We were away at Ottawa, Canada during August 2011. When the tickets were booked for the Philadelphia-Ottawa trip we had no idea that we have a tryst with Hurricane Irene. It so happened that our return journey from Ottawa was on a US Airways flight leaving Ottawa at 3.50 PM on Friday, 26th August 2011 and arriving at Philadelphia at 5.10 PM. Our flight was on time, but the airline had issued travel advisory that travel further from Philadelphia may be subject to cancellation of flights due to arrival of Hurricane Irene. The next flight to Philadelphia from Ottawa scheduled for 6.30 PM was cancelled before we boarded our flight.
On our arrival in Philadelphia we realised that over 900 flights were likely to be cancelled for the next two days. All airports around New York, Philadelphia and nearby areas were ordered to be closed. Our drive home from the Philadelphia airport was through thick traffic and the 20 mile journey took over two hours as all roads were choked with traffic. This would not be a surprise in Bangalore, however. Evacuation from low lying areas of Atlantic coast was in progress. Cities like Atlantic City and other beach cities were totally shut. We indeed had a date with IRENE.
Why was she Irene only and not of some other name? In the Atlantic Ocean, tropical storms that reach a sustained wind speed of 39 miles per hour are given a name, alternately name of a man and a woman. If the storm reaches a sustained wind speed of 74 miles per hour it is called a hurricane. So, hurricanes are not given names, tropical storms are given names, and they retain their name if they develop into a hurricane. The previous one was named as "Harvey" and after Irene we have "Jose". It somehow has happened that the girl name storms/hurricanes have been more dangerous and devastating. "Hell has no fury like a woman scorned" said William Congreve, in his "Mourning Bride" as early as in 1697! (The correct lines actually are - "The Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned"). There is a list of 21 names for tropical storms each year and kept ready for six years after which the names are repeated. If all the 21 names in a year are used up, Greek alphabets like Alfa, Beta etc. are used till the end of the year, after which the regular names from the list are used. If a storm/hurricane causes extensive damage like Katrina in 2008, the name is deleted from the list. For these reasons she had to be "IRENE" only and no one else.
Saturday, 27th August morning Irene had arrived in South Carolina after battering The Bahamas. Our time slot to face the fury was from 12 Noon on Saturday to 12 Noon on Sunday 28th August. Millions were evacuated from Low lying and coastal areas and evacuation was mandatory in certain areas. Mayors of cities and Governors of states were addressing the people by turns warning about dangers of non-evacuation and steps to be taken for prevention of damage by the hurricane. Announcements were made that road bridges will be closed if wind speed exceeded 60 Miles per hour. Storm surge in the sea had created 30 feet high waves. Water levels in the sea had risen by 10 feet. People had boarded (using card board sheets to nail and close windows) windows and removed garbage cans from the streets. Red Cross was ready with camps, beds and relief materials. Three persons were dead in Virginia by 3 PM on 27th. Winds up to 100 miles per hour were battering the coast. There were power outages in many places, but we were not affected.
A three member committee was formed in our house to prepare, receive and face Madame Irene. On Saturday morning, the committee members went shopping to procure materials for the event. They reported on return that the shelves in the shops were empty and drinking water bottles were hard to find. Bread, fruits, juices and snacks were in great demand. After two trips, one to east and one to west, items required for two days were finally procured. Committee members went round the house and moved all mobile objects to the shed or garage - outdoor chairs, table, umbrella etc. Windows were tied and closed.
The calm before the storm extended till 3 PM on Saturday. First drops of rain arrived at 3 PM. Philadelphia declared Emergency for the first time since 1986. By evening heavy rains started pounding the area. Wind speeds increased and tension mounted. At 10.30 PM warnings were given that Tornadoes may hit Valley Forge Area. All residents were strictly advised to move to safer rooms or basement till early morning. We also moved to the basement and spent the night watching Weather Channel and local new channels.
By morning of Sunday the wind velocity had come down and the hurricane had moved towards New York. Rain stopped around noon. Going outdoors was still dangerous as the roads were flooded. Schuylkill river, about three miles from our area had received 15 feet high waters and increased to 23 feet by evening which was a record for the river. Water was over flowing bridges in many places and many roads were closed.
The grim situation had its funny side too! Two youngsters were arrested by the Police for rowing a boat on one of the roads. The water flowing on the highway encouraged them to take their canoe and row on the road. The arrest was made on the charge of "Lack of Commonsense!". And, after all, lack of commonsense is not very uncommon. When questioned as to whether such a provision was there to arrest for lack of common sense, the officer smiled and said there was no such provision and they may be released later without pressing charges. Sure, the officer definitely knew that arresting persons for lack of commonsense may result in arresting millions!.
The Hurricane had weakened and passed major cities by Monday Morning. New York was expected to be shut on Monday. But hard working volunteers had brought things to normal and it was business as usual on Monday Morning. Even the US OPEN TENNIS Championship matches started as schedule. On Monday Maria Sharapova was winning her first round Match against Heather Watson in the third set.
We did encounter the nature's fury from the comforts of our home. We were lucky. Many others had indeed a tough time. It was extremely dangerous and hard for the officials and volunteers. But the people emerged nearly unscathed from Irene when compared to the misery of Katrina.