The Aftermath of Ivan, the Terrible
I walked outside to a world transformed, unrecognizable. Trees were down, everywhere. The trees still standing had few to no leaves, almost like we'd gone from summer to deep winter overnight...except that even deep winter doesn't look like this here, because the oaks keep their leaves through the winter. They say that a picture's worth a thousand words...the last ones are side-by-side before and after.
(It's hard to tell from this pic, but besides all the visibly missing shingles, the whole back addition is bare, down to the boards/rafters.)
The Rest Of Day 0 - A New World Order
I walk around in the wind and rain, each new corner turned bringing me more unwelcome views of the destruction. For a few moments, I can only stand and stare in disbelief, as the rain soaks me to the skin. I'm so numb that I don't even feel the wet or the cold. A large metal billboard has come down in the neighbor's yard, and knocked down tree limbs onto their vehicles. My privacy fence is blown down, all in one piece. The timbers, spaced at 8-foot intervals, were all snapped off at the ground. Shingles are everywhere. My back-room roof is down to bare boards, and the rest of the roof is leopard-spotted with missing shingles. I look at the tangle of huge tree limbs blocking the street, and feel lucky to be alive. I see the huge oak (pictured above) which stands right next to my house - it is now split right down the middle, and as the wind continues to gust, the crack expands enough to see daylight through it. It's nothing short of miraculous that it's still standing.
One set of neighbors pulls up to survey their house, as I'm plugging my cell phone into the car charger. Their damage is similar to mine. We're all happy to be alive and healthy. Happy to have houses that, while damaged, are still standing. Looking at all the downed trees, we're amazed that none of them came to rest on any of the houses. God was surely watching out for many people in this area.
I go back a little later for my phone, and find that there's no service. Now I truly am cut off from everything outside. There's no water, no power, no phone. The street looks like a war zone. I get in the truck, hoping to drive around and possibly find a cell signal so I can let my family know I'm okay.
Driving the few miles that I drove, it became clear that my neighborhood was hardly unique. The devastation extended everywhere - downed trees, ripped-off roofs, even a few brick buildings completely razed. No traffic lights operating anywhere, and people unsure how to treat the intersections. People wandering around in the streets, with faces that mirrored my own - shock, disbelief. I didn't find a cell phone signal, so I went back home.
As the final remnants of the storm cleared off later in the day, it wasn't too long before the helicopters were out. News helicopters, police helicopters, military helicopters. Emergency vehicles on the roads, all with lights flashing as they went. Announcement of a 24-hour curfew for the city. National Guardsmen brought in. All served to reinforce the feeling of living in a war-torn country.
I take a short nap in the afternoon, and my neighbor tells me that she found a working pay phone at the drugstore up the road. I hop in the truck and make my way down there to use it. As I'm talking to my family, a rainbow appears briefly against the now far-off dark clouds. It lifts my spirits a little, to see it.
As night falls, the stars come out with a vengeance. With over 90% of the city without power, there are hundreds of stars visible, ones that we don't normally get to see due to all the city lights. Almost no cars are passing by in the main street. It's like we've suddenly been transported far from civilization, either in time or place. I sit out on my porch and enjoy watching the stars, the satellites, the meteorites - it's a rare treat, because I normally can't see much more than a few of the brighter constellations, and of course there is never a long break in the traffic noise on any regular night. I'm thinking that this does have some benefits, that in some ways it's really kind of nice...at least until I walk back into my house, and get hit with the wall of dank, humid air inside again. Everything is damp, even in the room that wasn't leaking. The air feels clammy against my skin, and already smells a little sour. Only half of my windows will open, the rest are swelled shut from the leaky roof. I sigh, and go to bed. Fortunately I'm just so exhausted that I fall right to sleep.
