21 September 2009

Hurricane Hugo, twenty years later

Charleston, S.C.

There has been much on the news about today being the 20th anniversary of hurricane Hugo. It didn't really hit me until I was at work today and suddenly felt the urge to connect with people I'd worked with that night. I roamed the halls almost desperately, only to be told Gerri was on call, Sue was off, Pennie was out.

I needed to make contact with someone who knew. Someone who had had the same plastic bracelet snapped on their wrist to identify our bodies if we didn't survive. I needed to find at least one person who sat with me on the floor of the hospital hallway listening to the waterfall of rain pouring down the elevator shaft, and the wind breaking through our windows as we huddled with our patients in circles around the nursing stations in the eery light of emergency power.

Everyone I found said, "no Joan, I wasn't here, I was still in college", at home, escaped to North Carolina or working elsewhere. I stood in the women's center lobby trying to think of who to look for. I looked at the gentleman volunteer staffing the information desk and it hit me. "Paul, Paul, I worked with your wife through Hugo. I worked with Rita and after it was over we climbed twelve stories to look out over the peninsula to see if any of us had houses to go home to."

Rita, Lynn and I walked out that morning exhausted and disoriented. We picked our way over fallen trees and debris and found my house wounded but standing still. We freshened up with towels and finding beds damp but not wet with blown in rain, collapsed and slept soundly for a few hours before heading back to work. We'd delivered babies throughout the storm and babies would be born everyday of the recovery.

Rita passed away years ago but Paul listened to me hungry for a little unknown scrap of memory of his wife. "She didn't tell me", he kept saying holding my hand, "She didn't tell me that she went to your house."

I had been a Labor & Delivery nurse then and while searching for a picture recently I came across our old scrapbook. The pictures are fading Polaroids but the memories leap off the page. One shows a patient room with broken window panes and wild flung drapes. Dr. Ralph Principe was mopping the floor of the Birth Suite. We were desperate for news and Dr. Jimmy Townsend helped us tear apart the spiral electrodes used for internal fetal monitoring and hook them up as makeshift tv antennas to a tv on emergency power.

I didn't find you all today but consider this a shout out, to the rest of my friends who stayed and did what needed to be done. How lucky we were.