Irma, Michael, and Maria…and Dorian
A tale of four hurricanes
I didn’t use to be afraid of hurricanes. In fact, I usually welcomed them as an opportunity to miss school as a child. What Floridian kid doesn’t remember the fun of hurricane days in the summers of ’04 and ’05? When you’re not responsible for making any decisions, gathering supplies, or monitoring a storm’s progress, hurricane weather can be an exciting change of pace. Even as an adult, I rarely fretted hurricanes. “Wake me up if hits a Cat 3,” I would say. All Floridians know the irritation of watching a tropical storm become a major hurricane and are now obligated to care. It feels more inconvenient than anything.
In 2017, Hurricane Irma threatened Central Florida and disrupted my life significantly. It was my first major hurricane as an adult on my own. I was responsible for making the decision to stay or evacuate. As a social worker, I was also responsible for making sure my families were prepared for the storm. I scoured the city for water, flashlights, first aid kits, etc. Watching the local Winn-Dixie turn into the cornucopia from the Hunger Games was unsettling. I felt alone and insignificant. I decided to go to my home in the Panhandle if for no other reason than to be with my family. So I packed up and drove to Panama City. A drive that normally takes me 6 hours took me 12 and half hours. I wanted to avoid the interstate traffic, so I took a different way home. Because it was an unfamiliar route, I never exactly knew where I was. I was constantly worried about running out of gas, wondering if I could even find it if I needed it. It was hours of perpetual anxiety and uncertainty. I called my mom and my friends several times to help me navigate and to keep my spirits up. In the end, it was worth it to be home with my family and hometown friends, away from a city turned upside down by a storm.
I came out relatively unscathed but more aware about the harrowing conditions even an indirect hit from a hurricane can create. Little did I know that hurricane season 2017 still had more heartbreak in store.
Puerto Rico was already badly beaten from its own encounter with Irma. Recovery was minimal before Maria tagged into the ring. September 16, 2017, Cat 5 Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Dominica. For the Puerto Rican diaspora watching from the main land, it was like watching a train wreck. We knew it would be bad, but all we could do was wait. After the storm passed, we frantically called our loved ones on the island, trying to get through. And we waited. We gathered supplies and reached out to each other for support. And we waited. We looked at pictures online and anticipated developments regarding the extent of the damage. And we waited. We watched the President visit the island and throw paper towel rolls into a crowd. And we waited. We donated, we rallied, and we paid astronomical shipping fees to send supplies to our families. We mourned. And we waited.
I wept for weeks after Maria passed. It’s a grief that feels difficult to explain. No one in my family died. No one was injured or displaced. Nonetheless, my heart broke. Times were hard on the island before the storm. Puerto Rico was in debt $72 billion. Many doctors and other professionals had left the island, creating a phenomenon called “brain drain.” The economy was struggling, and government corruption led to strong mistrust towards political leaders. And to top it off, an already crumbling electrical grid was further compromised, leaving Puerto Ricans without power for months. I felt deeply for my island of origin. Too much. It was too much. I begged Jesus to have mercy on Puerto Rico. Maria revealed the inadequacy of Puerto Rico’s status as a commonwealth of the United States. Puerto Ricans can die for the U.S. in war but cannot vote for the commander in chief.
I could go on about the political ramifications of the hurricane for Puerto Rico and their relationship with the mainland. But that’s another post for another day. What’s important was the severe grief this caused me. Most Americans eventually moved on to the next headline. My heart and mind were still on the island. And when I found myself forgetting about Maria, I would feel guilt and shame. What kind of Puerto Rican was I? There has to be more I can do, but what? I felt crazy.
Still, I entered hurricane season 2018 with my usual indifference. Most Floridians do. We don’t worry until we have to. So it goes.
I was at the Epcot Food and Wine festival when I first heard about Hurricane Michael. It was projected to make land fall in the Panhandle as a Cat 1 hurricane. I was spending the day with my now boyfriend and his mom, who still lived in Panama City. She didn’t seem concerned. We even laughed about not being worried about a Cat 1. She still planned to travel back home before the storm hit to avoid being on the road in unsavory conditions. We ended that day feeling mild, respectful caution but no real concern or worry. That was Sunday. By Tuesday night, I could barely sleep as I frantically checked weather reports. Michael had strengthened to a Cat 4 that would make landfall the following day. Few were able to evacuate in time. My parents went to Tallahassee to stay with my brother. I had several friends who had to work during the storm. I spent Wednesday trying to not let the anxiety keep me from doing my work. I would occasionally watch the Weather Channel and scan the rain drenched images for something that I recognized as the now Cat 5 storm moved its way inland.
And I waited.
Slowly, by the end of the day, the pictures came. My high school gym was demolished. My dance studio was destroyed. My church had major damage. People cautiously emerged from their homes to find a completely different world that looked like it was ripped from a dystopian novel. My friends told me horror stories of holding doors shut against the wind. Of moving patients to parts of hospitals that weren’t flooded or damaged. Of roofs coming in. Of wind and rain and peril.
