Hurricane Herbert – A Vignette
Bruce Jenson looked out at the sea. It looked just like it did on most days. Calm. But as Bruce turned away from the window of the skyscraper he felt a chill go down his spine. It had been years since New York City had suffered the effects of a major hurricane. And the one sweeping a curving track mostly northwest from the mid-Atlantic was a major one.
Already Category 3 and becoming worse by the minute, Hurricane Herbert was forecast to make landfall somewhere between Norfolk and Atlantic City. That was the cone of uncertainty. At the moment. If the storm edged further north that cone would include New York City.
With the Jet Stream slipping southward and eastward, it could affect the storm enough to push it that far north. The weather forecasters, at least most of them, were already admitting the possibility of Herbert hitting New York. It would simply take some time to tell if the Jet Stream shifted the current track enough to cause it.
Unfortunately, the business he was conducting here in the City was not going very well. The deal should have been cut and dried, signed by all parties three days previously. If it was up to him, he’d have the company pull out of the deal and find something else.
It wasn’t up to him and his bosses, all up the line to the president of the company, wanted this deal. If Bruce had to use all his negotiation skills to get it, then so be it. He wasn’t to pack it in and go home until the deal was signed. He could seal it and deliver it.
Bruce sat down on the bed in the hotel room, swung his legs up, and leaned back against the luxurious pillows he had placed against the headboard. Bruce didn’t actively think about the deal. He simply let his thoughts and subconscious roam. He’d often come up with deal makers by doing the same thing at other times.
An hour later, Bruce was smiling. No, he couldn’t just call off the deal. But he could delay it, with Hurricane Herbert as the reason. If he was right, the other side would not want to wait. They wanted this deal. They just wanted terms that the company Bruce worked for wouldn’t give.
Checking his watch, Bruce got off the bed and went to his attaché case on the table near the door to the hotel room. He was whistling slightly as the doorman flagged a cab for him and he headed back into the fray of corporate negotiations.
Bruce endured the not very subtle or kind remarks about wimps and hurricanes. One of the other team even said that New York City wasn’t subject to hurricanes. Something to do with currents or something was his best explanation.
The threat of delay was enough to bring the negotiators around. The only problem was the head guy refused to sign off on the contract until he had a chance to read through it again. It would be Monday, at the earliest, before he would be ready.
Bruce was sure he was just stalling, annoyed that Bruce had managed to get all the requirements his bosses had wanted incorporated, and on short notice. When Bruce called his home office and said he was coming home for the weekend and would return the following Monday, he was put on hold.
“Now, Bruce, old chum, you’ve done a magnificent job! But don’t let it go just yet. That… what’s his name… Amarnd, could very well want to change something just between him and you. Stay there and deal with whatever comes up.”
Bruce didn’t have a chance to protest. He hung up the silent telephone and sighed. There was a local bar he’d found and Bruce decided he could use a drink. He looked up at the sky as it suddenly dimmed. A front was just beginning to come in. And from the direction, Bruce was sure it was associated with the hurricane.
A baseball game was on most of the widescreen TV’s in the bar, but Bruce chose a seat near the back and asked the server to switch the nearest TV to the Weather Channel. There was one protest, but Bruce signaled the bartender to get the man a drink on Bruce and the protest went nowhere.
Bruce sipped his drink and watched the coverage of Hurricane Herbert. The cone of uncertainty showing the possible path of Herbert had changed. It was edging northward, closer to New York City.
Bruce declined a second drink when the server came over and asked. He continued to sit and watch the weather news until the bar began to fill up with the evening crowd. When he left, the northern edge of the cone of uncertainty was just touching Long Island. Projected time of the eye crossing the coast at Atlantic City was three o’clock in the afternoon two days hence. Herbert had slowed, but was strengthening and becoming larger, with a well defined eye.
After a quiet dinner alone, Bruce went back to the hotel and went to bed. The first thing he did the next morning was turn on the television to the Weather Channel. Things seemed to be better, at first. Herbert had stalled well off the coast, with only the outermost winds affecting New Jersey.
