Scenes From Hurricane Matthew

10/13/16 by Joshua Burgess

"I've lived in a good climate, and it bores the hell out of me." -John Steinbeck

Friday, September 30.

I stand outside the Comfort Inn in Romulus, Michigan, leaning against a concrete column smoking my pipe and watching it rain. Having departed from the Representative Office in Chongqing, China at 11.30 a.m., I now have an overnight layover in Detroit. My eyes are so dry that they seem to make a scratching noise when I blink. I soon have company — a lady in a Myrtle Beach sweatshirt who came out to smoke a cigarette. She and her family are headed to the beach for a late season vacation. She says a storm is brewing in the Atlantic that could possibly hit South Carolina. Unconcerned, I say, "I'm sure we'll be fine." After all, such warnings are routine in August and September.

Tuesday, October 4.

Conor Palmer (of Peterson) and Michael Walters (of Ashton) are visiting the office. We sit down in the kitchen and talk over sandwiches, pasta salad, and pastries. Bill Lloyd, our local weather expert and veteran of Hurricane Hugo (1989), briefs us on the latest reports. After lunch, we learn that the governor has issued an evacuation order that was scheduled to take effect the next day. This strikes me as premature, perhaps even silly, but I go back to my office and place an Amazon order for two hurricane lamps. If I'm going to be without electricity, I'm determined that my nightly routine of having a pipe and reading a book won't be disturbed. (The lamps still haven't been delivered.)

Sykes, Ted, Lisa, and I gather to talk about how we're going to handle things here in the office. We decide that all Laudisians should use their best judgment about the evacuation order, but that business will largely go on as usual until we have more information. We've got a standing backup plan for customer service phones and e-mail, which can operate from our homes.

Thursday, October 6.

Surely the anticipation is worse than the thing. Every night after work I've gone to a store to get something. Tonight, I have a list from the Lovely and Gracious Allie: candles, snacks, batteries, a flash light (Walmart is sold out), rubbing alcohol, and bandaids (why do we need these? Surely any damage done by a hurricane would at least require heavy gauze). Walmart puts me in mind of the early episodes of the Walking Dead. I go to K-Mart. Here, it's like a Cormac McCarthy novel. The couple in front of me has, I kid thee not, 25 bags of potato chips. The husband explains that this will help keep the kids amused once the power is out. I'm puzzled, but smile politely. He then wishes aloud that he had a truckload of bread so that he could sell it for "beaucoup money" in the parking lot. I'm embarrassed, but smile politely. I drive back home.

We've got a solid plan for the office tomorrow. While the evacuation order has been delayed, a few members of our team who live in zone A will be heading inland. We'll be closing the office early so that everyone else can get home before the heavy rains begin. Ted, Shane, and I are going to leave early in the afternoon to set up our phones and computers at home.

Saturday, October 8.

8.30 AM The storm was forecast to hit last night, but aside from a little wind and rain we seem to have escaped unscathed. I look out the window and sing a few lines from Peggy Lee: "Is that all there is... to a hurricane? If that's all there is, my friend, then let's keep dancing...." Jeremy Reeves sends me a text message that the worst is yet to come.

10.00 AM Smokingpipes phone lines open. I've set up my phone in the den just as I had on Friday afternoon because that's where my modem is located. This is not an ideal spot to work, but it's functional. I put my phone on a pillow beside me, get a cup of coffee, and situate my computer in my lap. Calls start coming in. Talking with customers is a little challenging because the cat keeps leaping up on my lap and walking on my laptop (I hope none of you noticed). Otherwise everything runs smoothly.

3.00 PM A dull hum begins outside. It puts me in mind of the jet engines on that flight to Detroit, which feels like it was much longer than a week ago. The power starts to flicker regularly and the wind is really starting to pick up.

4.00 PM The power is out. The wind is howling. We roll phones over to Sykes in Wilmington. I've got a pipe in my mouth, but I'm not smoking because I can't remember where I've put my lighter. I've done a lot of pacing, but I finally stand sentry at the front door. I open it and watch the trees on my block bend in the wind. The house across the street has a live oak on the roof. I will learn tomorrow that the tree actually came through the ceiling and destroyed the kitchen cabinets. I hear a crash outside, walk out onto the screened in porch, and find that the top third of our magnolia tree has come down, rolled off the roof, and landed right by the HVAC unit in the back yard. I find myself humming the Navy Hymn: From rock and tempest, fire and foe, /Protect them wheresoe'er they go.

8.00 PM The storm is passed; it's dark and quiet. The neighbors are milling about outside. I light my pipe and walk out to join them. I've always been of the mind that good fences make good neighbors, but tonight I am glad to see them. Everyone looks tired, but relieved.

10.00 PM A moment of panic followed by levity: the cat, the same cat who'd been jumping on my laptop earlier in the day, leaps onto the end table. She lands on a candle and her singed fur fills the room with voluminous smoke. Allie and I tear through the house trying to find her — not only to make sure that she's unharmed but also out of fear that, having survived Matthew, our self-immolating cat will burn down the house like a miniature version of Mrs. O'Leary's cow. We find her sitting on the chaise in the living room safe and sound.

Sunday, October 9.

The entire town is seemingly without power, except for Jeremy Reeves, whose apartment becomes a haven for all of us SPC folks who live nearby. We drink coffee and smoke our pipes. Jeremy serves us plates of porkchops, collards, and potatoes. We confirm that power is out at the office and start making plans for tomorrow.

Monday, October 10.

9.00 AM We get up early and head to Jessica Brady's house in Myrtle Beach proper. She has power, internet, and a dining room table that provides a comfortable workspace for Shane, Jeremy (who graciously agreed to pitch in with SPC customer service), and me. Calls and e-mails start rolling in. Ted arrives and sets up a station at the breakfast bar where he begins coordinating with the marketing and merchandising departments to plan Thursday's update. People from marketing and merchandising, I learn, are camped out at various coffee shops with available WiFi.

1.30 PM We get the call we'd be hoping for: power is back at the office. We leave Jessica and Jeremy in place to take calls while Shane, Ted, and I head to the office. When we arrive, we find that the shipping department has reported for duty, and customer service isn't far behind them. The phones begin to ring: ", this is Kaye, how may I help you?" I'm relieved. Sykes and Ted, along with most of the shipping crew, are pulling orders, which thanks to UPS actually make it out the door around 5.00 p.m.

7.00 PM Sykes, Ted, and I sit quietly in my office. We reflect on the events of the preceding days. "I think we'll be caught up by tomorrow," Ted says. That's an impressive accomplishment. I confess to having been nervous — that all our planning, as detailed as it had been, might be thwarted.


In the end, it wasn't the planning that held things together. It was Shane's willingness to crank up his generator to see if we could get an internet connection going to take calls at his house. And when that failed, to drive a box full of phones to Myrtle Beach to set up customer service somewhere else. It was Cyndy and Kelly's willingness to camp out at Starbucks putting together an update (I really hope they didn't interrupt all those people there who were doubtless working on their novels). It was Mike's indomitable trouble-shooting when our technology didn't work like we thought it would. It was Chris's willingness to drive to the office and get shipping rolling. It was the entire Laudisi team's intrepidity and passion in the face of adversity, along with our customers' patience and kindness, that saw us through.

Why do people perform small tasks heroically?

I don't think I know the answer to that question. But I'm grateful that they do. And now that the storm and all the crises it provoked have passed, I believe that I'll spend some time — pipe in hand, of course — reflecting on that very question.