake hit. I was thinking about Hurricane Irene, and also about Hurricane Isabel, which hit Richmond full-force back in 2003, and also Tropical Depression Gaston in 2004.

Even though Isabel was very significant – we lost power for 5 days, and water for at least 2 days – it’s Tropical Depression Gaston that really sticks in my mind. Maybe that’s because for Isabel I was hunkered down in my apartment, and in Gaston I was out in the middle of it.

No one expected Gaston to do much. We were supposed to get some heavy rain, maybe some wind, but nothing significant. It was a minor hurricane that made landfall in South Carolina. As it moved northward, it gained strength in Virginia from the Chesapeake Bay, and then stalled right over Richmond, dumping 12.60 inches of rain on us in just a few hours. By the time it was over 20 blocks of our city were under water. Buildings had collapsed, cars swept away, and nine people were killed. It was a devastating time for our city.

At the time I was working about 30 minutes south of the city. We had heard reports on the news and radio that Gaston was going to make some serious trouble, so many of us packed it in early to head home. I got on 95 North to head into the city, where I lived at the time. I expected some traffic, but I was not prepared for the parking lot I encountered just 15 miles down the road. The sky look ghastly, really bizarre and ominous – that’s the only way I can describe it. I had the radio on, and was talking to Buck (we had just gotten engaged that summer) on the phone to figure out what to do. It was in a break in the storm when my worst nightmare came true.

I was never a fan of storms in the first place. But my worst fear was (is) tornadoes. I remember that the rain had stopped for just a moment, and a huge gust of wind sent a lot of debris flying across my car from the left. The next second, a flock of birds burst from some trees and raced across from my right. I remember thinking how incredibly strange that was, when I suddenly saw, on the other side of the road, a tornado form and touch down right on I 95 South. It moved past very quickly. I couldn’t even form words, and I know I was shaking. In the next moment a guy in a huge red pickup truck rumbled up next to me on the shoulder. Both our windows were down (I was trying to speed up the defrosting of my steamed-up windshield).

“Did you see that!?” he yelled gleefully.

“Yes, I saw it,” I said, and then promptly burst into tears. (Do you remember when I said tornadoes are my worst fear?).

He burst out laughing. “It’s okay! It’s okay!” He yelled at me, still laughing.

“NO it’s not!” I retorted this so hotly that he simply laughed some more and drove on past. Meanwhile, the rest of us were stuck in gridlock.

It took me hours to get across the river, talking back and forth with Buck and my parents trying to figure out if there was another way I could get around the city and get home, but there wasn’t. Not only did I not know my way around south of the city but it was a parking lot everywhere. By the time I made it across the bridge and into the city, I was beyond frazzled. And I also had to pee so badly it hurt. I even tried to go in my water bottle. But even though it was dark and I didn’t think anyone else could see me, I still couldn’t go. By then, I had managed to exit onto the downtown expressway, convinced I could get into the city and camp out at the Omni Hotel and just stay put for awhile. I remember looking down (the ramp was way up high) and seeing the water flowing swiftly into what’s called The Shockoe Bottom (the city is almost like a “V” with the Shockoe Bottom literally at the bottom before it starts climbing back up. This is where many of the historical buildings are and the roads are still made of cobblestone dating back to the 1700s). I watched a car get swept along with it and slammed into a building. I couldn’t see if anyone was inside.

In my completely unhinged state at this point, I accidentally got in the wrong lane. In the dark, with all the rain and traffic I suddenly found myself going back over a bridge – right back where I had just come from. I couldn’t believe how stupid I had been, but it actually turned out in my favor. I saw a huge Sun Trust building across the river, and headed straight for it. I found a parking space right out front and ran into the building.

“I have to use the bathroom!” I shouted to the security guard at the front desk.

“Then you need to leave your driver’s license at the desk,” he blandly replied. I was so frustrated that I threw not only my keys but also my driver’s license at him and bolted to the bathroom.

Once I had, er, collected myself, I called Buck and told him where I was. He told me to stay put, and I got some things out of a vending machine. I sat in the front lobby eating my snacks and watched as one employee after the other left with hearty calls of trying to “brave it” home, only to see them return 10 minutes later, completely defeated. We weren’t going anywhere. It was now 8 p.m., and employees had begun to gather in the lobby, wondering when they’d be able to get home. I tried Buck again at his apartment, but for some reason, he wasn’t there. I called my parents and practically forced my mom to tell me what was going on. She finally caved.

He was coming to get me.

That idiotic, incredible man was coming to get me and bring me home.

If you know my husband at all, you’ll know he is a definite type A personality. Tell him that the woman he loves is trapped in a terrible storm and the whole city is in gridlock and he will literally go crazy because there’s nothing he can do. But wait. There IS something he can do. He can run, 6 miles from his apartment in The Fan, in the wind and the rain, down across the river to come get me. Did I forget to mention that he’s a triathlete, 3-time Ironman finisher, and all around extraordinary man?

I was so mad at him for putting himself in harm’s way, and when I told some women whom I had been talking to what he was doing, I broke down. The stress had finally become too much. These women, whose names I cannot remember, offered to pray with me. And we did, right there in the lobby of the Sun Trust building, with tons of people standing around, wondering when the hell they would get home. I wish I did know their names so I could properly thank them.

When Buck finally came through the doors, decked out in his running gear and a reflective vest, all I could do was walk up to him and kiss him. People actually clapped and cheered. It was an unbelievable moment. Then he got us in my car and drove us to his apartment (the roads by this time were crowded, but manageable). By the time we settled on his couch, it was 9:30 at night.

Storms like Gaston, like Irene, bring out the best in people and the worst in people. There will always be the idiots who go seeking out a hurricane, or who think that barreling along the shoulder in a tornado and laughing about it is fun. I knew in that moment that my husband would be the best man I could possibly marry, and the best father because he would literally go to any length to protect those he loves.

So that’s what I think of when these storms roll through town. I think about staying safe, but I also think about the moment when I absolutely knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the man I eventually married would do anything for me, go to any length, and loved me enough to run through a storm for me.


Elizabeth Wilson said...

That story always makes me cry!

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