“Might just get finished and out of here before ol’ Herbert can get here. The cone of uncertainty had widened significantly, now including all of New York City, but just barely. There was talk of a voluntary evacuation if Herbert did begin to move toward the City.
Bruce had to admit, his boss had been right. Amarnd wanted some changes and demanded a private meeting with Bruce that afternoon. Despite the small negotiating team that Amarnd had led, he did have the final say. Bruce agreed to the meeting. He checked the weather one more time before he left for the meeting. Still the same.
Such was not the case six hours later. The negotiation had dragged on interminably it seemed to Bruce. Amarnd was simply restating items that had already been agreed upon, most of them in Amarnd’s favor. But it all led up to the same demand that Amarnd wanted all along, that he wasn’t going to get.
Bruce calmly explained three more times why the demand was a deal killer. Amarnd knew the company Bruce worked for wanted his company badly. So he continued to press the matter. But even the greatest optimist finally realizes that for a better term, ‘It ain’t gonna happen!’ Amarnd declared the negotiations over, with the contract to stand as it was already signed. That was at eight in the evening.
Bruce headed for the hotel, noting the moderate wind and light rain. It took a while before one of the many cabs passing stopped to pick him up. Before he even asked, he suspected the answer he would get from the cabbie. “What’s all the rush?”
“Hurricane, man! Where you bin? Going to be a bad one, for sure, they say. Herbert gonna be bad. You’re my last fare. I’m getting out of here before the city floods.”
Bruce hurried up to his room, against a general outflow of people, when he arrived at the hotel. He flipped on the television and then began to pack. The whole scenario had changed. The cone of uncertainty was directly over New York City now, the center of it going right across the middle of Long Island.
Herbert had picked up in intensity, now a Category Four storm, expected to be Cat Five by the time of landfall. Which would be sooner than anyone had believed possible. From essentially a standing start, out in the Atlantic, Herbert had begun to move, and then move more rapidly, and was now traveling at a surface speed of fifty-two miles an hour, straight for the heart of the Big Apple.
His bags packed, Bruce called down to have the doorman flag a cab to take him to the airport. He was quickly told that nothing was moving. The small voluntary evacuation had degenerated into city-wide gridlock. The weather was already affecting air travel. Those already at the airport would probably get out, but those would be the last flights before Herbert hit.
Bruce sat down after hanging up the telephone. He wanted to think. What to do? Suddenly he stood and went to the window. It looked to the east. All he saw was darkness and rain, which was becoming heavier even as he watched. Leaning forward, he looked down at the street. Cars everywhere, with none of them moving. The traffic signals were going from green to yellow to red in a monotonous patter, with no affect.
Bruce considered his options. There wasn’t much doubt about it. He was stuck for the duration. He went to the TV and turned it back on, switching from the Weather Channel to a local news channel. “Maybe there is a shelter nearby…” he whispered.
There were shelters, all right, but nothing close and all of them all ready were at capacity. Bruce decided to stick it out at the hotel. The hotel was one among many tall buildings. Barring a hurricane spawned tornado, Bruce was confident the building would survive. He was about as well positioned as possible, being halfway up in the twenty-three story building. Except his window faced east.
Bruce hurried downstairs, taking his coat, keeping his fingers crossed that power would continue until he finished his local journey. It was the matter of only a few minutes to change his room from one facing east to one facing west, though the clerk was totally clueless as to why Bruce wanted to do it.
Next, Bruce left the hotel and hit the half-a-dozen small to medium sized shops amidst the hotels that were the primary business on this street. He wasn’t alone, apparently, in his plan. There was a line in every store. People were buying essentials. Batteries, water, canned food. Most seemed quite calm. At first. By the time Bruce had selected the items he wanted of those that were available in the first shop, the others in the store were on the verge of panic.
The next shop was the same. Bruce managed to get two more bottles of water, but that was all. He gave up, barely able to maintain his hold on the purchases he’d already made. People were scrabbling and grabbing from each other.
Bruce hurried back to the hotel, took the elevator up to his new room and put his purchases away, many of them going into the small refrigerator. He had a sudden thought and went back down to the restaurant the hotel boasted. He was the only one there.
