9/30/2009

Looking for Captain Q-Tip

I lived briefly in Richmond, Virginia after I got out of the Army, and I’ve had a deep affection for the city ever since.

It’s got problems – some of them identical to other larger cities, some of them unique to Richmond. But it’s also a colorful, quirky old city with deep history and some fascinating neighborhoods.

I lived in a neighborhood known as The Fan, a residential district that was started soon after the Civil War ended in 1865 and much of Richmond was rebuilt. The neighborhood gets its name from the fact that it’s shaped roughly like the old-fashioned fans that were used in churches on hot days before air conditioning.

Richmond is full of statues, and when I lived there, one of the neighborhood landmarks was a statue of a Civil War soldier that was nicknamed Captain Q-Tip. The statue actually was a memorial to a Confederate artillery company known as the Richmond Howitzers. But you can tell at a glance how Captain Q-Tip got his name. An often-heard phrase when I lived in The Fan was “Meet me at Captain Q-Tip.”

I went looking for the Captain on a recent weekend trip to Richmond with my wife, my mother-in-law Shirley Morrow, and our niece Patty Morrow, who’s a junior at the University of Virginia. But it’s been many years since I was in the old neighborhood, and I couldn’t find the statue. I also discovered that new construction by Virginia Commonwealth University has dramatically changed the landscape of several city blocks in The Fan.

So I started wondering if perhaps Captain Q-Tip had become a victim of VCU’s progress. Finally, I saw a man and a woman that were old enough to have lived in Richmond for a while.

I interrupted their conversation and asked if they knew of a nearby statue of a Civil War soldier holding an artillery swab. They looked puzzled. “We used to call him Captain Q-Tip,” I said.

They smiled. “I’ve never heard it called that, but I can see where the name came from,” the woman said.

Turned out I was less than two blocks from the Captain. Patty shot the above photo of my reunion with my old friend.

9/22/2009

Dairy farmer recalls working while Hurricane Hugo howled


Twenty years ago, an old friend in Richfield, North Carolina was trying to get his dairy herd milked while Hurricane Hugo roared around him.

I’ve known Butch Brooks since we were in the first grade together. He’s now running his family’s dairy farm near Richfield, which is 186 miles inland from Charleston, South Carolina. Hugo made landfall at Charleston around midnight on September 21, 1989 with peak winds exceeding 135 mph and a storm surge of about 20 feet.

The people in Richfield and other towns in the rolling hills of North Carolina’s southwestern Piedmont don’t usually concern themselves with hurricane warnings. But Hugo was a very unusual hurricane in many ways. The storm was what is sometimes called a “bulldozer” hurricane – a storm that retains much of its power after making landfall and causes unusually severe damage as it moves inland.

Butch had been following news reports of Hugo’s landfall in Charleston. Forecasters said the storm would pass over the area around Richfield – about 40 miles northeast of Charlotte – around daybreak on September 22. So Butch and his crew started work around 2:30 a.m. to try to get the herd of 180 dairy cows milked before Hugo arrived.

It seemed like a good plan, but the storm moved faster than forecasters expected. Butch and his workers had just started the milking process when Hugo reached them. They’d been working for about an hour when the electricity went out, shutting down the milking machines.


Hugo’s winds were still blowing at around 85 mph when it reached North Carolina, and some residents recalled later that the air smelled like they were at the beach.

The milking crew hooked a portable electric generator to the power takeoff of a tractor and kept the milking machines going. Trees and a few small buildings were going down around them as they worked in the dairy barn. “Debris was flying around through the air,” Butch said.

Postponing the milking until the storm passed wasn’t an option. If cows aren’t milked, it can cause serious health problems or perhaps even kill them, Brooks said.

But Butch’s wife Wanda wasn’t happy about her husband being out in the middle of a howling hurricane. She and their kids rode out Hugo in their basement. Wanda later told me that, as the storm roared outside, she thought to herself, half joking and half seriously, “If (Butch) lives through this, I’ll kill him.”

It took about four hours to get the herd milked. They finished about 6:30 a.m. just as Hugo was finishing its destructive work in Stanly County and moving into the North Carolina mountains. Trees had been blown down across his pasture fences and a couple of small buildings had been destroyed, but no people or animals had been hurt.

Hurricane Hugo cut a path of devastation through the Carolinas and was the most expensive hurricane on record at the time. The storm killed seven people and did about $1 billion worth of damage in North Carolina alone. The total death toll from Hugo in the U.S. and Caribbean was 76, and damages totaled about $10 billion.

Butch said Wanda hasn’t forgotten that September morning 20 years ago. “She reminds me of it rather often, her idiot husband who went out in the middle of a hurricane,” he said.

9/17/2009

Hurricane Floyd brought epic flooding to North Carolina


Ten years ago, Hurricane Floyd came ashore at Cape Fear, North Carolina, bringing flooding of epic proportions. Before the waters receded, the little town of Princeville and parts of several other towns would be underwater, and rescuers in boats and helicopters would pluck 1,500 people from roofs across eastern North Carolina.

Hurricane Floyd became one of the most expensive disasters in the state’s history. But the stage was set for Floyd’s devastation by a nearly forgotten storm that lingered over the state a couple of weeks earlier. Hurricane Dennis soaked the Outer Banks and eastern North Carolina, moved offshore, then looped around and gave the same area a second dousing. The ground was saturated with at least 10 inches of rain from Dennis when Floyd came ashore.

Hurricane Floyd formed from a tropical wave that moved off the west coast of Africa on September 2, 1999. Floyd got its start in the infamous spawning grounds of monster hurricanes near the Cape Verde Islands. “Floyd was a classic Cape Verde storm, very large, one of the largest I can remember,” recalled Rusty Pfost, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service office in Miami.

