| || In Land Altered by Storm, Gas Is Key |
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 16, 1999; Page A10 ALONG I-95, Sept. 15A woman paces in the rain, her hair a wild, soaked mess. She's frantic, talking fast, gesticulating. She says she and her buddy ran out of gas, they got trapped in the storm, she's been trying to call a cab. But, of course, there are no cabs running in Hurricane Floyd country--you'd more likely catch a ride on a flying carpet.
The woman's buddy is a lanky, hard-looking man who just bought a beer at the only gas station open for miles. They accept a ride from a reporter driving north through Jacksonville, Fla., on I-95, and in a spasm of gratitude the woman admits the truth: "We just got out of jail."
She says one of the Jacksonville jails got spooked by Floyd and decided to allow a mass exodus of the work-release inmates. The jail gave them each a $100 bill. After that they were on their own.
"They put us out in the storm!" the man says. "They don't want to be responsible for us!"
Floyd has changed everything along the coast, altered the rules. The storm acted like a filter, sending the most practical folks into exile, leaving behind a lot of what might be called characters. It has turned people a little bit crazy and desperate, and in some cases made them generous and kind.
It felt like a different society altogether, not better or worse, just entirely foreign. In this alternate America the most precious commodity is gasoline. You would trade your last cold sandwich for a couple of gallons. There are abandoned cars everywhere, nice sedans, yuppie cars, but with too many cylinders in their engines and not enough fuel in the tank to make it across the vast stretches of pine woods and swamps.
Police block roads into major cities. Dump trucks are parked nose-to-nose to form a barricade on the exit ramps into Savannah, Ga. The government wants everyone to leave--as most have done--and an officer says: "There's not a vacant room between here and the other side of Alabama."
Almost true. A few rooms are here and there. A clerk says up front: "We have no clean rooms." And knows that this is perfectly acceptable.
The only food for sale is at gas stations, and it is not even the best of the gas station food, only the detritus, the "gourmet hot pepper beef jerky," the fried pork rinds, the Reese's Pieces and the sticky buns.
On a road near here, Soon Larsen kept her convenience store open, but the only real food was frozen. "They cleaned me out," she says, the "they" being the fleeing masses. Two men who stayed in town survey the depleted racks with the care that might go into buying a new suit. They finally go for the Hershey's.
"It's just so strange, like a ghost town," says one of the men, Dobson Washington, who works for the board of education. "It's like in the Western days, when they're about to have a gunfight at noon, everybody out of the street."
Floyd came barreling directly at Florida at the beginning of the week, then turned northward Tuesday afternoon. It came close enough to land to dismantle the fishing pier at Daytona Beach.
At Jacksonville Beach this morning, Eric Freeman, a waiter, had braced himself on an old wooden pier as the wind toppled signs, sent palm fronds skittering across the roadways and stripped the siding from a beachfront condo. Freeman had come with the vague thought of attempting to surf. He turned to a friend and said, "If we go out now, we'll wind up in Miami."
That pier lost 40 feet by noon--great footage for the camera crews--the timbers washing through gaps in the dunes, onto the low streets of the barrier island. Old wooden piers seemed to be the official sacrificial objects for this storm.
But it appears that, at least in coastal Florida and Georgia, the hurricane will be remembered not for its destruction, but for the unprecedented and problematic evacuation.
So many people left their homes that Interstate 10 was backed up nearly from one side of the state to the other. Motorists stranded in their cars, barely moving, continuously called radio stations with nightmare stories of overheating engines and increasingly insane children. The typical two-hour drive on any east-west interstate became a 10-hour ordeal. Many motorists gave up their dream of finding a distant motel room and slept in their cars on the sides of the roads.
But throughout this, Interstate 95 remained wide open, largely deserted. The storm moved parallel to the highway from south Florida to the South Carolina line.
The water rose alarmingly close to the low bridges crossing the remote, grassy marshes, the tidal flats, places with names like Cathead River and Elbow Swamp. But if you could find gas, you could keep driving, two hands on the wheel.
On Highway 17 near Savannah, there's a sign of life, a man walking outside his home, the dominant--indeed the overwhelming--feature of which is a 15-foot high fiberglass cow on his front yard.
The man is Robert Simons. He won't budge. He's 59 years old, retired from construction and has 50 acres, with a pecan orchard in the back. It's the cow that everyone notices, smack dab along the roadside. Breed: Holstein.
"Five and a half feet through the belly of the cow, and it weighs fifteen hundred pounds," he says. Proudly, he adds, "I started collecting cows in the 1960s--back before cows were popular."
He has cow coffee mugs, cow napkin holders, cow canisters, cow towels, cow everything. Why cows? "Why not cows?" he answers.
Floyd is coming hard, the wind and rain getting fierce. The cow collector takes the porcelain cows off the shelves and stores them in hampers. The big guy outside will have to ride it out.