Winds of Change
Copyright© 2011 by R. Michael Lowe aka The Scot
Grant Maxwell and his two children stared at the local news report in amazement. Overnight, a squall two hundred miles east of Charleston and a hundred miles south had turned into a hurricane. Of course, hurricanes in the Low Country of South Carolina were not uncommon, but no one had ever heard of one forming this far north or so close to the mainland. In addition, this storm seemed to be heading straight for Charleston, which would place Grant’s research facility in the path of the northern side of the eye - the area of the storm’s most significant fury.
The last time a storm had hit this area was twenty-two years ago when Hugo left a path of destruction whose effects could still be seen just by looking out his window. His house and research compound were located about five miles from the mouth of the Santee River at the north-eastern edge of Francis Marion National Forest and a little over a mile west of the Intracoastal Waterway. Hugo had flattened this large National Forest, destroying enough trees to have built homes for one point six million people. The small pines that were now twenty to thirty feet high were a sad reminder of the large trees that had been destroyed, many of which were two feet or larger in diameter. It was doubtful if most of the stately live oaks that had once shared the forest would ever be replaced.
Grant felt pretty secure in their location, as this area had survived the bigger storm, and they had done much to strengthen the site during the building process. Several of his employees felt the same, as they had abandoned their mobile homes and brought their families to the facilities for shelter. What really added to their sense of security was the floor of the house and most of the other buildings were forty-eight feet above sea-level; fifteen feet higher than the peak of Hugo’s storm surge. This confidence was boosted by the Army Corps of Engineers certification that the main structures could withstand winds greater than two hundred and fifty miles an hour.
Of course, with the type of secret research he was doing for the Navy, they could justify the funds needed to secure the site for anything short of a nuclear explosion or a large object falling from space. The full importance of their work could be seen by the fact that they were hidden in plain sight. There were no ten foot chain-link fences topped with razor wire, no guards at the entrance, and no armed patrols with dogs. Instead, they were at the end of several miles of little used sand and shell roads. This didn’t mean that security didn’t exist though, as there was a substantial electronic surveillance network covering the roads and the surrounding areas.
To further the secrecy of the site, there were no visible power or phone lines past the Santee Gun Club, which was a good two miles west. Lines past the hunting club, which catered for top level government personnel, were buried underground to the Maxwell facility, and this included a T-3 link to the Internet. Their electricity was backed up by several large propane powered generators, as well as a turbine anchored to the river’s bottom. A unique part of the turbines was that they could be turned by water flow in either direction, thus utilizing not only the river’s current, but also the tidal activity. This was part of their research, and had been successful to the point of actually transferring more power into the Santee-Cooper grid than they were using.
Looking from the river, the site used a thick stand of bamboo and massive live oaks to hide the small harbor containing several boats. Included in their efforts to remain basically hidden from inquisitive eyes, was a movable platform containing bamboo and shrubs that fit closely to the actual land. Blending in with its surroundings, it protected and hid the harbor’s entrance, yet it could be opened like a gate to let boats in and out of the small harbor.
Grant’s thoughts were interrupted by the ominous sounds of Darth Vader’s theme. Only his ex-wife’s calls could initiate this ringtone.
“Yes, Charlotte,” he answered.
“Do you have the children? I can’t get a hold of my sister.”
“Yes, I have them. Teresa called me in a panic and said they were headed out away from the storm and did not have room for Mark and Tracy.”
“I was trying to get back, but the FAA has closed the airport and we’re being redirected to Atlanta.”
“I understand, but they’ll be perfectly safe here. I offered to provide shelter to your sister, but they couldn’t wait to leave town. She was so terrified; she couldn’t wait for me to get there. She took them to the police station instead.”
“She did what?” shouted Charlotte.
“She dropped Mark and Tracy off at the front entrance to the James Island Police Station. She didn’t even take them inside, but just sent them inside with a note. By the time I got there I was knee deep in social services bureaucrats. It took me almost three hours to remove the kids from their clutches.”