A very nervous server came over and gave him a menu. He immediately ordered bottled water. “I’ll pay for several extras, if you have them,” he said.
“For the hurricane?” the woman asked.
“We’re not supposed to,” she replied. “Water conservation and all… but… okay, I guess. Are you going to order food?”
Bruce hadn’t intended, but he had a feeling it would salve the woman’s conscience a bit about the water if he ordered a meal. He looked at the menu and started to order something simple. But he suddenly decided he might as well have something he hadn’t had in a while. He wasn’t going anywhere.
“Filet Mignon, medium rare, and a lobster tail. A bottle of your best champagne. And I’ll start with a shrimp cocktail.”
It certainly perked the woman up. “Yes, sir!” She started to take the menu, but Bruce put his hand on it.
“I’d like to look at it further,” he said. The woman hurried away.
Bruce could just barely see the widescreen television in the bar at the far end of the restaurant. He couldn’t hear, but the visual images were enough to tell him he was at the hotel for the duration.
He picked up the menu again, having decided to order a couple of things that would keep reasonably well without refrigeration. He would keep his packaged foods for later. When the server returned with his shrimp cocktail and first bottle of water, Bruce put in the additional order to go.
The woman wrote it down and turned away. But she turned back slowly. “Sir… I’m not sure if you are aware… The hotel does box lunches for parties in the park. They come in insulated baskets. There is a deposit on the basket, but…”
“Well done, Miss! Just add a couple of those onto the order. Each for a party of four. Include plenty of bottled drinks. What’s your name, by the way?”
“Gwendolyn,” she replied. “I’ll get these orders in right away.”
“Thank you.” Bruce turned back to the shrimp cocktail and enjoyed it slowly. More so when the wine steward came with Bruce’s bottle of champagne. With so little business, Bruce was attended to royally. He enjoyed the time, despite the circumstance. Perhaps, he thought suddenly, because of the circumstances.
It was midnight when the lights flickered. But they only flickered and came back on ten seconds later and stayed on. “The hotel has a generator,” the lead chef said. He’d come out to see how the meal was going and had stayed to talk quietly with Bruce and three of the other staff.
“Won’t last long, though,” said the chef. “It’s mostly just to get the elevators emptied and locked down so no one is trapped.”
“In that case, I should head up to my room. Thank you all for such a pleasant evening under such demanding circumstances.” Though he paid for the meal with his company credit card, he dropped several bills onto the table as the very generous tip.
“We’ll help you up with the rest of your order,” said the Maitre’ d. Two of the servers, including Gwendolyn, picked up the packed food and a full case of water bottles and followed Bruce to the elevators.
“You all going to be all right during the storm?” Bruce asked as the team set down the food and water.
“Yes, Mr. Bannon,” Gwendolyn said. “The hotel night manager said we could all take rooms and stay here tonight if we wanted to.”
“Very good. Thank you all again,” Bruce said, as they trooped out into the hallway. The lights went out before he could shut the door and emergency lights came on. One of the others had a walky-talky and immediately called down to the desk.
“There are four of us up on twelve…”
“The elevators are down for the duration,” came a voice of obvious authority. “We checked before we lost power. There are empty rooms all over. Only a few guests didn’t get out on time.
“Spread out, if you will, on twelve, ten, and six. Twelve-twelve, ten-fifteen, and six-o-eight. Station yourselves in those rooms, but keep available to help what guests there are, as well as you can. Jackson, you’re in charge of floors six to twelve. Richard is on his way up to fourteen. He’ll be in charge of fourteen up. Do the best you can with what you have.”
“Roger and I will go down to six,” said the man with the walky-talky. Sharon, you come down with us to ten. That leaves you here in twelve-twelve, Gwendolyn. Doors should all have unlocked when the power went out for good, so you won’t need keys to the rooms. Anything serious and you’ll just have to take the stairs to get help.”
The other three employees of the hotel nodded and moved off. “I’ll be over here, if you need anything else, Mr. Bannon,” Gwendolyn said, stepping down the hallway to twelve-twelve. It was Bruce’s former room. “I have a flashlight.”
