Nature’s little surprises when you’re on vacation

It sounded like a heavy truck rolling down the street.

But instead of the truck passing our friends’ house in Santa Monica and the sound receding, the noise got louder and louder and the house began to shake.

The first trip that my hubby and I took together, to visit family friends in California while I was on my university Christmas break, started off benignly enough with nice sunny weather. The scent of eucalyptus from the trees lining the streets filled the hazy air, and for breakfast we enjoyed fresh-picked oranges from the tree in our friends’ back yard. I was so excited to see palm trees and the ocean.

We had an adventurous New Year’s Eve at a club in Santa Monica (too crazy to describe in this article), and then got up early to go to Pasadena for the Rose Parade. After the parade we returned to our friends’ home and everyone else settled down to watch the Rose Bowl on television while I, still recovering from a bout of strep throat, lay down for a while in our bedroom – only to be woken up soon after by the earthquake and everyone running into the room yelling at me to get up.

It wasn’t a major quake – only 4.6 on the Richter scale – but enough to shake us up. It’s very unnerving to have the normally solid earth beneath you start moving around. One of the first things our friends did was run to hold up their china cabinet in the dining room, while my hubby and I wanted to find the first available airplane/helicopter and lift off.

In addition, you don’t know how big the quake will turn out to be. Visions of giant cracks appearing in the streets danced in my head.

Aftershocks can sometimes be worse than the original event. After our brief quake, rumblings and aftershocks continued throughout the rest of the day. I remember sitting, trying to relax, but spotting the ornaments on our friends’ Christmas tree start to swing in my peripheral vision. At one point the entire house shifted with a loud bang, as if a giant had come and kicked it!

Several months later, on our honeymoon in the US Virgin Islands, things went south again in a much larger way with a Category Five hurricane followed closely by a tornado that ripped right by our resort. No one could call us on the island afterward, but we were able to call out and reassure our frantic families that we were safe and healthy. Normally I love storms, but that one was a doozy, and a history-maker. For months after we got home my shoulders tightened every time there was a high wind.

A year after that, when Mount St. Helen’s erupted, friends of my in-laws actually called them to see if my hubby and I were in the vicinity! (absolute truth)

Over the years, with many more occurrences that seem to follow us wherever we go, we’ve become accustomed and have learned to go with the flow. Not everything has been one of Nature’s treats – we had to change a trip completely at the start of the Arab Spring, changing from Egypt to Kenya, and on the very first day we took my mother-in-law to England we were exploring the British Museum when it was suddenly evacuated and we lost my hubby for about half-an-hour (that was the most unusual, but not the only thing, to happen on that trip).

We’ve also found ways to stay prepared.

With the advent of the internet, mobile phones and instant news, there are many ways to cover your bases. I’m not sure my hubby and I are that unusual anymore in unusual vacations – global warming is causing all kinds of changes and surprises in weather patterns, and political tensions can erupt unexpectedly – so it pays everyone to understand their options.

A recent case in point in our lives:

We were on an innocuous trip to Williamsburg, Virginia last fall. The weather was hotter than expected, but manageable. We spent an entire day exploring the superb Colonial Williamsburg, got our creeps on at Busch Gardens’ fantastic Howl-O-Scream event, enjoyed history and the sunset on a schooner cruise on the York River, and bought more sandals at an outlet mall to cope with the intense heat.

Waiting for our carriage ride at Colonial Williamsburg.
Sunset cruise on a 3-masted schooner
Howl-O-Scream is one of the best Halloween theme park events we’ve ever been to

We’d finished a round of golf at an area club on Tuesday, and the staff were helping us pack up our clubs when the ranger asked if we’d be coming back for another round. We said we planned to return on Thursday; he replied, “Well, you’ll have to play that by ear. There’s a hurricane coming our way.”

Someone living along the Fords Colony golf course in Williamsburg has a Halloween-themed sense of humour

There’s a what now? Not that hubby and I aren’t used to hurricanes (this would be our fourth), but Hurricane Michael popped up with almost no warning.

Watching the weather reports in our hotel room

Here’s how we handled it:

  1. Kept an eye on the evolving situation. Hurricanes are notoriously changeable, so if it looks like you’ll be in the path, you can at least keep on top of developments.
  2. The local weather station recommended downloading the Red Cross Hazards app. You can enter your current location and receive any alerts that may come out, as well as look up preparedness info for a variety of different scenarios.
  3. We rejigged our activity plans for that Thursday; it helps to be flexible in these circumstances. The storm was projected to downgrade to Category 3 and reach our area by about 2pm. We had planned to visit the Yorktown Battlefield that day, which is located along the York River, not far from Virginia’s Atlantic shore – not a place we wanted to be when the storm hit due to repeated warnings about storm surges and flash flooding. We were going to be heading towards home the next day, though, so we hit the road early in order to see the Battlefield in the morning and be back in Williamsburg on drier land by lunch.
Storm clouds gathering as we drive to Yorktown

We kept an eye on the skies as we toured the Battlefield. They were darkening and a few drops began to fall as we drove back to town. We had lunch at a Red Lobster restaurant across the street from our hotel (very short travel time if the storm came in during the meal). It started to rain while we ate, intermittently heavy; outside the window, there was a little pebble garden where we watched water gather into a little stream, then a larger stream, then a small pond.