“I know she can be a bit hysterical, but this seems a bit much even for her.”
“Well, believe me, I’m not making this up or exaggerating. It took me most of the drive back here to calm Tracy down, though Mark seemed rather stoic about the whole affair.”
“Grant, we’ve had our differences, but as far as I know, you’ve never lied to me. In fact, part of our problem was that too often you told me a truth I didn’t want to hear. Based on that, are you sure they’ll be safe? The television report seems to think that area’s going to take quite a beating.”
“Charlotte, we’ve got generators in case we lose power. We’ve got food and water and are almost fifty feet above sea-level. This place weathered the storm surge from Hugo, and we’ve done a lot to make it even more secure.”
“That makes me feel better, and besides, no matter how I feel about you, I can’t imagine you placing those kids at risk.”
“Thanks for the compliment ... I think.”
His ex-wife laughed, and said, “Thanks for keeping my feet on the ground, even though I’m thirty-five thousand feet in the air. Now, how bad is it?”
“The storm is still rated a category two, but it’s sitting at the edge of the Gulf Stream picking up strength. The winds here are currently thirty-three miles per hour and increasing. The rain bands started a few hours ago, but at the moment, it isn’t coming down very heavy. One thing positive is that we reached high tide more than two hours ago, so most likely we’ll be on an outgoing tide when it finally comes ashore. That should drop the level of the storm surge considerably.”
“It’s funny. I’ve been listening to the experts for over four hours, and you told me more in four minutes. I think you missed your calling.”
“Thanks, but remember the reason they rattled on for four hours was that they had airtime to fill. I just concentrated on the pertinent facts.”
“I hadn’t thought of it like that, but you’re right. Anyway, thanks for the reassurance and the civil conversation.”
“Charlotte, when have I not spoken to you in a civil manner?”
There was a long pause before his ex-wife answered in a sad tone, “When I was making unreasonable and unrealistic demands. Many of which I have to admit were placed in my head by my sister. Maybe if she had kept out of it...”
“Don’t even go there, Charlotte. Let’s just concentrate on the fact that we both got what we wanted, and we’ve got two very special kids as an added benefit. Now, I’ve got to go. The wind has just jumped almost fifteen miles an hour and rain is coming down in sheets.”
“Okay, Grant. Please stay safe.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Grant terminated the call and looked back at his gauges. He quickly extended the mast of the sailboat sitting in the harbor and used the radar and the TV camera to get a quick look at the storm. It seemed to have made up its mind and was headed toward shore. At maximum magnification he could actually see the forward edge of the eye wall. He quickly lowered the mast and hit the intercom.
“John, it’s headed in and I think it’ll be a category three by the time it arrives. Get the families inside and make sure everything is secure, including the steel covers for the windows.”
“We’re already on it,” replied John Ross, his second in command.
Grant’s cell phone rang for a second time. Looking at the caller ID, he found that it was from his friend, retired marine gunnery sergeant Eric Camden.
“Yes, Eric. What’u need?”
“How about a little shelter? We’re returning from a gun show in Conway, but we’re not going to make it to Mount Pleasant before the storm hits.”
“Sure, but be careful as there may be trees and stuff all over the road. How many are with you?”
“We’ve three in each of the two vans and both the vans and the trailers are full of merchandise. We’ll be there as quickly as possible, but we’re having to drive about twenty miles an hour due to the heavy rain. I can’t see more than seventy-five feet in front of me.”
“Okay. I’ll have some of my men clear out an area in the warehouse so you can just pull in and park out of the weather. Call when you see the buildings and I’ll start the door opening.”
“Will do, and thanks.”
Sioux Ross entered the room as Grant ended the call, and asked, “Grant, do you or the kids want anything to eat or drink? I’ve some fresh juice made, as well as soup and sandwiches.”
Before Grant could answer, the excited children headed to the kitchen area.