Friday, September 17, Day 1 - Picking Up The Pieces
Got up with the sun, though not really by choice. My bedroom window faces northeast, and the sun streaming in the open window hits me square in the eyes. I get up, and I don't recognize the haunted eyes staring back at me from the mirror. I don't know where to start today. My neighbors all come outside, and we all talk for a little while - something we've hardly ever done as a group. Our lives are in suspended animation now. There are no jobs to go to today, there is no TV to watch or computer to get on, and no phone to talk on. All we have is each other, and we take stock of what we have and promise to help one another out as much as possible.
The radio is telling us that our water could be contaminated and we'll have to boil it before using it - well, if we had any tap water, that is. They're telling us that it could now be up to two months before our power and other services are restored. While the rest of the world is seeing pictures of the damage wreaked by the storm, we can only listen to broadcasts of how many people have died, how many are without power, and how difficult it is to get supplies into the city because of all the cut-off roads. We can only imagine what the washed-out bridge at Interstate 10 across Escambia Bay looks like, while everyone else in the world is seeing aerial footage of it.
And as if we haven't been through enough - the stinging and biting insects have come out in force. Hornets, paper wasps and yellowjackets, whose nests have been disturbed or destroyed, are everywhere. By the end of the day, quite a few of us have been stung. Biting flies are also eating on us every chance they get. And it's hot, so covering up skin isn't much of a better option. At least the mosquitos seem to have been blown away, though with all the standing water around there's little doubt they'll be back soon too.
There are also a few bright spots to the day. A local gas station opens its doors and sells items the old-fashioned way - recording each transaction by hand, cash only. We are able to buy some bottled water, sodas, batteries, and other things. No ice, though. I'm glad now that I took some extra cash out before the hurricane, because there's no telling when I'll be able to get more. At the end of the day, we all get together and pool our rapidly-thawing frozen food, and have an impromptu block party dinner.
Cell coverage has been spotty at best, though it finally gets better late in the evening on this day. We find out a little later that the reason we had coverage for so long after the power went out was because of backup batteries at the towers - which are now also exhausted. Since the towers still don't have power, they're having to go around to each one with generators in order to recharge them.
As an aside, I know there are a lot of folks who are completely against gun ownership - but this was one time in my life that I was definitely glad I had one. We were utterly without communication for two days, almost three - there was *no* way to call the police for help, not by cell phone and not by regular phone. Cell phones were back within a couple of days, but we were without home service for a month - so I was glad I had a cell phone as well (and I doubt that anyone who was without service for as long as we were would ever again say, "I wouldn't own a cell phone, have no use for them"). Fortunately there was no trouble in our neighborhood, but others were not so fortunate. At least two intruders were shot by homeowners in the weeks after - intruders who were taking advantage of the fact that alarm systems were useless and communication difficult or non-existant.
It doesn't take a hurricane to cause a similar disruption of civilized life - any large-scale disaster (whether natural or man-made) could do the same. It's amazing how much we take for granted by way of depending on services like police, fire, medical, communication, transportation, power, and the ability to buy what we need, when we need it.
Saturday, September 18, Day 2 - Things Are Looking Up
Managed to make some coffee this morning by boiling water on the stove (which is natural gas, thankfully - the only service that was not disrupted), and then pouring it by hand through the filter of the drip coffeemaker. Took my neighbor to work across town, since automotive gas is also now becoming an item in short supply. On the trip across town, we see Florida National Guardsmen at all the major intersections, directing traffic. God bless 'em, it's hot and they're out there in full fatigues, some with rifles slung across their shoulders. I'm glad to see them, grateful that they're here. We also have to re-route several times along the way - once for sewage across the road at the sewage treatment plant, several times for downed trees. Everywhere we go, we see the same things; downed trees, downed power lines, damaged roofs, people trying to put their houses, yards, and lives back together.
On the way back, I happen across a drugstore running on generator power, and decide to stock up on a few more items such as candles and canned soup. I pass two open gas stations, and the lines for them are a mile long or longer. I also see a convoy of fire trucks from several other Florida counties - Volusia, Orange, St. John's. It's one thing to hear on the radio how people are coming from all over to lend assistance, but quite another to actually see it. Definitely lifts the spirits to know that total strangers can and will come and help during such a time - especially when so many of them have already spent long hours helping after Bonnie, Charley, and Frances.
