Preface: While there will be some humor in this story, it is there only to add
levity to a very stressful and painful time in the lives of literally hundreds
of thousands of people who were a part of Ivan's wrath. It is not meant
to minimize anyone elses experience, but to tell you mine.
You know, I lived in Oklahoma, which is affectionately called Tornado Alley, nearly my entire adult life. I know from experience that you can crawl your terrified rear in a hole in the ground and hide like a quivering mass of jelly as that sucker blows half the earth away above you. I lived my childhood in Alaska and know that you can vibrate your way through an earthquake, then pick of the pieces of the shattered dishes on the floor and resume supper. I lived nearly a year in the shadow of Mt. Shasta, inactive, but something to give you pause after Mt. St. Helen's blew her top.
Now I live on the Gulf of Mexico. I can tell you one thing. . . you ain't begun to live until you try to outrun a hurricane! Ivan taught me that lesson. Remember the Oklahoma City Tornado? Ivan was like that, only on crack cocaine --- MEAN and HUGE, stretching it's vast size across several states at one time!!!
All of our children lived on the Gulf coast until recently, when our son moved north to Minnesota. We called it "Coxsey Family Hurricane Roulette," as to which one of us would be slammed. One daughter is in Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, in the panhandle and the other in Houston. Son was right in the middle at Gulf Shores, Alabama. Okay....Minnesota and Houston are safe from Ivan, but what about Ft. Walton? Right, smack dab in path. Not to worry said our son. Sis is heading to Orlando. Sigh of relief.
My friend Carol and I have had this running joke since I moved here. On the first episode of the 1980's television hit, "Dallas", Daddy Jock was out in the wind yelling for Bobby and JR to "Hurry up and get the horses in the barn. There's a hurricane 'a comin!!!" In Dallas???? Now there's a new one. But now, Carol and I take one look at a tropical storm and one of us has to call the other to say, "Get the horses in the barn! There's a hurricane 'a comin!!!" Ivan looked to require us to saddle them thar horses up and ride them suckers clean to Kentucky!
We've been in Biloxi, Mississippi for just over three years now. We've seen several tropical storms blow through and rode them out. Ivan was a horse of a very different color. He was like a big snack monster out there in the Caribbean. He took a big chomp out of Jamaica and several other island countries, nibbled on Cuba and then parked himself in the Gulf, refocusing his huge, red eye on the gulf coast. Where was he going to go next? That is left up to the whim of "Father Nature." I chose to call it Father Nature, because a Mother would never make that kind of mess and leave it behind for others to pick up. She would know she’d have to clean the mess up herself!
As did other residents of the gulf coast, we began our hurricane preparations. Off to Walmart to buy bottled water, batteries, candles, food that can be prepared with no electricity. Our choice? Beanie Weenies and Vienna Sausages. Okies till the bitter end! Then we watched and waited. It was curving north- northeast...No, it's wobbling a bit westward. No, never mind that, it's definitely heading ...Who knows? Our every waking moment for days was watching The Weather Channel and all the local weather forecasters.
Between watching the weather forecasts, we packed, just in case we had to do the "E" word. No one wants to hear that one...EVACUATE! Now, packing to leave a home you are not so sure will even be there upon return is a gut-wrenching experience. We have a pickup truck, so while we have some storage, we darn sure can't take it all. So, we pack all the clothing we can stuff in one large suitcase, fill the briefcase with important papers, grab all the photos and family videos that can't be replaced. I also stuffed all of my old, handmade quilts into a garbage bag. One thing that had to go with me was a box of precious mementoes that I had from my Mother, who passed away last fall. Some of them belong to one of my brothers and he begged me to be sure and take those. The rest? All the small but personally valuable heirlooms from generations of both mine and my husband's family, we had to leave behind.
Then we sat back and waited. Tornadoes move fast as a rule. You get a tornado warning and you'd best find a place to hide. That's not the nature of a hurricane. They can either rush the coast or sit out there for days, taunting you. Ivan was a taunter. I know; no such word, so I made it up. Don't bother telling me it's incorrect English. My spell checker already has and it too can bite me.
Ivan was out there, crawling along at the sonic speed of maybe 8 miles per hour. That did not bode well for whomever he chose to eat. It gave him time to strengthen and also told us when he FINALLY hit land, he might just stick around a do the Hurricane Mambo with them for a while. Was "them" us??? A few times the forecasters actually said the "B" word...BILOXI! My heart sank and my stomach required several antacids.
