A Good Day In Sheepshead Bay: A Tale Of Two Hurricanes

READER SUBMISSION: Mickie Burbella Whitley, an East 15th Street resident and North Carolina-native, passed by this derelict motor boat in the Bay. The sight brought back memories of Hurricane Irene and, 10 years earlier, Hurricane Floyd – during which she made her drive up from North Carolina to Brooklyn. Here, she shares her experiences of the two hurricanes, and of the long, dangerous drive up the coast with a hurricane bearing down in her rear view mirror.

Out and about this morning, I noticed the marina’s new trash-art piece is still on display: a derelict shell of a motor boat, full of trash and whatnot, bumping against the Holocaust Park sea wall near the corner of Emmons.  Now I suppose this observation would be appropriate to a “More Trash in the Bay”-type article, but instead it reminded me of last August and Hurricane Irene… and Irene brings back bittersweet memories of Floyd.

We are two months into what has been a mild hurricane season here in the Bay. Until Irene put Brooklyn into a panic late August 2011, it had been a full 12 years since this part of the world even remembered that hurricanes weren’t just something that happened to other states.

But I grew up in hurricane country and making note of the season is in my blood. In fact, my family lives in the small coastal town (that no one had ever heard of nor remembers now) on which Hurricane Irene first landed. When she got to the Bay, I felt like someone from down home had come visitin’.

I always change my water on the first of June.  For those who don’t immediately recall, the first day of June is opening day of hurricane season for the east coast. This is when my household schedule is set to changing out stored utility water, checking all battery and bulb supplies for the flashlights, reviewing the expiration dates on set aside canned and dried goods, putting up extra ice and making sure the stock of candles, oil and matches is still fat and happy. And yes, I make sure I have a stack of duct tape around… not that I would ever use it on my windows.

Hurricanes engender an awe of respect.  Floyd and Irene, in particular, because they, of all the recent storms, have been able to make New York City pause in its tracks and pay attention.

I celebrate my moving to the Bay during hurricane season. Hurricane Dennis hijacked one moving date and two weeks later, Hurricane Floyd personally escorted me up the coast in 1999.

My respect for the strength of a ‘cane has been solidified by former recklessness.

I have danced through many hurricanes. When Hurricane Dennis came through town, my friends threw an impromptu slumber party to help me ride out both the hurricane and my disappointment at not being on I-95 heading north. Since we were the first inland town the coast evacuated to, all we had to do was hunker down and wait it out.

But at that time and in that place, I had more daring than sense and during the worst of the storm, we became stupidly brave as only 20-somethings can be, and decided to go outside and play. We weren’t a heavy drinking crowd so we really had no excuse other than being restless and bored cooped up in the dark after a great deal of anxious preparation. Worst thing you can do to a young thing is tell it to “hurry up and wait.”

I was generally the voice of reason, but that night the only reasonable thing I suggested was that perhaps we should go into the fallow tobacco field behind the complex instead of into the town streets (remember, this is a country town).

So we all trooped into the field and laughed, shouted and splashed; we fell over during the wind gusts and tried to hold each other up.  We sang and danced circles holding hands in interpretive rites. We counted shingles as they flew off roofs (and were lucky not to get beamed by flying debris).

An absolutely grand time was had by all and we trooped back inside, soaking wet and happy, only to wake up surrounded by flood water and downed, live power lines in the same streets we had opined for our rituals just hours before dawn.

Two weeks later, as my partner was in a moving truck heading south through the night, I was anxiously watching the forecasts and tracking Hurricane Floyd. Our original plan was that my partner would rest the next day; friends would pack the truck the day after; and then, the two of us would begin a leisurely drive north on the afternoon of the third day with a car and three cat carriers in tow.

Instead, we scrambled to get loaded as soon as the truck arrived in the morning and left that evening.

The first thing we heard upon turning on the truck radio was that Floyd was making landfall. We could barely make more than 40 miles an hour against the wind and driving rain. Two counties over, we were spun around and nearly driven off the road by a hurricane-generated twister. Our cats didn’t speak to us for two weeks after that drive.

All through the night we would drive a few hours up the interstate until we got ahead of the rainbands. Then my partner would pull into a rest stop and sleep while I kept watch.  Once the rain caught up to us again, we would continue north.  Driving over the fog encased Verrazano Bridge at dawn felt like driving through the soaring gates of Heaven.

Schools were closed in NYC for the first time since 1996 in preparation for the hurricane that chased me up the coast. Floyd would eventually cause much damage and flooding on Long Island and in New Jersey.

It devastated my part of the south.

The day originally slated for my departure, the apartment complex was under six feet of water with dead hogs from miles-away commercial farms floating in the parking lot. All the roads into town were blocked for two weeks. Ironically, a former Hurricane Irene spun through four weeks later adding insult to injury.

Everyone should dance in a hurricane at least once. But even if you think you are being very safety-conscious beware unexpected pitfalls when doing so.

A pack of men and dogs went to Manhattan Beach at dusk to dance in the ‘cane. Every man that went had a cellphone in a slicker-coat pocket. No one noticed that when you dance in a hurricane, your pockets fill up with water. We had a dearth of cellphone fatalities on East 15th Street during Hurricane Irene.

Which is why the derelict boat floating in the water reminded me of Irene and the fact that, in spite of all being quiet on the eastern front, it is still hurricane season.

Emerging for a neighborhood survey the morning after Irene, there was another boat fatality: a small sailboat ripped from its moorings and took on water as it bounced lightly against the Holocaust Memorial Park sea wall near the corner of Emmons Avenue. Six NYPD officers – citation books in hand – leaning over the rail to stare at the captain-less skiff and literally scratching their heads. The conversation overhead walking by?

“There’s gotta be something we can write it up under…”

So I look at the floating motorboat this morning and think about Hurricane Irene, Hurricane Floyd and the decade between and decide to write something up.  Hurricane season or not, the sun is comin’ up, the air is warm, and it’s gonna be another beautiful day in Sheepshead Bay.

— Mickie Burbella Whitley

If you would like to submit a piece of neighborhood-relevant creative writing to Sheepshead Bites, e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.