I spend the rest of my day cleaning up a little here and there, calling my insurance company, and pitching a tent in my front yard. The house is just too hot and too damp to sleep in. My neighbors come back with the news that the National Guard is passing out ice, water and MRE's at the high school, and they give me a bag of the ice they picked up. We hear on the radio that the local grocery store is going to be open as well, and go down there and stand in line. Unfortunately they can't get their computers working, so they decide not to open after all (can't scan the prices). So we go back home empty-handed.
In the evening, we see two "Marine One" helicopters heading to NAS, preparing for the President's visit on the following day. He was just here a month ago, I can't imagine that anyone (including him) ever expected he'd have a reason to make another visit so soon.
Sunday, September 19, Day 3 - A Few More Improvements
Went down to the gas station down the road - they still don't have power, but they're still selling items cash-only. I buy a newspaper, and get my first look at what most of the rest of the nation has already seen. I get to see the pictures of the I-10 bridge, of the remains of the fishing pier by the Three-Mile bridge, and an aerial shot of the devastated marina just down the road from me. I'm still amazed at how Mother Nature can wreak the kind of destruction that a terrorist could only dream of...how she can bring us back to primitive living conditions so effortlessly.
We hear that the grocery store is trying to open again, so we go back down there. This time we do get in, after standing in line outside for a while. We get the staples (ice, water) and a few luxury things too. Things are definitely looking up, life is getting a little better every day - though in small increments. I could never have imagined that simple things, like finding an open store, would be things that would make me so happy.
We also have a trickle of tap water in the house for a little while, but it doesn't last. It's at least enough to refill my tub by a few inches, which will give me another couple of days of wash water and toilet tank water. I'm getting pretty good at washing my hair in the sink, using the least amount of water I can get away with. One of my neighbors tells me that he's never been camping - I tell him that he basically has, now. This is all very much like primitive camping, just in a permanent structure.
We get to see Air Force One taking off from NAS Pensacola. I can only imagine what the people in that plane are thinking, as they look down on all the damage and destruction. They're probably glad it wasn't them, that they have nice homes to go back to where they don't have to worry about hurricanes.
Monday, September 20, Day 4 - A Day Of Progress
As my neighbors went out for their daily ration of ice, water and MRE's, they came back with some good news - there are power crews working at both ends of the main road we live next to. We figure they're just going to restore that main line and then come back for us later, but in the evening they turn down our street. The crew is from Illinois, and they tell us that they're sleeping on the porch of a church at night. A tree crew clears off just enough to get the lines back up, and as darkness falls we have power restored. Our four houses at this end of the street are the only ones who get power tonight, the rest of the street has to wait until tomorrow, when a snapped-off power pole can be replaced. Our water also comes back on, and we can finally take showers again instead of just sponge baths. We still have no phone and no cable (and here, without cable or a very large antenna, you get nothing at all for TV), but life is definitely getting a whole lot better.
I start writing this page soon after the power has been restored, wanting to get as much of it down as possible before I forget. As I'm writing about the night of the hurricane, the wind picks up a little outside and starts banging a loose piece of metal flashing against the house. I break into a cold sweat at the sound - it's clear that this has affected me more than I realized. It's going to be some time before I can be inside the house, with strong wind gusting outside, without feeling a little anxious and tense. Odd for me, since I've never been at all unsettled by weather. Growing up in Tornado Alley, where strong summer thunderstorms are the norm, I was never bothered by severe weather. But the difference there is that it comes and goes quickly, you're never under the threat for more than a few hours at most. This was almost a full day of unrelenting wind, and the threat of the whole house coming apart around me lasted the entire night.
The Rest Of The Week
The rest of the week has been much the same, no further progress on phone or cable. No adjuster has been out to survey the damage to my house. The neighbors helped me get tarps and plastic sheeting on my roof, so hopefully it won't leak when it rains next. It's amazing that Ivan has returned once again to dump rain on Texas!