I called everyone I knew to call. Family, friends, casual acquaintances, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, etc., to tell them we might have to leave. Those I didn't call, I emailed. I'd let them know when I knew where we were going or at the least, let them know when we got home...If there was a home to come home to. At that time, we weren't sure ourselves where to go. It depended on where Mr. Ivan went. Oh, we had offers out the wazoo. Ok...So "wazoo" is not a word according to spell checker either. And your point?
My friend Carol, the genius who builds all my pretty graphics for my website and is like a sister to me, (That's all the sucking up I'm going to do, Carol!) offered her home in Lafayette, Louisiana. Friends in Monroeville, Alabama, Dee & James Jordan asked us to come there. My "Nana-Mama" and her husband, Lyman and Vivian Whitman, at Lake Martin, Alabama offered their home. Other friends, Bill and Bobbie Brown called and offered their cabin on the same lake. Even one of my smart-aleck cousins in Alaska offered us their home. Yeah, Judy, we are gonna run right up there....Bite me. :) All my Okie friends and family were saying run up there. Our daughter in Houston wanted us to come there, along with friends, Wanda and Roger who live near Houston. We had more invites than the Queen of England. I never knew we were so dang popular!
By the time Tuesday, September 14th rolled around, it was time to make a decision. That dude was heading this way; close enough that we had to do the dreaded "E" word. EVACUATE!!! I sent out one final email to everyone, telling them we were outta here and asking them to pray. I unplugged my computer and set it aside to take along.
My husband Ralph, works as a security guard for one of the local casinos and brilliant man that he is, signed up for hurricane duty this year. WHAT WAS HE THINKING????? We had to wait until noon that day for him to call and see if he was going to have to stay there. If he had, I would have been put up in a nice hotel suite and then during the storm, sit in the elevator lobbies with the rest of the unfortunate families whose idiot spouses had signed up for hurricane duty. Oh boy, was I ever looking forward to that! A category 4 hurricane bearing down on us and I was going to get to go to a "hurricane party". Trust me, I am not that foolish to do it deliberately, but I would have if it had come to that. Ralph had a heart attack last December and if he tried to croak, I was going to be there to beat on his chest till he wished he was dead! Make him think leave me here alone in the middle of a hurricane! If he so much as hints at working hurricane duty next year, I’m going to start singing Tammy Wynette’s song. “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” Maybe he’ll catch the hint.
He made the phone call to see if he was going to have to work and they said to get the heck out of Dodge. At the same time, the Mayor of New Orleans was on TV, saying Ivan was headed that way. Hmmmm....Logic tells us that if Ivan goes to New Orleans, then Biloxi is on the east side, the WORST side.
I made a last minute call to Carol's house, knowing she was out of town for the day and intending to leave a message where we were going. Her stinkin' answering machine never came on. Five minutes later, her husband, Kent, called me. He'd just gotten home for lunch and saw I'd called on the Caller ID. I told him what the Mayor of New Orleans said. I ain't telling you what he said to that, but he did tell me to NOT tell Carol. She's a cardiac patient too. "Nooo problem...YOU tell Carol! I'm outta here!"
I hang up, the phone rings....Guess who? Yep....Carol. So, I'm dodging her questions about Ivan and dancing around the subject and telling her to give ole Kent a call since he's home. Later she said if I'd told her the truth, she would have told me to get my *bleep* to Lafayette. Good little Cajun girl that she is, she knows more about hurricanes, high and low pressure systems and such than Al Roker. He's just a wannabe compared to her. But, I was trying to do what Kent said and not give her a cardiac arrest while she was out in the swamps, driving God knows where.
We made our plan right then and there -- We were heading to Lake Martin, Alabama to the Brown's cabin. If Ivan was heading to New Orleans, that was the best way to go. We thought. See what you get for thinking? My Nana-Mama who also lived on Lake Martin had gone and had herself a heart attack and was still in the hospital, so we could see her while we were there. That's me; The Queen of Multi-Tasking, even in a category 4 hurricane.
