"And Then They Came..." (Chapter LXXIV)
Michael stopped in the middle of the intersection and, opening his door, stood on the minivan’s bottom frame to see further down the road.
He could not make out any other cars moving anywhere.
One of the two traffic lights that had hovered over the junction between the San Patricio and Central avenues had fallen and lay on its side on the pavement, a few feet away from the minivan. The second still hung from a partially dangling wire, gently swinging slightly less than three feet from the ground.
Michael looked around him with astonishment.
Only a few clouds dotted the sky above. However, in the distance, all around them, a black horizon loomed.
It took him a moment to realize what had happened. The storm had not weakened.
“Holy shit,” he whispered to himself, sinking back into his seat. “We’re in the eye of the hurricane.”
“What?” Jeannie asked distractedly, her attention focused on the two injured men.
“Let’s head out for the hospital as quickly as we can,” Michael said to her.
The Dodge Caravan began to descend the hill fringed by small commercial establishments and stores, and Michael was stunned by the damage that he saw.
Avenida Central had less trees than San Patricio, and most of those were small and young. However, not one of them remained standing, knocked down completely or snapped midway down their trunks.
Several of the plywood panes nailed to the walls of some of the bordering businesses had been ripped off by the wind. Even a few of the metal shutters had failed, and the store windows that they protected had been shattered or destroyed.
In one particular commercial establishment—a furniture warehouse called “El Batazo”—all of its shutters had been torn away, and various pieces of furniture had been sucked out into the street, or partially protruded through the broken display windows.
Advertising billboards had been stripped bare of their contents, with only a few remnants of their posters hanging from their frames like wet rags. Many of the plastic signs of restaurants and other stores had been fragmented, heavily damaged, or simply demolished.
A large, square Texaco logo on a tall metal pole had been snatched by the storm and rammed through a flagpole a block away, much like in a giant game of horseshoes. Elsewhere, an aluminum storm shutter, presumably torn off a window, had been twisted around the trunk of a palm tree like a giant bowtie. Throughout the avenue, scores of of concrete light poles had been snapped in two, even though they had been designed to withstand winds of up to 150 miles per hour.
A three story building housing a bank provided one of the most unusual sights Michael came upon. Its lower floor was enclosed by tall, floor to ceiling panels of solid dark glass. The panels had remained intact. However, the drapes inside the bank had somehow managed to travel through the panels, and were trapped between the edges of the glass windows and their metal frames, hanging limply in Fay’s momentary calm.
Apparently during the storm, Michael reasoned, the wind must have bent the long glass panels outward without breaking them, and sucked the curtains out. Then, as the pressure of the storm had eased, the panels had snapped back into their frames, trapping the curtains outside.
The minivan continued to zig zag through the debris strewn on the road, thrice being forced to climb either on the sidewalks bordering the street, or on the mushy, grassy strip dividing the avenue.
Once, in order to proceed, the Caravan had to power its way through the upper branches of a fallen oak tree. Fortunately, the branches snapped or gave way to the advancing vehicle, but scratched it severely.
Further down the road, Michael saw two pedestrians looking warily in their direction, presumably residents walking out from their nearby homes.
Overwhelmed by the incredible scenes of destruction, Michael wondered if the end of the world would look something like that.
The dark clouds from the southwest continued to grow and appear considerably nearer. Except for the peaceful eye of the storm, the encircling black barrier obscured everything behind and ahead of it.
They had to hurry, Michael thought. Otherwise, the hurricane would swallow them.
Fortunately, they were less than two miles away from the hospital.
He continued to drive past four more blocks, and then braked suddenly.
In front of him was a storm water drainage canal, and it was flooded.
Usually, the short bridge over the channel only spanned a trickle of mostly dirty water underneath. However, Fay had swelled the small stream into a dark, swiftly flowing, brown river.
The expanding torrent had already topped the concrete surface of the bridge, and risen over the first of three thick, horizontal concrete railings that fringed the road's two parallel sides.
Michael stared at Jeannie, who was too concentrated on Lucas to realize what was happening.
“The river has covered the bridge,” he said to her. “We’re very close to the hospital, but if we don’t drive through this flooded overpass, we won’t be able to get there.”
Jeannie looked through the glass of the windshield, and for the first time realized it had stopped raining. In order to examine better the flooded bridge ahead of them, she raised herself from the seat.
She did not like what she saw.
If they tried to cross the flooded overpass, the surging water would probably rise as high as half of the height of the minivan’s doors.
“Can we try some other road?” she asked Michael, hoping against all hope there was another way, already knowing the answer.
“Wherever we go, we’ll have the same problem,” Michael responded. “It’s either try it now, or go back home, before the hurricane returns and everything gets worse.”
“So we don’t have much of a choice then, do we? Lucas will die if we don’t try,” Jeannie said in a resigned, calm tone.
