Wednesday, October 1, 2008

In the Eye of a Hurricane

By the spring of 1964, I had spent two years at the University of Minnesota, majoring in mathematics, vacillating between becoming an architect or a mining engineer, trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life.

That summer, I read a magazine article about computers and how there would soon be a huge demand for experts in this new field. It sounded exotic and potentially lucrative. Being an impetuous young adventurer, I decided to become a computer programmer.

On August 10, my 20th birthday, I stuffed my belongings into the trunk of a 1953 Chevy and headed for Florida early the following morning, where I intended to enroll in Miami-Dade Junior College in Miami, one of the three top-rated computer schools in the country at the time.

Four days later, I arrived in Miami and checked into a cheap motel near campus. It was hot, humid and raining. As far as I could tell, I was the only person in Miami wearing socks.

The same day I arrived, a weather disturbance classified as a tropical cyclone moved off the eastern African coast.

After catching up on my sleep, I went to the college campus the next day and registered for fall semester.

The weather disturbance soon reached hurricane force in the Atlantic and was named Cleo.

There was a pool hall across the street from campus with a lunch counter that soon became my unofficial headquarters. I had spent much of my youth in pool halls and felt right at home there.

On August 22, Hurricane Cleo slammed into the French West Indies, causing 14 deaths and much damage.

I eventually found a cheap place to rent near campus. It had a bedroom, kitchen and bathroom. It also had cockroaches the size of sewer rats and enough beefy spiders to make a horror movie.

On the morning of August 24, Hurricane Cleo passed south of the Dominican Republic, killing seven people. Later that day, it veered into Haiti where damage was considerable and 192 people perished.

A couple of days later, I was hanging out in the pool hall, wondering why the place was so deserted.

On August 27, the eye of Hurricane Cleo moved onto Key Biscayne. The owner of the pool hall began chasing out customers and preparing for some sort of onslaught.

That’s when I first learned about Hurricane Cleo.

Dominic, the owner of the pool hall, invited me to join his family and a few guests at his house, a block from the pool hall, for a hurricane party. It sounded better than waiting it out with cockroaches and spiders so I accepted.

Classified as a category-four hurricane, Cleo had sustained winds of 135 mph, with gusts up to 160 mph. It hit Miami at full throttle.

At midnight, I watched a large garbage can blow down the street and never hit the ground. About 1:00 am, the exterior wall of the TV station collapsed during a live broadcast of weather conditions. A few minutes later, the electricity went out in all of Miami.

Not too long thereafter, there was a sudden dead silence. The wind had abruptly stopped and it was no longer raining.

Dominic handed me a flashlight and announced that he and I were going to check on the pool hall. When we got outside, the entire area was flooded with knee-deep water. I followed Dominic to the pool hall, which had about a foot of water inside. It smelled like rotting fish but everything else looked okay.

On the way back to the house, Dominic told me to hurry -- we were in the eye of the hurricane and it was about to kick in again. I was simply a young wanderer from the far north where the lakes have loons and winter temperatures are prefixed with minus signs. I knew nothing about hurricanes or the eye that came with it.

Dominic also told me to watch out for snakes -- another news flash that got my attention. It's amazing how quickly you can move when you're knee deep in snake-filled water in the dark, in the eerily silent eye of a moving hurricane.

We made it back inside the house just as Hurricane Cleo hit again with full force. The closer to the eye, the stronger the winds. And we were on the very edge of the eye just then, with the fierce wind now blowing in the opposite direction as before.

While everyone else eventually went to sleep, I spent the rest of the night waiting for the roof to cave in.

Hurricane Cleo caused $125 million in damage in the Miami metropolitan area. It continued along the eastern coast, mostly out at sea, until it fizzled out on September 4 east of Newfoundland.

Only three disturbances to reach landfall as a category-five hurricane, the most intense category, have ever been recorded in the USA.

1) 1935 – Labor Day Hurricane in the Florida Keys
2) 1969 – Hurricane Camille in Mississippi
3) 1992 – Hurricane Andrew in Dade County, Florida

My ex-wife was also a category-five disturbance once in 1981, but that’s another story.


Quote for the Day -- I'm not lost, I'm just taking the scenic route.

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