Tossing our bags, boxes, ice chest, cat and computer (On which my entire writing career is stored) into the truck, off we went. Now, understand, Biloxi is a small town. It took us 30 minutes to get out of here. Traffic was stacked up and crawling. Luckily, the draw bridge we had to go over was down at the time. Shrimp boats were waiting in bay traffic to go under the bridge after we went over it. Finally we were on I-10, heading east to Alabama. Ten miles out of town or less, it hit me. We forgot the briefcase. The single most important item we needed was sitting in our house. Duhhh! We had to go back. It took us 1 1/2 hours to make the circle back home, grab the briefcase and get back on the highway. Maybe that was best, I had forgotten one treasure...My cherished stained glass rose that hung in my kitchen window. Folded between dishtowels, it was now stuffed in the briefcase between birth certificates, insurance papers, legal papers, back-up computer discs and various and sundry other needed documents and items.
Pant, pant, pant....I’m out of breath remembering that day! Back on the highway, with me driving and Ralph, AKA Chicken Little, hyperventilating in the passenger seat and stomping on his imaginary brake, off we went again. I do well in high stress situations. He stinks! I had to Xanax him before we got out of the driveway. Oh, and well this; I’m a rabid control freak who must drive in these cases. Remember “Driving Miss Daisy?” Just call me Poke. Ralph is Miss Daisy when I drive, telling me in minute detail exactly what to do next; Like, “turn up the radio.” Turn it up yourself! I‘m driving here! After about 30 miles of it, I looked at him and said, “Miss Daisy, I’s a grown man. If I says I gots to make water, then I knows I gots to make water.” That shut him up for about 5 miles.
It was smooth sailing from Biloxi to Mobile, Alabama, where we had to get on Hwy 65 north. Heck, all those other people were heading west, bumper to bumper. We were feeling pretty smug about then. But, I was praying for them, because the last I heard, they were driving right into the monster's waiting arms. Maybe God will poke half a star in my somewhat tarnished crown for that?
Up on I-65 we go. Smooooth sailing, little traffic, We are ahead of the pack, or so we thought. Twenty or so miles up the road, we passed over that the locals affectionately call "The Dolly Parton Bridge." It's obvious why when you see the massive arches high in the air for miles. As soon as we came over the bridge, all we could see for miles and miles was tail lights from hundreds of cars; All gridlocked. So much for smooth sailing. It's 165 miles from Mobile, Alabama to Montgomery, where we would change highways. Our average, lurching speed during that jog of the journey was between 15-20 MPH. Much of it was at a standstill. We actually lurched along at 50 MPH for a couple of miles, but it didn't last.
It got to be the norm for the sudden screams of sirens to pierce the air. Ambulances were heading north along with us, blazing through the lanes like Moses parting the Red Sea. We'd just hit the ditch or shoulder; whichever was closer. They were transporting critical patients from the coast to hospitals north. On the other hand, screaming ambulances were blazing south to pick up more patients. Sadly, later we heard that 6 of those patients died during transfer. The shock of being moved was simply too great.
There were scores of law enforcement automobiles out there, along with police helicopters overhead. It was like a bad B-rated movie, with everyone trying to run from Godzilla at the same time, on the same highway. Highway workers were preparing the southbound lanes to open to north only the next morning. All four lanes would be packed full by the morning. We were among the "lucky" ones to get out early.
Sharp tack that I am, I knew sitting in crawling traffic with your air conditioner on would eventually overheat your engine, so windows went down. it wasn't too bad when you were moving. We even visited with our "neighbors" now and then. Heck, I'll talk to a fencepost if it'll stand still long enough. As we rolled along, we saw car after car, hood up, steam pouring out. See? If they had just asked me, I could have told them!
Our cat, named Mouse, is a good little traveler for the most part. She sits in her cage, so traumatized that she never makes a peep unless you call her. So, we don't. Now and then, when the windows were up, we'd let her get out to stretch.
Every other car had animals. Cats, dogs, horses in trailers, goats...bahhhhh... You name it, they were in there. I think Noah had his Ark parked ahead of us and the animals were heading that way. There was a time that I thought Moses himself would appear at my window and tap on it with his staff; "Welcome my child to the Exodus. You shall traverse not long in the wilderness, but shall be in the Promised Land afore nightfall." We had Manna.... Peanut butter cookies from the ice chest. When the phrase, "Of Biblical proportions" is used, I will always think of that day. After all, Noah and Moses were there!
Stopping for gas was another trip. Lines were 10 deep. Bathrooms were 25 deep. For the most part, people were even-tempered, but frazzled like us. We all did what we had to do and then hit the road again, just hoping some kind soul would let you back in traffic. They always did.
