Fish Show That Almost Wasn’t, Part 1

Diluvial-like thunderstorms cause major travel headaches for many attending the American Cichlid Association Convention fish show in Milwaukee.

It seemed pretty straightforward. Catch a flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Minneapolis (MSP), make a 50-minute connecting flight to Milwaukee and take a shuttle west from General Mitchell International Airport (ZML) to the Olympia Resort at Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, where the 2010 American Cichlid Association Conference (more events>>) was being hosted by the Milwaukee Aquarium Society (more societies and clubs>>). What could possibly go wrong?

The longest leg of the flight from LAX to MSP was uneventful and actually pretty smooth considering the potential for mid-summer thunderstorms to boil up anywhere along the flight path.

Scenic Route
Once I deplaned from the initial LAX-MSP leg of my flight, I high-tailed it to the gate of my connecting flight. Boarding had started, but I still had time so I chillaxed some. A voice announced, “Now boarding rows blah, blah, blah” – time to get.

Once airborne we were informed that the flight to Milwaukee would take roughly 50 minutes – I could practically smell the cichlids. The Milwaukee Aquarium Society’s “Cichlid Fest” (aka the 2010 ACA Convention) was within my grasp.

Unbeknownst to the passengers of Flight 2801, at the very time our Airbus A319 was at cruising altitude, Milwaukee was being assailed by an evil, wedge-shaped (so said Weather Channel Doppler radar), coalescence of thunderstorms extending from Milwaukee back west to the middle of Iowa. As I looked out of the plane window I could see the lights of Milwaukee below and the city-illuminated storm clouds all around with the occasional lightning bolt sparking from one cloud to the next at or below wing level. Just then, in a calm voice, the first officer explained that the tower at ZML had been evacuated because of possible tornadic activity and that our flight had been waved on to Grand Rapids, Michigan (GRR), on the opposite side of Lake Michigan plus another 40 miles or so into the interior of the Lower Peninsula.

In Grand Rapids, everyone remained on the plane for about 30 minutes before the captain eventually let everyone off and into the spartan terminal. It was here that everyone was treated to the Weather Channel’s red-, yellow- and green-colored wedge image of the storm that had been bedeviling us. The thin part of the wedge began about 400 miles further west in central Iowa and extended northeast to Milwaukee, where the thick end was creating mayhem on the ground. The red-colored parts of the Weather Channel image indicated the most intense rainfall amounts, and these cells were tracking right across the Milwaukee metropolitan area.

Everyone was called back on board after about 30 minutes. The captain got on the intercom and let everyone know that we’d be flying back to Minneapolis, as ZML was now completely flooded with runways under as much as 2 feet of water.

Hundred-Year Storm; Cichlids Forsaken
The Sunday, July 25, 2010, issue of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel made reference to the storm being a 100-year event while the local planning commission said it was more like a 500-year storm, in some localized areas.

A week after the deluge, the numbers were stupefying. Estimates of total damages from the “Brew City Flood” stood at $46.5 million dollars, 18,000 homes with some flood damage (ruined carpets to cavernous holes where front yards and basements once were), 15 homes completely condemned, a giant sinkhole (30 by 30 by 20 feet deep) swallowed a Cadillac Escalade, 12,000 cleanup kits distributed, 80 percent of one local high school flood-damaged and a multitude of cars damaged or totaled. One northern Milwaukee neighborhood was inundated with 4 inches of rainfall in less than an hour; the greatest rainfall total from the storm was 7.17 inches at one location. Mitchell Airport received a total of 5.79 inches when skies finally cleared. The heaviest amount of rainfall ever recorded at ZML was 6.81 inches on August 6, 1986.  

Once we got back up in the air, the ride seemed smoother but longer than the initial MSP-GRR flight. That’s because it was. Rather than fly directly into the belly of the beast, our pilot skirted the southern edge of the massive front and by doing so was forced into a roundabout route south into Illinois and Iowa and then back north to MSP.

White Knuckler
Being the backseat pilot that I am, I immediately began to question the wisdom of flying back into a storm (we skirted its southern edge, actually, but I didn’t know that) that had just shut down a major metropolitan airport. But what do I know – seat 20F.

Once up in the air the flight was smooth as silk. I buried my head in The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America and sat tight until we landed at MSP for the second time that day. Because of the monkey wrenches in my ACA travel plans and downtime at airports, on planes, etc. I polished off 250 pages of Douglas Brinkley’s 817-page Rooseveltian tribute.

While enjoying my book I kept catching a glimpse of flashes of light outside the window and in the general position of the wing. No big deal – just the running lights. Well, not exactly. The flashes were continuous bolts of lightning along about a 100-mile-long storm front. The towering storm clouds were continually lit up like a slot machine that’s just hit jackpot. I witnessed lightning bolts emanating from the cloud tops, at or above the level of plane (more than 30,000 feet), striking the ground with quadruple-wide bolts and immediately turning to daylight the verdant farmland with its two-lane roads, quaint farmhouses and outbuildings. There were big explosive flashes of cloud-top ball lightning and horizontal mad-scientist lightning jumping between clouds. In my nearly, 50 years I’d never seen any electrical storm that even remotely compared, and I was flying right next to this one – oh, lucky me.

When I commented to seat 20E, “Check out the lightning” – she incredulously replied, “That’s not lightning. That’s the airplane wing.” I reminded her that I had the catbird seat and had been transfixed by the mondo electrical storm for 15 minutes before awakening her well-honed weather acumen. Seat 20D chimed in with “That’s quite the light show!”

Low-level panic began to flood my person. “Should the pilot be flying through this?” No answers were forthcoming. I thought to myself, “Usually the seven horsemen of the apocalypse come looking for you, not the other way around.” I even mentally fictionalized an evening newscast: “This just in: Flight 2801 …”

Eventually, we landed back at MSP, where we got in line for hotel vouchers and reissued tickets for the next day. It was about midnight when I finally got my vouchers and reissued ticket. It was about 1:30 when I checked in to the hotel, 2:00 when I ordered a plate of ribs and 3 a.m. when I finally hit the pillow.

Friday dawned clear and bright. And I got back to MSP with plenty of time to spare, only to find that ZML was still flooded out and wouldn’t be opened until 2 p.m. My “fictional” flight number never even made it on the screen. The airline told us to sit tight as they chartered buses for Milwaukee-bound passengers. Eventually, we boarded buses and some six hours later were deposited at ZML, only about 24 hours after our originally scheduled arrival time.

Salvage Operation
By the time I presented myself at the ACA registration table, I’d missed half of the ACA Convention, but I still had all day Saturday and made the best of it. For anyone who loves fish, the ACA is definitely one of the best shows to attend, as there were hundreds of freshwater fish on display and for sale. There were freshwater stingrays, neon tetras, plecos, every kind of South American and African Rift Lake cichlid imaginable, discus, angelfish and many others.

On my return trip I was talking to an elderly woman about my recent travails, and she had mentioned how she was once bumped from a flight only to learn later that the flight she was suppose to be on had gone down. There are good stories and there are tragic travel stories – I’d prefer to stick with the former. Inconveniences aside, the pilots, flight crew and air traffic controllers did their jobs keeping us out of harm’s way, I made it to ACA and had a good time and found some new writers, who will hopefully debut in some future issue of Aquarium Fish International.

See part 2 of “A Fish Show That Almost Wasn’t” in the next installment of “Ebb and Flow,” and I’ll share with you a slide show and a video presentation of the 2010 Cichlid Fest.


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