Monday, July 27, 2009

Man v. Hurricane

Leaf Series - 13, 2007

In 1989 I was asked to make a presentation to a professional society in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The trip there involved flying on a big plane to Charlotte and then switching to a little plane for the hop over to Winston-Salem.

I should mention that this presentation was scheduled months before and without the knowledge that a hurricane would be occurring on the same day. Before I left I prepared our house for the storm and assured my wife that I’d be back the next morning. She wasn’t a bit happy with this arrangement. But off I flew to Winston-Salem. I gave my speech, made nice with the locals, and went to bed knowing that I had a very early flight the next morning.

During the night it started raining. The wind whipped around the hotel. I worried about my first flight, a “puddle hopper” over to Charlotte. I got out of bed around 4:30 a.m. and called the airline. The representative assured me that all was on schedule. I wasn't buying that line, and didn't want to go through this weather in teensy propeller plane.

Before 5:00 a.m. I was on the highway headed south to Charlotte. I hadn’t gotten very far before things got serious. The wind became wild and the rain more of a deluge. In the dark I couldn’t tell whether there were cars in front of me or behind me. Trees fell around me. At times it was hard to know whether I was in my lane or even on the road. I was afraid to pull over lest a tree or another motorist hit me.

This lasted about an hour. My attempts to find something on the radio to calm me were fruitless. It was as if all the radio stations had gone off the air.

What I didn’t know, because all the radio stations were indeed off the air, was that Hurricane Hugo had made landfall at Charleston, South Carolina, instead of up the coast in Virginia. More than seventy lives were lost. Tens of thousands of boats, homes and other structures were destroyed.

What I also didn’t know was that the hurricane had uncharacteristically continued inland for some two hundred miles, its fury diminished only slightly as it eventually reached Charlotte and, you guessed it, Winston-Salem. I had been driving right along the face of the hurricane.

The sun was just beginning to rise as I approached Charlotte. The sky was clear and blue. There was nobody on the road. Everywhere I looked there was damage. The only radio station I could find was on battery power and telling everyone to stay put.

Every tree that lined the parkway leading into the airport was pulled from the ground. The rental car return area was locked up. I drove right up to the front door of the airport and found a weary airline employee picking up pieces of glass and paper. “We haven’t even been out onto the field yet,” he told me, “to see whether the planes are still upright.”

Needless to say, nothing would be flying that day. So I drove home to Virginia, where Alamo Rent-a-Car socked me with a huge penalty for not having abandoned their car on the side of the road in Charlotte. I haven’t rented from them since and never will.


  1. I love it! Your take on "remember the Alamo!" Same thing happened to me (and thousands, I'm sure) on the days following 9/11 as I scrambled to get home from Jackson Hole. Not just one rental car, but three! I still love capitalism, but am amazed at its tendency to take advantage of disasters. You have to look for the true scam artists who just come to steal, but you also have to be wary of major companies, tree trimmers, roof reparers and others who become instant supply/demand experts. Never is economics more raw than in such times.

  2. Oh, man--so glad you posted this. That story is incredible. When you first told me this story, I got such a knot in the pit of my stomach--I can't even imagine how horrible a night that must have been. I'm pretty amazed you are alive to tell us about it! What a tale!