The Third Secret of Fatima

Great Hurricane

19 The Great Hurricane

   Over the fall and winter, Skinner and Cap met a few times to discuss what she had read. As winter turned to spring, Cap began a rough draft of the third secret, writing and rewriting it. testing it against the criteria of what was already know about the secret. 

   As weeks passed and Cap worked on her secret, warm weather swept across the south. Temperatures in the Gulf grew steadily. At the end of august when they normally taper off, they continued to rise. Some buoys in the gulf were transmitting temperatures which they had never been seen before.    

   Tropical Storm Lilly grew into category 1 status as it approached Cuba. Instead of weakening over land, it continued to grow in strength as it headed north toward Florida. It traveled slowly up the western shore of Florida, gaining strength and flattening buildings in Naples, Fort Myers, Sarasota, Bradenton and Tampa. Near Tampa it sat in place, pounding the Tampa area for a day. Then it retraced it’s path back to Ft Myers and traveled north a second time. Whole communities were broken and washed away. 

   The rains dumped millions of gallons per minute all across the peninsula. Rains falling on the central highlands rose faster than they could flow away.  What poured onto the central area stacked up and moved slowly as a rising plane of water across land that was already flooded. A large part of the water flowed toward the Atlantic coast. But most of it slowly moved west and submerged what was already flooded. 

The bowl. 

   The coastal communities from Tampa south to Naples were caught between the central highlands on one side and the tidal surge on the other. The central highlands stood at an elevation of about 100 ft. The Tidal Surge pushed water up to 30 feet and beyond that with waves. In between the land filled up like a bowl. 

  Roads and airports were closed. There was no way to get out. The water level in the eastern suburbs of Tampa inched up hour after hour. Water from Lakeland and the central communities south of it began slowly flowing downhill toward Tampa. When it met the eastern edge of the tidal surge, it just piled on top of it.

  People began climbing on to their roofs and into the second floors of multistory buildings. In the lower lying areas, people went from the first floor to the second. Then from the second to the third. Sometimes they ran out of floors.

   More people drowned than in any recorded hurricane.

   The state was declared a disaster area. Many businesses and people decided to leave. Few could afford the insurance premiums. The damage was staggering. The shattered buildings would remain for years, slowly falling apart. 

   A few of the stalwarts purchased trailers and slowly began clearing the rubbish from their property. The the experience with Katrina had taught that the damage would remain for years. Local authorities relaxed the zoning laws to allow extended use of travel trailers. Parts of the state became a continuous trailer park.

   

Manuel

    Over the winter water temperatures remained higher than norma. When spring turned to summer, the warm breezes the rise of water temperatures had a head start. 

   In the panhandle, it had been considered a bad omen when the resort areas experienced a rain of tiny frogs at the beginning of summer. The old timers had talked about the legend of raining frogs but no one had ever seen one. Stormy weather was brewing in the western part of the gulf.

     The popular summer resort of Destin was situated on a relatively narrow strip of sand lying between Choctawhatchee Bay on the north and the Gulf on the south. Called Okaloosa Island, it was accessible to the mainland by four bridges. The island was about twenty miles long and one mile wide.

    In the second week of August, the normal population had ballooned to 40,000 with visitors. It was the last week of summer vacation before school resumed. While the Destin tourists soaked up the sun, Hurricane Manuel was safely out in the Gulf heading toward Texas. It was rated as a category two. At 9 pm it veered north toward New Orleans. At midnight, one hundred miles off the coast,  it turned east to travel parallel to the coast. Wind speed picked up and it was rated as a category three. At the same time, it slowly began falling away from the coast.

   Local authorities debated whether to call for an evacuation. After listening to the National Hurricane Center, they announced a ten percent chance of striking Destin. They put out a bulletin suggesting that if you were leaving the next day, now would be a good time leave. Between 1 and 2 am, Manuel picked up more speed and began traveling at 50 mph on a path which continued to drift away from the coast. They raised the danger level to fifteen percent. At 3 am, it reached category four status. The “hurricane crew”, as they were called, announced the danger level of eighteen percent and set off a series of three staccato sirens blasts. News casts showed the path of the hurricane but added that winds were pushing Manuel further and further from the coast. Few heard the news. Most of Destin slept.  

  

   Throughout the middle of the night, the Crew sat on the edge of their chairs. Of the six, two wanted to call for an evacuation even though no one in the room really believed that Manuel would strike Destin. What were the chances. The crew had seen many of these. All counted they had two thousand hurricane experiences amongst them. They calculated a two percent chance that Manuel would strike Destin. The published Danger Level was a ramped up version the odds. It was meant to overstate the statistics. One more vote and they would call for an evacuation.  But it was difficult to call for an evacuation when the stars were out, and the soft breeze was balmy. It was one of the most beautiful nights of the year. The sky was unusually clear. Occasionally, a meteor would streak across the sky. The conditions argued against danger. 

