Last week the news stations began to warn us that a hurricane was on its way. For the last 41 years I’ve lived through more than a few hurricanes that ended up causing less damage than the typical afternoon rainstorm. But, with Hurricane Harvey devastating Houston just last month, many of us seasoned Floridians took Hurricane Irma’s threat a little more seriously than we normally would.
By last Tuesday, every store in my area was completely sold out of bottled water. By Wednesday, gas stations had run out of gas. By Thursday, you couldn’t find a can of Vienna sausages or deviled ham (the staple nonperishable diet for any Cuban household). Plywood was nowhere to be found. The weather models showed the storm making landfall as a Cat 4 or 5, and possibly still being a Cat 3 by the time it reached the Tampa area. The news was reporting Irma’s record-breaking size and intensity. Friends were posting side-by-side images showing Irma’s size in comparison to Hurricane Andrew which wrecked Miami in 1992.
I’m not gonna lie, I didn’t sleep for days. I was totally unprepared. My windows were not boarded up, I only had 1 gallon of bottled water and had resorted to carefully washing out and refilling old juice containers from my recycling bin with water, and filling gallon Ziplock bags with ice so that my ice maker could continue to fill. I was able to fill up my car’s gas tank (by a stroke of luck on Thursday morning), and made 4 trips to the grocery store where I proceeded to stock my pantry with peanut butter, crackers, tuna fish, as well as cans of soups and weird veggies that I only ever buy when testing out Thanksgiving casserole recipes.
As a GC, my husband was responsible for boarding up and securing all of his projects, so he wasn’t home until after 9 p.m. each night. On Saturday morning, with the Hurricane less than 48 hours away and no plywood or corrugated metal left, I ended up tacking comforters to the inside of our windows in the hopes that it would prevent shards of glass from murdering us during the storm. That same day, my sister was evacuated from her home, and she and my niece came to stay with us at our potential death-trap glass house.
By this point, my nerves were shot.
Earlier this summer, there were brush fires in my county and I had collected our important papers, jewelry, yearbooks, and photo albums in case we needed to evacuate. I just put them all back a couple of weeks before Irma, and I couldn’t get myself to go around collecting it all again. Part of me was worried we’d lose our memories forever, and another part kept saying “things are just things, as long as we are safe we can make new memories.”
So, for the next day and a half, we all sat in front of the t.v., flipping back and forth between Netflix and the local news. We kept our phones charged and cooked all of our meat in preparation for the inevitable loss of power. We ate a ton of chips and drank sodas and wine to preserve our precious water supply (yeah, that’s why). We stepped outside to feel the wind for about 15 seconds.
Sunday evening the winds picked up. Irma had made landfall in the Florida Keys as a Cat 4 and then again in Marco Island as a Cat 3. It began to look promising that the winds would slow significantly before reaching the Tampa Bay area. While my sister, niece, and daughter planned to play cards and stay up for the storm, my body started breaking down. I hadn’t slept at all the night before, and very little throughout the week. I’d had a couple of glasses of Target’s new $5 California Roots Wine (the red blend is awesome, btw) that I discovered in my search for hurricane supplies, and my eyes wouldn’t stay open.
My step-dad (who is visually impaired) asked to sleep on the sofa in front of the t.v. so he could be near a restroom. And, since he was ready for bed, we all ended up retreating to our rooms. I’d set up a inflatable mattress in my room for my kids, and once they (and our doggies) were safely tucked in, I shut the door and prayed that we’d all make it safely through the night. Within 5 minutes I was out like a light. When I finally woke up in the morning, the storm had passed – I slept through the entire thing.
Irma was a Cat 1 by the time it reached my house. My sister said the wind sounded like the world was coming to an end. Imagine if we’d gotten the Cat 3 we’d been expecting! We were lucky to only sustain a ripped screen in our pool enclosure and some lost mulch. Miraculously, we still had electricity. My sister and I drove to her house once the curfew was lifted, and she, too, had very little damage (a fallen fence in her backyard) and also had power, but trees and branches were down all around her neighborhood. Some people have complained about the media hyping up the storm, but the potential for extreme damage was real. Most of us in the Tampa Bay area just got very, very lucky.
South Florida took the brunt of the hit. ABC News reported that 90% of homes in the Florida Keys suffered damage and 65% suffered major damage. 12 people have reportedly died in our state as a result of the storm, according to CNN.
A lot of my friends are still without power today. Some lost roof shingles or trees. Many of those who evacuated from the state are still trying to get home. There is very little food at the grocery store, gas is scarce, and the few restaurants that are open have limited menus as everyone waits for deliveries. Many traffic lights are still not operational, and police are actively patrolling neighborhoods without power overnight. There have been a few reports of looting, burglary, and even people dressed as utility workers robbing homeowners at gunpoint. Just yesterday I saw a caravan of military vehicles driving down SR 54.
The kids are out of school for the whole week. Schools were used as shelters for thousands of people and pets, and now hazmat crews are sanitizing the buildings. Some schools have no power, and one local elementary school that was not used as a shelter went up in flames shortly after its power was restored. (I should note that the school was named Robert E. Lee Elementary, and was most recently known as Lee Elementary Magnet School of World Studies and Technology. Although there is speculation that the name of the school had something to do with the fire, Tampa Fire Rescue spokesman Jason Penny told the Tampa Bay Times that the fire did not appear to be suspicious, but the investigation had not yet started.)
As I sit back and think of how lucky we got this time, I wonder how I could possibly organize my home in a way that if we had to evacuate, all of our irreplaceable items and important papers can be easily scooped up and packed in the car. Preparing for a hurricane is stressful, time-consuming, and expensive. Even more so if you have to evacuate, and especially if your property sustains damage. Double that stress if you have pets, or care for sick, elderly, or disabled persons. No, you can’t always just pick up and drive out of the state, especially when gas may not be available for you to complete your journey or to come back home. You don’t always have access to the materials needed to protect your home, which makes it that much scarier to leave it behind. I saw this post this morning and it sums up how most Floridians feel right about now:
And, in case you didn’t know, there are still 11 weeks left of hurricane season.