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September 23, 2008

All Ike and no water - Hurricane Ike’s crazy winds brought Louisville to its knees. Most of it, anyway

It was shaping up to be a beautiful late-summer Sunday afternoon when Hurricane Ike unexpectedly thrashed Louisville.

At least that’s what I hear.

I was 2,000 miles away in San Francisco when I first learned 70-mile-per-hour winds had whipped through the city. “You wouldn’t believe it,” my dad told me as he surveyed the damage. “I’m 63 years old and I’ve lived here all my life … I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Sure, there was the 1974 tornado, and a blizzard in 1994, but this was different.

Describing a surreal scene of clear skies and sustaining wind, he explained there was no rain, no lightning, no funnel cloud. Just gusts of wind strong enough to uproot 100-year-old oak trees, topple telephone poles and blow the gate right off his fence.

Photo by Sarah Kelley: Storm trooper: Mayor Abramson clears debris.
Photo by Sarah Kelley: Storm trooper: Mayor Abramson clears debris.

Like more than 300,000 other households, my parents lost power, as did both of my brothers, my in-laws and most of my friends and co-workers.

Given more than 75 percent of LG&E customers were without electricity, I expected the worst when I returned home last Monday night.

My flight landed just before midnight, and the airport was unusually crowded, swarming with out-of-towners in golf shirts, visiting for the Ryder Cup. My first impression: This doesn’t look like a city recovering from what Mayor Jerry Abramson dubbed “the worst storm we’ve ever had.”

But as I drove along Eastern Parkway, porch lights did not illuminate the thoroughfare. And when I pulled off into Germantown, I found an eerie darkness enveloping the neighborhood. The blackout continued on my street, but then I spotted a few glowing light bulbs at the end of the block. Houses across the street were dark, yet the stretch of shotgun houses on my side never lost power.

The next day I carried on with life as usual: awoke to a blaring alarm clock, flipped on lights, took a hot shower, drank fresh-brewed coffee, watched MSNBC. The only reminder that something was amiss was the fact that my husband — a teacher — was still in bed. School was cancelled.

Driving to work, I took a detour around a tree stretched across East Breckenridge Street. When I arrived at the office, I realized how minor an inconvenience this was given I’d spent the morning consuming a substantial amount of energy.

With more than 200,000 still without power Wednesday, I hosted an impromptu gathering to watch the University of Louisville football game — it was the least I could do.

Then there was a knock at our front door.

A neighbor who had done some work at our house in the past was standing on the porch. His power was still out, and his refrigerator full of food had spoiled. Unable to find construction work recently due to an illness, he couldn’t afford to replace the food and needed to buy his two children something to eat. Could I spare a few bucks?

Suddenly, it became clear that inviting friends over to watch football really was the least I could do.

And so when Mayor Abramson declared this past Saturday and Sunday “Neighbor Helping Neighbor” weekend and announced plans to help clean up debris in an elderly woman’s backyard, I suspended my skepticism. Although I typically wouldn’t cover such a Mayberry moment, expecting nothing more than a publicity stunt, I headed out to the Hikes Point home of Dorothy McDonald on Saturday morning.

Wearing faded blue jeans and a Louisville T-shirt, Abramson was wielding red garden clippers with a certain intensity when I arrived. Speaking to the media only briefly, he urged residents to help one another any way they can. He also noted the incredible circumstances that converged last week: “On the one hand you have thousands and thousands and thousands of people from all over the world that are here and you want to showcase the community,” he said, referring to the Ryder Cup. “And at the same time you want to be sure people have food and shelter.” 

As spectators at Valhalla shelled out $10 for a hamburger and soda, Louisvillians with empty refrigerators lined up at food banks.

One such couple was Kim and Mike Breaden of Old Louisville. Their electricity went out just after their monthly grocery trip and they lost a freezer full of hamburgers, steaks and chicken. Both work, but times are tough, and so after a nearly a week of sharing meals with family, they visited a Dare to Care food bank at Highland Presbyterian Church.

Accepting two grocery bags of non-perishables like peanut butter, canned goods and crackers, Mike Breaden said he appreciated the donation, adding, “It’s very humbling.”