Cambrian: Slice of Life

The worst in Mother Nature can bring out the best in people

Adele Thomas and her family survived Hurricane Irma after it roared through her house, ripping the roof off and destorying all the contents.
Adele Thomas and her family survived Hurricane Irma after it roared through her house, ripping the roof off and destorying all the contents.

It’s almost impossible to imagine the unremitting power of a Category 4 hurricane. Times two. Hitting the U.S. mainland within 16 days of each other.

“The gales come from every direction, pushing the rain sideways, upwards. It feels like entering a drive-through car wash” that’s already started its cycle. That’s how Time magazine’s Haley Sweetland Edwards described the roaring arrival of Hurricane Irma in Florida on Sept. 10.

“The air starts to growl,” she wrote. “The sound is gravelly and thick, like a swarm of Harleys revving their engines. … everything past a certain distance is a swirling, furious gray. There is no horizon. There is no difference between water and sky and earth.”

The Miami Herald’s Julie K. Smith wrote that, at one point in the storm, fisherman Mark Jones “feared he would be killed by the blades of his own windmill, which tore from its tower and sailed right past him.”

Similarly devastating descriptions came out of the Houston area after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas on Aug. 25.

So much pain. So many stories. Each disaster affects so many people, one family, one person at a time. And, as I wrote this column, three more tropical storms — Jose, Maria and Lee — were brewing in the Atlantic, with Hurricane Lee stirring up waters off the East Coast and Maria strengthening and taking aim at some of the same areas impacted by Irma.

Another veteran fisherman, his eyes filling with tears, told a reporter, “I said goodbye to everything,” including his boat. “It’s hard. It hurts.”

It’s one thing to react to photos and intense news coverage of the human suffering and despair from a monster hurricane or massive wildfire, and the war-zone-like, ghost-town devastation left behind by the natural disasters.

It’s something else entirely to see it in person or live through it yourself. Recovery takes so long!

I know. I’ve been there.

I still have vivid nightmares about horrible hurricanes during my childhood, with pounding, horizontal rain lashing at our windows, and the relentlessly howling winds of 100 mph-plus. I’m haunted by memories of wildfires I’ve covered as an adult reporter, and single-house fires … including the one that destroyed our own home.

So much damage and pain, and then, fortunately, so many caring people helping others.

Tragedy is a uniting force. We all want to help. We want to hug the victims, make it better, make it all go back to normal, now please.

Some of us can only send donations and prayers, but other people have the instinct, time, skill, strength and true grit to do more.

After Hurricane Harvey blasted Texas, retired Cambria fire captain Steve Bitto and his Fire Management Consultant associate Phil Queen headed to Houston to add their paramedic and ocean-rescue expertise to the waves of other skilled helpers who were already in the hurricane-demolished areas. After volunteering, the men were activated by Global Outreach Doctors USA and assigned to the drone division to assist with search-and-rescue operations.

Bitto and Queen deployed to Houston on Sept. 1. Towing Bitto’s boat, they completed the 1,800-mile trip in 2.5 days.

The two men know well how to safely pull people out of raging waters and other hazardous spots — in fact, they teach those skills to all kinds of first responders.

Bitto, who retired almost two years ago, messaged me before they left, saying, “It feels good to get my juices flowing and to be able to use my skills and knowledge that took years to acquire.”

By the time they arrived in Houston, much of the water had receded somewhat, but Bitto and Queen were able to help victims salvage soggy belongings. They searched to locate isolated people who still needed assistance and/or relocation.

In poorer neighborhoods, the two men helped with “some diabetic problems, massive debris piles, elderly folks working so hard to tear out sheetrock. That was worth the trip right there,” Bitto said, adding that things already “were really starting to reek.”

As for government assistance, he said, “They told us, ‘We haven’t seen anybody yet.’” Official response appeared to be very different in wealthier neighborhoods, he added.

Where the population was mostly Hispanic, “they were scared to talk to anybody, scared they were going to be deported, even as they were under 4 to 12 feet of water.”

Somehow, Bitto and Queen were able to bridge that acceptance gap, and the refugees accepted their help.

At times like this, we all want to lend a hand, and when we can’t do that in person, we’re profoundly grateful to the people who can.

Thanks, guys.

Hurricane help and info

Yes, I’ve lived through and covered violent storms on the North Coast, among them the windstorms that felled hundreds, even more than a thousand, trees in Cambria, and floods, such as the 1995 deluge that buried West Village under 8 to 12 feet of water. Those storms were truly awful, too … but they weren’t hurricanes.

For more on how to help hurricane victims, go to

For more on hurricanes, go to