Between Earthquake and Hurricane

Two natural disasters in one week, how many people can claim such? Tuesday we felt the roll and shake of a 5.9 earthquake centered forty miles from our house. A boom, then a sound like a train coming, closer, closer, closer, right on us, then going farther away. I felt the shake through my feet, then up through the rest of my body. As the week progressed with aftershocks awakening us in the night, the weather channel began warning us of Irene, a huge category two hurricane coming up the east coast, expected to gain strength and cause damage. Can’t say we don’t have excitement in Virginia.

Chincoteague Island is a ten hour round trip for us. The seven mile long, three mile wide island is located just east of the Delmarva peninsula. We have a half acre lot there on Big Glade Creek. Our little piece of land is adjacent to a tidal basin. We can stand on the lot in the morning and the water flows in one direction, by afternoon it runs in the other. We know that with a hurricane, water levels rise and although we don’t have a house there to worry about, when we bought the property, a floating dock came along with the purchase price.

We’ve caught enough blue crabs from that dock to fill our plates and stomachs many times. The flat, floating , wooden structure is moored with two nylon cords, one wrapped around the trunk of a pine and the other tied to a stump. Bruce was worried about the dock breaking away with the force of the water and wind from Irene, but we had just taken vacation and I didn’t have the time from work to take off another day to make the trip back to check on the security of the dock.

I worried all day Friday at work about the Island, our friends who live there, the hurricane, and our dock. All day long, the residents at the nursing home kept asking me about the storm and how I thought our property would fare. By the time I pulled into our driveway at four-thirty that evening, I felt my anxiety rising to a peak, my heart rate increasing. Bruce wasn’t home and he’s usually home before me. I called him on his cell phone.

“Hey,” I said, talking fast, not letting him respond. “Where are you? What are you doing? I have an idea.”

“What is it?” he clipped out, obviously bothered.

I slowed down. “Are you alright?” I asked.

“Yeah,  just chasing cows. I gotta go,” he said.

“Go do what you have to do,” I said, knowing that either my father-in-law’s cows had gotten loose, or our friend Robert’s fence was down.

I went inside packed an overnight bag, found the mosquito spray, flashlight, and put some sandwiches
and bottles of water in the cooler. I took the car to Brownsville Market and gassed it up.  I called my mother to tell her my plans. Someone needed to know where we were, just in case.

I stood on the porch, watching the road, waiting for Bruce. The wind was still, the insects, quiet. With everything around me settled in for the storm, I quivered in my skin. He finally pulled up in the truck, leaned back in the seat and closed his eyes. He didn’t open the door right away. I walked toward him as he slid out of the truck. I ignored the fact that he was exhausted, sweaty, muddy and mad, having spent four hours chasing two cows all over Ragged Mountain. “Here’s what I want to do,” I said, explaining my plans quickly.

He tugged off his boots and padded into the house. Pulling out his laptop and leaning into the screen, he checked out the weather website. “Let’s go,” he said, when he realized we had a small window of opportunity. The storm was moving north at fourteen miles an hour. Chincoteague is a five hour drive east for us.  “If we hurry, we can make it just before the hurricane hits.”

As much as my anxiety had pushed me to prepare for the trip, my adrenaline died down suddenly and the careful side of me took over. It was seven o’clock in the evening. “Do you really think we can get there in time?” I asked. The last thing I wanted was to get stuck on the island during the hurricane. I’ve never ridden out a storm and didn’t want to start now.

“Getting there’s not the problem,” Bruce said smiling. “We’ll be the only idiots driving east. Getting back will be our problem. Everyone’s heading west.”

He was right. As we headed out, a never-ending line of headlights met us coming from the shore. We set the cruise control on seventy-five. Clouds loomed on the eastern skyline.  Our only other company eastbound was a line of power trucks from Kentucky Utilities out of Lexington. Someone driving one of the vehicles had torn off pieces of blue tape, and written ‘Irene’ across the white expanse of the bucket. When we hit Virginia Beach, there were six empty lanes of interstate to choose from. The Hampton Roads tunnel was eerily quiet. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge spanned its twenty miles just for us.

Chincoteague was deserted, with no cars in parking lots, few house lights on, and most of its windows were boarded shut. The usually bustling place sat, a sad, lonely town, waiting for its fate.  When we got out of the car at the lot, a cool breeze was blowing in from the ocean carrying the smell and taste of salt. The usually quiet Big Glade Creek was alive with jumping minnows.  I wondered if the small fish somehow felt the impending doom. Two geese honked their concern in the distance.   It took us twenty-five minutes to reinforce the mooring on the dock with thicker rope attached to metal stakes and tree trunks.