Forty miles or so south of Montgomery, I called Bobbie to let her know we were still trying to get there. By the time we did, it had taken 8 hours to make that 4 hour trip. She gave us a designated meeting place in her town of Opelika, Alabama to meet her, where she would lead us to her house. It was 11: 00 P.M. when we arrived. I called and told her we would be the people who looked like road kill. Of course, she'd seen me before, so she knew who to look for. Trust me when I say, we were not pretty after that trip! To explain, Bobbie is one of my "Internet chat friends" I have known for years. Bobbie and Bill drove up and off we went.
When we got to their house, we stuffed our cat in a bathroom and headed out to their Florida room to visit. Half the family was there and made us feel like family. One of their sons, Allen, came out and charmed this ole gal to bits. He's one of the good ole southern Bubba boys that you just have to love. I'd give out his online ID, but then all those mean old wimmen would be chasing that poor little innocent, 40 something, good looking, charming, single southern boy all over the World Wide Web. We can't have that now! He's Bobbie's baby boy!
Bill and Ralph made caveman grunts at each other....Maybe it's a man thing....Bobbie and I yakked and laughed for 2 hours. Living with them was Bobbie's funny, charming mother, Kitty. I found out real quick that no one calls her Miss Kitty. She will let you know, in her own words, "I ain't missed a damned thing in life, so just call me Kitty!" Kitty is one of those "Life's Most Unforgettable Characters" types. Once you meet her, you will never forget her.
Around 1:00 A.M., we all ran out of steam. It had been decided to camp out there for the night and head up to the lake cabin in the morning. Ralph passed out immediately, I pondered poking him in the ribs. I hate people who go to sleep immediately. I laid there and hour or more before I finally passed out. Sometime in the middle of the night the phone rang...and rang and rang and rang. No one was going to answer it, so I finally did. "Brown residence," I croaked. "HAVE YOU COME TO YOUR SENSES YET?????!!!"
Awwwwgghhhh!! The dulcet tones of a Ragin'Cajun named Carol were screeching in my ear. "What time is it?" "IT'S 5:00 A.M. AND THE BEST THING YOU CAN DO IS CLIMB YOUR ASS OUT OF BED AND HEAD THIS WAY NOW!" God, please let this be a nightmare. No such luck. Carol was in true Cajun Mafia form. Of course, she loves me as much as I love her, so it's okay. I let her vent now and then to save humanity from further calamity. I told her I'd try to talk Ralph into it, but it was iffy. She gave me her version of the Ivan forecast, which now I know was right....choke....Ralph rolls over and looks at me with one eye open and says, "Who the hell was that?" I explained and just as I predicted, he wasn't going anywhere except to the cabin. Oh well, I didn't care at that point. Too tired to care, Where's the coffee?
After coffee with Bobbie and Brood, off we sailed to Lake Martin, with Bobbie leading the way. Only a 30 minute trip and there we were at the Brown Family Bed & Breakfast Spa and Retreat AKA their lake cabin. Two bedrooms a bath, kitchen, phones, cable TV, deck, lake view and no wheels under it to roll me down another highway! Heaven. After she got us all set up, we took a run into Alexander City where my Nana-Mama was still in ICU. She didn't know we were coming that way, so I warned the ICU nurse to watch her monitors. Just my luck to give her another heart attack by surprising her.
For over 30 minutes, we laughed ourselves silly; Nana, her husband Lyman, Ralph and I and Bobbie. The nurse's had been begging Nana to cough so she wouldn't get pneumonia, and each time she would laugh, she'd go into a coughing spasm and cough up half a lung. I saved her from pneumonia!! Ta-dahhhh! I'm good for something at least. Even when her cute little Cardiologist came in, they let us stay. They must have been desperate for comic relief up there is all I can say. He was enjoying the visit as much as we were, but time came to go. We had to make a last minute Walmart run and get back to the cabin before night came.
Walmart was packed solid. Everyone was there stocking up. Of course, by then, according to Meteorologist Carol, Ivan was headed right for us and boy, was she ever right! (God, I hate admitting that.) I found it absolutely hysterical that stockers were pushing pallets through the aisles, yelling, "Cases of Beenie Weenies and Vienna Sausages here!" And there I though that was just an Okie thang. People were shoving each other aside to get at them. Smug me already had hers!
Back at the cabin, Bobbie settled us in, angel that she is, and headed back home to ride Ivan out. He was getting ready to hit the coast during that night and would be heading our way by the next morning. Our eyes were glued to the TV. Mine were at least until Ralph started stressing out....BAD. Xanax wasn't working. It became obvious he was working himself up into another heart attack. All our family and friends had the cabin phone number and the phone was ringing off the wall, while the TV was predicting catastrophic damages. Ralph wasn't processing his stress well. That's a fancy way to say he was FREAKING OUT!
