Sunday, July 10, 2005

The North Atlantic Oscillation Continues to Work; and A Look Back

I've been glued to The Weather Channel and CNN, watching Dennis wreak destruction on the panhandle and further inland. My heart goes out to everyone there -- still reeling from Ivan, now having to deal with an even more powerful storm whose only "positive" attribute is that it's small and speedy as hurricanes go.

I first read about the North Atlantic Oscillation in the Old Farmer's Almanac, and a good explanation also appears in "The Case Against Florida". Given last year's weather, though, the article's predictions are almost laughable when not completely disturbing:

"Dr. Chris Landsea ... expects about 3 major hurricanes to hit Florida from 2004-2010..."

Been there, done that and then some.

My neck of the woods has been relatively calm, with occasional wind gusts of maybe 30-35 mph. Yesterday was our more exciting day -- squalls pelting the house with horizontal rain, treetops dancing. Thunder so loud and omnipresent it was as though we'd been shoved into a tin can with a big spoon rapping the outside. Still, that's to be expected during the rainy season, with or without hurricanes. Gully-washers are business-as-usual here, during those years when we're not having drought conditions.

Our next-door neighbor's roof is still under tarp from last September's storms. In-between squall lines workers were replacing plastic that time and the sun had shredded.

We experienced Frances and Jeanne last year, though both were tropical storms by the time they reached us. Even so, we were without power for 4 days with Frances (accumulating 18 inches of rain in that time) and were out for 2 days with Jeanne. Small potatoes, compared to what others have gone through. Jeanne had been mostly wind, effectively sandblasting the house free of 24-year-old paint until the place looked freckled. (I'd actually experienced my first hurricane up in Massachusetts, when Gloria passed through on September 27, 1985.)

We've had our hurricane provisions in place for a month. I'd filled up water bottles for Dennis but we still have power and all our utilities. Now I focus my attention on TWC's reports at 50 past the hour, when they show what's happening in the Atlantic basin. They're keeping an eye on two systems that have the potential to develop into something more than the low-pressure centers they are now. Hopefully the lows will peter out. But if they don't, I want to know about it. The most unsettling thing for me about last year was the way the storms had just rolled out, one after the other, like trains leaving the station in an ongoing commuter loop.

What follows is a blow-by-blow journal of how we experienced Hurricane Frances last year. We are among the lucky ones -- some folks we know faced three evacuations that season....

Hurricane Frances, September 5-9, 2004: A Look Back

9/5/04 10:30 a.m. Trees dance. Gusts of wind and rain blow sideways. So far the trees hold onto their limbs and the wires stay up; so far we still have power.

We've been glued to the TV: Weather Channel, local news, CNN, MSNBC. After dark I retrieved a hand-powered flashlight and carried it everywhere with me, like a talisman.

We were up until a bit after 6 a.m., then went to bed and caught some sleep for about 3 hours.

Some of the gusts we experience here now resemble the steady winds I saw out my window during Hurricane Gloria, when I lived in Woburn. During some of the lighter gusts here, our larger bushes (about 4 feet tall) lean over until they form an approximate 30-degree angle with the ground.

The Tornado Watch in effect at 8 p.m. last night has been extended from 8 a.m. today to 2 p.m.

During the night, after Frances made landfall, we heard steady wind in the trees that was quite pleasant. I turned on the back porch light to check on the compost barrels, which hold their ground (I made sure they were both well-filled before Charley).

This morning the wind in the trees is no longer a susurrus but a whip. The gusts are more frantic whips. Rain splatters noisily on our northwest-facing window.

One large indicator last night that we were in the midst of a tropical system was the temperature. Normally, our evening lows this time of year range between 70-73 degrees F. It was still 80 degrees after midnight, with a heat index of 86.

Even in the high winds we can hear mockingbirds singing.

11:45 a.m. Gusts now liberate leaves, sometimes small clumps of them, though so far branches seem to remain intact. I have copied down 1-800-4-OUTAGE, provided by CNN to call in case of downed power lines. Ours are holding up so far, though Frances has taken a more northerly jog and is heading roughly this way. My sweetie is asleep, dozing on the rug, her head pillowed on today's St. Petersburg Times with its full-color photos of destruction.

1 p.m. A couple branches down, off our next door neighbor's sweetgum tree. Several successive gusts peeled an already cracked branch until gravity carried it down to the ground. From here I can see the pale, exposed wood. More branches are down, diagonally across the way.

