Outside, we could hear the storm winds and rain increasing in intensity. A couple of times I went over to a window set into an emergency exit door and looked outside, but all I could see was solid sheets of rain and stuff blowing around. At 10:00PM the lights in the gym were turned off and we all quieted down and tried to sleep.
I woke up about 1:00AM when a corner of the gym’s roof blew off. People sleeping in that section moved away and used their towels to soak up rain water leaking onto the floor. The sounds from outside were actually frightening. The wind was howling like nothing I’d ever heard before, worse than Hurricane Georges. There were constant crashes and thumps, and the rain hitting the roof sounded like a waterfall. John and Mary’s children were getting spooked and I did what I could to help keep them calm.
About 3:00AM the storm noise died down enough that I was able to fall back asleep. I woke up at 6:00AM, got up and looked out the window. From what little I could see damages were bad. The library across the street was missing a big chunk of its roof. Every tree in the town square showed some amount of damage, and there was heavy debris strewn across the parking lot areas. The storm had moved away, the winds were dying down and the rains had stopped.
Other people started stirring awake around me and a few came over to share my window. It was a foregone conclusion that the power was out and it didn’t take too long for the gym to start getting stuffy without ventilation and air conditioning. Going to the toilet was an adventure as there were no lights in the windowless rest rooms, and no running water. I quickly learned how to “go” while holding the flashlight John and Mary had given me. With the number of people occupying the gym I knew it wouldn’t take long for the bathrooms to get really nasty.
Once John and Mary’s family were all awake they had breakfast, and again shared their food with me. I had a boiled egg and a small pastry along with some drinking water. Coffee was not on the menu, and as a heavy coffee drinker I quickly started feeling caffeine-withdrawal headaches.
The morning wore on as the shelter residents listened to battery-powered radios and shared battle damage reports. People started wandering outside for fresh air and sight-seeing, despite the best efforts of the Red Cross workers to keep everyone locked into the stuffy power-less gym packed with people and no working plumbing. As best we could tell the Florida coast was hit hard. We heard reports that Orange Beach, among many other Florida panhandle communities, was mostly destroyed and a section of I-10 across one of the Florida bays had collapsed. Brenda took the news about Orange Beach hard.
About noon I was fed up with being stuck at the shelter. I was standing outside getting some fresh air when a man in a crew cab pickup drove into the parking lot. He called out that he was looking for people to help clear downed trees and I immediately volunteered. We got several more people, enough to fill the truck, and drove off.
As we drove through town I was able to observe the extent of damages. I didn’t see a single tree or building that didn’t have some damage, if not completely trashed. There was a swath of leveled and heavily damaged buildings and trees right through the center of the older downtown area seemingly caused by a small tornado. Power lines were down everywhere; together with heavy littering of roof shingles, tree branches, broken glass, sheet metal, and just about anything imaginable that could be blown around (along with things I had never imagined could be blown around) driving was pretty hazardous. Power was out across the entire town and the lack of traffic lights just added to driving challenges.
We stayed out about four hours, moving around doing what we could to help. The driver had a large chainsaw so he would cut up branches as necessary and the rest of us would haul them out of the way. My inner photographer was cursing that I’d left my camera gear in my truck in the repair shop, even though carrying a camera around in that environment would not have been a really good idea. It was hot and extremely humid that day with the ground soaked and standing water everywhere, and we all were soon sweating profusely. Once we’d done what we could we returned to the Red Cross shelter.
By now it was late afternoon and the local authorities were opening the roads. The Red Cross workers at our shelter announced that people who had somewhere to go were allowed to leave, and people started leaving. John and Mary started packed up their belongings and left. We exchanged contact information and I promised to let them know when I made it back home. Brenda was still there; she had heard that Orange Beach officials were not allowing anyone back into the area so she had nowhere to go back to. I had no way to leave, and started thinking hard about what I was going to do next.