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My Ida Story


Not to use a water analogy, but my story is only a drop in an ocean of harrowing tales in hurricane Ida's wake. Writing is therapeutic. While the memories are written in indelible ink in my mind, this will help me share and preserve the experience. Who am I kidding - I'm getting old and figure I'll forget it if I don't document it!


Regardless, I am forever grateful to be able to tell it. There are so many people whose stories contain so much more loss and gravity - my heart and prayers go out to everyone affected by this storm - including my co-workers who got more than they bargained for coming to NJ for a meeting. I also express my deepest gratitude and respect for the emergency responders who had to grapple with unprecedented situations and sheer volume of human need, for hours and days. That courage and devotion to others is this world's saving grace. As a person with the natural inclination to give help as opposed to receive, I am indebted to those who got me through this ordeal.


Time will heal us all and repair our physical damages and emotional wounds.


The Fateful Day

The first 12 hours - 5:30am-5:30pm.

Since March of 2020, due to COVID, I have been to the office 3 times - once in June, once in July, and September 1. As quickly as the return to work phase began, restrictions due to the delta variant stalled the progression. In general, there are a lot of requirements and little incentive to go to the office regularly and the "new normal" makes commuting logistics challenging. Working from home gets the job done and we've adjusted to a virtual meeting environment, but still miss the people and some of the advantages to being together.


For a large project, though, an all-day in-person meeting was scheduled for Wednesday, September 1 in Skillman. Many internal and external partners were traveling to our NJ headquarters for a big Lessons Learned review. After all of those months of all-virtual meetings, the opportunity to see not just long-time colleagues, but to meet external partners, was exciting. (Even to talk about lessons learned!)


Weather forecasts were known and evolving the days before, but all travel into the state was fine. And, despite the distinct potential for heavy rain and "flooding", there was no serious concern that would be cause for canceling. Those of us who know the Skillman area know its tendency to flood, and anticipated the "usual". Soaking wet predictions didn't dampen our spirits or deter us from the day's objectives. It was a great day of collaboration.


Continuing the vibe - 5:30-8pm

The best way to cap off a great session was with dinner. We had a large and lively group at the Salt Creek Grille in Princeton. Over the boisterous chatter, though, there were regular, blaring weather alerts. They gave pause, but were mostly tornado warnings. The one for flash flooding was acknowledged, but dismissed with mindsets based on previous experience.


At 8pm, we were wrapping up, saying our goodbyes, and wishing each other safe trips to our destinations - be it a hotel, home, or airport. We exited the restaurant in torrential rain and began our journeys cautiously.


The Journey

8pm-9pm

When I left Princeton, I expected navigation to take me home via major highways that would be at less risk of flooding danger. However, due to a road closure already in place, I was sent on a more back-road route to avoid delays. I'm not super-familiar with the ins and outs of the area, and proceeded at the mercy of the GPS instructions. Roads were treacherous and I encountered several spots of frighteningly deep water right from the beginning. Finally, still in Princeton, on one dark road with one other car in front of me, we both made the decision to turn around.


After I backtracked, I was guided safely to familiar territory in the south of Skillman (near Ricky's Thai). It was right where I didn't want to be - in a notorious flood-prone area - but I was more knowledgeable about the roads. My plan was to stick to Route 206 as a 'safer' main road. Not far up route 206, however, I reached another impasse. Flooded roads were discovered by trial and error - either on your own or by coming to a line of stopped cars. There were no markers or barricades in most cases and online maps were not necessarily comprehensive and accurate.


I weighed my alternatives. I briefly considered heading back to Princeton to find a hotel, but felt it was too daunting and dangerous to be led back that way. less comfortable with directions, in worsening conditions. And I made a foiled attempt to reach the Skillman office building. I spent some time on the corner of Sunset Road and Rte 206 to contemplate my options and let my family know I would likely not be home that night. I was in no rush, was prioritizing safety, and knew it would be a long while to find a way through the area.


9pm-1am

When I saw traffic moving in both directions, I left the quiet, dark corner and headed north on 206 again. I didn't get far before hitting the next impasse just past the corner of 604 and 206. So, I returned to the parking lot of a Krauzer's to wait. I listened to an audiobook, checked in with family, surveyed the scene, and tried, unsuccessfully, to rest. Finally, around 11-11:30pm, the rain let up. Around midnight, it appeared that the line of cars had moved, so I checked. False alarm - still impassable.


I returned to a nearby parking lot - Gasior's Furniture - and continued my wait. With the relief from rainfall, in about an hour, cars were moving in both directions. I could continue my journey.


Traversing the next several miles was jaw-dropping and improvisational. Traffic rules did not apply as you drove where you had to (any side of the road, any direction) to avoid the countless abandoned, wrecked cars, debris, and cones/barrels all over the street. The destruction was significant and frightening. But, the pattern seemed to be that spots that were underwater had cleared in the time since the rain stopped.


I made it as far north as a restaurant named Sarah Jane's. At first, I back-tracked to a few cross-roads that were completely flooded - Brooks Blvd, S Bridge St - and ultimately decided to wait in the restaurant parking lot.