He started out by looking pale and drawn and before I knew it he was in the bathroom, making terrible, heaving, gagging sounds. The man was very sick and I was very worried. So, what do you do when you are worried someone is having a heart attack? Yell and make threats. It's worked for me for 35 years. Why change just because he's having a myocardial infarction?? The last time he had one, I hadn't yelled at him in months. See my point?
My first threat was to call a Veterinarian and have him load up one of those tranquilzer guns they use to sedate wild animals. Make that a dosage to knock down an elephant please. Let me pull the trigger. Pleaseeeeeeeee, let me. Remember how Barney Fife looked like when he got all excited on “Mayberry RFD?” Eyes bugged out, hair standing on end??? Oh yeah, he has a crewcut, so it stands on end anyway, but you get the picture. That was Ralph. Good ole Barney. SHOOT HIM NOW!
I tried to get him to go to bed and just rest a bit. Nope, he had to lay on the couch right under me, so if the phone rang or the wind breezed outside, he could jump up, grab his chest and proceed to make me crazy as a loon. Finally after a couple of hours of that, I made my threats. "Either you go to bed, or I'm dragging your *bleep* out to the truck and carting you off to the ER, over to the same hospital Nana is in and you can be her ICU neighbor tonight!" Of course, I bleeped out all the good parts. To say the least, it twarn't pretty. My inner sailor tends to come out at high stress times such as these.
I tried to convince him that having a heart attack would not change the course of Ivan, nor would it guarantee we'd have a home to go back to. Then I asked him which funeral home he wanted me to call, wondering out loud the whole time if said funeral home would be blown to Kansas by morning. I pondered hauling his tarp-wrapped carcass back to Biloxi in the back of the pickup, or better yet, duct taped, sitting in a chair on top on the truck, ala Chevy Chase's "Vacation." I think he finally got sick of my constant nagging and went to bed. The man slept so soundly that I had to poke him in the ribs at 2: 00 A.M. when I finally made myself go to bed, to make sure he was still alive. Well, he looked like he wasn't breathing, ok? Anyway, I made my point and drama queen that I am, possibly saved his life. Cardiologists around the world will be calling me now to come nag some poor man into NOT having a heart attack!
Now recall, I not only had a cardiac patient with me, but one in Louisiana who was going nuts as well. Carol had her heart attack long before Ralph did his. I was just waiting for mine.
In the middle of the night, the phone rang again. Now I am beginning to really, really hate Carol. "How's the weather there?" I think it was 5:00 A.M. again or earlier. Dang woman goes to bed with the chickens and gets up before the roosters. All I remember was stumbling back to bed and Ralph grunting at me, “Who was that?” My voice was shot from the stress and from talking for hours on the phone with everyone and their dawgs, so I rasped back, “Carol.” He mumbled something like, “That figures.” I’m pretty sure Carol could have babbled on and nagged me for hours, but I was comatose and voiceless; something most people who know me well would appreciate now and then.
I woke up after sunrise, unlike my Cajun night owl friend. There wasn't a dead body in my bed, so I assumed Ralph was alive. After stumbling to the coffee pot, I watched the televised absolute devastation that Ivan had wreaked on the coast during the night. What a sinking feeling, knowing people have died and are dying as you watch.
Already, the winds around the cabin were wailing. Of course, again, Carol and I were back on the phone. She begged us to get out before the worst of this thing got up to us. I was ready to go, having had some sleep, but again, Ralphy wasn't budging. Carol and I had it all worked out. Only 10-12 hours of driving and we'd be at her house, with blue skies and all the boudin balls we could eat. What are boudin balls they asked? A Cajun treat made of rice, pork (or strange other meats) and spices, in a casing. Her hubby Kent had gone out and bought me 4 dozen boudin balls, thinking we were coming there. Well, so did we! I may never get over not getting to go eat them. Of course, boudin balls were a moot point since Ralph was parked and wasn't going anywhere.
For a couple of hours, we watched and worried, calling friends and family to reassure them we were okay. Carol called and nagged me some more, but I wouldn't know how to act if she didn't. I asked her if she was ever going to let me live this one down..... " NO!" Oh, the crosses we must bear!
