I had been chatting with Winnie for several days about the approaching storm and she was aware of my plans to evacuate. Tuesday evening I told her I’d send her an e-mail from Terry’s house to let her know I was OK. I also gave her my brother Howard’s e-mail as point of contact, just in case. I called my mom in New York, Howard in Los Angeles, and my cousin Grace living in the next town over from Gautier. I also informed my next-door neighbor Beth (an older lady who was widowed a couple of years prior, and had adopted me as family after my divorce) of my planned whereabouts.
Wednesday morning I was up at 6:00AM, showered and had breakfast, and out the door by 7:00AM joining thousands of other people evacuating the coast. My planned route was east through Mobile, Alabama, on I-10 then north on I-65 through Montgomery, Alabama, and into Tennessee. As the storm track was to our east most people in my area were heading west, and I could see the west-bound lanes of I-10 were already getting jammed. There was almost no one heading east and I cranked up the speed. It was a beautiful morning even though I could already sense the “calm before the storm” stillness, and just knew I had made the correct decision to evacuate. I was also anticipating spending the weekend with Terry and family.
I made it through Mobile unimpeded by traffic and connected to I-65. A little ways north of Mobile the Alabama state Government had opened up the I-65 south-bound lanes for north-bound traffic in anticipation of evacuations. A state trooper diverted me across the median onto the north-bound lanes, and I experienced the thrill of legally driving the wrong direction on an interstate highway. As I drove I could see state troopers stationed along the on-ramps diverting all traffic north. I was ahead of the evacuation rush and traffic was still light. The further north I drove, the more “normal” the air felt and I knew I was putting distance between me and the storm.
As I headed north on the normally southbound lanes of an almost empty highway, on a beautiful morning, looking forward to spending a few days with family, I felt great. I actually reached my right hand across and patted myself on the left shoulder in congratulation of getting my hurricane preps “right” and evacuating ahead of the crowds.
At that very instant my truck’s engine died.
After a moment of confusion I killed the ignition and drifted off to the left side of the highway, which was the outside shoulder, just past an on-ramp and stopped. There were no warning lights or other indications on my dash, so I got out and checked under the hood. The only indication of trouble was the empty radiator overflow reservoir. I decided to let the engine cool down a bit before checking the radiator. Otherwise, I couldn’t see anything wrong.
A few minutes later I saw a state trooper, who had been guarding the on-ramp, drive down to check on me. He approached and asked if I was OK. I explained that my engine just quit on me but I couldn’t see anything wrong. He looked under the hood, poked around, and asked if I could start it up. I tried, the engine caught, and the trooper motioned me to drive off the shoulder. He led me to a gas station/convenience store at top of the ramp and I made it just before the engine quit again.
The trooper suggested I check my radiator water. I wrapped a towel around my hand and carefully loosened the cap, expecting a cloud of steam and boiling water. Nothing happened. I removed the cap and saw – no water inside the radiator. I knew that wasn’t good. I went into the still-open convenience store and bought two gallons of drinking water. With the help of the trooper I filled my radiator, started up the engine, and we watched the newly added water pour out of a ruptured hose hidden under the intake manifold. I knew I was in trouble.
By now it was about 10:00AM. I used my cellphone to call AAA road service and explained my situation. The dispatcher promised to get a tow truck out to me as quickly as possible, but advised that with all highways diverted north it would be difficult. I gave my location as Exit 77, and read off a sign pointing to the town of Brewton in one direction and the town of Repton in the other direction along state highway 41.
While I waited I took stock of my surroundings. My trip odometer showed I was 116 miles from home, which put me about 370 miles from Terry’s house. Highway 41 was a two-lane blacktop that crossed over I-65 east towards Brewton and disappeared into forests. On my side of the Interstate highway 41 quickly disappeared into forests towards the direction of Repton. The only visible man-made structures other than roads was the gas station/convenience store I was parked at.
About an hour later I called AAA back. This time I connected with a different dispatcher who checked my record and explained they were still trying to find a tow service. I called back after another hour and a different dispatcher explained they could not find any tow service to get me. By now the gas station was getting ready to close, I-65 was packed with cars heading north, and I could feel the air changing from the approaching storm. I began to wonder if I was going to ride out a hurricane sitting in a dead truck, parked in the middle of nowhere, with no food or water.
About this time the state trooper, still guarding the on-ramp, called out to me asking about my tow. I explained that I had been talking with AAA but they couldn’t get anyone out. He said “I’ll get someone out here” and picked up his radio mike. A minute later he called back out “there’ll be someone here in a few minutes.”