Thursday, April 18, 2013

Road Trip: The Little Citation That Could

Tallahassee damn near dried out in 1998. We had several months without significant rain; most of the spring and early summer went by without relief.

Tallahassee's surrounded by woodlands. Lots of kindling in the undergrowth. There were quite a few controlled burns, places where you'd be driving along and start smelling smoke, come around a curve and find a patch of ground the size of a house still smoldering.

There was at least one uncontrolled burn, a big forest fire between Tallahassee and Crawfordville. I could smell that one from my apartment 11 miles to the north.

We needed relief pretty badly and when the rains came they made up for lost time with a vengeance. We were getting some light sprinkles around mid-morning. I covered the Citation with a tarp: the area around the top of the windshield was pretty badly rusted out. If it rained hard enough I'd be driving home with a soaked seat and pools in the footwells.

Light sprinkles turned to heavy rains like gray curtains. Not bucket-loads, but tanker loads. Windshield wipers struggled in vain, giving only inches' more visibility. Falling water smote car roofs like a thousand Neil Peart drum solos.

The great thing about the delivery driver job I had at the time was that on a typical run you could be gone for an hour or more, depending on whether certain shops had ordered something. Our customers were scattered widely around town and in Quincy, Crawfordville, and Monticello, which are 15 to 25 miles out. Plenty of time between shops for thinking and recording writing ideas on a little tape recorder.

Not so great if you're struggling to see past the nose of your car, hoping the guy in front of you can see the guy in front of him (a common hope in rainless Tallahassee, a forlorn one in any other weather). Within hours people's yards on the southeast side of town were lakes, flooded from front door to pavement by insufficient drainage and massive runoff from Doak Campbell Stadium's lovely parking lot a few blocks north. There was an insane amount of water running in the shallow ditches and not much place for it to go. Most of my shortcuts were under water by noon. Lake Bradford Road had a lake where it went under a railroad bridge.

It rained all day, hard. We stayed busy. And wet. By quitting time it was back to sprinkling.

The Citation had stayed reasonably snug and dry, but the real test still lay ahead. Just about every road I could take had a problem; Lake Bradford was flooded, Orange Avenue westbound wasn't much better off, and eastbound would lead me to Monroe Street, which would be clogged with cars and construction instead of water.

I took Lake Bradford. That lake under the railroad bridge hadn't subsided much, but where it had been too deep for my delivery car (a Geo Metro), the Citation nosed through without any fuss. I passed a few abandoned cars on the higher ground just past the bridge. I knew not to try taking my usual shortcut that would get me to Ocala (Pepper, Lipona, and Belleview to Ocala, for the locals), so I went around the stadium's east side (Varsity to Pensacola). Varsity was flooded, too. Damn stadium. More abandoned cars on the roadside, some of them with their rear ends floating in nearly 3 feet of water.

The Citation rolled on, kicking up an impressive bow wave even at low speed. I took it slow. Pensacola Street took me past the north side of the stadium. At least now I was out of the worst of the flooding, but now I joined the lines of cars seeking higher ground and passage out of town. I don't know why I didn't just hit Ocala and head north like I normally would. Probably the traffic was too heavy that way. Can't remember. For whatever reason, I ended up on Mission, I think. All I remember about this bit is that I was cruising north on whatever road, came over the top of a hill, and had to panic stop so hard that all four wheels locked up. A line of cars stretched more than a mile to where this road--I'm pretty sure it's Mission; it's the only one that makes sense--dead-ended into Fred George Road. Stop sign. Very long wait.

From the shop to my apartment took at least an hour, probably 90 minutes, instead of fifteen. The Citation never sprang a leak, even when the water was halfway up the doors--though the next morning I discovered that my door and one taillight had become water tanks. Plenty of other people weren't as lucky. The Tallahassee Democrat ran a photo of one FSU parking area that was under six feet of water. A few inches of roof was all that showed of some guy's vintage '50s Chevy pickup. Some antennas poked up in other areas. Shortly after the July 13th Rain from Hell, Tallahassee or the County or someone decided that the southeast side's drainage problem should be addressed. Now there's a big drainage pond or two. I haven't seen the neighborhood since I moved to Pensacola in 1999, but it's got to be better for them these days.

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