By E. Adam Porter
Editor, News of Sun City Center
On September 10, Hurricane Irma stormed ashore in Florida. Twice. The storm battered the Keys, slipped back out over the Gulf and made a second landfall near Marco Island, before continuing up the coast. As the monster cyclone bounded up the Florida peninsula it lost steam, but continued to suck water up out of bays and estuaries.
What goes up, must come down… and those of us on the rivers of central Florida knew what was coming. I bundled my wife, kids, pets, a bunch of water and other necessities into our truck and headed for higher ground. The next morning, as my family was safely “hunkered down” with relatives at “the farm,” I headed to the river house to assess the damage.
I couldn’t get there.
Trees and downed power poles blocked access. Looking through my camera’s zoom lens from two houses away, I could see my little jon boat floating in my yard. Couldn’t see the four-foot chain link fence lining my property. The neighbors on either side had also evacuated. Of the three of us, my family was the most fortunate. Just a garage and workshop on the first floor. No living space.
Living on the river, we know it’s not the storm that gets you. It’s the crest two days later. Our back yard is elevated nine feet over the typical high-tide line. At its crest, water was over four feet high in the yard. The numbers were, literally, historic, and it caught many people — even seasoned meteorologists — by surprise. A Cat 1 moving fairly quickly isn’t supposed to push that much water. But Mother Nature doesn’t much care for what we figure she’s supposed to do.
For us, and millions of others, the next week was a blur. Helping neighbors, talking to FEMA and insurance companies, and waiting… waiting… waiting… for the water to recede. Finally, the water returned to its standard confines between the freshly eroded riverbanks.
My family returned home.
Power was restored. Poles are back up, but that tree is still down. The kids love it. Internet company replaced the flooded box, so we’re officially back in the 21st Century. As I write this, I have one more truck load of ruined stuff to haul to the dump. Finished yard cleanup yesterday. Hot water heater will be up and running by lunchtime. Time to shift our efforts to helping the neighbors deal with their ongoing nightmare.
The boys rescued a river turtle who swam in but couldn’t swim out. We named her “Irma.”
Looking back, with all the thoughts and emotions still fresh, I’m trying to reflect on what the hurricane taught me … or, at least, reminded me.
Storms like this take as much a toll on your mind as they do on your property. In our era of constant information bombardment, we have passed the tipping point between not knowing enough and getting way too much. So many were glued to their TVs and smartphones for days before the storm came that panic started setting in days before we even knew where Irma would land.
That ongoing, relentless stress takes a toll. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic say stress can manifest as physical pain and lead to fatigue, sleeplessness, restlessness, anger, depression and lack of focus. If we’re making a list of Things We Don’t Want leading up to a major catastrophe, it’s safe to assume those would be on just about everyone’s list.
The storm also reminded me what was really important. When thinking about evacuating, my Old Islander brain kicked into gear, and I made the Standard Bug Out List. First, pack the wife and kids. Then the pets. Then the Important Documents That Prove Who We Are. From there, it’s an exercise in priorities versus What Fits In The Truck.
Once the truck was packed with one wife, two boys, two dogs, a cat and a fish, plus our waterproof container of important papers, we filled the bed with food, water and other necessities for about a week. We thought we might be able to go home after a day or two, but we weren’t certain. Turned out to be more than a week before we could return home. We didn’t know that at the time, but we packed enough peanut butter and other non perishables Just In Case. Rule #1 when evacuating: Show up at the refuge with enough to share.
As for the rest of our stuff, if you walked into our home after we evacuated, it would be easy to see where things landed on our priority chart. Was it locked in a closet, in bins in the living room, under tarps or just stuck in a cabinet? Maybe that “stuck in a cabinet” stuff could be tossed out, but that’s a question for another day … a question my bride will be answering. If nearly 20 years of wedded bliss taught me one thing, it’s when to keep my yap shut.
The storm also realigned my priorities in other ways. Playing games with the kids. Snuggling on the couch watching a movie when the power came back on at our relatives’ house. The joy of looking at the stars while taking the dogs for a walk at night.
The storm showed me, once again, the quality of my friends. Everyone I called to see how we could help was already out helping someone else. They were delivering water or generators, taking supplies to shelters, checking on neighbors, friends and strangers … showing up to help friends clean up their yards or offering someplace to take a warm shower or enjoy a hot meal not out of a can.
In the end, for me, the best lesson is one captured in a song Jimmy Buffett recorded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The song is Breathe In, Breathe Out, Move On, and it contains this lyric: “If the hurricane doesn’t leave you dead, it will make you strong…”
Strong for yourself. For your family, friends and neighbors. Even when you’re exhausted, physically and emotionally, you just keep breathing … and help wherever you can. When you don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and Everything That Really Matters fits in a pickup truck, it tends to focus your perspective.
Today I’m also thinking about finishing another issue of The News of Sun City Center, and I’m reminded of another reason why I appreciate this particular publication. The News celebrates a community of volunteerism, of neighbors helping neighbors. Our world needs more of that … and not just when the storms come.