Monday, October 8, 2018

Hurricane Memories: Opal, 1995

I moved to Fort Walton Beach in the spring of '95, had an apartment on the Sound over in Mary Esther. Opal was hanging out off the Yucatan when it suddenly strengthened and picked up speed. It arrived two days earlier than the early forecast had predicted. 

The day it caught fire, I hadn't turned on the radio or TV, and back then nobody had the Internet at their desks all day. I had gone to bed, just switched off my lamp when the phone rang. It was my dad, asking when I was leaving town. "I dunno... maybe early Thursday?" (I think this was Monday night.)

Long pause. Dad said, "Have you seen a forecast today?"


"Get up and turn on the TV!"

I did, and the screen was full of a Cat 5 monster bearing down on, basically, me. 

"Uh, maybe I'll leave tonight."

"Good plan, Einstein."

I evac'd to my folks' home Enterprise, AL (with a lot of help from Dad) ahead of the horrific panic traffic, and of course that beyotch Opal followed me.  The storm died down to "only" a Category 3 by landfall (which still devastated the Gulf Coast from Pensacola to Appalachicola), but like Eloise a generation earlier, she was going north so fast that hurricane damage lasted well into three states.  

She kicked the crap out of everything from FWB to pretty much Atlanta. My folks' power was out for two weeks. Mine was back on by that Sunday, I think thanks to Hurricane Erin having gone through about 6 weeks earlier, clearing out all the dead limbs and giving the recovery crews a lot of practice.

To be honest, I was shocked to find out I had power.  The last update on Opal that I'd seen before the power in Enterprise went out declared that she'd made landfall at Hurlburt Field.  As I could see Hurlburt from my balcony, I figured that was it, anything I'd left down there was wiped out, so I stayed around to help Mom and Dad clean up.

My sister called Sunday.  "Your answering machine is picking up."  

I didn't believe her.  "Kitty, I don't have an answering machine.  I don't even have an apartment any more."

"Okay, smart-ass, you call it."  I did, and it picked up.

I snuck back across the state line on a back road after hearing the State Troopers weren't letting anybody but emergency crews in, allegedly to prevent looting (to this day I don't know whether that was actually true or not, but I wasn't taking any chances).  Driving through the wreckage of Fort Walton, I was convinced I'd find one wall with an answering machine hanging from it.

But I was lucky, a lot luckier than most in that area.  The storm surge stopped six feet shy of the building, and I had the worst damage in the complex:  a single broken window.

Everything else, though, was a hell of a mess. Every boat left in the Destin and Fort Walton harbors either sank or was washed up on the mainland. There was a huge sailboat stuck in the median of Highway 98, pointing west with its keel buried in the dirt for weeks. They had to pull it out with a crane. 98 itself was cut just east of Okaloosa Island, and the old Eglin Officer's Beach Club was destroyed, never to be rebuilt. That next year there was a rash of insurance-collecting arson fires in the old restaurants down on the water that had been trashed; FWB was always big for firebugs.

Two huge oaks fell on my old fraternity house in Auburn. The knucklehead brothers figured they were man enough to cut them down themselves... but forgot to move their cars first. When they got out the chainsaws, one of the trees rolled off the side of the roof and smashed three or four cars.

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