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Diamond Diary by Kevin Cooney

Oct. 31, 2005


That piercing cry of Fred Flinstone would echo through the town of Bedrock, signaling some new predicament for Fred and Barney, but for South Florida this past week, it was an angry outburst from people fed up with the effects of Hurricane Wilma. Over three million people have been without power since the storm arrived this last week. Traffic lights make our already infamous intersections an exercise in caution, bravery, and dumb luck. People have, for the most part shown admirable patience as the roads return to use.

Our neighborhood regained electrical power late in the day on Friday. People were in the streets cheering as they realized FPL crews had returned us to the world of hot showers, television, and night lights. It was just in time for me- I had more hot wax spilled on me during this period of darkness, than at any time since I was an altar boy 40 years ago.

A byproduct of the storm was the bonding that developed within neighborhoods. Everywhere there were stories of people gathering together to grill food that would soon go bad. Coach John McCormack said he couldn't remember eating so well ! On our street each night, families would gathjer at my neighbor Frank's and hang out as the kids would roast marshmallows over a fire pit. It was Maggie and Luke's first experience making S'mores 'round a fire. Those nightly gatherings soon became the discipline threat during the day-"If you don't stop fighting, there'll be no marshmallow roast!"

The bonding process began during the preparation period prior to Wilma's arrival. My son Jim came down to help me finish putting up our shutters and then help my 78-year old neighbor with his. Jim Gilchrist was a Masters Champion hurdler and high jumper when we first moved here. He would drag out his foam rubber pit and high jump bar and do the Fosbury Flop for young Jim and Jeff. But Mr. Gilchrist's jumping days are over and he grudgingly relented to let us help him.

Thinking our workday was done, Jim and I sat on our front porch debating if it was too early for a cold Yuengling, as we wathed our cross street neighbors starting on their house. Melissa and Carl both teach at FAU, but have the misfortune of owning a two story house in Florida. As I saw them dragging out two huge pieces of plywood, I realized Jim and I should have taken our rest on the back porch. Next thing you know, we're sky high on extension ladders juggling sheets of plywood and trying to drill holes and screw the protective plywood in place.

One nice thing about Wilma was that she had the courtesy to arrive during daylight hours. Not that you could see much with the shutters in place, but at least we weren't losing a night's sleep as the wind howled and the shutters shook. We have a back door that is under the roof in our back patio and pool area, so we would periodically peek outside to watch the trees whipping in the wind.

I heard a loud metallic noise after a time, and opened the door to see the pool enclosure, basically a big screen house, sagging down in the center. As I watched, a six foot metal support piece broke loose and flew ten feet directly into the sliding glass door of our guest room. Fortunately, the hurricane shutters we purchased after Hurricane Andrew held firm and the doors were fine. The wind was out of the East, contrary to what had been predicted. Jim and I had debated whether to put up those particular shutters because they were on the east side of the house and were a pain to hang. I'm glad we took the time. A few minutes later there was another noise and the entire screen enclosure collapsed into the pool and all over the pool deck and back yard.

After some time the winds died down and the street was alive with people surveying the damage. We were now in the eye of the storm, the point at which all the experts urge you to stay inside. Naturally none of us heeded their advice.

Everyone was sharing their stories and damage reports. It was my chance to take our dog Trouble out for a second time. She was acting anxious to get out earlier, and I figured the shuttered house might be more habitable if she did her business out in the storm. I felt like one of the Weather Channel guys as Trouble and I leaned into the wind and looked for a dog rest area. Trouble wasted little time and we were back inside soaking wet, and vowing never to do that again.

The problem with being out during the calm of the eye is that you don't know when the winds will resume. If you venture too far from shelter, you may not make it back. There were actually a couple of cars driving around the block. I wasn't that anxious to sightsee, so when the first winds picked up we hustled inside. In minutes the storm was again roaring, this time from the west. The area right outside our front door is blocked on the west by part of the garage, so I grabbed our porch chairs and we sat out there for awhile watching branches, roof tiles, mail boxes, and assorted other debris fly down our street faster than Mike McBryde goes from first to third!

Around three or four o'clock it was over. It was then that we realized South Florida had caught a big break in the midst of all this damage and loss of power. A cold front barreled in behind the storm and sucked out all our nasty humidity as temperatures fell into the 60's and then 50's at night. That weather change made this past week tolerable for three million people who would be coping with little water and no showers or AC.

The clean up began right away; the sound of chain saws serving as the all clear signal. Generators were fired up by many of us who experienced last summer's storms and found the gas guzzling saviors under our Christmas trees last year. We have a double door freezer stocked with meat that we buy in bulk, our refrigerator and its freezer, and another low freezer in our garage. Those were the first to be plugged in, along with one lamp at night, and the coffee pot in the morning. Our garage freezer stored ice for a neighbor, and people without generators gave us some of their milk, butter, and other perishables.

Everyone worked together to try and clean up the debris, and then sat outside at night and enjoyed a rare sight in South Florida- the sky was illuminated, not with the glowing street lights and strip malls, but by the beauty of God's creation. Every constellation you could name was visible over the Palm Beach county darkness! It was a beautiful sight. Mary Beth said it made her feel we were back on the farm in Tennessee.

The next day was more of the same, as we continued cutting trees and hauling limbs, coconuts, and broken fences out to the curb. The generators were pouring pollutants into the air, but none of us seemed to mind.