“Look… I’m not making a pass or anything… But that room faces east. If there is a problem… broken window or something, come here. This room faces west and should be a bit safer if things get really bad.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” Gwendolyn said, a bit more formally than earlier.
“Yes. Of course,” Bruce replied, realizing that Gwendolyn probably did think he was making a pass. Nothing he could do about it now. Closing the door, Bruce moved across the dark room to the bed. There was enough lightening to see. He rummaged through the shop bags and came up with a flashlight of his own. The flashlight came with batteries and he put them in and turned on the flashlight to check it.
By its light, Bruce filled the several trash containers in the room and bathroom with water from the tub and then cleared the bed and lay down. He was full, had drank most of a bottle of champagne, and it was still warm in the room. He was asleep in minutes despite the storm raging outside the window.
Bruce decided it was the strange and unexpected movement of the building that woke him up early the next morning. He threw back the coverlet he’d pulled over his body during the night as it had cooled down.
He immediately went to the window. Other than the lightening, it was pitch black. He saw a few rotating colored lights of official vehicles in the far distance, but up close, nothing. Looking straight down he was amazed at the level of the water.
Concerns about storm surge had been voiced, and Bruce understood them. He just wasn’t expecting the water to be well up the third floor of the building across the street. Between the tall waves that reached to the fourth floor, and the wind, the building was shaking and vibrating rather ominously.
He didn’t quite lurch, but it was close, and it was caused more by the scream than the additional movement of the building that came suddenly. Bruce grabbed up the flashlight and ran out into the hall. There were half a dozen people in the hall, most in night dress. Gwendolyn was there, still in her uniform. She looked frightened.
“The windows!” someone cried. “They blew in on us. There’s glass everywhere in my room!”
“Here, too,” Gwendolyn said, keeping her flashlight on, but out of people’s faces.
“Some of you on the east side… You can share my room,” Bruce said. Gwendolyn had moved to his door and ushered the three people inside that took Bruce up on his offer. Several other people with rooms on the west side of the building had done the same thing.
The first thing one of the three said was to ask, “Does your toilet still work? I need to go and the toilet in my room doesn’t have any water.”
“I drew up some water last night,” Bruce said. “Use only enough to get the bowl to flush.”
“That was smart,” Gwendolyn said, sitting down on the bed beside Bruce. “I didn’t think about it. My toilet is dry, too.”
“Don’t remember where I picked up that idea,” Bruce admitted. “It’s been with me a long time. Something I read, I guess, when I was younger.”
“I’m glad you did,” Gwendolyn said, standing to get in the line for the bathroom. Everyone made themselves as comfortable as possible when the bathroom trips were over, Bruce taking one of the chairs by the windows. Gwendolyn took the other chair. A young married couple laid back on the bed, and the other lone figure, a woman, stretched out on the sofa.
It was an hour before a dim light began to show at the window. Everyone had managed to doze off again, and again Bruce was the first to wake. He looked out the window. The water was lapping at the window line of the fourth floor of the building across the street. Bruce looked back and forth at where the street should be. He could barely see the water, for all the debris in it. He wasn’t sure, and said nothing, but he thought he saw several bodies amongst the debris heaving with the waves.
Bruce made note of the level of the water and checked it occasionally over the next few minutes. The wind was still raging, but the storm surge wasn’t coming up any more. The others began to wake up, most grumbling about the impossibility of finding food in the situation.
Gwendolyn looked at Bruce but didn’t say anything. “Not to worry,” he said a few seconds later, with a grin at her. “I have some food.”
Gwendolyn smiled back at Bruce and quickly began help him get the food set out. He was glad he’d ordered so much. As it was, he made a point to set out only some of it.
As the others ate, Bruce went through his shopping bags again, this time bringing out a small AM/FM radio. Taking batteries from another package, Bruce got the radio going. Everyone paled when Bruce tuned in a news station. The news was not good. Thousands were swept away by the surface waters of the storm surge. Thousands more had died in the subways and tunnel systems when the storm surge began to fill them faster than the people could leave the trains stopped by power outages and gridlock in the vehicular tunnels.
