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How I Survived Hurricane Irene – In Spite Of Myself And My Ex

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My ex and I don’t usually argue. We’re long past the stage of serious altercations. In fact, I was staying on the couch downstairs at his house the night that Hurricane Irene barreled though our area of suburban Pennsylvania.

He lives in a townhouse. I live in a rancher out in the sticks that is currently being taken apart and remodeled.His power almost never goes out. Our house darkens at the touch of a drop of rain and the first lightning bolt.

No contest.

But as the rain pelted the streets and water pooled in front of the house, we had a disagreement that ended up with my teenaged son and me in the darkness, terrified.

Believe it or not, the argument was about where my son and I were to sleep. Having heard, via the emergency broadcasting, that one might be near our area of Chester County, we wanted to sleep in the basement. My ex, who had gone to sleep before the warnings, wanted his son upstairs in his room and me in the living room.

He asked us to leave. Feeling like my son’s safety might be at stake, I did.

I hadn’t realized how bad it would be. After all, the eye of the storm was still far down the East Coast from us. But it was already bad. So we found ourselves caught up in a world of ordinary landmarks that had, while we ate and watched the news and talked, become menacing.

By the time we got to the first big intersection, after having navigated deep water at a few underpasses, I deeply regretted having gotten in an argument. What kind of mother would taken her child into a difficult, unpredictable, and frankly scary scene, one in which she had little control?

On a crazy night, we all made crazy choices.

The streets gleamed bright under the lights. There was almost no one else on the road. I wasn’t sure if we could get to my house, but I thought we might make it as far as the local high school that was serving as a community shelter.

Turning west on one of the local big roads, we found ourselves in a rising tide of muddy water. A few seconds and I’d have to make a choice – back up or try to move through the pool. It was at this point that a woman in white (I kid you not) arose from the water. Moving towards us, like a ghost from a 19th-century Gothic work of fiction, water up to her hips, she waved us back.

Eerie as her appearance was, and as scary as the night was, I doubted she was a specter. When I asked her if I could help her, she answered in a very practical voice that she was going to call for help. It was then that I noticed a blue SUV down the road. It had gotten stuck in the rising waters. There was no way that we could make it any farther going this way. I had to back down the road – a few cars behind us also made the choice to find another way to get where they were going.

As we climbed the hill, I had my son call 911 to make sure that the other roads were passable. Once we turned onto the main road, I knew that we had a good shot at getting to the shelter.

Still, it wasn’t until I turned into the parking lot at the high school that I was sure. The antiseptic, graying environs of the huge building had never looked so good. And the balding, 60-something man who bade us welcome at the door seemed like an angelic presence (I later learned he was the shelter director).

When asked why we were there, I simply told the lovely women who took our information that we were trying to get home, and couldn’t make it all the way that night.

After making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for a hungry 14-year-old, she took us into a large auditorium filled with cots. A few people slept on the sides of the large room, but there were few people there. In fact, only another 20 or so showed up (refugees from a nearby homeless shelter) the entire night. I guess that most of us prefer to stay in our own homes.

The Red Cross staffer gave us kits filled with shampoo, a toothbrush, soap and other toilet items. Then she left us to sleep, and to reflect. Gifted with the teen’s ability to zero in on what’s important, my son quickly fell asleep. Awake for the better part of the night, I thought about the night’s adventures.

The next day, my ex apologized. I realized I could have handled the situation differently, too, making a better calculus as to the amount of danger we were truly in. And as life returns to the routine, I realize that even the sanest people can find themselves making emotional decisions.

Often it may be better to compromise than to fight. And that’s what I should have done, on a stormy night, in which one bad choice could have unforeseen consequences.

(Photo: iStockphoto)