Hurricane Irma from the Inside

Some of you may know, but most of you probably do not, that I live on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The city of Venice is about an hour south of Tampa, and home to some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. It’s mostly full of old people, but I’ve made a few friends here who have school-age children like mine. How I ended up here is a long, sad story, and maybe I’ll tell that one sometime, too. But not today.

It was about this time last week that we first heard that Irma was building up in the Atlantic, that she was the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the region, and that she was headed straight for us. I had really hoped we would escape hurricanes entirely this year, but as I learned later, hurricanes in this part of the world are less a matter of “if” but “when”.

One of the very good things about being a freelancer is the ability to move your workload around, so that’s what I did. Planning to spend the latter half of the week preparing the house and possibly losing power, I did five days of work in three days. I barely slept, and it was hard work. My voice sounded like I’d been gargling gravel by the time I was done. As late as Thursday evening, after spending a long day putting up storm shutters and checking off all the items on our Red Cross emergency checklist, I spent the evening recording pickups and resubmitting work. It was Friday before I was able to finally put my foot down and tell my clients that I couldn’t do any more until after Irma had passed.

Friday was the strangest day, actually. We had no way of knowing what Irma would do, so most people in our neighborhood put up their shutters on Thursday. In fact…let me back up…

Being in a hurricane is not like what they tell you on television. If you believe the national nightly news, we all either huddled in our bedrooms while our rooves were ripped off our houses, or we were on the road, trying to leave the state with no gas, no supplies and endless gridlock. In actuality, in my reasonably well-to-do, modern subdevelopment, the majority of families stayed here. We had a group text going, trying to keep up with who was staying so we knew who to check in on after the storm, and we went around the neighborhood helping each other put up the storm shutters. There was a shortage of wingnuts at one point, and I heard one story of a homeowner having their wingnuts stolen off their shutters in the dead of night.

But back to Friday…Friday’s weather was perfect. Ahead of the storm, the pressure was high, the skies were clear, and it was warm. School was cancelled, and to stave off the boredom, I took my children to the pool. You’d be surprised at how many people were there. Children playing in the water, while their parents stared at their phones, looking for updates on the hurricane. They’d taken all the pool chairs in, so it was beach towels on the ground…and trying to avoid the ants. It was while at the pool that I heard that flood zone A had been issued with a mandatory evacuation order, and I scrambled to find out what zone I was in. Zone B, if you’re wondering, and no, we didn’t have to evacuate.

At that point, all the prep was done and we were just waiting. So I put my phone down and tried to enjoy the afternoon as best I could. We left the pool when the skies started to darken ahead of a thunderstorm. Not Irma, but one of the regular afternoon thunderstorms common this time of year.

Back at home, the house was dark from the shutters being up, despite the blazing sun. We FaceTimed family members around the world…you know, just in case. I vacuumed and swept, and cleaned the bathroom. And then bed.

Saturday was the day of cooking. I’m staying with my parents, so my dad cooked a lasagna, and I cooked a cauliflower cheese, knowing we could eat both of them for days without power. We cooked all the frozen veg we had, and anything in the freezer that we’d lose if the power went out. We filled every receptacle we could with drinking water – one gallon per person per day, for at least three days, at the suggestion of the Red Cross. My dad made pots of coffee and stored it in travel mugs.

We were too keyed up to concentrate on much, so the kids put on The Lord of the Rings. When the movie was done, we all had baths, since we weren’t sure when we’d be able to bathe again. I filled the bathtub with water in case the water got shut off…and went to bed.

Believe it or not, the kids managed to make it the rest of the way through the Lord of the Rings trilogy on Sunday morning. Now here’s where I got to be the child. For the 35th Anniversary of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Fandango Events put on special screenings of the film in selected cinemas on two days only: September 10th and September 13th. I’d planned to go on the 10th and Irma seriously put a dent in that. So after the Lord of the Rings was finished, I commandeered the Xbox and put on The Wrath of Khan. The power went out shortly after Kirk gave the order to transmit the prefix code.

The rest of Sunday was us gathered around the kitchen table, glued to our battery-powered radio, listening to the latest storm updates. We entertained ourselves by periodically remarking on how far the pressure had dropped, as indicated by the old-fashioned barometer my dad and stepmom had picked up at Goodwill. The lowest it got was 972 millibars. Extremely low for a normal day, but well above the lowest pressure at Irma’s eye, around 930 millibars.

The wind whistled through the odd gap in the shutters, and the occasional gust of wind made each of us tense. But we felt safe, and around 10 o’clock, we all made our way to bed. The kids slept with me, and the sweaty, stiff sleep, hanging half off the edge so I didn’t suffocate my youngest – that ended up being the worst part of the storm.

Monday morning I woke up to the low rumble of a generator next door. Irma was all but gone. The sun was shining, and while the wind was blowing, it was clear that the hurricane had passed over us. We learned later that pretty much as soon as she made landfall, an hour or so south of us, her southwest quadrant destabilized, and by the time she reached us, she’d been downgraded to a category 2. We slept through the whole thing.

Breakfast and cold coffee were served with still no power. I went outside to survey the damage, while my dad and stepmom went to the store to find ice. The ice was a no-go, as was the damage, really. A few downed palm fronds and a few ripped lanai panels was the worst of it. The relatively deafening noise of a half-dozen petrol generators was louder than the wind ever got.

By 6 o’clock on Monday evening, the power was back on, we never lost water, and except for some spoiled food and the fact that all the computers were up on shelves, we were more or less back to normal. Even as I record this, I barely remember it happening at all. I heard someone say on the news that that’s the most dangerous part of a hurricane like this…by the time it’s done, you barely remember, and are less likely to prepare properly the next time. All I can say is: I’m grateful that we really didn’t have to use anything we prepared, and you can bet your butt I’ll do the same prep again. Irma was an unprecedented storm, and like I said before, it’s a matter of “when” not “if” we’ll have another one.

My dad says that everyone in Florida has a hurricane story…I guess now I’ve got mine.

Now, before I sign off, I want to point out something very important: I am extremely privileged to live in a modern house that is, generally, built to withstand hurricanes. We still have to take precautions but the house itself, and the neighbourhood I live in, are incredibly safe. Many, MANY people down here do not have that privilege, and in places like the Keys where the storm hit much worse, they will have weeks, if not months or years, of cleanup and restoration to do. If you can, please consider contributing to a reputable charity like the American Red Cross, to aid their efforts. And please, PLEASE, in your next local or even national election, vote for candidates who take climate change seriously, and who are committed to looking after our poorest members of society, who cannot help themselves after a natural disaster like this.