And the storm was still raging. The only good thing was the group was able to refill the trash baskets from several of the rooms with the rain coming through the broken out windows on the east side of the building, so they still had a working bathroom. Bruce didn’t bother to mention that the waste was probably just going into the waters from the pipes in the lower section of the building.
All were congratulating themselves on how well they had it, compared to others, thanks to Bruce’s foresight. But that didn’t last long. A low rumbling sound was felt, more than heard, and all felt the floor of the room shift under their feet slightly.
“It’s leaning…” the unattached woman, Mary Beth, said suddenly. Bruce couldn’t feel it at first, but the building lurched and there was no doubt about it now. The building was starting to lean toward the west.
“This is not good,” Bruce muttered. He was at the window facing the building across the street. No succor there, he decided. Again the building lurched, this time south to north, rather than east to west.
Bruce ran out of the room and to the end of the hallway facing north. Through the window he watched for a moment as the building they were in swayed further and the upper floors gently came to rest against the hotel just north of them.
The others came running up behind him, slipping and sliding when the window broke out and blew away, leaving jagged edges behind, allowing the heavy rain to come into the hallway, making the polished marble floor slick.
Extricating himself from the panicking group, Bruce ran back to his room, gathered up what he considered important and put it all in the gaudy backpack that had been the only one he had found the evening before.
“I’m crossing over,” Bruce said, when he went back into the hall. Gwendolyn and the others were huddled together, back up the hall far enough to avoid the blowing rain. “I suggest you get what you can carry easily, and follow.”
“We can’t go over there!” cried the young man, Bill. His wife echoed her husband’s sentiments.
Again the building they were in shifted, sliding down the other building a full two floors. There was a huge crack in the outer wall now. Bruce grabbed for Bill’s wife as she slid toward the window on the slick marble floor. He got a hand on her dress, but she was moving too fast and the fabric simply ripped away.
But Bill had a tenacious hold on her hand and managed to swing his feet around to brace them against the wall as she tumbled over the edge of the window. Bruce tried his best to get a new hold, but it was too late. Bill’s wrist slid across the razor sharp broken glass and blood spurted. He had a death hold on his wife, and refused to let go. But the glass sliced completely through his wrist and his wife fell, her screams adding to the sounds from the storm.
Bill lurched forward and Bruce managed to grab him, but it was again too little, too late. Bill followed his wife out the window, though silently. Bruce saw the bodies hit the debris floating on the storm surge and disappear beneath.
Mary Beth, her eyes wide open in shock, scrambled backward until she was able to get her feet under her and then she ran toward the stair well. The door was twisted, and partially open. Even at that, Mary Beth had to squeeze through.
“We have to get her!” Gwendolyn cried, taking a step up the slanted floor.
“It’s too late!” Bruce yelled over the howling wind. “It’s too late! This place is going down!” And indeed, the building lurched more, accentuating Bruce’s words. “We have to go now!”
Gwendolyn looked terrified, but edged closer to where Bruce was braced against the wall that was ever so slowly sliding down the face of the other building. As soon as a window in the other building came even with the one where they were, Bruce gave Gwendolyn a hard shove. She wasn’t expecting it and went flying through the openings, landing on the carpet in the room in the other building.
Bruce took a step back and then leaped forward, stumbling just a bit as the hotel again began to move. He landed hard on his left shoulder, but rolled over to throw his arm over Gwendolyn as the hotel disintegrated, pieces of stone, concrete, and glass, shaved off the façade, sprayed into the room.
It seemed to take forever, but the sound finally moderated, only the sounds of the storm once again dominant. Gwendolyn was shaking and Bruce held her for a moment. But the building they were in didn’t seem all that much of a refuge suddenly. It too was quaking with the wildness of the winds and the pounding of the storm surge.
“We need to get lower,” Bruce urged Gwendolyn, getting to his feet and helping her up. They brushed themselves off, and Bruce took the flashlight out of his pack. He turned it on, found the hall doorway of the hotel, and moved toward it. He had to step back and launch a heavy kick to get the door to spring free of the frame enough for them to get through. That told Bruce this building was also suffering the same fate as the first.
