Remembering Hurricane Gaston

August 30th

Ten years ago this time–6:30 p.m.–I was struggling to get home from work.  I was low on gas and cash because I was on a new contract and had been unemployed all summer.  As the commute crept along in the rain and its requisite traffic, I calculated how much of both I was using.

What should’ve taken 20 minutes was taking much longer; already I had been rerouted from I-95 to I-295 and was a half hour out of my way.

TROPICAL WEATHER
Massive sinkhole at 31st and East Grace Streets. (WTVR Channel 6)

After getting lost on all the impromptu detours that followed–flooding roads, streets that would’ve barely been familiar were the visibility not close to zero, and downed power lines, I made it into the city.  The usually 30 minute commute had turned into 2 hours.  All my gas for the week was gone and I had no idea how I would get more.

streets flooding - the weather channel
Surface Streets flooded making them impassable. Many cars stalled and drivers and passengers had to wade to safety. (The Weather Channel)

But at the time that was the least of my worries.  Now that I was in the city, I had to make it to my apartment.  I made it to a cross street, Cary, which was completely black due to one of many power outages across the region.  I signaled my turn and was told by police officers drenched, frustrated, and brash: Keep going.

17th Street Farmer's Market
This is the 17th Street Farmer’s Market. I lived across the street. It was dark so I couldn’t tell from the cross street that my street was under 9 feet of water at the time officers were telling me to keep going.

I kept going, and each time I found my way to a new route to get onto my one-way side street I was told to “keep going.”  The circling lasted for more hours; one time I was directed to I-95.  “To go where?” I asked the officer, “Just GO!”  The radio and my earlier re-routing onto I-295 was telling me that I-95 was not faring much better than the surface streets.

I95 underwater - urbanplanet.org
Sections of I-95 were flooded, making movement all but impossible. (UrbanPlanet.org)

On the phone my father was telling me to come home–he would even meet me halfway.  At the time I didn’t want to tell him that I didn’t have the gas to do that even if I wanted to (“home” is four hours away). I did explain to him that the radio anchor said that the flooding was so bad in the city and the surrounding regions that I-95 had become a parking lot in areas so even if I had the gas to get to him, I couldn’t. I was trapped in a watery limbo.

Finally I gave up.  It was the wee hours and few cars were moving in the area by now. Much of the water had subsided.  Folks like me who had been trapped in the watery limbo of a commute parked in municipal lots preparing to hunker down in their vehicles too.  I later learned some people slept in their downtown offices and that a few hotels made rooms available to those whose companies or leasing managers made those concessions.  I saw some folks, probably city bus riders, walking through the sludge and what was now a humid misting rain in their ruined business clothes.

the capitol steps flooding
The State Capitol steps near where I parked to spend the night.

It was eerily quiet when I parked, locked myself in, and prepared to spend the night in my vehicle.  My cell phone battery was dying and my mother wanted me to get off the phone, but didn’t want to leave me alone either.  I promised her I would be safe.  The police presence was palpable and there were so many others like me, around me in what I told myself was a complicit pact to look out for each other.

I sat in the quiet and sighed.  Then I decided to try to get to my apartment again.  It was only a few blocks away but this would be a stealth operation.  I had to find a street not police-taped and avoid officers who might turn me away.  I remembered the alley across the street from my building, found my way to it, turned out my headlights and crept through the dark narrowness.

I made it into the upper parking deck of my building.  The cars looked like they had played a bad game of bumper cars.  The streetlights, poles and all, lay felled in the street.  Yet I stepped out in relief.  The air was thick and my sandal stuck like I’d stepped in a floor of peanut butter.  I took them off and walked barefoot through the mush into my gate.  Upstairs, in the community courtyard, my neighbors sat in the dark barbequing.  “You missed it,” they joked, and offered what at that hour would’ve been breakfast.  I told them the quick version of my story–my 30 minute commute had turned to 6 hours.

parking deck - kenweberphotography
Some of my neighbors sandbagged the upper parking deck that I eventually made my way to. Apartments in Jackson Warehouse, the brick building on the left, were destroyed by the flooding. (kenweberphotography.com)

That would not be the end of the story.

The next day my building was condemned though my apartment being upstairs, had been unaffected save for a computer crash and a few lost groceries in the electrical outage.

Police told residents to evacuate immediately.  To go where?  They said we could walk the 6 miles to the only open shelter, a public gym, in the city.  We could not take our vehicles–the roads would not allow it.  An officer who noticed my out-of-state license plates and spoke to me as though I were as young as I look gave me the benefit of the doubt.  He told me to go “home” and stay with my family for a few days until things got better.  My tires slid on the sludge as he led me on his bike to the clearest thoroughfare.

sludge
The sludge I slid on while trying to evacuate.

I thanked him, and with no gas to fulfill my promise to him, I took my backpack of clothes and my school books to the shelter gym across town.  I slept, but not really slept, there for almost a week.  I ate, but not really ate, there for almost a week.  I was permitted to visit my apartment between 10 and 6 under official escort and with id indicating my residential address, to get more items.

police guarding the neighborhood 2 - julianna wilson for richmond times dispatch
Police guarded the area; only those who could prove residence were allowed to enter the area. (Julianna Wilson for Richmond Times Dispatch)

The escorting firefighter told me I should make up with the dude I had recently stopped dating.  This was getting hectic, but I had my pride.  I took my last ten dollars and got my eyebrows waxed.

When the city determined to close the shelter, I still had nowhere to go.  I had been back to the neighborhood a few times.  During the day I was permitted to go to my apartment by showing id that listed my address but at night it was back to homelessness.  In my neighborhood, vendors, the Salvation Army, local aid and religious agencies, and the Red Cross offered free food, water, and outdoor stations where residents could apply for FEMA and shelter assistance.  I ate well and applied for assistance but as a single with no dependents was systematically denied shelter.

salvation army in neighborhoods
The Salvation Army mobile unit visited neighborhoods throughout the city–not just my neighborhood was affected. Power was out; trees had fallen; there were major sinkholes; ATMs and gas pumps didn’t work–not that I could use either! Governor Mark Warner declared a State of Emergency the situation was so dire. (SalvationArmy.org)

The day the shelter officially closed, I had to drive to the Department of Social Services.  There I was offered a seedy hotel room for 2 nights; for everything else I would have to fend for myself.

our courtyard
From the street, one enters a metal gate to a dark narrow stairwell that opens onto our apartment community and this courtyard. Our courtyard was 3 flights up, so our units weren’t affected by the actual flooding.  But our building was condemned because the lower level, where offices were housed, suffered severe water and therefore possible structural damage. (Main Street Realty)

That night I watched the news with a friend, Sonja, I had met at the shelter.  My neighborhood was no longer quarantined and I could return to my apartment!  I could barely sleep; I left the last night on my hotel voucher to Sonja and went home.  That weekend I hung out with my neighbors again barbequing the contents of our refrigerators–our power had been on for all but a few hours over the week, but the thawed food couldn’t be refrozen and needed to be cooked.

We swapped stories about where we’d lived for the week, what we ate, where we were the rains came.  Probably none of us knew then that from there on when hard rains fell we would hunker down waiting for news that couldn’t know the fickle ways of Mother Nature.  Or maybe that’s just me.

Gaston had not been classified as a hurricane until after the nine deaths and $130 million in damage was done.

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