One of our last conversations went something like this; Carol....“I TOLD YOU TO GET OUT THIS MORNING!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This is no time to get on the road, not knowing if there are trees down, roads flooded, etc. You should have listened to me when I called you at 5:00 this morning, so now you'll just have to ride it out. If you hear a tornado, get your asses in the hall with a mattress on top of you and hang on! Other than that... you can kiss your ass goodbye!!!! Yadda, yadda, yadda....” Allison: “Yes, Mommy....I'm puckering as we speak...”
Things were going pretty fair, other than the crunch of trees splintering in the wind. Then we lost power. Hmmmm....Okay. We can live without lights and cable TV. Plenty of light since it's daytime. Noooo problem. We have candles when it gets dark. We even still had one phone that was a land line. Easy breezy. Not real comfortable not having a radio or TV to tell us what was coming next, but we'd survive. I called Carol and got her stinkin’ answering machine. Now it works! I told her to call me back with the latest weather report.
Fast forward to when Ralph picks up the one last phone to call his job's hurricane hotline and said phone is dead as a doornail. Hmmmm....Now what? I can tell you what. I ain't stayin' in any remote lake cabin with no power, no phone and one cardiac patient who may or may not freak out on me again. No siree Bob, not this ole gal. No way to call 911 if he decides on a repeat performance of the previous night and the probability of trees down on the roads so I can't even drive out for help. And no, I do NOT know CPR. I didn’t even have Carol to scream at me that I was a complete fool! What’s a girl to do? I’ll tell ya what this girl did!
I looked at him and said, "Start packing!" It took us all of 10 minutes to put the cabin on order, pack our stuff, sling the cat into the carrier and jump in the truck. We were heading back to Bobbie and Bill's house. Damn the winds, I was going. Of course, I drove while Miss Daisy stomped that imaginary brake of his and hung on for dear life to what I now lovingly refer to “the panic bar,“ the handle by his window.
Creeping along at 30 MPH in those winds was a real treat I'll not soon forget. The 30 some odd mile trip drank a quarter of a tank of gas, so strong were the winds. Cars we off the roads, in the woods. Guess they went airborne and landed there. We finally got to Opelika and found a gas station to fill back up. Then we went to the Brown Manor and presented ourselves as yesterday's road kill. They were happy to see us. Guess we are good for entertainment value if nothing else.
Bobbie and Kitty had scrambled around that morning, as the power was flickering on and off and prepared hot foods to be packed into warming chests. There I was, clutching my pathetic bag of Beenie Weenies and Vienna Sausages and they had homemade spaghetti, beans, potato salad, breads, etc. Chow time! After days of scurrying around , readying ourselves and the trip up there, I forgot when I'd had my last hot meal outside of the breakfast Bobbie cooked us that first morning at her house.
After a good meal and it was good, we all relaxed on the porch and watched the birds peck for seeds under the bird feeder. Life was good, I was relaxed for the first time in days. Then the power came back. No rest for the weary...sigh... The radio was on and the voice was saying the worst was gone. Only 30 MPH winds and light rain left. "Ralph, get the cat and suitcase! We are heading to Biloxi!" I knew if we waited until morning, the exodus we were caught in going north on Tuesday would be heading south on Thursday. I'd had about enough of Moses and Noah! I was as desperate as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” If only clicking my heels together and chanting, "There’s no place like home,” would have worked.
As bad as I dreaded the road and what might wait us upon arriving home, we needed to leave then. Leaving the kindness and warmth of the Brown family was not easy. I would have rather curled up in a ball and stayed a few days. They were southern gracious and much more than wonderful.
After many hugs goodbye and hopefully extending the right words of thanks, we headed out. We had to travel west for several miles to get back to our southbound highway. I locked my hands on the steering wheel and threatened "Miss Daisy" with a sudden death experience if he started telling me how to drive. I had all I could handle keeping it on the road with wind gusts broad siding us all the way. It was a great relief to see southbound I-65. At least I could find a semi and get in behind him to block the wind....I thought.... I'm gonna have to stop thinking. Gets me every time. It was about 160 miles down the road that we saw our first semi. Those dudes are a heck of a lot smarter than me.
I kept it around 50 MPH going south, looking for road debris, low, flooded areas and dodging wind bursts. The more south we went, the more apparent the storm damage became. It wasn’t just small trees, but giants that had been blown hither and yon by Ivan, like so many toothpicks scattered by a mischievous child. Roofs were off homes and businesses. No one, absolutely no one for miles had power. While it was daylight, it was dim and dusky with the south end of Ivan still spinning over our heads.