1:15 p.m. Power's out. We've turned the circuit breakers off. Another branch on the sweetgum looks about to break, and more have broken elsewhere. I wear radio headphones, listen to the local news-TV simulcast.

2:15 p.m. We have filled what water containers we can get our hands on, in case water service is discontinued. Frances is down to 75 mph from the 90 mph it was several hours ago.

Our neighbors across the street sit outside, move furniture in. Their kids use a sheet as a sail, playing until the wind gets too fierce.

When we were still getting pictures of Melbourne and Indialantic, I couldn't help but remember our visit there in April for a poetry conference. The bridge we drove across is now littered with downed streetlamps -- and what wasn't down swayed wildly.

4:45 p.m. Frances is now a tropical storm, down to 70 mph, about 20 miles east of Tampa, traveling WNW at 10 mph. (And wide?! Even as it was exiting Florida into the Gulf, part of it was still stirring up the Bahamas to the east.)

First Florida fatality -- a man outside Micanopy drove off the road.

We're supposed to receive our highest winds around midnight and be in the clear by 4 Monday morning. "The worst weather in the history of north-central Florida," says the talk radio DJ.

Rain blows in horizontal sheets off roof tops. A peek outside shows more branches down.

The shades are closed; every so often I lift one up to look. During the day I am fascinated by the blowing trees, a bit nervous about swaying power lines. The true challenge will come after dark, when one is unable to see anything, especially with power out: not even streetlamps to illuminate silhouettes.

5:46 p.m. News stations (radio) are off the air; I can get a couple of music stations. I'm tuned to one of those; every so often I scan the dial to see if anything's come back. (Later) News station back on the air.

I find the heat to be manageable -- since our power outage began about 3-1/2 hours ago we've had no A/C. I just let myself sweat, mop myself with a face cloth when I feel the need.

6 p.m. Four million people without electricity.

9/6/04 11:25 a.m. Six million people without electricity. The ground out back, where several back yards meet (a large area of grass and trees), is now littered with branches.

Red wriggler worms yesterday had climbed the garage door in search of higher ground. When my sweetie went to get the paper this morning a small frog dropped on her, also from higher ground. Wind and gusts continue, though not as high as they'd been yesterday. Rain continues to pelt the windows. Our rain gauge read 4 inches today at 6 a.m.; total rainfall so far is estimated at 7-1/4 inches, with probably a couple more inches added since the 6 a.m. reading.

We stepped out onto the front porch. Wind and gusts today are southerly; yesterday they'd been northerly. Worms and snails have sought higher ground on the porch. Like the yard the streets are littered with broken branches; a block away a huge limb, almost a tree in its own right, has peeled away from the main trunk and now lies across the road. As we stood outside we heard what might be ducks calling, witnessed a couple of strong gusts (estimated around 50 mph). Our cats jumped onto the window sill and peered at us from under the shade. Once they seemed assured we hadn't been blown away or left them behind they returned to their regularly-scheduled naps.

My main frustration has been the inability to get a strong signal from radio news (yesterday one station had lost its antenna for a while in the wind -- they had to move a tree limb before initiating repairs). News stations cut in and out and are usually faint when I get them. In contrast, the music and holy roller stations are clear and robust.

1:20 pm. Trucks have just cleared the fallen limb from further up the road. One neighbor's tree has a branch that's been rubbing up against our power line, to the point where part of the bark has been stripped. The radio reports a large swath of severe thunderstorms, including tornadic activity, but that is far to the east and south of us. One woman's car had been lifted several inches off the ground and set back down.

I miss access to radar images. The news station I can access focuses on Orlando; others focus on Tampa or Gainesville. We get very little news of Citrus County. Marion County, directly to our northeast, lost power yesterday to its sewage lifts; folks there are being asked to use as little water as possible and to not flush toilets. Later on the same happened to Crystal River, west of us in Citrus, on the Gulf of Mexico.

2:30 p.m. The winds seem to have died down considerably, but there's no telling whether we are simply in-between storm bands. Schools here are closed tomorrow. We were under curfew last night, probably will be tonight as well: there is no power getting to streetlights and streetlamps, let alone storefronts and residences.

Most commercials on the news channels are announcements from insurance and phone companies.

Storm eye is slow-moving, about 100 miles from Tallahassee. Winds have subsided dramatically, but strong storms are still in the western part of the county. Time will tell whether another band comes through.

Info we didn't know: Sprinkler systems are active on the golf courses. This sounds like the height of stupidity, but in fact the sprinklers are drawing water from retention ponds, to keep them from overflowing.

