I grew up in a house where my otherwise courageous father was scared as hell of storms. We lived around Fifth and Jackson streets, not some place that was particularly vulnerable to storms, but that didn’t matter to Dad. During any amount of rainfall, he would remove the plugs from the electrical outlets for every appliance. We didn’t have to worry about a power outage because my father mandated that we shut off all of the lights. And there we would sit through every storm — in the dark by the light of a lone glowing candle while Dad regaled us with tales of destruction. You can imagine growing up in an environment where a thunderstorm was treated like the apocalypse. Even now as an adult, I didn’t handle Hurricane Sandy very well.
My wife and son had to emotionally strap me down and surround me with a case of water, a flashlight and some Uncle Jerry’s Pretzels before I would calm down. I suspect that they also dumped a tranquilizer into my cranberry juice.
My dad’s sister, my sole surviving aunt, laughed when I told her how panicky I was every time weatherman Glenn “Hurricane” Schwartz turned his mournful eyes on me and kept repeating the words “super storm.” She confessed storms also were treated as equal opportunity major catastrophes in the home where she and my father grew up on Darien Street. Her parents fervently believed Darien Street was a major target for destructive storms, despite historical weather patterns to the contrary.
If my folks had been alive last week when the hurricane struck, they no doubt would have been huddled in the basement of his home (a concrete bunker that he had single-handedly built to ward off nuclear destruction for the Cardella family), surrounded by photos of all of the popes and U. S. presidents, mountains of canned goods and gallons of bottled water. He might have been scared, but he also believed in being prepared. Unfortunately, I am scared and never prepared.
Fear is contagious. It was no surprise that my mother also was intensely afraid of even a rumble of thunder, let alone a full-blown hurricane. In September 1989, when warnings were issued about Hurricane Hugo threatening to impact Philly, my wife and I were enjoying a weekend in New York. I insisted we hurry back home ahead of the hurricane to be with Mom. As you can imagine, it was not a popular idea with my spouse, even more so in retrospect when Hugo had minimal effect on South Philly where Mom lived across from St. Monica Church. Mom was fine. We weren’t. And so went another storm. I still have not learned my lesson.
It’s not as if we were unfortunately trapped in New Orleans during Katrina (although I remarked at the time, lucky we hadn’t been there). For the better part of four days we watched coverage of Hurricane Sandy. Initially we watched as our local meteorologists tracked the storm on brightly colored maps. We began taking bets on the accuracy of the European model versus the American model and then suddenly the two models agreed and the storm hit. It was the first time in a while America and Europe agreed on anything.
I kept waiting for the lights to go out, nervously holding my small flashlight that would not have made a dent in the darkness. Reports kept mounting of power outages and I kept watching the lights in our home steadfastly stay on. Wait, was that a flicker in the kitchen or did I blink too many times?
The local stations now had switched to awful scenes of devastation at the seashore. I feared for little Denise Nakano of NBC, who was storm battered on the beach, a mere prop to tell us how badly the storm was affecting the Shore. What was Susan Barnett, a CBS co-anchor, doing huddled in someone’s kitchen down the Shore broadcasting by candlelight? Was I noticing a pattern here where the male anchors were seated comfortably in the studio while their female counterparts were sent out into the dark night to cover the storm? What next, Kathy Orr or Sheena Parveen with wet clothes clinging to them — at this point, my wife read my mind as only wives can do, and slapped me out of my reverie. I kept looking out of my front and back doors for damage, but nary a leaf or a trash can was out of place.
No sooner was the storm over when the TV stations moved on to their aftermath coverage. Focus shifted back to the worst hit areas to see the same bleary-eyed reporters in baseball caps and rain gear standing in a couple of feet of water or on sand-filled streets, or President Barack Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie with their arms around one another. I figured I must now be hallucinating.
I timidly stepped out of our home Tuesday morning to survey the damage. A tree down here, a telephone wire there. Moyamensing Avenue had been blocked off temporarily. But we really had survived intact. That’s when I followed a good old South Philly custom — I walked 10 blocks to get a loaf of freshly baked bread.
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