As Hurricane Irene swept up the Atlantic coast and forecasters predicted that she would swipe the Outer Banks and zap Gotham City before dwindling off into New England, it reminded me of an early morning years ago when I was dispatched to chase Gloria, another windy bitch.
Get to New York before the hurricane does, I was ordered. Probably through no intention of my bosses, I missed the full power of Gloria’s 130 mph punch. I guess I should thank the National Weather Service.
Of course, I couldn’t know that at the time, and I had my orders: to catch the first available flight from Hartsfield, as the Atlanta airport was known then, and telephone the city desk when I landed.
The arrival terminal at JFK International, about 19 miles east of Manhattan, seemed virtually deserted when I landed along with a few other passengers and telephoned the AJC. Brenda Mooney, the city editor, gave me my orders. Various editors, monitoring the weather service wires and pouring over maps, had guesstimated that Gloria would make landfall around Babylon, a community on the south shore of Long Island. I was to rent a car, go there and greet Gloria.
“Be careful,” Mooney chirped. Yeah, right.
I went to the National car rental counter (where the AJC had an account, and maybe still does). It was vacant, as were Hertz and Avis. I pushed a service button on the counter, and in two minutes or so, a rental agent appeared. “You’re the first customer in an hour at least,” she said. “Don’t you know there’s a hurricane?”
I explained that I was a reporter from Atlanta and I was there to cover the storm. “Some people are pretty dumb,” she replied. I didn’t answer — what could I say? “I have my orders” is not PC any more, and hasn’t been for years. “I get paid to do this,” maybe?
At any rate, I got a car and pulled into a service station near the airport to get motorists reaction to the impending storm. The manager said he would probably close soon and go home, since that was what authorities were advising, and there had been little business.
I phoned in this riveting bit of breaking news and a few quotes from station employees to early shift editor Herb Steely, who sandwiched them into an AP story with my byline under a Long Island, NY dateline on the Journal final edition. Herb did that kind of thing for reporters who, like him, had started their AJC careers on the now departed afternoon paper.
I headed out again onto the Freeway for my next task, to find Babylon as ordered, under grey skies and still pouring rain. Surprisingly, the traffic was heavy, considering the borderline hysteria on the car radio. I have no idea who the DJ was (it wasn’t Don Imus) or the station. The guy was saying things like “Unless you have an emergency, go home! For your safety and everybody’s! This is a dangerous situation! Don’t risk your lives — get off the streets!”
As a kid in Florida who remembers bailing out our flooded house during Hurricane Donna, I can’t recall hearing anyone on radio or TV that excited.
Back to Gloria. By midday the rain had gone, and by noon at the latest, damned if the heaven wasn’t blue and the sun was out. I learned after I returned to Atlanta that Gloria had come ashore a good 30 miles east of where the editors had determined it would make landfall, at about 100 mph, less force than they anticipated. By the time I was back on foot and reporting, the storm had crossed Long Island and was headed, much diminished, for New England, where it dribbled out.
The following morning, as I scanned Newsday before heading to Kennedy Airport and a return flight, I read that Long Island suffered a single fatality from Gloria — a guy struck by a falling tree.
Sounds a lot like Cobb County in the spring.