Wednesday, August 08, 2007

One Very Ill Wind

I'm thinking of a scene in The Thief of Bagdad where Conrad Veidt, as the evil wizard Jaffer, uses his nasty magic to conjure up a monsoon.

Radiating pure ugly, he stands up on the deck of a ship and summons the storm like an attack dog to come forth destroy the hero.

"Wind," he shouts, waving his arms like a conductor leading an orchestra. "Wind!"

I suspect Conrad must have made a stop in Bay Ridge today because we were hit with an honest-to-God tornado. A Bay freaking Ridge. News reports are saying this is the first tornado to hit Brooklyn since 1889.

Can I get an "Auntie Em"?

The neighborhood looks like a war zone. A street lamp on my street is roped off as it is in danger of falling.

Trees are down in the park around the corner and on 68th Street between Third and Fourth Avenues, and a church on 67th Street had its stain glass window destroyed by the brutal winds.

Officials are saying the storm ripped the roofs off 11 homes around here, lifted off the ground briefly, then yanked the roof off the car dealership at 66th and Fifth Ave. After that, the storm hit 58th Street and tore the roofs off five houses.

Subway service throughout the city has been thrown completely out of whack.

There were emergency vehicles and TV news trucks all over Fourth Avenue, helicopters are buzzing over our houses, and I've been handling phone calls from concerned friends and family.

Today's misery started early this morning with what I thought was a nasty thunderstorm. I was in bed and it sounded like artillery fire exploding all around my house.

The rain was coming down furiously, so I knew the backyard drain would get stuff up and creat what I like to call "Lake Lenihan"--a huge body of water that stretches into my neighbor's backyard and makes my home look like a house boat.

The storm seemed to subside and then I felt a breeze coming through the open window. Hmm, I thought, that feels good. And it did. The wind had a nice cleansing feeling to it and I thought the worst was over.

Then the wind got stronger...and stronger...and stronger still. I sat up in bed, listening to that powerful gust of wind and I wondered if we were being hit by a tornado.

But this ain't Kansas, Toto. We don't do tornadoes in Brooklyn. But it looks like a tornado has done us.

I got up to find the trains were chronically screwed up, so I did the smart thing: I called my boss and then went back to bed and didn't leave my house until around 10 a.m.

I got a first-hand look at the damage as I walked to the Bay Ridge Avenue station and thought about working from home. But I'm not the most popular guy in the office and I figured I could look like a hero if I braved the dicey transit system.

The R train was going over the bridge and by-passing lower Manhattan. So, after having a pleasant conversation with a young lady named Jessica who was sitting next to me, I got off at Pacific Street and walked into a crowd of swirling bodies, all of whom were looking for a way out of there.

People seemed fairly well-behaved given the circumstances. I think the entire city said to itself, "I'll get there when I get there," and then just chilled. I found a 2 train that, after some discussion, decided it was going to Wall Street and I hopped aboard.

I got to the office at around 11 a.m. and one my co-workers decided it was a good time to bust my chops.

"So, Rob," he said. "You finally decided to show up."

I actually forget what I said, but I am happy to report that my response did not contain any obscenities or evil spells. Lucky for that guy I'm not Conrad Veidt.

At my sister's urging, I contacted Tony, our go-to guy for all home repairs, and asked to him come by and fix the drain pipe, thus making Lake Lenihan a distant memory.

I thought this would be a 10-minute job. But then I'm the one who thought this morning's gentle wind was a welcome relief from the heat.

In all fairness, Tony was expecting an easy day at the office, too. Unfortunately, it was more like the Battle of the Bulge, as he had to use a snake to clean out the house's clogged pipes, a job that had not been done in at least 30 years.

As the Joker might say, this house needs an enema!

It's hot around here, hot as a bastard, and during the course of the evening, I had to grab hold of the snake and let the sucker do its thing. The long vibrating coil disappeared into my home's intestines and wailed away.

