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Saturday, Dec. 27, 2014

Boldly Going Nowhere

Thursday, September 25, 2003

In the Eye of a Hurricane

By the spring of 1964, I had spent two years at the University of Minnesota, vacillating between becoming an architect or a mining engineer, trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. In August, I read an article about computers and how there would soon be a huge demand for experts in this new field. It sounded exotic and potentially lucrative. Being an impetuous young adventurer, I decided to become a computer programmer.

On Aug. 11, I stuffed my belongings into the trunk of a 1953 Chevy and headed for Florida where I intended to enroll in Miami-Dade Junior College in Miami, the best computer school in the country at the time.

Four days later, I arrived in Miami and checked into a motel near campus. It was hot, humid and raining.

The same day, a weather disturbance classified as a tropical cyclone moved off the eastern African coast.

After catching up on my sleep, I went to the college campus and registered for fall semester.

The weather disturbance soon reached hurricane force in the Atlantic and was named Cleo.

There was a pool hall across the street from campus with a lunch counter that soon became my unofficial headquarters. I had spent much of my youth in pool halls and felt right at home there.

On Aug. 22, Hurricane Cleo slammed into the French West Indies, causing 14 deaths and much damage.

It took several days, but I eventually found a cheap place to rent near campus. It had a bedroom, kitchen and bathroom. It also had cockroaches the size of my thumb and enough beefy spiders to make a horror movie.

On the morning of Aug. 24, Hurricane Cleo passed south of the Dominican Republic, killing seven people. Later that day, it veered into Haiti where damage was considerable and 192 people perished.

A couple of days later, I was hanging out in the pool hall, wondering why the place was so deserted.

On Aug. 27, the eye of Hurricane Cleo moved onto Key Biscayne. Dominic, the owner of the pool hall, began chasing out customers and preparing for some sort of onslaught. That's when I first learned about Hurricane Cleo. Dominic invited me to join his family and a few guests at his house, a block from the pool hall, for a hurricane party. It sounded better than waiting it out with cockroaches and spiders so I accepted.

Classified as a category-four hurricane, Cleo had sustained winds of 135 mph, with gusts up to 160 mph. At midnight, I watched a garbage can blow down the street and never hit the ground. At about 1 a.m. the exterior wall of the TV station collapsed during a live broadcast. A few minutes later, the electricity went out.

Not long thereafter, there was a sudden dead silence. Dominic handed me a flashlight and announced that he and I were going to check on the pool hall. When we got outside, the entire area was flooded with knee-deep water. I followed him to the pool hall, which had about a foot of water inside. It smelled like rotting fish guts but everything else looked okay. On the way back, Dominic told me to hurry. We were in the eye of the storm and it was about to kick in again. He also told me to watch out for snakes -- another news flash I didn't care to hear.

We made it back inside the house less than five seconds before Hurricane Cleo hit again at full force. While everyone else eventually went to sleep, I spent the rest of the night waiting for the roof to cave in.

Hurricane Cleo caused $125 million in damage in the Miami metropolitan area. It continued along the eastern coast, mostly out at sea, until it fizzled out on Sept. 4 east of Newfoundland.

Only three category-five hurricanes, the most intense category, have been recorded in the USA.

* 1935 -- Labor Day Hurricane in the Florida Keys

*1969 -- Hurricane Camille in Mississippi

* 1992 -- Hurricane Andrew in Dade County, Fla.

As I'm writing, Hurricane Isabel is a category-five disturbance off the coast of North Carolina and Virginia.

My ex-wife was also a category-five disturbance a couple of times but that's another story.