We took one more look at our little square of property with its nine pine trees, floating dock, and beautiful view of Big Glade Creek. Then we turned toward home.

By the time we reached the Bay Bridge, rain had started. As the wipers swept the drops away,  I imagined the wind picking up while we were on the bridge. The side rails seem tall enough when the sun is shining, but in bad weather, where curtains of rain obscure the path and wind whips a car to and fro, I bet those rails seem much shorter. Facing a plunge into that deep water is scary. I found myself holding my breath.

There were no other cars with us, no other cars passing us from the other direction. Even the usually annoying presence of police cars was absent. I can’t remember a time on the road when I wished for flashing blue lights or a police officer armed with a flashlight. Where were they?

We made it to the other side with no difficulty, just a sprinkling of rain. Two miles on the other side into Virginia Beach, the wind  picked up.  The ominous sound of  the emergency system blast came over the radio. “rrmp, rrmp, rrmp,” it said. Once a month I hear that sound on my radio. It interrupts a favorite song to tell me “this is a test of the emergency broadcast system, this is only a test.”  I longed for that announcement. Instead, it said, “A tornado warning has been issued for the following areas: The city of Chesapeake, Suffolk County, Currituck County, and the city of Virginia Beach.”

We were right in the middle of Virginia Beach.  Bruce and I looked at each other. He pressed down harder on the accelerator.  We turned right onto Interstate 64 and sprayed water out from the tires as we hurried through a puddle of standing water.  I made that scared sound I hear in my dreams when some ominous creature is chasing me and I’m just out of reach. It’s the start of a scream with a sudden intake of breath.  My worst nightmares are ones involving dark figures chasing me, and tornadoes.  “I hope the traffic’s thinned out,” Bruce said.

At one-fifty in the morning, most cars were safely west of the storm. We, however, were beginning to feel the effects of Irene. The wind blew rain against the car and we shifted in our lane from the gusts. Rain came down in sheets, obscuring the view, then  lessening as the wind died down, only to catch us off guard once again with a blast to the side of the Honda. That pattern continued as we raced through the city.

“Once we get through the Hampton Roads tunnel,” Bruce said, “we should be fine.”

The tunnel was three miles ahead.  ‘Check your Gas’ the sign stated.

“We have a quarter tank,” Bruce said, looking down. “That should get us through.  We’ll fill
up again in Williamsburg.”

The tunnel was empty and bright with its shiny tiles and yellow fluorescent lights. We were the only ones there and its quiet calmed us after the wind and rain outside. I’ve never liked the tunnel with its exhaust fumes and usual darkness after sunlight, but it felt comforting and I believe I could have stayed the night right there under the bay in the safety of its tube.

We kept our pace until we reached Colonial Williamsburg. There, we ran out of the rain. By Richmond, our nerves had calmed and our heart rates were back to normal.

Our driveway looked awfully good  as we turned off Rt. 250 in the pre-dawn darkness of Saturday morning.  We fell into bed at five after five, and slept until almost noon.

Upon waking, we knew Irene was pounding Chincoteague and we were safe, riding out the storm five hours inland to soft rain and gentle winds.  Our dock, however, would have its own story to tell.

* * *

I was called to help ‘un-evacuate’ the elders from our sister facility in Hampton Roads on Sunday after Hurricane Irene. Eight of us spent fourteen hours transporting, reassuring, feeding, assisting, and making comfortable thirty-one displaced and replaced elders. The trip gave me almost two days overtime, and permission for another trip to Chincoteague. Bruce was anxious to check on the dock.

We turned the corner, and with relief, found the dock, but not in the water. It had beached itself during the hurricane.

Bruce got out of the car, stepped up onto the 16×12 ft. structure, now perched on shore among the trees,  and he bounced around a bit. “Still in good shape,” he said.

“It’s on dry land,” I said. “We’re going to have to hire someone with a bulldozer to push it back into the water.”

He looked at me and laughed.  “Did you ever attend a sixth grade science class?” he asked me.

I’m sure I looked confused.

“Simple tools,” he stated. “Did you learn about wheels, levers, fulcrums, inclined planes?”

OK, those terms sounded familiar. Seems to me I studied drawings.

“Let’s find a tree limb,” he said.

There were plenty to choose from after Irene’s winds.  He picked up a long piece of pine, wedged it under the dock and pushed. That mammoth structure moved. I was amazed, stood with my mouth open. “You moved it,” I said.

“Yep, you going to just stand there, or help?” he asked.

I went and got the camera. I had to have a picture of my man with his tool.



Between Earthquake and Hurricane © 2011 M Dawn Thacker. Read M Dawn’s latest on


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