Trapped

1-3am

A couple of tractor trailers and several cars were all hanging out at the restaurant when I suddenly heard the trucks reversing. I was surprised to discover the reason - water was moving our way and creeping through the parking lot. Everyone in the area was retreating, and I did the same, driving down a sidewalk due to the tractor trailer congestion, towards S Bridge St.

The water had also been very active at that intersection and was deeper than when I first crossed. Instinct told me not to push my luck as I watched cars struggle to get through. I was not in a rush and could wait where it was dry and safe - between the 2 points. That hesitation rendered me trapped. I hadn't considered the scenario where water closes in from multiple directions and ultimately makes that entire stretch of road one, big body of floodwater. For the next hour or so, I wrestled with the fear of trying to pass S Bridge St, but held onto the optimism that I was in a good place to just wait it out.


3-7am

Periodically, I surveyed my surroundings, gauged the trend of the rising water, and ensured I was in the shallowest section. I watched as it covered the road where I waited, crept up the median, and ominously infiltrated the other side of the highway. By 4, I called the police station to let them know I would need assistance.


When water began to seep into my vehicle, I took measures to stay dry and survive. I opened the sunroof and gathered my most valuable belongings - everything in my purse and work backpack. I situated myself on the roof of the car, as comfortably as possible, with a couple of blankets and an extra pullover that I kept in the back (thanks to following mom's advice to always have "just in case"). Thankfully, it was not raining and it wasn't freezing outside.


By 5:30, 24 hours since I woke up to start a great day, ideas were swimming through my head, there was no sign of help, and I called back the police. I still didn't feel I was in a life-threatening situation and knew they were overwhelmed with other rescues, but I wanted expert advice. He confirmed that emergency responders had been dispatched, but couldn't answer my questions about "the likelihood that my car would be carried away" or "how deep the water would get" or "when it would stop rising". So, I continued to wait as the day began to break and hope I didn't need to decide if and when to jump into the water.


Around 6, the sun was rising, bringing full visibility to the flood, and it was a decent enough hour to contact family and work to let them know my situation. I apologized profusely to Mark, reassured my parents, and let folks know I wasn't likely to be online and in meetings. The water was still rising, had surpassed the concrete median, and was approaching the hood of my car. Not knowing how far down the list I was from the dispatch a couple of hours before, I decided to call 911. I didn't know how long it would take help to reach me, but wanted it to arrive before I was fully submerged.

I watched in both directions for flashing lights or a boat, and then, around 7, I saw a helicopter...


The Rescue

7-9am


It was a monstrous machine - a Blackhawk - and it turns out, it was for me (and, hopefully, the few people around me). I quickly prepared for rescue, securing my cross-body purse and backpack, before they blew off the car with the power of the propellers. After staying dry all night, the insane wind from the helicopter created rapids of the floodwater and sprayed it everywhere. I watched as a fatigue-clad military responder was lowered from the aircraft.


Landing on the car was no easy feat. Keeping myself secure, I needed to grab him as he swung to settle him on the car. I was ready to go. He motioned for me to face him and position myself on a rescue seat (like the one pictured below). He put a strap around me, gave a signal to his partners above, and we started our ascent.

It was so surreal, exhilarating, and amazing. I was like a star in an action movie. If it wasn't wrong on so many levels, I wished I could have captured the whole thing on video. Such a beautiful morning, but such a horrific view. The brown water was everywhere. We were flying and ascending and I was taking it all in. Finally, we were aboard, I was detached from the seat, made my way to another, was covered in a blanket, and harnessed in - all in what seemed to be one, fluid motion.


The noise was deafening, but I wanted so desperately to convey my thanks for me and all the others they would help. The only possible communication, though, was a thumbs up. The ride was incredible, but short. We traveled to a command center location near the Duke's Parkway area where I was escorted to a school bus to take me to a shelter in the Hillsborough Municipal Building Senior Center.


There, numerous victims of car or home emergencies gathered with whatever belongings they could carry, and their pets. After sitting for nearly 12 hours, and still fueled by adrenaline, I stood and paced. My next move was to offer to help, as sitting idle to wait for a clear path in or out of the area was not an option. But, I received a phone call from my next rescuer.


A Blur - Thursday

9am-6pm

A local co-worker reached out the moment he knew what had happened and where I was. Despite my protests and concern for his safety in the residual flooding and devastation, he hopped in his car and came to pick me up at the shelter. Thankfully, he made it safely and was there in minutes. We returned to his home, a crisis center for neighbors and family also impacted by the flood, where I was extended every courtesy - food, clean-up, and rest.


Actually, timing-wise, it was the start of our normal morning meetings, and began like an "offsite" work-from-home day. I loved the normalcy and the focus of getting things done. Hungry, they were able to accommodate my inconvenient dietary restrictions, and adrenaline continued to carry me through the next several hours of phone calls, texts, and planning next steps. It was a constant flurry of family, friends, work, insurance, towing companies, police, and rental companies.