Near the end of the day I saw a familiar figure walking slowly down the street, looking sadly at all the mess and debris. Miss Daisy was on her way home from feeding the ducks.

Miss Daisy is a beatiful little woman, perhaps in her seventies, who lives on the other side of FAU, about four miles from here. For years I have seen her walking along, her beautiful ebony face peeking out from under an ever present sun bonnet, as she makes her way through the area with bread or bagels she has retrieved from a dumpster to feed the ducks who live in the canal near the Boca Hospital, and the Middle School, as well as the canal beyond my neighborhood.

Miss Daisy is originally from England and lives alone in a small one room apartment behind a gas station. She likes to stop and talk to Luke, who she usually calls Dookie, and Maggie, often referred to as Katie. (the name of our deceased dog) If I'm home, I usually drive her home and often dumpster diver for her to get bagels for the next day's feeding. The ducks don't like onion bagels, even if they're on the top of the garbage pile.

Miss Daisy had nothing at home to eat, and no method of cooking anything if she did. So Mary Beth put some casserole and corn bread on the grill, and we packed some water bottles and drove Miss Daisy home. I offered to take her to a store but she said she didn't like canned food. She was instructed to stop the next day and have dinner. We were having Linda Field and her daughter Suzie over anyway. They had given me the gas from their broken generator, so we grilled them a nice chicken dinner.

Miss Daisy didn't show, so Maggie and I broke curfew (probably not the last time she'll do that) and brought a plate of chicken and sweet potatoe casserole over to Miss Daisy. While there, I noticed her only source of light, a flashlight, seemed low on power. Miss Daisy explained that she can't sleep in the dark, so the flashlight is her nightlight. I left her our flashlight.

Each night has been the same, as Miss Daisy's apartment complex still is without power. I think there is a definite socioeconomic aspect to these power grids. The hospital, FAU and the Mall were the first to be back on line. Dixie Manors, a low income housing complex near Miss Daisy is still without power, three blocks from FAU.

Gasoline was nearly impossible to find. Rumors were flying about where stations might be open and pumping the liquid needed to fuel generators and people's cars. I took stock on the third day and realized we had one day's gas left. Efforts to siphon our Expedition failed, and MB came out and told me we were out of propane. Great job of preparation by me. I had forgotten to get propane, and was reluctant to store too much gas in our garage.

A strange feeling crept into my stomach. It was just a twinge of panic. We had a lot of frozen food that would spoil, nothing with which to cook, and the radio was saying power may not be restored until mid-November.

We needed to make a gas run and soon. My neighbor Chuck had sat in line for seven hours and was limited to $20 gas. That wouldn't cut it. I decided to head for Vero Beach. It was a two hour drive, so I would burn four hours of gas, but I heard there were no lines or limits. My neighbors all brought their empty gas cans and we loaded up the Expedition. My pickup was near empty.

One neighbor took me aside and whispered, "Take your wife and kids to the beach." Lenny is considered a little eccentric, but he was the only one nice enough to suggesst that transporting 18 containers of various designs, filled with gasoline wasn't the safest thing a father of four could be doing. He told me it was a bad idea. I said it wasn't my first...hadn't he seen me coach?

Armed with a ham sandwich, a drink, and Lenny's seed of fear planted firmly in my gut, I headed up I-95. At Port St. Lucie, I exited and found two stations pumping gas, each with about twenty cars in line. I pulled in and was told it was a three container limit. But the place was a zoo and I was lost in the middle pumps so I just filled cans as fast as I could. After I got eight filled I felt a tap on my shoulder. A big State Trooper (are there any small ones?) asked me how many I had done. The truth is always better so I stuttered "e e e eight", and he told me to hit the road.

Twenty miles later I was in Fort Pierce at a Racetrack station with another twenty car line, but no container limit. I finished my last ten and headed for the Wal-Mart to fill Linda and my propane tanks.

Loaded with enough combustible material to blow me sky high I headed south again.

The ride gave me a lot of time to think about our situation. I reflected on our good fortune in comparison to the people in New Orleans and Alabama. But even though our area is not as bad, it is devastating for thousands of people. My neighbors and I have generators and chain saws. We have roofs, some damaged, over our heads, and for the most part our homes survived. But the poorer class of people who make up so much more of our country's population than Washington, and our society in general, care to admit, pay a much steeper price than any of our homeowners' hurricane deductions.

There are poor people who work hard and live in sub standard housing whose homes didn't fare as well. I hope their kids are happily roasting marshmallows, but I doubt it. Those people need to be remembered in our prayers each night.

Once I got out of the county on my gas run, a peaceful feeling returned. I then realized how stressful just being in the area affected by the storm felt to me. Doing whatever you needed to help your family became more than just having a job and providing for your kids first. The pictures of "looters" in New Orleans flashed through my mind, and I realized that if my family's survival depended on me taking something from an abandoned Wal-Mart...I know what I would do.

As I drove home more carefully than ever before, and observed a large number of pickups filled with gas cans, the chorus of Springsteen"s Devils And Dust played in my head:

I got God on my side I'm just trying to survive What if what you do to survive Kills the things you love Fear's a powerful thing It can turn your heart black, you can trust It'll take your God filled soul And fill it with devils and dust

Everyone needs to think about what they do to survive.

Today the weather is still mercifully cool, and more houses should get power restored. St. Jude's is the only school in Palm Beach county holding classes- much to the disapointment of Luke and Maggie. FAU is set to reopen on Wednesday.

The storm has passed. KC



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