2:53 p.m. I hear a chainsaw, even while it is still raining steadily and the wind still gusts. There will be much more, I'm sure, once the storm is truly over. Out my window I see a cracked tree limb high up -- safely distant from this house.

For me this is the equivalent of a 3-day nor'easter -- though down here it's considerably warmer and it shifts from being a nor'easter to being a sou'wester.

4 p.m. Total rain accumulation: 10 inches. Latest radar as reported on the radio shows a severe weather band moving onshore in counties south of us. If the band moves north it will hit us -- and our rain has just gone from steady to torrential.

6:58 p.m. A bit of calm, then drizzle, then more torrential rains, which continue, accompanied by thunder.

9/7/04 9:25 a.m. Rain continues to pound, with thunder and lightning. 15 inches accumulation so far, according to our rain gauge. Power is still out. I have had warm (but still good) yogurt and warm (but still good) lettuce for breakfast.

Last night we played a spirited game of Geography, bending the rules about as much as the wind's been bending the trees. Pretty soon we started including outdated names (Assyria); different languages (Osterreich); individual streets (Newbury Street); same name in different places (Orange County, California; Orange County, Florida; Orange County, North Carolina...); planets (Mars); moons (Enceladus); fictional characters (Snidely Whiplash)....

The aim here was not to win but to keep the game going for as long as possible, sitting in the dark and listening to the rain, punctuated by frequent thunder and lightning, waiting to fall asleep. I had sent out a brief e-mail, running the computer off its battery: We're okay, power out, will get back to you later.

10:25 a.m. Radio news: The Red Sox have moved to 1-1/2 games behind the Yankees! Woo-hoo! (Found out later this was an erroneous report.)

Our delivery of the St. Pete Times continues uninterrupted, but the radio provides minute to minute reports in lieu of TV. Call-in shows: who has gas, who has ice, who's run out of ice, who has power back. Particularly on the Tampa-based station, a few jerks call in to complain about the power outage. They're generally told, "Be thankful you still have a roof." Several cars are parked across the street from us: people who drove in from Vero Beach (on the Atlantic coast), which was hit much harder than here. On the radio one woman who had moved to this area from Vero Beach has family back there who lost their homes.

There is now a run on generators and stores running out. People call in who have relatives on oxygen and who need power to run the machines. They are being told to go to a store or some place with power, plug the equipment into an outlet there.

Community showers are available for those without water.

We've gotten another 1.5 inches of rain since 8 this morning.

Schools are closed and some may continue to be for the rest of the week because they are being used as shelters.

Calls come from people stopped by police as they try to pick up prescription medications for loved ones. Sometimes their only access to the medications are through roads that are now impassable.

11 a.m. Over here the rains have stopped for now. Some sun tries to peek through. Our cat assiduously licks leftover yogurt from my bowl. The station I've been listening to is normally an oldies station; they are now a call-in station for folks reporting both shortages and availability of supplies.

Trash pickup here seems to be on schedule.

Several communities, particularly those on wells, are being told to boil water.

11:16 a.m. More rain, sudden and drenching.

11:30 a.m. Rain has stopped.

The radio broadcasts stories of trees falling on and smashing roofs, followed by torrential rains dissolving the floors.

Tornado warnings pop up periodically, though not yet in Citrus County (that we know of). We are still under a flood watch on Tuesday, along with many other counties, until 5 p.m -- I suspect that will be extended. Before our power went out the Weather Channel reported a flood watch only through Sunday: 2 days ago.

11:55 a.m. More rain, for about 5 minutes.

12:17 p.m. More rain, torrential, for a few minutes.

County schools are closed until Friday.

We've been lucky here. Many people have been without power since as early as 2 a.m. Saturday; we lost ours around 1:15 p.m. Sunday.

12:38 p.m. A helicopter whirrs overhead.

A woman is offering free ice, asking only for an optional donation to a breast cancer foundation. She operates a drive-through convenience store and is repairing a roof leak on her own. Most calls coming into the radio now have to do with the availability of ice and propane.

1:04 p.m. We have some blue sky! Of course, this means the heat is climbing, so I'll be closing some of the shades.

One emergency health center is filled to capacity and power outages have closed its children's emergency facility. Folks are being redirected.

1:20 p.m. Blue sky gone; we're back to dark clouds, now rain, once again turning torrential with thunder and lightning. Next time the sky clears I'll check the rain gauge and will see if we've gotten mail.

1:32 p.m. Rain has let up. Another inch has collected in the rain gauge. The retention pond is now a small lake, about 3 vertical feet short of cresting.

