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Driving through the storm -- a personal tale of Hurricane Irene

August 28, 2011 |  3:26 pm

Driving in New Jersey 

About five minutes into my drive away from the New Jersey coast, I realized I had stayed too long in Atlantic City.

I had spent Saturday writing dispatches from coastal towns in the area, talking to people who had decided not to evacuate in advance of Hurricane Irene.

This was my sixth hurricane, having previously covered Andrew, Gorges, Katrina, Rita and Gustav. I have kayaked through Katrina's floodwaters to rescue my dog, I have swum in water over my head in my own home, I have been in a building rattling and groaning as it was lashed by Andrew's power. I have dealt with hundreds of downed power lines.

Irene was arguably the least severe of the bunch, but on Saturday night it offered another example of how, in a hurricane, even the simple becomes treacherous.

At about 8:30 p.m., as I was interviewing patrons in Skelly's Hi-Point Bar in Absecon, the power went out. The police came in and told everyone to go home. The wind was starting to howl, and the rain, which had been off and on all day, started pouring down. I had a hotel room in Vineland, well away from the coast. That was good, or so I thought. The 28-mile drive to get there? Not so good.

My GPS showed me the route. It led me to a police officer instead.

“Can't go this way,” he said. “Road is out.”

Turning around, I headed farther inland to look for another route. Oddly, the wind and rain seemed to be worse farther away from the shore. And those GPS systems will “recalculate” a new route, but they don't consider depth of water. The rain was getting more intense. The eye of the hurricane would not arrive for several more hours, but Irene was here.

My journey was down mostly two-lane roads lined by huge trees, with only pockets of light flickering as power went out everywhere. You don't really notice how dark the night can be until there is absolutely no light. You also can't see the low spots coming. Pools of water jerked the steering wheel left and right, and three or four times the car bogged down. I found myself talking to the car, encouraging it, which is one of those ridiculous things people do when they don't really know what to do.

There were tree branches down as well, but fortunately in the entire ride I encountered only one massive tree blocking part of the roadway, and I was able to squeeze around it.

But I had plenty of time to ponder what I had done by leaving so late. What if I had been in that spot when the tree crashed down? What about all the trees that still could come down?

I thought about the 500 senior citizens bivouacked in high-rises in Atlantic City, who created a stir when they refused to evacuate, despite pleas from officials that they leave. And I thought, “Well, those 500 senior citizens are better off there than I am in this car right now.”

There was almost no visibility. The GPS ticked down the distance. Each mile felt like a victory. The road was abandoned, so I drove in the middle of the highway, trying to use the crown of the road and avoid the pools of water invading from the shoulders.

Finally, about 90 minutes into my drive and still 10 miles from the hotel, an SUV pulled out in front of me. I dropped back to a comfortable distance and watched. Every time the SUV's brake lights came on, I knew it had hit water, and I slowed down and worked my way through it.

That's another thing about hurricanes: They demand resourcefulness because something always happens that you have to figure out. I stayed behind that SUV, and I followed its wake all the way to Vineland.

-- David Meeks in Atlantic City, N.J.


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Photo: A car drives through a flooded street in Hoboken, N.J., Sunday. Credit: Reuters.