Turns toward Destin

   At 5 am, Manuel was adding miles between it and the coast. It was headed toward Cuba. Fisherman calculated the odds and set out to sea. Wind speeds were dropping. Travel speed was dropping. At current course and speed, it would pass 160 miles south of Destin and follow the same path as two recent hurricanes which dissipated over Cuba. The danger vote was dropping. It teetered at one and a half.  It looked like it would make for a rainy day at worst. At 6 am, the man at the radar softly called out “landfall Destin”. There was an audible gasp in the room. The winds of dawn had abruptly turned Manuel toward Destin. Someone said “Dear God”. They realized that Manuel had fooled them. They had lost their opportunity. They should have woken everyone at midnight. Local authorities scrambled.

   Winds speeds picked up. Manuel passed into category five status. At speeds of 160 mph, the winds were capable of inflicting catastrophic building failures.

   There was still hope that Manuel could turn in any direction. The odds were that it would drunkenly zig zag toward some other destination. The evacuation plan was put in effect. Sirens rang out every five minutes for the next two hours. All police and fire department personal were called in. All non essential businesses were closed. Police and volunteers were stationed at every intersection along the evacuation routes to facilitate the outward flow of traffic. There was a good plan. Hospitals along the way were alerted. Fuel suppliers from the neighboring counties were called in to replenish the gas stations. Alabama troopers were called to keep them moving up through their state all the way into Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia. Volunteer Tow trucks were called in from neighboring states to keep the path open.

The Marinas

   The Marinas began methodically calling a long prearranged list of captains to pilot the big boats to safety in the west. If they outran the hurricane, good. If not, they were to steer them into the many sheltered inlets and rivers of Alabama and Mississippi. During Katrina, there were little fishing streams that turned into great lakes twenty miles inland. Later, they had to fish the `boats out of the fields.

People stunned

   People were stunned. They had gone to bed after a wonderful day at the beach and maybe stayed up a little later than usual because this was the last night of their vacation. Then they awoke to what sounded like a war zone. The media said to leave immediately. Not to bother to pack. Leave everything behind and run. If you didn’t have a car, hitchhike. Someone would pick you up.

   They had taken over all the lanes. Once across the four bridges, police were passing out alternate traffic maps to fan out the traffic over the many smaller roads of lower Alabama. Each little town put an evacuation assistance plan into effect.

   Manuel picked up windspeed and kept moving directly toward Destin. Travel speed over water was 30 mph. It was 120 miles away. They had four hours. The mayor did his calculations. So did the police and the firemen. There were four bridges. The east most bridge leading to Panama City would be used by the people in South Walton. The Destiners would have just three bridges. They would need to put 12,000 people across each bridge. That would be 4,000 vehicles total. which would be 1,100 per hour. which would be 20 cars per minute. It was doable. But it would be close. They had a fighting chance. 

Hurricane Party

   40,000 people less the ones who decided to stay behind. And there were a lot. The locals had seen this happen again and again. At the Sandpiper Grill in Santa Rosa Beach, plans had already been announced for another hurricane party. When the power went out, it was against the law to serve food or beverages. To get around this, they stocked up on beer and ice and hamburgers. They set up a charcoal grill on the porch. Customers made donations instead of payments. Most of the men were out boarding up buildings. They would arrive when the work was done. It had alway been great fun. Some of the locals looked forward to the hurricane party as the best event of the year. They considered themselves part of a brave and exclusive club. You cannot imagine what fun it was they would tell others. Each would get a free beer on the anniversary date the next month.

Bridges.

   It all depended the bridges. Normally they closed the bridges when wind speed reached 50 mph. Under these circumstances, the mayor declared that they would ignore that rule and keep the bridges open as long as possible. What was “as long as possible” someone asked. He took a deep breath and said “until cars start being blown off the bridge.” He heard himself saying the words but he could hardly believe it was his voice. It sounded to him like some voice from far off come to say words that he could not bear to say.

   Two hours later traffic was still moving. The rains were driving across the streets almost horizontally at 60 mph. They were strong enough to knock a man down. The Crew figured that three quarters of the people had gotten off the island. They needed just one more hour to get the rest off the island. 

   A few of the emergency workers had asked the question already. They had thought about it months if not years earlier. What if they didn’t have time to get everybody off the island. Twenty four hours would have been ideal. Twelve hours would have been pushing it. Most considered eight hours as  the lower limit of possibility. Six hours would have been miraculous. And they were trying to do it in four. 

Last Men Off the Island.

   There was a cadre of fire, policeman and emergency workers who were part of the evacuation planning committee. They called themselves the Last Men Off the Island. They had even called their meeting announcements by that name.

  A few of the LMOTI had spoken with each other as the hours rolled by. Now the time was rapidly approaching when they would not be the last men off the island. Either they would not leave or they would leave others behind.