“No other choice,” Michael agreed, smiling sadly at her. ”Not if we want to save Lucas and Ojeda.”
“You don’t have to come__” she began to suggest again, before her brother-in-law cut her off.
“We’ve already discussed this, and the answer is no.” he said. “You know you’re not doing this alone.”
“Really, Michael, Vanessa and Alfredo__”
“It’s decided then. We go across,” Michael interrupted, looking at her, and admitting no further argument.
He lowered the windows on his side, the windows opposite to the flow of the current, prompting a curious stare from his sister-in-law.
“I don’t want us to be trapped inside the car if the water affects our electrical system,” Michael explained.
Jeannie nodded, and returned her attention to Lucas, holding his hand.
“Let’s do this,” she said.
Holding the brake until the last moment, Michael floored the accelerator and raced toward the cresting current, hoping that by keeping the gas pedal down the water would not flood the engine.
The Caravan speeded towards the overflowed bridge and rolled into the torrent, spraying parallel plumes of water upwards. It briefly continued to advance at a very sluggish pace until the pressure of the water nearly stopped it. Menacingly, the flooded stream rose around it.
Michael kept pressing the accelerator, urging the van to move forward, and for a moment it seemed that the Caravan would make it across.
But then the engine began to shudder, and after few seconds stalled completely. Michael tried revive it, pumping the gas pedal several times. For a brief moment, it seemed to catch on, shaking briefly. However, it stopped again.
He kept turning the key with such force that it almost broke inside the ignition, but it was all for naught; the minivan produced a few piteous whining noises and then died out completely.
Michael looked around him trying to determine their situation.
They had cleared more than half of the flooded bridge, but the water had continued to rise, and it was now so deep that it overlapped the front part of the Caravan’s hood. Even worse, water had begun to filter through the doors and puddle inside.
“We’re stuck,” Michael said to Jeannie. “We can’t stay here. I suspect that the current will keep increasing, and soon the second half of Fay will be hitting us and sweeping the van away. We have to leave now.”
Jeannie nodded, directing a terrified glance at the two unconscious men next to her.
“We’ll have to climb to the roof, so we don’t get trapped inside the car,” Michael said.
He crawled out of the open driver’s window, thanking God for opening it beforehand. Grabbing on to the rack on top of the minivan, he pulled himself up to the roof, and slid to the passenger window behind the driver’s seat, also open.
As he moved over the roof, he noticed that the van, particularly its rear, was partially floating in the water. Only the wheels in the front, weighed by the engine, still touched the ground.
They would have to act fast, he thought, before the van was carried away by the ever increasing torrent.
As he began to lean into the open passenger window to address Jeannie, an uprooted tree carried by the current struck the right front side of the Caravan. It hit the stalled vehicle with such force that Michael was nearly thrown off the roof, saving himself only at the very last second by desperately holding on to one of the roof racks.
For a terrifying moment, the roots and trunk of the tree continued to slam against the van, slowly pushing its front part sideways. Meanwhile, the floating rear of the Caravan began to rotate, until its rear window ended up nearly perpendicular to the road.
Then a surge of water dislodged the tree, carrying it away from the bridge. But the growing stream also continued to push the rear of the van, until the vehicle was facing the opposite direction in which they had been traveling before.
With the open windows now facing the oncoming current, the Caravan quickly began to flood.
Horrified, Michael leaned into the open passenger window, and saw that the water inside was rising fast, already covering Jeannie’s lap. The continuously added weight was making the van less buoyant, and he could feel it sinking as the rear wheels increasingly hit the surface of the bridge below.
It would not be much longer before the current completely overpowered the stranded minivan, Michael realized. They had to get out of there now, and somehow reach the open road beyond the bridge, as quickly as they could.
Ojeda lay directly on the seat next to the open passenger window, closest to Michael.
“Jeannie,” Michael shouted, “I’m going drag out Ojeda first through the window and up onto the roof. Then I’ll get Lucas, okay?”
“Yes,” she answered. “Do you need any help with Ojeda?”
“I think I can reach him from here,” he responded, stretching his arms, and touching his shirt. “While I take care of him, try moving Lucas as close as you can to this window. I’ll__”
Suddenly, the minivan shuddered, as the growing current started to push it sideways.
Michael grabbed Ojeda by both of his sleeves and began to pull him up, but then the minivan started to tilt sideways.
Faced with falling off the Caravan and being dragged by the current, Michael let Ojeda go, and clambered off the tilting roof onto the emerging side of the van.
The stalled vehicle continued to list, pushed more and more by the rising water, until it toppled completely on its side.
Michael heard Jeannie scream inside as the minivan tumbled.
Desperately, he slid back to the open passenger window.
But Jeannie, Lucas and Ojeda had disappeared underwater.
(Chapter LXXIV will be posted on Thursday, January 7)