A reporter looks for sandbags and finds…

I wonder if hurricanes can blow facts the way they can blow houses — if the wind bends and whips reality as much as it does tree branches.

I was forced to wonder this Saturday, when I was sent out to report on Hurricane Irene. The D.C. government was supposedly handing out sandbags at RFK Stadium, so thither I dutifully went, unfortunately attired in a skirt and flats. I got very wet.

After a walk from the Metro through the rain (with a brief detour to get lost), I arrived at the soccer stadium and was impressed by its size. A couple holding hands arrived about the same time I did; I asked if they were looking for sandbags. They seemed confused, and said they were there for the game, which showed they were really confused. It was obviously canceled. They headed clockwise round the stadium to search for a refund, while I went counterclockwise. There were no signs for these supposed sandbags. How very frustrating, I thought. Maybe I’ll report on that — no signs.

I found an unlocked door, and went through it to find some kind of administrative office. No one was there. I descended some stairs and found myself in a concrete tunnel below the stadium — cavernous and dank. I found another unlocked door and entered a white tunnel that led to various rooms. I walked past the press room, the locker room, the visitor’s locker room, the manager’s office, the laundry room, etc. Some of these I poked my head in. Absolutely no living being in sight.

I walked out the players’ tunnel to the field. Rain and wet everywhere, but no sandbags. I caught sight of the couple holding hands and shouted to them that the tunnels were open if they wanted to go see them.

I crossed the field, climbed a staircase and then walked various ramps and tunnels, still finding no one. It began to feel a bit like a horror movie. I was expecting a giant soggy spider to come up behind me any minute.

I finally figured out, after texting a friend, that I should call the city’s information line, 311, and ask where the sandbags were. The lady on the phone told me Parking Lot 7. That was all well and good, but I still had no idea where Parking Lot 7 was. The only maps in the place didn’t show the parking lots.

After wandering around for another 15 minutes in a vain attempt to find an exit to Lot 7, I finally ran into a real, live human being. He was young and strong and looked like a soccer player. Maybe he was famous. It didn’t really matter — he wasn’t very nice. He didn’t know where Lot 7 was, and he hastily drove off through the tunnel in his white SUV.

A while later I made it to the outside of the stadium. I started walking counterclockwise again and then I saw it: a white van. With some kind of official seal on the side. I ran up to the van and found a very nice woman in a yellow rain slicker inside. She told me to keep going counterclockwise to find the sandbags.

The next person I found was wearing a red raincoat, standing next to a red Radio Flyer wagon. It had sandbags in it. This was a good sign. I stopped to talk to her, and she told me the nicest little story — one of those pieces of “good news” our grandmothers are always saying the media should talk about more. Her car’s brakes were bad, so she had wheeled a cart on the Metro to RFK to pick up sandbags. But after haggling with the officials who wouldn’t give her sandbags at first because she didn’t have a car, the wheel broke on her cart. She was about to give up and just let her Georgetown basement get flooded, when a complete stranger — an elderly man—  walked up and offered her his red Radio Flyer wagon. He, too, had come on foot, but he thought she needed the wagon more than he did. “He was just going to give it to me!” she told me, astonished. She promised to return it to him; he said that would be nice because it was his granddaughter’s.I thanked the woman for her story, and we parted ways. I headed in the direction she had come from, determined to find these sandbags and the people clamoring for them.

And here’s where reality begins to muddle.

Because in only 5 short minutes (I estimated I was on the opposite side of the huge stadium from where I had entered) I was back to where I started, where I first met the couple holding hands. This confused me. It confused me even more when I saw the woman in the red rain coat trudging up a nearby sidewalk with her wagon. We had gone in opposite directions. There was no possible way we could have met each other again in so short a time. To top it off, there was the couple holding hands, running into the woman with the red wagon and exchanging pleasantries.

I set my confusion aside in my determination to find the elusive sandbags. I called 311 again. Where is Lot 7?, I asked.
-Lot 7?, said the man.
-You know, the place where they’re giving out sandbags at RFK?, I said.
-They’re not giving out sandbags at RFK, ma’am, he said.
-Oh yes they are. I just met a woman with some, I said.
-No, they’re only giving out sandbags at the department of public works.

Again, the wind had swept away reality — or at least seriously rattled someone’s wits.

I made one last foray on my sandbag quest, determined to get to the bottom of this. I found a man in a booth guarding an entrance to the stadium. He, like the woman in the van, had a yellow slicker.
-Where are they handing out sandbags?, I asked.
-Oh, darlin’, they moved that over the highway. To Oklahoma and….
Somewhere I could not walk.

At this point, I gave up, uncertain whether these sandbags ever existed, whether the woman in the red raincoat was just a figment of my imagination (though she couldn’t have been, because I took a picture), and wet and tired from all that pointless wandering.

I got back to the office, and there, on the flat screen TV, was an NBC reporter, surrounded by people hauling sandbags. At RFK Stadium.

Oh Irene! Oh Lot 7! You are such stuff as dreams are made on — I guess.

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