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“How was your hurricane?”

Surviving Hurricane Irma in Orlando

After living through a hurricane, life plays out strangely. People are a little dazed and shell shocked. We’ve all gone a little crazy preparing and now we’re all going a little crazy in the aftermath. In my case, it was willing to risk driving across town with zero traffic lights to get a pizza from the one place serving food.

The store is packed with an hour long wait. Everyone is sharing stories about their damage. The question of the moment is, “do you have power?” The tables are all full. The beer is flowing.

We fought the weakened phone system and managed to get our pizza order called in. This allowed skipping to the front of the massive line, joining a group of proactive patrons waiting for their names to be called.

When the pizza is handed to me, I hand the cashier my credit card. Making small talk, she smiles and asks, “How was your hurricane?”. This question catches me off guard and causes me to laugh.

How do you answer such a thing?


Day One: Saturday, September 9

Things Can Be Replaced

Ever pack everything that means something to you into your car? Move anything somewhat valuable on top of tables in case of flooding? Dig three trenches around your back patio to mitigate water damage? This is what happens when preparing for a hurricane.

It’s a startling feeling, realizing that anything that means something can be packed into the car in about an hour. The rest of the house is just full of stuff. The things hold memories, but they are left behind without hesitation.

The essentials are packed: the dog, the turtle, a few items of clothing, deed to the house, some jewelry, passports, marriage license… everything else gets left behind. A few paintings are placed on a bed, furthest away from where water might come in. The TV is placed in the bathroom since it’s the sturdiest room. Everything else just stays where it is.

With the car packed, all that’s left is to flip all the breakers and turn off the water main. The house is quiet. Still. Effectively abandoned.

Our house is 30 years old and made of wood. My mother’s house is 60 years old and made of concrete. It’s an easy decision where we’ll ride out Irma. We unpack our few essential belongings into a spare bedroom, blow up an air mattress, and turn on the news.


Dinner and a Movie

The city is starting to shut down. Gas stations are empty. Restaurants are closed. My favorite Cuban place is taking orders until 5 pm. We order sandwiches and then pick up Grandmom. At this point, our gang’s all accounted for.

After cuban sandwiches, we look at the news. Irma’s impacts are starting to be felt down south. Wind and rain. Miami begins to brace for ground zero. Our local news begins their non-stop coverage of the storm.

There comes a point where you can only take in so much information before it becomes overwhelming. This is when a mental break becomes necessary. In our case, it was a viewing of Baywatch. Nothing says “take your mind off a potentially catastrophic hurricane” like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson making boy band references at Zac Efron’s expense.


Day Two: Sunday, September 10

Brunch

After surviving Hurricane Charley and living without power for eight days, my mom makes preparations for a similar situation. She cooks a large brunch spread and pre-cooks chicken for dinner. We dine and take in the latest news.

Irma has turned, but later than anticipated. Miami is no longer in the crosshairs, but south west Florida is instead. This puts us on the north-eastern side of the eye; the wrong side to be on. We watch and I start to wonder about an over correction — a turn that would bring Irma directly at us. This is exactly what happened with Charley, my wrist reminds me to breathe.

Throughout the storm, our local news and weathermen tirelessly report on the air (and, later, via their app and over the radio) as well as respond to everyone’s questions on Twitter. This went a very long way in providing information and easing fears. I ask about an overcorrection on Irma’s turn.


Landfall

Irma makes landfall in the Florida Keys. Due to the massive size, we start to get some rain — hundreds of miles away. News reports are sketchy coming out of the Keys, but we begin to see reports out of Miami and Naples who are now suffering from the outer bands. It’s not pretty.

For the afternoon distraction, we eat hot dogs and watch Hidden Figures. Wholesome. Kind. A movie and meal that provides a certain comfort. We know that our leisure time will run out soon.

The rain starts to pick up. So does the wind. While roads are mostly abandoned, the local news reports their van hydroplaned. Thankfully, we have nowhere to go and no desire to leave.


There Goes the Power

Irma has made landfall near Ft. Myers in south west Florida. The storm is huge and powerful and we start to feel it’s effects. Trees are blowing around. Rain is coming in sheets. We are glued to the news coverage.

The power flickers, but stays on. It’s only a matter of time now. We make sure we know where the flashlights are and enjoy a little ice cream. It’s the last chance before the freezer will stay shut to try and maintain it’s temperature.

Thirty minutes later, the power is gone. Lighting candles, we continue to watch the news coverage via their app. A decade ago, during Charley, once the power went out our only access to information was via the radio. Now there’s streaming video with radar and live communication via Twitter and Facebook. It’s a very different time indeed.


