The storm he almost didn’t survive

Published 9:43 am Saturday, September 3, 2011

Storms like Irene are, quite frankly, a pain in the rear end.

And having lived on the East Coast my entire life, with the exception of the three years I spent in the great state of Illinois, I have seen my fair share. Aside from the fact that they are extremely dangerous and often times deadly, they are messy, frightening and thoroughly inconvenient. Those of you reading this column by candlelight can attest to that fact.

There’s also something about a big storm that’s strangely exciting. The local news channels spend a week whipping us up into a frenzy, knowing that we’re hanging on every word and tracking the storm’s progress minute by minute.

We spend hours shopping for items we hope we don’t need, like generators and $200 worth of D-cell batteries, and things we’d otherwise never buy, like a month’s worth of Twinkies, canned ravioli and bottled water for fear of starving to death.

And for a brief moment in time, we all share in a common experience where our lives would otherwise never interconnect.

We also always remember where we were when the big storms hit.

I’ve lived through three pretty big storms. The first was Hurricane Gloria.

I was a freshman at Long Island Lutheran High School in the fall of 1985 when it made landfall. Gloria came ashore with 100-mph winds and nearly scared me to death.

At the time, my family lived in a small ranch-style house that was perched on a concrete slab, and I remember feeling like we could go airborne at any moment.

And it is the only hurricane I’ve ever been in where the eye of the storm literally passed right over us. Halfway through the storm, we walked outside to see the most radiant blue sky one can imagine, and there wasn’t even a hint of a breeze.

The brief respite lasted for about an hour, and then the skies darkened as the backside of the storm prepared to pass over us. Back into the house we went, and hunkered down to once again prepare for liftoff.

We played a football game against Stony Brook High School that Saturday. The headline for our game’s write-up in the Sunday paper read “Hurricane Lutheran Crushes Stony Brook 56-0.” I’d kill for a copy of that paper.

I was living in Richmond when Hurricane Isabel came calling, and she is the reason I’ll never plant a tree in my yard that could come within 50 feet of my house if it fell.

We lived in an older neighborhood, and it seemed that at least two dozen pine trees surrounded every house. It was about four in the afternoon when I watched the first one fall on my next-door neighbor’s home, which suddenly seemed like a really good time for Mary and I to hide in the basement and wait out the storm.

We turned on the television and watched the Hokies play football that Thursday night. That is, until 9 p.m., when a 200- year-old oak tree up the road came out of the ground and took with it every power line in the city of Richmond.

I had no idea who won the game until the next day about lunchtime.

It took us three days to clean up the yard and four more days after that to get power back. Isabel was also the storm that taught us not to wait until the power comes back on to clean out the refrigerator.

Irene was my first big storm as the parent of two young children, and we decided to ride out the storm at their grandparents’ home.

When they asked why we couldn’t stay home, we told them it was because Gran had some great snacks and would really appreciate their company during the hurricane. Because we’re great parents, we didn’t tell them it had anything to do with Pop’s generator.

Also, because my wife and I are such fabulous parents, we decided that the kids deserved to celebrate their first hurricane by having free run of the Sundrop and chocolate chip cookies. By late that afternoon, I’m not sure who more desperately needed to get outside and run around the yard a few times — us, the kids, or their grandparents.

It was about six at night when we noticed the 60-foot hickory tree that was leaning ever so slightly. Having survived for more than 100 years and countless storms, it surely wasn’t going anywhere, but if it did, it would go right towards my truck. So I grabbed my keys and sprinted out into the driving rain.

I backed down the driveway, briefly coming to a stop to look for a better place to park. My foot hadn’t been on the gas pedal for five seconds when the tree crashed to the ground in the exact spot I had been sitting in moments before. I think I’ll remember Irene for a while but, in case I don’t, my wife asked the friends that showed up the next day to help remove the tree from her parent’s driveway to cut a six-inch slab from the middle of the old hickory’s trunk.

Apparently she wants the kids to have a memento from the hurricane they survived at Gran and Pop’s house. For me, it will be from the one I almost didn’t.