Every time someone calling into the radio station reports they've gotten power back, the station plays canned cheers and applause (at least these DJs do; others play the Hallelujah Chorus).

5:33 p.m. We got some sun around 3:15. I showered (cold water), changed into clean clothes, set out for the post office. Got check from a client that I'll deposit tomorrow -- or maybe cash it, in anticipation of Ivan.

Winn-Dixie has AA batteries and a few 9-volt, but is out of everything else. They have A/C -- I picked up fresh greenery, though not as much as usual. The new apartment complex next to the market seems to have power.

Call from one of my fiction workshop partners; she has no power. Our meeting for tomorrow is postponed, to be rescheduled pending Ivan, power restoration, etc. (Neither of us can print out our manuscripts.)

9/8/04 7:12 a.m. Deluge again around 11 last night; 1-1/2 inches in the rain gauge this morning. That makes a total of 18 inches in 4 days.

The big, 35-cup percolator I had the foresight to fill with fresh-brewed coffee before we lost power has finally run out of its room-temperature java; I had room temperature instant this morning. At 10:30 we walked to Harry's 2 Little Bakers for an early lunch. They're running off their generator and are packed with customers. Their tip jar (a ceramic log cabin with snowmen and Christmas tree) is filled to overflowing; we added to that. Long line for an attenuated menu: ham, turkey, or roast beef on a sub or kaiser roll. It was heaven, along with hot, fresh-brewed coffee. And A/C, in a small, table-filled room decked out in all manner of snowmen, snow angels, snowflakes. (Down here school closings for hurricanes are called "snow days.") No sooner had they finished making baked goods than the donuts etc. vanished.

The woman in line ahead of us has no power, no water, no phone. On our way to the bakery we passed the volunteer fire station, which is distributing free water and ice.

Bank teller: "Ivan can't come here. I'm getting married on Monday!" Coworker: "My husband says Ivan will be cancelled for lack of funds." A man at the bank complains he's wearing dirty clothes because he has no clean ones. Rumor has it that power won't be restored until Sunday. Another man has been watching a battery-powered TV. Ivan is headed for Jamaica, but could still hit Florida.

In the course of our errands (now 12:04) we have stopped at Eckerds, where I've picked up more 9-volt batteries (they are out of Cs and Ds and we have plenty of AAs) and a tall can of ice tea that is now long gone.

2:15 p.m. A neighbor down the block reports seeing a Progress Energy truck. She sang, "Power To the People!" to them, and added, "That worked the last place I lived."

3 p.m. Eddie from Progress Energy, down from the Carolinas, was over to examine the branch leaning on our power line. He'll write it up -- said he doesn't know when the crew will get to it but that the whole area needs to be trimmed. Numerous shingle pieces are strewn about the yard.

In the supermarket earlier, we saw 2 employees wrestle a large pallet filled with ice down the aisle. My sweetie found a dragonfly on the floor there, shivering with cold. She cradled it in her hand, brought it back outside (where its trembling stopped), set it down in the bushes. (When we finished shopping, she looked for it -- it had warmed up and flown away.)

9/9/04 10:43 a.m. Last night the sky cleared a bit. We stepped outside and thrilled to the Milky Way and its Great Rift, and very, very bright stars, now that there are no streetlights and the only lights in homes are candles and flashlights -- with the exception of an occasional generator. This morning I woke to a crescent moon and Venus outside my window, having spent another night in the Florida Room. After two nights of free-fall Geography, we switched our game to proper names factual and fictional (mostly within this galaxy).

I passed several generators with extension cords laid across the road on my way to the Art League for our executive board meeting -- where we actually got a few things done after several reports of being unable to provide a report (or follow up on e-mail) because the power's still out.

12:04 p.m. News Channel 9 is predicting Ivan will hit between Miami and the Keys and will travel up the middle of the state. One of the cashiers here says Category 5. When we tried listening to the radio earlier, the oldies station had returned to playing oldies.

My acrylics instructor called yesterday -- her class is on hold. She and her husband have no electricity or water, and they're leaving.

12:30 p.m. Power is back!!! According to the clock it came back about 2 hrs 10 min ago, while we were out. Cable is still out: snow on all TV stations, including broadcast. Even if we can't get the Weather Channel, at least now I can get online again and go to weather.com.

5:36 p.m. Computer had trouble starting up in the humidity from several days of no A/C -- after some time of A/C and fans it seems to be back to normal. Our latest deluge, still continuing, included a torrential downpour that added 2 inches to the rain gauge in about 15 minutes.



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