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Sara’s Diary, Day 70 without baseball: Emergency travel

How we travel has radically shifted in the pandemic

Airports Across Country See Dramatic Slowdown Over Coronavirus Impacts On Travel
A nearly empty terminal at O’Hare in April
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Between Thursday and Sunday in Chicago more than eight inches of rain fell on the metro area. Midway through the month we were already on the cusp of the wettest May ever according to the Chicago Tribune:

Several reached the damaging major flood stage. More than 8 inches of rain fell from Thursday through Sunday in the Chicago area, according to the National Weather Service, putting this May on the cusp of becoming the wettest ever on record for the city.

The deluge led the Chicago River to swell to its highest level in more than 60 years, swamping the downtown Riverwalk. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District was forced to temporarily reverse the flow of the Chicago River both downtown and in Wilmette, sending even more water into Lake Michigan, which already is near record-high levels.

In Wrigleyville there was a decent amount of standing water on Monday and Tuesday, but aside from making me stir crazy my apartment building was relatively unaffected. That was not true across the city. These videos of the Chicago River flooding into the River City garage on Sunday evening were stunning:

One of our longtime BCB members and frequent commenters who lives at River City is Chris Dobbertean. Chris found himself in a remarkable predicament Sunday night 10 minutes before the last episode of “The Last Dance” started when the power went out in his building. He spent about 30 minutes yesterday telling me his personal story of what happens when a natural disaster hits in the middle of a pandemic.

River City has been arguing with the city of Chicago since the last time they were flooded in 2010 that they need a higher sea wall to protect against extreme surges of the river. The city didn’t install that sea wall, and honestly, this video from 2010 doesn’t look that different from the tweet I posted above:

The problem for River City is that their parking garage and electrical room are under water. So even though these events happen rarely, when they happen they are catastrophic. In Chris’ case, as he saw lights coming back on around the neighborhood he got news that their building was evacuating. Originally he was packing for two to four days, then he heard that all of the cars in the parking garage were submerged and that the last time the river flooded the building was evacuated for a month.

I’m going to pause here because needing to leave your home on a moment’s notice for an unspecified amount of time is a stressful under the best of circumstances. In a pandemic where everyone is on a stay at home order it is beyond an adventure. Facing the prospect of multiple weeks out of his home Chris logged into the Southwest app and decided it was time to risk a flight to his parents’ home in Tampa to ensure he had a roof over his head.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell any of you this was not an easy decision on Chris’ part. He felt relatively safe given his adherence to the stay at home order, but travel was about to throw a wrench into all of that. How exactly can one travel to be with family? Like Chris, my parents have expressed a desire that I figure out a way to spend time at home this year too, but age, pre-existing conditions and travel all impacted that decision. However, on Sunday night, he had no other options, so he headed to a Hyatt Place by Midway and let the adventure of air travel in a pandemic begin.

For his particular journey Chris said the shuttle to the airport from the hotel was probably the most stressful part. An older couple got on the shuttle without masks. Even though almost everyone else he saw had a mask on throughout the trip, that was enough to give him pause. I could tell he was still worried about it three days later when we spoke.

People were social distancing at baggage check-in and attempting to social distance at airport security. As you can imagine there weren’t a ton of people checking in, but it turns out those little markers on the floor make a big difference. The distance between people in line was a lot more consistent with them.

At security they scanned his ID and asked him to briefly pull his mask down. Everything else was the same, well, at least until he got through security.

Midway was a ghost town. All of the restaurants and shops were closed on concourse B. When Chris walked over to concourse A, the lone store was packed with people, which was enough of a turn off that he turned around and walked back to his gate without food. It turns out food and beverage service on the flight was also suspended, which meant a long day without food for Chris. The first lesson of traveling in a pandemic: bring your own food with you to the airport, particularly if you’re on a long flight.

One of the things Southwest did to ease the minds of their passengers was announcing the number of people and rows well before anyone started to board. There were 56 people and Chris’ dog Bella on the flight, which meant everyone had a row to themselves. People were social distanced in line and with the exception of a man with a persistent cough behind him, Chris said the flight was relatively uneventful.

It was easy enough to navigate baggage claim in a socially distanced way, but getting a months worth of luggage and a dog outside was another issue entirely. Chris managed, but said it was difficult, and then there was the moment he saw his parents at the airport. There were no hugs, there was no assistance with luggage even though Chris was struggling. He couldn’t risk infecting his parents. He put his stuff in the trunk alone, sat in the car with his parents with a mask on, and continued home. They’ve had no physical contact since Monday.

This one really stuck with me because every year when I go home the ritual is the same - my father gets out of the car, helps me with my bag and gives me the world’s biggest dad hug. I’ve spent so much time lately wondering if I’d even be able to get home at all in the next year that it hadn’t yet dawned on me that there may not be hugs even if I figured out a way to get there.

Chris made it home safe and sound. He was about to eat pizza with his parents when we talked Wednesday night and I imagine they are counting the days until they know they are all beyond the risk of a coronavirus infection. It turns out natural disasters and emergencies don’t hit pause during a pandemic, they just become a lot more difficult to navigate.