There are few towns on that 165 mile stretch, and those were all dark. For all of those miles, there was one service station open and that had traffic stacked up halfway down the entrance ramp. Good thing we had a full tank. Nature was calling, but after seeing one rest stop open with a hundred or so cars parked in the dark among dozens of fallen trees, I decided that "clenching" was my best bet.
At one point, Ralph made the mistake of letting Mouse out of her cage. That was fine and dandy, as long as she stayed on his side of the truck. But, noooooo, she wanted Mommy and finally managed to sneak over to my side when he wasn’t looking. My nerves were so on edge by then, I may as well have been attacked by Jaws! All she did was crawl up onto my shoulder. That set me off like a bottle rocket. “GET THIS CAT OFF MEEEEEEEEEE!” Buffeting winds, road debris, driving in total blackness and now I have a cat perched on my shoulder??? I think NOT! Ralph reached for her and she sank her back claws in my arm...So now I’m bleeding. What else is new?
For miles, in scattered patches, we saw literally hundreds of trees that had fallen to the wind. The swirling power of the storm as it rotated had made them all fall westward. On the northbound lanes, trees were across the right hand lane in many places. Highway workers were scrambling to move them or put lights near them so after dark the northbound traffic would see them. I hated to think what would happen to those who drove into them unaware. These were trees as big as cars.
By the time we got to the Monroeville exit, where our friends Dee and James lived, the damage was a nightmare. Their place was one of our possible evacuation points. After talking to her on the phone, I was glad we passed that one up. All but one of their many stately pecan trees and evergreens surrounding their house had been blown down. One fell on the corner of the house. Ralph AKA Chicken Little would have gone on to his reward for sure if we’d stayed there and he may have taken Mrs C.Little with him!
As we approached the same "Dolly Parton Bridge" we had come over on Tuesday, the sight in the sky was breathtaking. It was the south end of Hurricane Ivan, covering our horizon, and still rotating like the monster it was. The clouds we moving slowly, to our left. It would give anyone pause to see the force of nature in that manner. Below the edge of Ivan was bright sky, red tinted with the reflection of sunset to the west. In that sky was a slowly moving crescent moon, rising up to kiss the hem of Ivan's trailing garment. Oh how I wish I would have had a camera. Now I can only paint it with words. Eventually the moon was swallowed up by Ivan, just as it seemed was most of Alabama.
It was dark as we drove into Mobile. So dark it was like driving into the proverbial black hole. Now and then you would see a building with lights, but for the most part, 99.9% of that large city was in the dark. Lowe's Hardware looked like a well lit island in a sea of darkness. Strange sight...nothing around it for miles had lights. The parking lot was empty, but it shone like a beacon. We were unable to see the devastation since it was dark, but saw it on TV later. Amazing.
Finally we made it to the I-10 exit and headed west. The wind was behind us and driving was relatively easy. There weren't many more fools besides us out there, although there were a few who made me look like I was standing still at 70MPH. My hands were still gripped so tightly to that steering wheel, there was no way to relax them. After driving so slowly in the last few days, I felt like I was stuck on a NASCAR track in a very bad nightmare.
As we made time westward, we saw dark motels and hotels filled with cars and huge electric trucks, waiting for daylight to go into the eye of the damages caused by Ivan. We saw caravans of Red Cross, National Guard, more and more electrical vehicles, all heading down to help. I had to wipe tears when I saw them. It was like the Cavalry was coming. All the way from Opelika, Alabama, we had kept the radio on, listening to what was going on down on the gulf. It was horrific. God knows they needed the Cavalry and then some.
The first town in all that driving time we saw with lights was Pascagoula, Mississippi. it was lit up like the Fourth of July. Never have I ever been so glad to see light in my life! I know if they had lights, Biloxi would too. As we got off I-10 onto the road into Biloxi, there were the casinos shining brightly. Never have cared for casinos, but if I could have hugged one right then, I would have!
With the light we had, we could see there was little damage. Onward to home! LIGHTS on our street! It was there, just as we left it, our humble little abode. Mouse (the cat) was sitting on her daddy’s lap and was the first one out. She had completely lost her cool as we got closer to home, and was pitching a hissy fit, not only taking a chunk out of my arm, but several out of Ralph. I think she knew we were close to home and wanted out. I did too, but I didn’t claw anyone. Dang cat!