Six Months Later
April 6th, 2005, and here I sit in the midst of a horrible downpour - with water coming in as badly (or worse) as it did the night of Ivan. This, on top of two days of awful rain just last week (almost 10 inches). And a hailstorm the week before that, which shredded my 'blue roof' and took the cap off my chimney. I had a contractor lined up, that fell through, and I've had two roofers out this past week. Hopefully it won't be much longer that I'll have to dread looking at the weather forecast.
To backtrack a bit first, though...
We got cable back in just under a month. Phone took even longer. Here are some of my thumbs-ups and jeers for how things were handled:
BellSouth - their technicians get thumbs up and thumbs down, mostly up though. The only reason for the thumbs-down is that two days after our service was restored (by a crew from Tennessee), another crew came out and did some rewiring. When they did, I lost phone service again. When I called in, the service person said the problem was on my end, full stop. I was sure it wasn't and asked for someone to check it in person. I was told it would be over a month before anyone could get to it - this on top of the month I'd already gone without. Thumbs up to the local tech I found though - poor guy, I ambushed him at a gas station and begged him to please just take a look at it. He did, found that they'd miswired my phone (to a house that is empty and doesn't have service at all), and he came back the next day, on his own time, to fix it. So thumbs-down to the techs who messed up my working phone, but thumbs-up to the ones who got me back on, twice.
The telephone call center folks get a thumbs down, none of my dealings with them were positive at all. My first call to them was to get my bill (for phone and DSL internet) adjusted to reflect the fact that I hadn't had service for a whole month, and I got a big runaround. I was told, "It's not our fault that you didn't have service." I said, "So, it's my fault, then?" They said, "No, it's an act of God." I had to bite my tongue, hard, to keep from suggesting that they send my bill to the Almighty to see if he'd pay for it. Instead, I just reiterated that I felt I should not have to pay for service ($90 worth of phone and internet) that I flat did not HAVE. We argued this for a while before I finally got the credit. Same when I made the service call - when I objected to the fact that I was going to have to wait ANOTHER month just for someone to come look at my problem (which they caused themselves), the person said, "well, ma'am, there's been a hurricane...". Oooooh, okay - I wondered what the heck happened to my roof and all my utilities, that sure explains it - thanks so much, I had no idea there had been a hurricane here! (Grrrrrr!!!!)
Okay, I know that they probably had to deal with all kinds of impatient people who started demanding phone service restoration the first day after the hurricane (and probably every day after that until they got service again, too) - I do sympathize. But I didn't get this kind of hassle from any other utility, either about my service or my bill.
Cox Cable - thumbs up all the way. No trouble with getting a service credit for the outage at all. Also props to them for broadcasting footage (on the local access channel) taken by their cable techs while out repairing lines. Their video was really the first I got to see of the extent of the devastation - since by the time we had TV again, the hurricane was old news (and not being covered) anywhere else. Kind of funny to think that the rest of the world got to see it all before I did.
Sprint (cellular) - also thumbs up all the way. Went over my minutes in the couple of weeks after, while trying to contact FEMA, insurance, family, etc. Called Sprint to see what (if anything) I could do about it, and they just erased the overage - like it never happened. Other cellular companies around here charged their users a discounted rate for overage, but Sprint didn't. And people wonder why I've been so loyal to them for so many years now...
Allstate Insurance - big thumbs up, especially once I started hearing what other people went through with their insurance companies. I've had a check for months now - it's been finding a contractor that has been difficult. The adjuster was fair, got to me as quickly as he was able, and I was satisfied with my settlement.
FEMA - as far as I'm concerned, thumbs down. There are people who STILL don't have a settled claim, whose houses were completely wiped out - because the National Flood insurers (a FEMA program) and private insurance companies want to fight about what damage was caused by wind, and what was water. Meanwhile, the people can't move on and start to rebuild, they're left hanging in limbo while each side sees how much of the damage they can pawn off on the other side.