It became more apparent when the floor dropped like an elevator suddenly. Gwendolyn managed to stay on her feet, but barely. “Not quite from the frying pan into the fire, but close, I’m afraid,” Bruce said. “We have to get lower, fast.”
“But what if this building falls, too?” Gwendolyn asked, terror evident in her face.
“I don’t know, Gwendolyn,” Bruce replied. “We’ll figure something out. Let’s just get lower… while we can.
Constantly expecting to be buried within the building, Bruce led the way down the fire stairs after forcing his way through the closest access door. Twice more the building shuddered, and like the other hotel, began to lean significantly, making travelling the stair way even more difficult.
Fortunately, when they saw water in the stairway below them, they were able to go back up one flight and exit the stairwell through a door already sprung enough to slip through. A quick look through the opening for no longer existing windows on the fifth floor, as the building shook violently and debris began cascading from the ceiling, showed only more rain and debris filled streets of water.
“I think… Gwendolyn, we’re going to have to get out of here.”
“But where?” She was staring out at the violent storm, the storm surge pounding against the mounds of broken concrete and twisted steel that was the remains of the other hotel. The building shook again violently and Bruce shoved Gwendolyn toward the window opening.
There! See that slab of concrete? I’ll go first. You follow exactly where I go.”
“I don’t know if I can!” Gwendolyn’s voice was breaking.
Bruce knew he couldn’t make her do it. He’d just have to lead the way and hope she would follow. He wasn’t going to be buried in the remains of the building. Better to face the storm out in the open.
Snugging up the straps of the backpack, Bruce eased over the windowsill and dropped down to the slab of concrete he’d indicated to Gwendolyn. He tested his footing as the wind and spray hit him. The concrete was solidly wedged with other debris and Bruce turned back toward the other hotel and motioned to Gwendolyn to come out.
He didn’t think she would, but as the building began to lean and then fall, Gwendolyn screamed and jumped through the window opening. It was a near thing, but Bruce caught her before she stumbled off the concrete into the raging water. Both were soaked to the skin in minutes as Bruce guided Gwendolyn over the rubble of the hotel, looking for any shelter they could find from the wind and rain.
Twice Bruce saw human remains and managed to guide Gwendolyn around them without her seeing them. But the third time she saw the ravaged body of a woman crushed in the debris. Before he could react, Gwendolyn was on her knees, retching into the dirty water.
Finally, after pushing and tugging as hard as he could to make sure the section of wall angling out of the top of the mound of rubble that was all that remained of the original hotel was secure, he helped Gwendolyn under its protection and braced himself at the outer edge.
The opening was on the lee side of the projecting wall and made adequate protection from both the wind and rain. Despite being the middle of the summer, both Bruce and Gwendolyn were chilled from the soaking they got getting to the protection of the protruding wall.
The two huddled together for warmth, Bruce’s arms around Gwendolyn. But Herbert was still moving quickly and the rain and winds tapered off three hours later. Snacking on the remainder of the food and water Bruce had obtained before the storm, the two waited. They weren’t going anywhere on their own.
The streets of the section of the city they were in were covered with debris from the fallen buildings four stories high, for the most part. The areas that weren’t were full of floating debris. They had no way of knowing which direction would lead to safety, or even if it were possible to reach any safety.
But the Coast Guard was on the job as soon as the weather permitted and Bruce heard the first helicopter just before dark. He lunged out of the protection of the wall and tried to signal it, but it was no use. It was already too far away.
The two huddled together through the night, Bruce reassuring Gwendolyn that there would be more helicopters. And there were. Early the next morning, barely after first light, the welcome sight of another orange helicopter approaching had Bruce and Gwendolyn both out on top of the mound of debris, waving their arms. Twenty minutes later they were in the helicopter, on their way to a refugee center.
It took the rest of the day to process them and make arrangements for transportation. Bruce back home and Gwendolyn to her parents’ house in Maine. As he flew over the city, on his way home, Bruce looked down and realized the total devastation of the city. It would never be the same.
Jerry D Young
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