As the whole damn world has heard by now, Hurricane Isabel knocked on our doors Thursday morning. I was at my company’s training seminar, hosting at a downtown hotel. As I milled around outside the training room, I met a man named Bob who was a Red Cross volunteer. We discussed hurricane preparedness and what the Red Cross’s plans were for the aftermath. Bob told me he and other volunteers would be heading to Greenville the next morning to help piece together the shattered communities that Isabel would leave in her wake.
Bob wandered off and I returned to the seminar, but the idea of doing something – helping out – was brewing in my mind. The wind was howling around the circular Clarion Hotel and it didn’t look like it would be long before the full force of the storm would be upon us.
The seminar ended around noon and folks filtered off to their respective hotels and such. I followed the storm’s progress with my ham radio and happened to hear that the shelter near my home – Garner Senior High School – needed volunteers to provide communication.
I hopped in my car and called Kelly to float the idea to her. She wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea of fending for herself and Hallie during the storm, but she didn’t say no, either. I assured her that nothing would happen and I would be within minutes of home if needed. I would only be gone for a few hours, after the brunt of the storm had passed through.
Kelly seemed satisfied with my plans, so I swung by the shelter to find out how I could help. Already, there were three hundred people (or “clients”) hunkering down there and the place was hopping. I met Bob (KC4IZA) and Mike (KC4WUH) at the ham table. Mike would be staying the night, but Bob had to leave around 5 PM. I volunteered to take over for Bob from 5 to 9 PM.
I drove home through winds that pushed my car around the road to find a home still cozy and safe. Kelly admitted to being jumpy when bad weather arrived, and deep down inside, I felt the same way. Having trees dive-bomb your home during an ice storm makes you forever paranoid about bad weather. I reasoned that the bulk of the storm would pass us by, but stayed indoors until I had to head out for my shift.
I gathered up a few supplies: a 700 watt alternator, a deep-cycle marine battery for use with the alternator, two extension cords, walkie-talkies, my handheld ham radio, my laptop, and a backpack for everything I couldn’t carry otherwise. The giant “L” on my forehead required no hands for me to carry. It was blatantly obvious to everyone I met.
I stopped by Home Depot on my way to the shelter to buy a power strip for the radio table. The store was dark but was still open, as it was on generator power. I popped in and out of there with my merchandise and headed over to the shelter.
The shelter was full of practically nothing but Latino families. Easily 90 percent of the clients were Hispanic. It was good to see them paying such close attention to the weather, even if the locals might have been amused at their surrendering at such an early stage. The old salts who have a few hurricanes under their belts might have judged that Isabel wouldn’t be a problem, but these newcomers didn’t have that experience to rely on. The word was out in the local Spanish media to head to shelter, so that’s what everyone did.
I set up at the table next to Mike. Bob retrieved his radios and bid us farewell as I settled in. I ran into an early problem as I didn’t have a proper connector to attach my handheld to Mike’s mag-mount ham antenna. Bob loaned us a connector that would work, so I was on the air.
After a few conversations where our net control wasn’t receiving us well, we decided to break out the big guns. I had brought my mobile radio in from the car. It was 60 watts, more than ten times the power of the radios we were using. Only problem it had was that its power connector wouldn’t fit on Mike’s power supply. A little ingenuity later and we were on the air with high power.
The shelter was controlled chaos. A lucky few early birds had snagged the first 50 cots that were available. Others milled around in the high-school gym as they waited for more cots to arrive. Everyone was orderly. Lots were curious about what Mike and I were doing, which – most of the time – was nothing at all. Kids made new friends and ran around on the gym floor, playing ball.
The media wandered around the place. A news crew from Charlotte-based WBTV taped some footage while I set up my radios. A News and Observer photographer asked us what frequency we were using. After hearing our reply, he told us he was listening to it for a while, until the banter degraded into “which tone are you using” (hamspeak for the proper “key to the repeater” that needs to be used). He rewound the film in his camera and wandered off.
Mike and I settled down at the table and kept ourselves busy. I had worked the MS 150 bike race with Mike two years ago on its stretch from Zebulon to Manteo. He’s a regular on the local repeaters and an interesting guy. We kept count of how many clients were in the shelter and listened out on the radio for any requests for more info.