“Well, I guess that’s part of my answer,” Sioux laughed. “Are you going to join them?”
“Actually, I need to stay on watch at the moment, though the soup and sandwich sounds good. I’d like a diet soda though, instead of juice.”
While studying the instruments and waiting for Sioux to return, Grant took a mental inventory of those who were depending on him for shelter. Of course, his children, Mark and Tracy were his ultimate concern, but he also had John and Sioux, along with their eight month old daughter, Tiena. John was his second in command and lived on site, as did Grant.
Mike and Jenifer Samuels, Brad and Barbara Tyson and Jerry and Pat Allen were the three couples who had fled their manufactured homes. All three men were retired Navy Chiefs who had worked with Grant at the Naval Weapons Station in Goose Creek. When the Navy had moved Grant to a separate facility, the three men were granted full retirement and given clearance to continue helping Grant with his research. There were other employees who were also valuable to their research efforts, but they weren’t presently depending on Grant to protect them from the storm.
Sioux returned with his meal at the same time his weather gear notified him that the winds were now above sixty miles an hour. He thanked her and took his first bite of the hot pastrami sandwich. It was delicious. He sipped the cup of cream of broccoli soup as his cell phone again rang. The ID said it was Eric.
“That was quicker than I thought,” Grant stated into the phone.
“We’re not there yet, but I thought I better advise you that we’ve a car and a truck following us. I suspect they’re following our tail lights, but I thought I’d better give you a heads up. We should be there in less than ten minutes.”
“Thanks for the warning. I won’t turn people away during a storm like this, but I’ll need to make sure they’re legitimate.”
Grant ended the call and hit the intercom, saying, “John, we’ve got guests coming. Some of whom were not invited. Clear the center of the warehouse and make sure everyone is armed. The first two are Eric Camden and some of his employees returning from a gun show. They have two vans, each pulling a large trailer. We think the others were just following his tail lights in the storm, but we don’t know for certain.”
“Aye, aye, Skipper. How close are they?”
“One zero minutes according to Eric. He’s supposed to call when he sees the compound, but if you see him first, open the doors. I’d also turn on all the lights out there.”
“Do we leave them out there?”
“No, go ahead and use the tunnel to get everyone in here. I’m sure this house is a lot less frightening than the warehouse in a storm like this, and besides, I suspect everyone would appreciate some of Sioux’s delicious soup.”
“We’re on our way,” responded John.
At times like this, it was easy to appreciate John’s calm nature. He and his wife were both American Indians. John was a member of the Cherokee tribe, while his wife was a Lakota Sioux. According to Grant’s sources, John was a direct descendant of the Cherokee leader of the same name who once ruled the area around what is now Chattanooga and was an ally of Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812.
John was in his late twenties, about six feet tall and was a hundred and ninety pounds of hard muscle. He was the only one in the group who was non-Navy, having spent four years in the Marines. After taking a bullet in the shoulder in Afghanistan, he had been medically retired. He used his education benefits to parlay the on-line courses he had taken while on active duty. He had attended Auburn University, graduating with a double major of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He was a whiz with both hardware and software.
Auburn was also where John met Sioux, though at the time she had another name. He nicknamed her Sioux, and she liked it so much she had her name legally changed when they married. Her degrees were in animal husbandry and farm management.
Like John, Sioux had black hair and facial features that were distinctively Native American. Though only a little over five four, she was a multi-degree black belt and was almost as deadly as her husband. Sioux also had a way with animals, especially with horses, and many had categorized her as a ‘horse whisperer.’ She would have been on the equestrian team in the last Olympics if she had not gotten pregnant just a few months prior to the opening of the games. Though there were no rules against a pregnant woman competing, her unpredictable bouts of morning sickness made it unwise.