After I while, I let Tony take over and came upstairs to screw around with the computer. Tony emerged from the cellar shortly after 9:30 p.m., dripping in sweat, filth, and satisfaction. He had defeated the clog.

Now the clean-up begins. One of our local politicians was on TV looking to get disaster relief. I think we've earned it.

The City That Used to Be

Years ago I covered the aftermath of a violent storm that tore through Stroud Township in the Poconos.

I don't think it rated as a tornado, but it did a lot of damage. I drove around in this eerie quite--the calm after the storm--and talked to home owners whose houses had been damaged by the flying debris. They also had to deal with gawkers.

"We're going to sell tickets," one man told me, as he stood outside his battered home.

Another time I covered a wicked storm somewhere in Monroe County where a tree had come crashing down on a house. As I stood on the lawn with a photographer, an elderly man came outside and stared at us.

"How are you doing?" I asked lamely, meaning it as a greeting.

"How am I doing? the man repeated in disbelief and nodded in the direction of his crushed roof.

He didn't actually say, "how do you think I'm doing, shit-for-brains," but that was heavily implied.

Of course, the biggest storm I ever covered was Hurricane Andrew in Homestead, Fla. I had gone down there with Bill Agriss, a trucker with Roadway and a hell of a nice guy, to interview former Pocono-area residents who been caught up in the disaster.

The trip was a blast in itself, as I deepest Dixie with wearing my Brooklyn cap. No one said anything about it until we got to Valdosta, Ga., where the head of the Roadway facility there just glared at me.

"Brooklyn?" he said in mock horror.

When I arrived, I interview a very nice retired banker who told me how, during the storm, he and his friends had to hold on to the door of his house to keep it from flying away. And then he cried when he told me how neighbors had come out to help each other.

Trailer parks got the worst of it. They were picked up and twisted like aluminum cans. Homes were boarded up and adorned with threatening messages like "Looters Will Be Shot."

The National Guard patroled the streets and I spent one night in the cab of tractor trailer.

"If you have to go out at night...don't," the local Salvation Army commander told me.
I took his advice very seriously.

One of the residents of the army's shelter in Miami summed it up best as he drove me around.

"Homestead," he said, "is the city that used to be."

The superintendent of the National Park in Homestead had just moved down from the Poconos a month before and saw his home and office destroyed in the same night.

He took for a ride through the park and pulled over by a lagoon to show me some of the devastation up close.

"Maybe we'll see a gator," he said with a strange kind of enthusiasm.

Maybe you'll see a gator, pal, I thought. If I see so much as a ripple in that, I'm running my ass back to Brooklyn.

When we got back into his Land Rover, the vehicle was filled with clouds of buzzing gnats. His solution was to open the door a crack, floor the pedal, and create a vacuum to suck the little buggers right the hell out.

"This is the only way to do it," he said over the engine's roar.

I learned later that one of my fellow reporters had actually camped out at the park in Homestead years before. Why anyone would willing go to this place that reminded of Devil's Island, I don't know, but I don't think he saw a gator either.

I went to a tent city and interviewed a woman who had lost her home. She was a suburban housewife who had her entire life turned upside down and looked so out of place in this hastily-assembled camp.

"Life is what happens while you're making other plans," she said.

On my last night in Miami I stayed at the Salvation Army's shelter and ate my breakfast with men who had been caught up in their own personal storms, battered around by the devastating force of drugs and alcohol.

I met one man who was former New Yorker and, upon seeing my cap, he called me "Brooklyn" as if it were my name.

That trip was a great learning experience for me. Not just as a reporter, though that was certainly part of it, but as a human being, as well. I met some very decent people, people had gone through the kind of adversity I couldn't even imagine.

I met people who had lost control of their lives and were trying to rejoin the world. I learned how fortunate I was to have my life and family, and how easily what you hold dear can be taken away.

So Bay Ridge is still standing tonight. And for that I am very thankful indeed.

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