© Wes Gow
Between the Gulf Coast of Florida and the Eastern seaboard of Virginia, I’ve lived my whole life in the crosshairs of hurricanes; literally countless named storms. I’ve enjoyed school and work cancellations, spent many hours in the dark from power outages, and even enjoyed surf sessions from lingering swells. Not once have I actually been truly afraid, not even in direct hits. Not until I was out driving in what was supposed to be a near miss.
Hurricane Matthew was roughly the size of Pennsylvania, 250 miles wide. The behemoth began in the southern Caribbean, wrecked shop in Cuba and Haiti, then proceeded to rake its claws along the southeastern United States from Florida to North Carolina, barely clipping Virginia on its trek out into the Atlantic.
That’s what we were told, anyway. That’s what the weatherman said. That’s what he predicted. Yet somehow, a system that big moving at a whopping five to seven mph snuck much further north than anyone foresaw. Residents in the seven cities of Hampton Roads (including Virginia Beach) were told to expect two to four inches of rain.
Which is why my wife and I decided to load up our girls and attend a wedding an hour west of us. No big deal, really. Some light outer bands of rain, probably some wind. Bah humbug!
We were wrong. Everyone was wrong. Which meant we were all screwed. Soaked, and screwed.
We left our house just as the rain was really starting to fall. Not good. At least I had the good sense to take the truck. The wedding was originally intended as a lovely fall outdoor affair. Unless the party gifts were life vests and flare guns, that wasn’t going to happen.
By the time we arrived an hour later, the rain was positively pounding. I’ve never seen rain that hard, not from any storm, and definitely not for that long. The venue was largely surrounded by windows, and for the next three hours I watched water pour relentlessly out of the gutters.
Finally, after grabbing a bite to eat and saying our congrats and goodbyes, I donned my trusty Carhartt and headed out to get the truck. In light of the storm, I at least had a good excuse to wear my boots, and I practically waded through ankle-deep runoff for a hundred yards before finally starting the truck. We successfully loaded everyone in and ventured out. Despite the rain, I remember my wife taking valuable extra seconds to tighten the safety belts in both girls’ car seats as I stood over her with an umbrella. I noticed that, and found it ominous.
Luckily we were only one road off the main highway that we would take all the way home, but even that one road already had a small creek gushing water over it. Nowhere near the point of danger, but it further amplified my concern. The song, “Over the river and through the woods…” started in my head; I was not amused.
My wife has a neat-o app on her phone that updates traffic routes in real time. She drives almost an hour to her job and it frequently reroutes her off the interstate onto surface roads to avoid traffic jams. Not fifteen minutes into our trip the app alerted us to exit off the main highway, showing a long line of red just ahead. I hesitated, but neither of us wanted to sit out in that disaster for any longer than we had to. Against my better judgment, we ventured off the beaten path, and are very glad to be able to tell the tale!
For the next hour and a half we followed route after reroute only to find on-ramps and underpasses completely flooded, impassable, and often blocked off altogether by police cars. At one point we pulled up to an underpass covered in water, a line of cars waiting on the other side. The SUV in front of us went for it, and made it. But a car ahead of them didn’t fare so well; it hung awkwardly off the onramp. I was just about to make our attempt when a flashlight came pouring into my wife’s window. Two police officers ran past us to assist the driver, wading through thigh-high water to get there.
After over an hour of thrashing rain, dead ends, and having to reverse and turn around without backing into a ditch, we were both massively stressed. Basically, we’d gotten flooded in, unable to access the highway. My back ached and our nerves were toast. I could tell my wife was fighting back tears. We weren’t necessarily afraid for our lives, but we were very seriously coming around to the idea that we might be spending the night in my truck. We parked in the middle of a side street, and I thought of how we’d navigate diaper changes and bathroom breaks for our potty-trainer. It would suck for sure, but in that moment the only thing in my life that mattered was that everyone under the roof of that Tacoma was still there the next morning, and I would damn well see to that. (Sadly, our four-year-old experienced bad anxiety dreams for several nights afterwards).
Just near our breaking point, a dark pickup drove past with evident confidence. “Follow it,” my wife said. I did. It drove through streets familiar to the driver, like a black knight storming a castle. To this day I’m not sure where it went; I don’t remember losing it, but we found ourselves in front of a large hotel. I pulled up under the overhang and my wife went in to accomplish one of two things: get us a room for the night, or get us reliable directions.
She was in there a long time. Mercifully, our girls were asleep in the back. I got a text from my Dad, who lives in North Carolina, asking how we were doing. I decided to respond when I had better news. Finally she emerged and climbed in the truck, a bottle of water in her hand and tears in her eyes. No vacancy, but the kind folks in there made sure to call ahead and find the only road that still had access to the highway.
We set out again, this being our last and final hope of getting home that night.
Success!! We made it to the highway, dodged two fallen trees that covered three out of four lanes, and then finally home, over three hours after we’d left (on what would normally be a forty-five minute trip).
In total, Matthew dumped three to four times as much rain as forecasters (funny word) predicted, upwards of ten inches in less than twelve hours.
I’ll forever feel differently about hurricanes from now on, and hold a particular distrust for weathermen everywhere.
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