While eating and thinking about his people, Grant had been continuing to monitor the storm. When the wind reached seventy-five miles an hour, he retracted the wind gauge and other weather gear into its secure housing. There was nothing to be gained by leaving it exposed at this point. He also shut down all non-essential electrical equipment to minimize the impact of a direct hit by lightning.
According to the TV, the leading edge of the eye wall was now twenty miles off shore, and the expected point of impact was the Cape Romain lighthouse, just east of McClellanville and about thirty-five miles northeast of Charleston. The worst part was that this was less than ten miles away, placing them in the direct path of the northern edge of the eye wall. This would be the absolute worst place to be in a hurricane.
Grant was contemplating the significance of the new information, trying to see if any of their plans needed to be altered. The ringing of his cell phone brought him back into the real world. It was Eric.
“Yes, Eric,” he answered.
“We can see the lights and the warehouse doors are opening. Do you want us to remain in our vehicles?”
“No. John and some of the others will bring everyone to the house through a tunnel we built for such emergencies. Since we don’t know who has followed you, all my people will be armed.”
“Do you want us to do the same?”
“It can’t hurt. Now hurry in here, this sucker is now up to a three and it looks like we’re going to be hit by the northern eye wall.”
“Shit!” exclaimed Eric.
“My sentiments exactly.”
By the time John returned to the house with their guests, the storm was in full force. Just prior to their entry into the main building, Grant had looked out an observation port. The scene before him seemed almost unreal.
The lightning was so intense it reminded him of the Northern Lights he had seen in Iceland. The wind whipped through limbs of the live oaks causing the Spanish moss to appear to be dancing to the tempo of the almost continuous thunder. The musical quality of the thunder puzzled Grant for a moment until he decided that it was probably caused by the differing distances between the compound and the individual lightning discharges.
As Grant contemplated the scene before him, he realized that Mother Nature had revealed to him one of her most brilliant operas. The swaying moss and limbs were the dancers, the roaring thunder was the beating of the drums, the moaning of the wind were the woodwinds, and the snapping of limbs and pine tree tops were the clashing of cymbals. He found the whole thing truly amazing.
Hearing the entry of Eric and the others, Grant started for the kitchen. Then, before he exited what he had called their living room, a large crash occurred outside. In reaction, Mark and Tracy ran into the room and launched themselves into his arms. The force of the impact caused him to fall back onto the buckskin covered sofa and, once secure in their Daddy’s arms, the children had no intention of moving.
“John,” Grant called in a voice loud enough to carry into the kitchen.
Not hearing a panic in his boss’ voice, John made his way to the living room without running or panicking the others. When he saw the frightened kids being comforted by their father, he understood immediately what was needed. He returned to the kitchen, where he and Sioux played host in Grant’s stead. After everyone was introduced, food and drinks were offered and everyone was invited to make themselves at home.
While the guests ate and recovered from their ordeal of driving in the storm, John learned that the car following Eric’s two vans was a Lincoln Navigator SUV driven by Beth Anderson. She was bringing her daughter Alicia and Alicia’s best friend, Samantha Lykes, from Landover, Maryland to begin classes at the College of Charleston. Beth was probably in her mid to late thirties, though she looked younger. She was tall, slender and everything about her reeked class. There was no wedding ring, though there was a mark on her finger that showed she had worn one recently.
Alicia and Samantha (call me Sam) were in their late teens and both appeared to be late bloomers. Both were around five six, but differed in their body shape and hair. Alicia had chestnut hair similar to her mother, but her body had yet to develop much of a figure. Sam was a true blue-eyed blond with partially developed breasts and hips. Underneath her braces, thick glasses and the baby fat around her waist was a beautiful woman waiting to emerge.
The truck that had followed Beth Anderson was a low-boy driven by Charles Young. It was his truck, as was the large Cat bulldozer fastened on top. He had been hired by a company in North Charleston to help clear away some old buildings at the edge of the old Navy base and do site preparation for a new office complex. He was divorced with no children and lived with his mother when he wasn’t on the road.
