I sat in my Chicago living room that Thursday night, October 4, 1995, fretting helplessly over the absence of news. Hurricane Opal was making landfall on the Gulf coast at Seaside and Seagrove Beach, Florida.
This was before the days of Jim Cantore Weather Channel real time storm footage. A Category 4 (almost 5) storm hitting the southeast was apparently not newsworthy in the midwest.
I had a vested interest few Chicagoans shared. My wife and I recently bought a “peekaboo Gulf-view” lot in Old Seagrove, four blocks from Seaside. Our Seagrove friends had evacuated for safe havens unknown. The result was an unbearable vacuum of information.
Hurricane Andrew’s 1992 devastation conjured up frightening images. Might our friends’ gulf-front homes perish? Might our lot become Gulf-front? The latter thought was an outlier, but the possibility did come to mind – and not in a pleasant way.
I booted up my very slow Epson computer and logged on to America Online at dial up speed. If that could even be termed a “search engine” it was powered by hamsters.
I do not recall how I landed where I did, but I was riveted upon landing there. A Hurricane Opal Chat Room. It began as a cluster of random participants swapping bad jokes. Few conveyed serious interest in the event or ties to the affected area. Useful information was scarce to nonexistent.
I was about to check out when one guy checked in - a homeowner in Seaside, typing from his home.
It took a while for him to make his predicament clear, but as he did chatter gradually went quiet. I imagined this as my first exposure to some high tech version of Walter Cronkite’s “And you were there.”
I wish I knew the man’s name, but he never offered it. He was kinda busy sharing other thoughts – and fears. His house was two blocks inland, so he had no knowledge of how waterfront dunes or homes were faring. He had electricity, but his nearly new house was shaking and rattling fiercely.
In quiet moments between fierce gusts he offered praise to his architect, builder & roofer – and Seaside town planner Robert Davis. By this time other chatters were saying very little. I suspect they knew we were “witnessing” something rare and special. And we feared for this guy.
Then he reported his power went out. I cannot conjure how he continued to “broadcast”. His phone service was not interrupted, but this was long before Wi-Fi hotspots. Yet continue he did, reporting increasingly frightening wind, but still no damage to home or health.
Moments beforehand, he announced the obvious eventuality that his laptop battery was about spent. Then the chat room went silent. Ugh.
Days later I was able to contact friends who returned to their homes. Damage was extensive, but I was relieved to learn no Seaside home was leveled, that our “man on the scene” likely survived without injury.
He certainly made possible an unforgettable Thursday night for one appreciative guy in Chicago.