Occasionally, I would hear “excuse me, sir” and look up to find a sheepish child or lost-looking adult staring at me. “Can you tell me when the hurricane is past?” became a common question. Having the latest WRAL wind field displayed on my laptop, I would reply with confidence that the worst was over. They would always be polite in thanking me for the information.
One time, I looked up and an older gentleman would be in front of me. He was desperate to call his neighbors to see if power was on at their home. After hearing him lament that the payphones were missing from their spot on the wall, I offered him the use of my cellphone. He had difficulty dialing, for whatever reason, prompting his son to give it a try. A few moments later, they had the answer they were seeking, and returned my phone with a smile. Already, I was feeling good about being able to help out.
Things had gone really smoothly up to this point. While power was out in the area, the shelter’s generator kept the lights shining inside. I got out my book and began to read, while Mike listened out on the radio.
A truck drove up to the shelter door and the local volunteer firefighters began to unload a pallet of material. I was soon startled when the shelter manager came charging up to our table. “Do either of you have a Phillips-head screwdriver?” she asked in a panic. When Mike said no, I was about to reply the same until I remembered the Leatherman tool I keep in my car. “Will a Leatherman do?” I asked. “Yeah, that’ll work,” replied the firefighter behind her.
I grabbed my rain jacket and hoofed it out to my car. I found my Leatherman and handed it to the firefighter at the door. Back inside, I turned around to see the firefighter working with my Leatherman at the top of the doorway. The middle pole of the doorway was blocking the men from pulling the pallet of cots inside.
I was proud I was prepared to assist, because those cots would’ve taken an hour to unload otherwise. On the other hand, I was kind of surprised it had to come down to that. With a half-dozen police officers nearby, and a half-dozen firefighters, it came down to a geeky ham to have the tool that saved the day. When it came time for the cots to be unloaded from the pallets, I watched the firefighters all whip out knives to cut the packaging. So although they don’t have multipurpose tools like the Leatherman, they at least have knives. God forbid they ever enter a burning building and need a Phillips-head screwdriver to get out.
With the new cots available, people were soon struggling to set them up. I left the radio table and wandered into the gym to see if I could help. As I set up one cot after another, I could see the look of gratitude in people’s eyes. Though many of them did not speak English, it was plain to see they appreciated my being there. It made me sweaty, but it my whole night worthwhile.
The rest of the night was quiet. Mike hopped in the chow line and I followed once he was done. I was one of the last to get a meal, which consisted of chicken fingers, salad, and green beans, along with a white-chocolate cookie and fruit punch. As I ate my dinner, I spied Garner’s Town Manager, Mary Lou Todd and her husband. I have served on a few boards with Mary Lou and consider her a friend. Recognizing me, she wandered over to say hello. We chatted about the storm and I told her what a wonderful job the county relief workers were doing.
As we talked, mayor Sam Bridges and police chief Tom Moss walked in, too. They all talked together as I made my way back to my table. Sam is running for his second term as mayor this November. It got me thinking that if the candidates were clever, they would have been at the shelter providing support for their needy constituents, rather than riding out the storm at home. They would have potentially gained over 400 votes! That Sam was there at all was a nice sign, though I think it was more in his official duties as mayor than for anything else.
I DID hear from my police friend that one of the professional golfers in town for the rained-out golf tournament at Prestonwood had volunteered to help at a shelter. THAT was cool, though I don’t remember his name. Somehow I don’t think it was Tiger Woods. I just can’t see him being so generous.
By 8 PM, the winds had died down considerably outside. The radar indicated the storm had left the state. The client count had fallen from a high of 411 to around 280. I left the radio duties in the capable hands of Mike and packed up my stuff.
As I walked out to my car, a Latino man asked me “are you a policeman?” “No,” I answered. “Just a volunteer.” He smiled at this and seemed more impressed than if I told him I was doing this because it was my job. Yes, people do some things not because they have to – because its their job, but because they WANT to. My time Thursday night was rewarded by the many smiles I received from the grateful public, the laughter of the playing kids, and by the simple feeling that I had helped out someone who really needed it.
Though I don’t wish to see another hurricane any time soon, if another one hits, I’ll be happy to lend a hand where I can. It’s the neighborly thing to do.