Mortars and cannons from the Battle of Yorktown

From there we picked up a few emergency supplies – battery-operated candles (in case of power outage), extra bottles of water, and snacks – and by 3pm we were safely battened down in our room, watching television and remaining relaxed but alert. I texted my brother about the hurricane, and, having received numerous similar messages from us over the years, his reply was typical: “Gee, what a surprise.”

By dinnertime there’d been spotty rain only, but we made some tea. We had some leftovers in our room fridge from dinner the night before. and our Vanilla Cheesecake at lunch was so delicious that we’d brought two pieces back to our room.

The storm hit in full force after dark, with driving rain and wind rattling the window. The force of the storm actually pushed some rain in along the top corner of our ‘sealed’ window, and we put a towel along the sill to absorb the water. The hotel parking lot and the streets were lightly flooded. We heard reports of tornadoes touching down in several places around the area, and did receive one tornadoes-in-the-area alert from the Red Cross app. The lights flickered a few times but never went completely out.

Hurricane rain driving in sheets outside our hotel room and trees tossing violently

That was the worst of it for us, but our hotel was on a main street, and we’d seen a number of people out driving around during the worst of the storm – I hope it was something urgent to make it worth risking their lives. Sadly, five people who ignored the warnings to stay inside died when they were swept away by flood waters. So preventable.

  • We checked the road reports on Friday morning to see what was open/closed. There were 1,400 road closures in that county alone, but none of them along the route that we would be taking to visit the Luray Caverns that afternoon. The roads that were open were strewn with debris and downed trees.
Slow traffic and lots of debris on the roads that were open the next day

Could we have avoided this scenario entirely by not going south during Hurricane Season (June to November)? Certainly, but we had considered Virginia to be a lower-risk area, and there hadn’t been any intimations of an impending storm. Events like earthquakes can’t be reliably predicted – although, in another absolutely true story, a nun in September of the year we first went to California had predicted that there would be an earthquake around New Year’s Day, and I spent the next three months convincing myself that it was hogwash, so what can one make of that?

You can’t entirely predict what Mother Nature will throw at you, so if you do find yourself in the midst of one of her surprises, follow the local advisories and stay safe. Never  think that ‘it won’t happen to me’ – based on extensive personal experience I can confirm that s*** does happen.

To learn more about how to be prepared in the event of the unexpected, our Canadian government has a useful website for Emergency Preparedness. In particular, check out the sections on Using Technology During a Disaster. The stats also make an interesting read.

A new edition of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook was released this April, with some updates about things like drone attacks and spotting fake news, but you may find the book’s Travel version more useful. Hopefully you’ll never have to things like Stop a Runaway Passenger Train, but I have personally been on a Runaway Camel! (It ended up stopping by itself after a wild ride down a hill when it got back to its corral and before reaching the river, thank goodness.)

And if you ever experience an earthquake, find a spot with the most structural soundness — doorways are good, and bathrooms are excellent. (If in California, don’t go outside — flying clay roof tiles can be deadly.) And be kind to Mother Nature — there may come a day when you want her on your side 🙂

Happy Halloween!

Pix from “Halloween at Greenfield Village”, taken at Greenfield Village, Dearborn MI, on October 12, 2013, for your Halloween enjoyment! If you decide to visit next year, though, a word of caution: this event is not friendly for those with mobility issues, and when I complained to the management I received a decidedly unhelpful response.

Attendees begin arriving in costume for the 8pm entry time - photo by E Jurus
Attendees begin arriving in costume for the 8pm entry time – photo by E Jurus

An eerie Grim Reaper stalks a field  - photo by E Jurus
An eerie Grim Reaper stalks a field – photo by E Jurus

The event 'mascot' looms menacingly over one of the walkways  - photo by E Jurus
The event ‘mascot’ looms menacingly over one of the walkways – photo by E Jurus

One of the main squares is lit by string lights  - photo by E Jurus
One of the main squares is lit by string lights – photo by E Jurus

Fans wait to have their fortunes told  - photo by E Jurus
Fans wait to have their fortunes told – photo by E Jurus

The opportunity for a 'ride' on a witch's broom in the mild night air  - photo by E Jurus
The opportunity for a ‘ride’ on a witch’s broom in the mild night air – photo by E Jurus

Yours truly with one of the many costumed characters available for photo ops  - photo by E Jurus
Yours truly with one of the many costumed characters available for photo ops – photo by E Jurus

The charming grandstand becomes a haunted place at night  - photo by E Jurus
The charming grandstand becomes a haunted place at night – photo by E Jurus

A ghostly woman haunts a widow's walk  - photo by E Jurus
A ghostly woman haunts a widow’s walk – photo by E Jurus

Entrance to the Sleepy Hollow haunted forest  - photo by E Jurus
Entrance to the Sleepy Hollow haunted forest – photo by E Jurus

A young cowgirl checks out the Halloween ornaments for sale in one of the barns  - photo by E Jurus
A young cowgirl checks out the Halloween ornaments for sale in one of the barns – photo by E Jurus

A tree haunted by grinning jack-o-lanterns haunts the end of the journey  - photo by E Jurus
A tree haunted by grinning jack-o-lanterns overlooks the end of the journey – photo by E Jurus