This is ridiculous - give the people some money and fight it out later! These homeowners thought they were fully insured, and they were - but they're not getting paid. If there's going to be a battle about who pays for what, it needs to be fought before the incident, not after. Let some uninvolved third party make the 'what was flood and what was wind' determination and have it be binding on both sides, if that's what it takes to get these folks' claims settled. If it's going to continue to be an issue, then either create a National *Hurricane* insurance program (that covers ALL damage that is in any way related to or caused by a named storm), or else have the private insurers start writing flood policies again.
Again, granted - the private insurance companies are doubtless trying to pay as little as possible, figuring that since the government isn't in business to make money (and the private insurers are), the government can afford to bear the lion's share of the payout. In many of these cases, FEMA is probably just standing their ground. But that doesn't help the homeowners at all. It also doesn't help that each battle is being fought individually (there are houses within 500 feet of one another where one was determined as say, 60% water (surge) and 40% wind, where the other was determined as 10% surge and 90% wind. The water level was the same in both houses, so it seems to me that the percentage caused by water would be the same in both places). Again, this is where having a policy that covers everything hurricane-related (surge, falling objects, wind damage, mold arising from rain damage, etc) would solve the problem, whether it's provided by private or public sector. If your house is flattened by a tornado, you don't have to fight about what damage was caused by wind alone, and what by flying debris, and what by uprooted trees - it's all tornado damage, and the claim is settled. Hurricanes are no different - storm surge or inland flooding are just as much a part of any hurricane as high winds are.
As for FEMA's aid program - from everything I saw, it aided the people who needed it least, and left out those who needed it most. For example - let's say you're well-off financially, insured, got very little damage to your house but had some trees uprooted in your yard. Right after the hurricane (or even before it), you go shell out $1300 for a generator, and $100 for a chainsaw. Guess what - you get reimbursed, for all of it. But let's say you're an underinsured (but still insured) homeowner who lost a roof, couldn't possibly afford a generator so you just went without power (and watched hundreds of dollars of freezer food spoil, because you had no way to cook it and couldn't possibly have eaten it all before it went bad even if you did have a way to cook it). You couldn't afford a chainsaw (or couldn't use one because of lack of knowledge or lack of physical health to be out cutting up trees). Guess what - you get nothing. Nada. Zilch.
Of the people in my neighborhood (low to middle income housing), one got help because they didn't have insurance at all. Of the people I know in high-middle to high-income neighborhoods, they ALL got help - got checks for thousands to reimburse them for generators, chainsaws, storage units, etc. Apparently, if you can afford it on your own, they'll repay you. If you can't, well - too bad.
Even the blue-roof program was not all it was cracked up to be. I applied for (and got) a blue roof. When I came home from work that day, I found that they'd covered the whole house - oh, except for the part that was DAMAGED THE WORST, that is. They covered the part that still had some shingles - and left the part that was nothing but decking completely bare. When I asked why, they said, "it's a porch, porches aren't covered." I argued that it most certainly was NOT a porch - it has heat, air, carpet, furnishings, electricity, is completely enclosed and attached to the house. One end of it doesn't even have a door, just an archway between that room and the kitchen. But no - it's a porch, because they said so (the tax assessor certainly doesn't see it that way though, they count it as living space). So for the past six months, every time it's rained I've had water streaming into it. Mold is everywhere. My heat/air ducts are full of water, because they're floor registers and there's no way to keep the flood out of them. But hey, it's just a porch, no big loss. Grrr!!
Here are a few pics from this evening - first is the radar image, then some pics from inside the house (oh, excuse me - the *porch*).
Anyway - overall, the city of Pensacola (and surrounding county) is probably a little more than halfway recovered at this point. Blue roofs are not as common as they used to be, probably one in every ten houses now rather than one of every three or so. There are still some piles of debris here and there, but for the most part those are all gone as well. Now, if we can get through this year's hurricane season without another major one, we'll be good. :)