Petering out and unable to move forward with next steps for my car or exit until water receded, from 2-4, I caught the first rest since 5:30 the previous day. When I awoke, there was news of paths clearing and ways into/out of Hillsborough. I ate again and a plan quickly fell into place.


The Exit - Home Sweet Home

6-10pm

Confident there was a safe way for Mark to pick me up, I moved to a closer location at a friend's house. They graciously picked me up and offered further advice and assistance options for the next several hours and days. Around 6:30, Mark and Emily pulled in for a happy reunion. Of course, I had bedraggled helicopter hair, bags under my eyes, my same clothes on, and a stench since I never took the chance to fully wash up. They hugged me nonetheless.


Mark wanted to check my car before leaving, despite the road still being closed. We drove 206N as far as we could, about a 1/4 to 1/2 mile from my car. A police officer stationed there confirmed the water had receded, making it possible for a tow truck to remove it. Not surprisingly, a call to AAA to make arrangements revealed the earliest they could get to it would be around 1:30pm on Friday. We visited the car and tried to see if it would start, to no avail. So, we left and finally headed home.


My first priority on arriving home was a shower. It washed away the day (or 2) and prompted my body to start relaxing. By 10pm, I was able to fall asleep and let recovery begin.


The Aftermath

Friday, emotions and reality set in. I overslept my alarm, needed to figure out car-juggling, was checking in with work, and feeling that it would be an active day of progress to deal with the loss of my car. The stretch of road was opened that morning which meant my car had already been moved. I called Somerville PD for information on how to locate it. Colonial Motors, the towing company I was advised to contact, was expectedly overwhelmed, but were trying to locate my car. Several follow-ups later, in the evening, they had not found it and advised I check elsewhere. Another call to the police for other companies and several calls later, I was deflated, thinking I would have to wait days for confirmation with the long weekend. Finding my car was the first step in kicking off the insurance assessment, which I thought was also a dependency for a rental. But, the day ended on a high note when Colonial Motors called me back with news that they had my car and I was able to connect with my insurance agent to get a rental reservation code. There was no guarantee of rental availability, so I was prepared to have to go several days without, but at least I could get on a waiting list.

Saturday was to get the ball rolling on vehicles. I contacted Enterprise and stopped by my Honda dealer, knowing our sales guy was in. I told him my story and he was determined not to let me leave without a car. When he brought me to a single CRV on the lot comparable to the waterlogged one, then presented a deal that nearly matched the one from a year ago, it was a no-brainer. I returned 2 hours later and drove off the lot - in his words "faster than I could get a cheeseburger". Teary-eyed. Absolutely speechless. Dumbfounded. Grateful. Moved (literally and figuratively). So fortunate.


Tuesday begins the next phase of the aftermath - one last visit to my car, ensuring everything is in order for insurance to what they need, and then going with the flow to close out the ordeal on paper.


Thanks to the long Labor Day weekend, I've been able to work through the emotions and exhaustion. I've not yet hit an impasse on this road to recovery, and don't expect to. I'm good and I'm a survivor.


The Superheros

There was an outpouring of love and support from my amazing network of family and friends. Not to diminish anyone's worth or actions or offers, but there are a few key folks to call out who got me through those 48 hours.

  • The anonymous team of military personnel in the Blackhawk helicopter that airlifted me to safety. And every single emergency responder throughout the storm and after, who brought countless people to safety.

  • Ardhendu Sarangi & Family - My gracious co-worker who, despite my protest and fear for his safety, rescued me from the shelter and extended me every necessary comfort - food, rest, and clean-up. They did all this in the midst of their own family and neighborhood crises with the flood.

  • Dave Iskols, Phillipsburg Easton Honda - Our not-just-a-car-salesman friend from the past decade (or more) and our long line of Hondas (6+ and counting). He was able to get me into a new car in unbelievable record time. The low inventory in the lot and the current supply/demand situation made this an absolute miracle.

  • Anne & Todd Finetto - Dear, long-time friends who were there for me in the wee hours of the night and helped get me home. Their advice, local knowledge, and generous assistance gave me options, perspective, and shaped my action plan.


Lessons Learned

Circling back to where this all started, a face-to-face Lessons Learned meeting, of course hindsight is 20-20.

I will not beat myself up over decisions and all of the "what ifs".

Why didn't I decline dinner and go home due to the weather? Should I have gone back to Princeton to find a hotel? Why couldn't I have just rested in one spot instead of moving on? Why didn't I just go for it to cross S Bridge St when I first back-tracked? Should I have opted to leave my car when I could walk through the water - where would I have gone?

I know my logic and why I made the decisions I did. Nothing was done out of recklessness or disregard for the potential threat of danger. I was confident in my thinking.

I am more well-equipped with knowledge of where flooding zones are and what types of warnings to heed.

I will continue to keep emergency supplies in my vehicle, just in case.

I should probably get gas more often, as I was also low on fuel, which was also impacting my decisions.

I have an amazing network of family and friends that humble me with how giving, caring, and helpful they are. This includes my work family - whether you categorize them as family or friends - and the company we work for.

Always BEE positive.

Don't Worry, Bee Happy.




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