By September 12, Floyd had developed into a major hurricane. I was in the Florida Keys working on research with historian Jerry Wilkinson. Around 6 a.m. on the morning of Monday, September 13, 1999, Jerry and I checked The Weather Channel. Floyd’s peak winds were approaching 150 mph, and it had turned toward the Bahamas and the Keys.

Jerry and I stared at each other for a moment. “I’ve got to get the hell out of here,” I said.

I helped Jerry and Mary board up their house on Key Largo. Around 9:30 a.m. I started one of the eeriest journeys of my life.

As I drove northward from the Keys up the Florida peninsula, Floyd was ripping into the Bahamas with winds of around 155 mph. It seemed that I was just ahead of a rippling wave of fear. When I stopped for gas, lines were starting to form at the pumps. Interstate 95 was gradually getting more crowded. I got the feeling that if I stopped for even a few minutes, I’d be engulfed by traffic. So I kept moving.

I stopped for the night in Darien, Georgia, about 60 miles south of Savannah. I was back on the road early the next morning. Behind me, Floyd had turned and was menacing the southeast coast from Jacksonville north. What would become the largest peacetime evacuation in U.S. history was starting. During the next two days, more than 2.3 million people from Florida to Maryland would move inland. In South Carolina, Interstate 26 from Charleston to Columbia was gridlocked.

Rain was falling steadily when I reached eastern North Carolina, and in some places secondary roads were already underwater because the ground couldn’t absorb any more water. That seemed ominous.

The hurricane’s eye passed over Plymouth around 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, September 16. By that time, the storm’s winds had diminished dramatically. Around 9:30 a.m. we lost power, but it was back on by 3 p.m. Other than the brief power outage and a few tree limbs down, we saw little effects from Hurricane Floyd in Plymouth.

Still, the storm dumped around 20 inches of rain on ground still saturated from Dennis. The results were devastating. Everything around us seemed to be underwater. But we were high and dry in Plymouth.

I heard later that we’d stayed above water here because the Roanoke River’s floodplain has not been altered by development. When Floyd’s floodwaters came downstream, the water spread out into the Roanoke’s natural wetlands. So we were untouched in Plymouth. But if we’d wanted to go to Raleigh, about 120 miles west on U.S. 64, we’d have had to drive north into Virginia and then turn back into North Carolina to get around the swollen rivers and flooded roads.

It was weeks before the waters receded and the cleanup could begin.

The Wilmington (N.C) Star-News reported Hurricane Floyd’s grim stats:

· 35 people killed in North Carolina, most of them drowning in freshwater. A total of 57 people died during Hurricane Floyd in the U.S. and Bahamas.

· Spectacular livestock losses in North Carolina, including 2.1 million chickens, 753,000 turkeys, and 21,500 hogs.

· $6 billion in damages in North Carolina.

· 7,000 North Carolina homes destroyed, 17,000 homes uninhabitable, and 56,000 homes damaged.

Photo: NOAA satellite photo shows Hurricane Floyd approaching U.S.

9/02/2009

1935 flight of first hurricane hunter has been forgotten


Seventy-four years ago today, Leonard Povey climbed into the cockpit of a tiny fighter plane and went in search of one of the most powerful forces ever to roam the Atlantic Ocean.

Povey found his quarry in the Straits of Florida – the storm that became the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, still the most powerful to make landfall in the United States. It was almost certainly the first time that an airplane was used to track a hurricane. But Povey’s historic flight has been forgotten.

Povey was an American who was a flight instructor for the Cuban army air force. He was based in Havana. Cuban authorities decided to send Povey in search of the hurricane because there were conflicting predictions about its position and forecast track. The U.S. Weather Bureau – the predecessor to today’s National Weather Service – said the storm’s center was just off Cuba’s northern coast and would make landfall at or near Havana. But barometers in Havana were rising, an indication that the hurricane was moving away from that city.

“Conflicting reports of Havana observers kept the capital in jitters most of the day,” the Havana Post, an English-language newspaper in the city, reported in its edition of September 3, 1935. “One of the reports said that the hurricane would strike here at 6 p.m.”

So on the afternoon of Monday, September 2, 1935, Povey was dispatched to locate the storm.

The Post said that Povey made his flight in an “army pursuit plane.” He confirmed that the hurricane had turned to the north and was moving away from Cuba and toward the Florida Keys.

The Associated Press wrote about Povey’s flight a few weeks later, and the story was published by newspapers in Florida, including the Miami Herald. The story, published in the Herald on September 23, 1935, included a few quotes from Povey about his flight.

“I was unable to fly close to the disturbance, visible to me for miles,” Povey said. “It appeared to be a cone-shaped body of clouds, inverted, rising to an altitude of 12,000 feet. The waves in the sea below broke against each other like striking a sea wall.”

Povey didn’t try to fly into the hurricane’s eye, as hurricane-hunters do today.

The storm’s eye made landfall a few hours later at Long Key, Florida. Its lowest recorded barometric pressure reading at landfall was 26.35 inches, or 892 millibars, making it the most intense hurricane on record for the U.S. The storm’s winds – thought to have been around 200 mph – and its storm surge of 18 feet or more devastated a 40-mile section of the Keys from Tavernier to Marathon and killed more than 400 people. The death toll included about 260 World War I veterans who were working on a New Deal construction project building a highway between Miami and Key West.

Povey suggested that airplanes be used to monitor hurricanes. But there’s no indication that anyone followed up on his suggestion. In 1944, however, military pilots based in Texas flew into a storm in the Gulf of Mexico. By that time, Povey’s pioneering flight had been forgotten, and the 1944 flight is regarded as the first time an airplane was used to track a tropical storm.