Holler news: Isabel kisses Hungrytown

Thursday, September 18, 2003 awoke gray and sullen. The news had been full of it, weather channels tracking pictures of a pleasant whirlpool of white clouds swirling over warm Atlantic waters for weeks, singing songs of 140... 160 mph winds. The whirlpool has grown to cover an area larger than Colorado.

Hurricane Isabel is preparing to pay Hungrytown, Albemarle County, a visit.

The gray builds gradually, imperceptibly: no rush, the eye of the storm isn't coming through until 2am Friday. I caulk the chimney; Polly creates an indoor jungle of elephant ears, begonias, ferns, figs, oversized rubber tree plants, that she wants to protect. Anything that can blow or move gets stashed.

The air hangs warm, heavy, waiting. By lunch, the trees are sighing gently, mournfully, heavy leaves twisting listlessly in the beginning breeze. What strikes me is how slow, ponderous, and inevitable the storm's approach seems– like the Titanic going down.

The sky sits, a great gray, threatening tank. There should be wind, thunder, lightning, 10 minutes of rain, and be done with it... A little tail end rainbow for good measure! But no, this is different. An unbelievably massive weight of water, vast quantities of the tropical Atlantic, is suspended in the air above us, and, as the mighty winds supporting this airborne sea tire from rubbing against our mountain ridges, it's going to finally obey the law of gravity and fall.

By 2pm, the trees are giving fair warning that something is wrong. My five o'clock clients call and says they think they can make it to Covesville if I can. No problem– except for a mile of forest with overarching, crying trees. The wind can't be that bad. The forecast says it will have slowed down to less than 50 mph.

Spray from that giant suspended ocean wave cools my face as I throw the chainsaw in the back of the Subaru. The mountains above our hollow are adding a low moaning note to the leaves' anxious song. Poplars sway gracefully at the field's edge like giant chorus lines. Further back in the woods, oaks stand strong, rigid, full leaved and top heavy. I'm glad we've parked the cars in the middle of the field, as far as possible from the trees, in case one decides to "lay down on the job."

It's beginning to get exciting, but I head out at 4:30. A mixture of rain and small twigs spatters my head as I tilt an old umbrella uselessly into the wind and make a run for the car. Through the steady surf roar of the mountains, I am vaguely aware of a little red light in my mind flashing, "This is stupid!"

"Naa!, it's only a mile of woods. The road's in the valley, sheltered from the wind, and the eye of the storm is 10 hours away. Nothing is really going to happen for a good while yet. Go for it!"

The road lies dark in the woods' gloom, tattered with leaves, sticks, and small branches. Great trees loom and sway above me. Half way through, a foot-thick dead white oak blocks my path. No problem, except the saw won't start. The half rotten tree has sheared at the stump and partially broken again 10 feet up.

Before I can attach rope to tree and trailer hitch, a car rolls up from the town side. He has a dull little power saw that eventually works, and I don't have to endanger my transmission after all. The woods attack us with hails of wet twigs as we roll a section of trunk as big as a car off the road.

The guy's wife cries over the mountain roar, "I think I heard another one fall..." They fly homeward. A hundred yards further on, in the path they just crossed, a dead oak snag two feet thick has slammed across the road. Five minutes until appointment time, and the wind is still rising... It's time to go home!

My answering machine is blinking: "We're having trouble getting out of our driveway. Richard's getting the power saw running. Call if you want to cancel..."

By 5:15, gray misty sheets of the falling ocean have obliterated all sight of the mountains above our hollow, but their great roaring battle with the wind continues to build. The din of rain on our tin roof is punctuated by the machine gun rattle of great green walnuts battering the metal shop roof.

Suddenly, an express train blast tears down towards us; rain goes horizontal; tulip trees lie over, vibrating leaves screaming in protest. Creak..rip...crash! Something big went! There's no way not to get wet, so I don swimming trunks and venture into the tumult. The driveway through the woods behind our cabin no longer exists, having been erased by the fifty foot crown of a big red oak. A Damson plum and Lodi apple trees have abandoned the fight in the back yard. I fly back to cover.

By 5:30 the power is gone. Towels soak up water dribbling across the fireplace hearth. With big gusts, the chimney tones a great bass pipe organ note. Overhanging eaves normally protect our cabin, but horizontal rain has a way of finding its way through chinked walls. We wring sponges and collect drips around window ledges. We still have drinking water, thanks to our faithful spring and gravity system.

Polly talks about freeing up the old wood cook stove we use for storage, but we settle for a cold supper. The small, warm glow of kerosene lamp and candles somehow balances the giant forces battling outside our door. I play quiet banjo tunes and settle for an early bedtime.

The storm howls on forever. Through the night, I wring sponges and check for flooding. By Friday morning it's mostly over, the roar of the wind replaced by the roar of raging streams, swollen by eight inches of ocean dropping on us in as many hours. Good neighbor David and his son, Daniel, help my nephew, Adam, and me chainsaw a tunnel through the crown of the fallen oak. By the time we've escaped, other neighbors have opened up the mile of fallen destruction through the woods. Later, VDOT rebuilds the road washouts with riprap and crush– and then they run. I'm glad I didn't keep that appointment.

Three days later, the electric hum of civilization returns. I'm eating a lot of smoothies made of thawed frozen peaches and trying to finish getting the dozer running. Can't let all those fallen trees go to waste.