Hunkered

The winds pick up and there are rapid fire tornado warnings popping up all around us. Its time to activate the bunker. In this case, the bunker is an interior hallway with no windows. We close all the doors to the hallway and move a recliner in there for Grandmom. Add a dog bed, an air mattress, and a bean bag and you have one cramped but sturdy bunker.

The bunker is stocked with bottles of water, candles, and battery back ups for the radio and cell phone streaming the news. The possibility of Irma overcorrecting becomes even higher. At the very least, she won’t turn at all and continue moving north, putting the most dangerous and violent portion of the storm right on top of us. The question is when.

We settle in for a long night. My wife and the dogs somehow fall asleep. We can’t see outside, but we can occasionally hear a gust of wind that sounds like a freight train. The streaming newscast and radar help keep me sane.


Day Three: Monday, September 11

Here We Go

We cross over into Monday and things start to get really bad. I sneak out of the bunker around 1 am to take a peak out the window. I can see some branches down and the wind whipping around. I head back to the bunker. It doesn’t feel safe outside of the cramped hallway cocoon. I promptly return to the safe confines of the bean bag chair.

The eye of Irma is crawling towards us. As it does, it devolves from a circular eye to a wall of force nearly 75 miles wide. My fears are realized, she’s coming right for us.

The weathermen use their computers trying to predict exactly when we’ll experience the worst of it. At this point the reporting becomes a play-by-play like any sporting event. What we’re going to see, when we’re going to see it, and what to do while it’s coming.

Their estimations are spot on. The worst of it passes through around 2:30 in the morning. It’s loud, even in the interior bunker. It sounds like water is hitting the ceiling, which isn’t possible since there’s a roof above it. Right? At this point who knows. We wait.

Then, almost as quickly as the intensity began, the radar clears.

We quickly disperse from the bunker. After six hours, it has become very hot and cramped. The other rooms of the house are cooler and spacious. We spread out. Exhausted.

The winds are still gusting, but the threat of anything major has passed. I keep the radio on low but fall asleep. Hard.


Aftermath

The sun rises and so do we. There’s a nice breeze which makes sitting in the house with the windows open pleasant for this time of year. There are branches and leaves everywhere. The fence in the backyard is gone.

We dine on fruit and store pastries from the hurricane stash. Life without power has begun. We’re under a curfew until 6 pm so that crews can assess the city and make sure the roads are safe. I fall asleep on the couch.


Breaking Curfew

At some point, I’m awakened by a bulldozer coming through the neighborhood pushing branches and debris from the road. This is a hopeful sign for things to come.

We break curfew and take Grandmom back to her apartment. She lives a mile away and has power. On the ride there, I see trees down everywhere. Stop lights are out or completely missing. Power lines are on the ground.

For our second meal without power, we enjoy peanut butter and jelly. But only after we clean up the debris in the yard and pack up our essentials again. I break curfew again, this time to head home.

We have to take detours into our neighborhood due to flooded roads and downed trees. This doesn’t help the anxiety over the potential flooding in our own house or the 50-foot trees in our backyard.

As we approach our street, there are branches and debris everywhere. Thankfully though, we don’t see anything structural. There are fence panels here and there, but we don’t see anything major in the piles in front of houses.

Our neighbor has started clearing fallen branches from our front yard. Orlando is a pretty cool place. We enter the house with bated breath and discover… nothing. No water. No branches. There’s a few water spots from small leaks in the roof, but nothing major. The backyard is littered with tree limbs, but nothing hit the house. We were lucky.

After clearing the yard of debris and talking with our neighbors, who also survived Irma with minimal affects, I take one of the best cold showers of my life. Never underestimate the value of a cold shower after sweating for hours. We head back to my mother’s house to pick up the turtle and some of our non-perishable food supply.


How was your hurricane?

On our way home again, we set up a plan to sleep in the living room. It has the most windows and will provide the best cross-ventilation. The church I work at already has power and also has showers, so I plan to shower there in the morning. It will also be where our dog hangs out during the day to stay out of the heat.

Our plan set, we pick our way back into the neighborhood again. Only, the houses all have lights on. The power has been restored! We’re overjoyed. We don’t even know what to do with ourselves. We order a pizza.

When the pizza is handed to me, I hand the cashier my credit card. Making small talk, she smiles and asks, “How was your hurricane?”. This question catches me off guard and causes me to laugh.

The events of the last few days play out again in my head. I smile and simply respond, “It was a hurricane. How was yours?”