There was one other car that Eric had not seen, and it contained two young Marines who were being transferred from Camp Lejeune to Paris Island. PFC Trey Taylor was nineteen or twenty, and his marine cut blond hair made him look almost bald. His soft blue eyes were framed by a well tanned face and his hundred and seventy pounds fit nicely on his five ten frame. His buddy, Lance Corporal Marcel Ingram, was a slightly older black man with a medium dark complexion and hazel eyes. He was six foot and a very solid one eighty-five. Trey was assigned to work in base supply, while Marcel was to assist drill instructors on the rifle range.
Everyone in those final three vehicles were surprised where they finally stopped, but once they started following the car in front of them, they didn’t know what else to do but to continue and hope that the person in the lead knew someplace where they would be safe.
After a short time, everyone’s emotions seemed to be returning to normal. The wind was still crying in the night and the rain seemed to be poured from a giant pan rather than coming down as individual drops. It also seemed that more rain was hitting the side of the buildings than was hitting the roof.
Sioux had checked on Grant, and was pleased to find him and his children asleep on the Sofa. She thought a lot of Grant, and it infuriated her how his ex-wife and her sister made him go through all sorts of hoops to have any time with his kids. At least Mark and Tracy would have the memories of this time to help carry them through the tough times that would follow.
John’s wife checked on her daughter and then returned to the kitchen and sat on her husband’s lap while the visitors shared more about themselves. She was a little surprised that no one had asked about the compound, or its purpose.
Suddenly, there was a loud boom which accompanied the shaking of the building like a mid-level earthquake. Knowing the extent of its foundations, John’s initial concern was that one of the five hundred gallon propane tanks had exploded. Then, before anyone could move, the wind and rain stopped. It didn’t taper off; it just completely stopped. This was followed immediately by a loud klaxon from one of the warning sensors.
John ran to the control room, only to find that Grant had already arrived and was using his arm to turn on switches by the row.
“What’s happening?” asked John.
“The water in the river and in the harbor has risen by several feet and the turbine is producing four times the electricity that it was. The problem is that the grid isn’t accepting the overflow.”
“Storm Surge?” asked John.
“According to this, it’s outflow, not inflow. It’s almost like the river is ignoring the diversion canal.”
“Should I call Santee-Cooper and see if they have any information, both on the water levels and the grid?”
“I think it would be a good idea. In the meantime, I want to find out what is happening to this storm. I’ve been in numerous hurricanes before, but I’ve never seen the rain and wind just stop, even when you first entered the eye.”
Mike, Brad and Jerry stood at the door, and asked, “Grant, is there any way we can help?”
“Yes, Jerry, I need you to raise some of these storm covers over the windows so we can directly observe what’s happening. Mike, you need to check the marina and boats for obvious damage, Brad, I need you to do the same for the buildings and grounds. Just be cautious, because if we’re in the eye, the storm could come back at full fury in a matter of minutes.”
“Grant,” shouted John, “the phone’s dead and I can’t get a signal on my cell phone.”
“That’s possible if both lines and a tower are down. In fact, if we’ve problems with the electrical grid, then that could disable the cell tower by itself. How about running up the mast of the sailboat and checking the radar, as well as the video? We need to find out if we’re in the eye, or what.”
Jerry called out from the living room, “Grant, you’ve got to see this.”
“Is the damage that bad?” Grant asked as he entered the room.
“No, but I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
“We weren’t anyway,” Grant laughed.
The laughter stopped immediately when Grant looked out the window. Gone were the miles of small pines, and in their place were pines and oaks that were three to five feet around. The compound itself seemed to be the same, but everything changed starting about a hundred and fifty feet from the buildings.
Brad and Mike joined Grant and Jerry and reported that other than the new landscaping and the higher water, everything seemed normal. There were a few downed branches, but nothing seemed to be damaged.
As the four men discussed the situation, they were interrupted by John’s cry, “What the hell?”