Getting out of the truck was another thing. Not my most graceful move. I sort of tipped over and fell out sideways, my body still locked in hurricane driver position. Every bone, muscle and joint in my body was screaming, but by golly, we had a home and we had lights!
All we had left in us was to drag our weary butts into the house along with the luggage. No unpacking that night. We had CABLE TV! That meant I had internet. I hooked up the ole puter, cranked it up and headed to watch the first TV we’d seen since early that morning. I’ve not seen that much devastation since Hurricane Andrew tore across south Florida in 1992. Only Andrew was faster moving. Ivan’s northeast quadrant, the most violent part of a hurricane, stayed over some communities for 3-4 hours. Tornadoes spawned by his wrath ripped towns apart, killing people in it’s path. We had only seen parts of it.
I called family and close friends to let them know we made it home and actually had a home. Outside to watching TV, I couldn’t tell you what else I did that night. Exhaustion seems to equal amnesia. I don’t even remember going to bed. The only reason I know I did is because I woke up in one the next morning.
By daylight on Friday morning, it was safe enough to put helicopters in the air. We have a television station on our cable out of Mobile, Alabama, WKRG, who was doing 24/7 coverage of Ivan. It flew from Dauphin Island, Alabama over to Pensacola, Florida and beyond. Most of you who don’t live on the coast and have seen news reports of Ivan have seen bits and pieces. We saw it all live. The fly over went on for nearly 3 hours and it was something I will never forget. I stuck a tape in the VCR and recorded it for posterity.
I found out on Friday that my daughter in Ft. Walton Beach decided to stay home and ride it out. ARE YOU NUTS? But, she made it fine and is okay. Glad I didn’t know that in the days previous or I would have been the one having a heart attack!
My son, who now lives in Minnesota called. Just over a month ago, he and his fiancee lived in Gulf Shores, Alabama, right where the eye went in. He talked to a friend down there who rode the hurricane out and was told that the little beach home they rented while there was gone. Wiped off the face of the map, along with hundreds of other buildings. One of the stores his fiancee had worked in was gone. One of the high-rise condos he had worked at as a security guard was literally broken in half.
I was in Gulf Shores in August and had driven over to Orange Beach and Perdido Key. Roads we had traveled were destroyed in places. Impassable. Bridges we had crossed were shut down until they were deemed safe. Others were simply gone. Paradise was nothing more now than a twisted mass of sand and debris. It will be years and years before it ever resembles what it once was.
I was pretty much glued to the television all weekend, but knew I had to write this story at some time. Most of the live reporting is over now. I needed to write it while it was fresh.
Right now, there is a man in my backyard, raking up the debris. All we had damage-wise was a tree that had the top twisted out of it. It will have to come down in time. There must be a ton of leaves and limbs in our yard. Quirky thing that hurricanes are, while it twisted a small tree in half, Ralph’s plastic lawn chair is still where he left it, out in the open area of the yard.
City trucks have been going by our house all weekend, loaded with storm debris. They are taking it into the city park next to us and dumping it there until they can dump it elsewhere. Biloxi dodged the bullet and for that, I am eternally thankful. Yes, we prayed along with a few million others. Why did God spare us only to allow others to suffer? We may never know, yet we are grateful. Our prayers go to those who are still suffering, who have lost family, friends and in most cases, all they owned. “Things” can be replaced. People can’t. The body count won’t stop for days. They are still pulling people out, both dead and alive. Ivan kept going and took his wrath up the eastern states and is still causing chaos and death.
Would we evacuate again if another hurricane was even so much as contemplating our area of the word? In a heartbeat! The risk is too high and the loss too great to even think about "riding one out." No, it's not fun to evacuate, even though I found a laugh here and there. But this time....I'll call Carol first. :) Hey Kent! Save them boudin balls!
As I end this story, a few days have passed since we came back home. I find myself in tears at the least little thing. I fell apart this afternoon watching the news. A man was reading off a list of the missing. A little girl fell into her mom's arms crying. Her little friend was on that list. The adrenaline that drove me during the crisis has left me now and I am feeling the after effects. Before we evacuated, I found myself stuttering badly. After Ivan, I find myself still shaken and drained. While I wrote with humor in much of this, the truth is, I am, like many others do, feeling a bit of survivor’s guilt.
We are alive...We are well...We are sad for those who can’t say the same.
Thus ends “Allison and Ivan’s Excellent Hurricane Adventure.”
Allison Chambers Coxsey
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Date Created: 9/20/2004