Fireman

   Firemen prepared for the worst. On the North shore of Choctawhatchee Bay sat Eglin Air Force base, the largest USAF base in the world. There were a number of other bases along the gulf coast. There was a strong military tradition in the local uniformed services.  Some of the captains had war gamed the worst scenarios. What if Destin was struck with the same kind of waves which had struck Mississippi with Katrina. There had been a thirty foot tidal surge and thirty foot waves on top of that. There had been two story houses on the beach on stilts and the waves had rolled right over the top.

    There were places on the Island where the elevation was only twenty feet. If the water were to breach a low point, it could cut through the sand like butter. Between the mounting water in the bay on the north and the angry waves of the gulf on the south, millions of gallons could surge through a cut in seconds. In minutes, a surge could create a channel big enough for a large cruiser. Then the water would begin eating up the land like a ravenous beast. 

Fireman suit up

   The fireman suited up with super sized life preservers which served a double purpose. To protect them against flying debris, like a bullet proof vest and bigger to provide for extra buoyancy if they were swept into water. New members of the department were allowed to take a pledge after they had experienced their first category 3 hurricane. In an informal after hours ceremony, most of the men had pledged that they would stay until all who wanted to leave had left, or the water washed the land from beneath their feet and they floated away. 

   Word came in that water had breached dunes in San Destin on the eastern end of the island. Within seconds it had swallowed several hastily abandoned cars. It was tearing up the roads and eating up houses like they were made of straw. 

    The war gamers knew what this meant. Enough water given enough time could tear the island apart. It was nearly inconceivable but it was possible. The last men to leave the station knew they might never see it again. They said “See you on the north shore.” if they made it. 

Cell phone towers down

   A half hour before landfall, the telephone towers went down. Not that it mattered much. The wind howled so loud that there was no where to have an audible conversation. There in the midst of a freight train of driving rain and howling wind, the Mayor’s center began to break apart. Pieces of the roof were being torn away. Windows were breaking. The building was being pummeled by debris of the disintegrating building upwind. The electricity went off. Beneath the emergency lights, the Mayor literally called “Abandon ship”. There was nothing more to be done. Their families were already safely away. Now it was time to make their way as best they could. There was a heavy truck waiting outside.

Mayor to boat

   Earlier, the Mayor had called for his boat to be made ready. He wanted to be the last man off the island, by boat if necessary. His boat was docked at a marina on the bay a few blocks away. His plan was to get to the boat. If the engine failed, the wind alone would carry him across the bay. He had seen what had happened in New Orleans. Quite a few boats had safely made their way miles inland. Some ended up nested in trees.

   When he was sure that every one was gone. He made a run for it like a man under fire. Running from building to building and pausing in the lee of each to catch his breath. He could see the storm better now without the blur of windows. With his back against a brick wall, he gazed at water shooting past his little shelter on all sides. The force and the power of the storm was awesome. Even the earth shook. 

    Water was up to his ankles. The city was being submersed in a giant lake. In his career, he had never in his wildest dreams imagined such a sight. And he knew it would continue to rise. Three blocks back and two blocks from the marina was the main road. He passed abandoned cars shaking in the wind. He made it to the marina. The harbormaster took his job seriously. Temporary lights were on. The shortwave radio crackled. A couple old salts sat with a beers in hand and talked with the grim humor of soldiers going into battle. 

   As the mayor made ready to get to his boat, he remembered the last car he had passed. He fought his way back through the wind and crouched down in the shelter of the car. He beat on the door. A window came down. There were two terrified adults and two kids inside. He yelled at them. They couldn’t hear him. He waved at them to follow him. After a few seconds that seemed like an hour, they struggled out. He took one of the kids by the arm and scrambled the short distance to the harbor office. Dripping wet, he told the harbor master to take his boat and take the family to the other side. With a knowing look, the harbor master agreed. He knew that the small skiff had a capacity of four. Five was pushing it especially in these conditions. He led the family out into the wind and struggled to reach the nearest slip a dozen yards away. 

   The mayor helped them push off, fell down, and crawled back to office. It was rattling and shaking. One of the salts looked at the mayor and said “I guess you know that was the last boat.”  

Choctawhatchee

   The hurricane dumped so much rain into the watershed that Choctawhatchee Bay rose dozen feet. In the following hours the waters washed back and forth across the island, cutting a dozen wide pathways across the soft sand. Destin had the highest concentration of buildings in the panhandle and it was built on sand.  

   In many areas everything disappeared. The buildings and streets were washed away. Even the trees were torn away. Here and there a small patch of grasses remained. 

High rises

   Even the high rises were destroyed. The wind tore through them from front to back. leaving them as empty concrete shells. In some places, the enormous volume of water rushing against the high rise foundations created a vortex which sucked the sand from beneath their foundations. The wind pushed over the highrises like a great hand. Then the waters washed away whatever was left. When it was all over, the main island was gone. What remained were just a few small islands that were barely more than sandbars. It looked like it did two hundred years earlier except that here and there a lonely empty concrete tower stood surrounded by water.

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