The tears wouldn’t stop. I cried for hours. I was devastated.
I spent the first few hours of Thursday morning trying to unsuccessfully console myself long enough to be productive. The following day I was set to leave for a vacation out of the country. Should I even go? Can I even enjoy this trip knowing that some of the most important people in my life are struggling? I was racked with guilt, panic, and confusion. I was in the National Gallery of Ireland when I heard the news that my neighbors of 25 years, and second family, would have to leave their home behind. I was powerless to stop my tears.
Not long after, my parents decided to move to Kissimmee, so my mother could find work. It felt like the final traces of my childhood were gone. I was born and raised in Panama City, and I lost my final claim to any type of residency. To say this past year has been an adjustment is an understatement.
In many ways, my life has not changed. I’ve been living in Tampa for eight years now, serving in my church for five years, and working at the same company for four years. The life I’ve built in my adulthood has not directly changed because of these natural disasters. It is relatively stable and predictable. There are also many encouraging signs of progress and restoration. I’ve been back to Puerto Rico and was greatly encouraged to see how great the island looks. My Panhandle friends are slowly rebuilding their lives. I love seeing the excitement over something as simple as tile being laid or a freshly painted wall as evidence of the resilience and determination of my hometown. And yet my little microcosm has been rattled. Not always in obvious ways. Sometimes, it’s small, like remembering that the only Target open in Panama City is on the beach. Other times, it’s really big.
Like when another major hurricane threatens.
Dorian made me realize that I am still not ok. I carry with me the secondary trauma of the past two hurricane seasons. I can still feel the two tears in my heart: one for Maria and one for Michael. For PR and PC. They remind me that things can change quickly and unexpectedly. They remind me to not get too comfortable in my native-Floridian attitude.
When I heard the news that Dorian was forming, I felt nauseous. It was heading for Puerto Rico, and even though I knew a tropical storm would not cause much harm, I was still nervous. I texted my prima on the island for comfort. When I learned that Dorian was expected to land in Central Florida, I thought I would go crazy.
Breathe, Laura, breathe.
Logically, I knew it was still too early to be sure if it would even hit Tampa. Dorian was moving so slow. But I also knew that gave it time to strengthen. The hardest part, however, wasn’t necessarily monitoring the storm or even preparing. It was feeling like I was. Absolutely. Nuts.
Because Floridians are so used to hurricanes, we become comfortable and indifferent. We create memes and parody Facebook events. We secretly hope for a day off work. Yes, we’ll purchase canned goods, but we’ll also stock up on wine and beer. Hurricane party anyone? We can purchase Doritos guilt free because now they are hurricane snacks. It’s not gluttony. It’s preparation. We joke about refusing to leave, even after evacuation is recommended (if I have to see one more Leonardo DiCaprio meme). We even go so far as to ridicule those who do decide to evacuate, claiming that true Floridians would “hunker down” and ride out the storm.
But I suppose that’s the difficulty of natural disasters. You don’t have to worry about them until you do. It’s just an irritating inconvenience until it’s not. And there’s no way to be sure when it will become a major problem, at best, or a devastating act of God, at worst. That’s why we’re told to prepare. But it is exhausting keeping up concern and care, especially when we weren’t affected by the last one. So we don’t. We’ll be fine.
But of course, we’re fine only because another city wasn’t. We don’t like to think about that though.
It’s hard to explain to people why I was so nervous about Dorian. “It’s only a Cat 2 right now.” “It’ll weaken when it hits land.” “It’s moving so slow.” None of these adages soothed my anxiety. I remember being told by my 7th grade math teacher that Panama City would never be hit by a hurricane because of where it’s positioned geographically. I’m sure she believes much differently now. The cavalier attitude towards hurricanes made me feel paranoid and weak. All around me, people were minimizing the potential damage of hurricane Dorian while I struggled to cope with the quiet storm inside me. I only know a handful of people who have been affected by both Maria and Michael. It’s an isolating feeling.
October will mark the one year anniversary of Michael. We’re about a week away from the two year anniversary of Maria. Dorian resurfaced old scars for both hurricanes. Puerto Ricans pushed back against Trump’s claims of providing sufficient and timely aid. The Panhandle, which feels largely forgotten, reminded the country that Dorian was not the strongest hurricane to hit the mainland since Andrew in 1992.
It’s painful, not being heard. Not being remembered. On a much smaller scale, that’s how it can feel worrying about a hurricane that no one else cares about. After two years of chaotic, heart wrenching hurricane seasons, however, I’ve learned a few things:
Never ridicule someone’s decision to stay or leave during a hurricane.
The decision to stay or evacuate can be complicated, full of many factors to consider. There are plenty of good reasons to go and plenty of good reasons to stay. Some do not have a choice. And regardless of the outcome, we should never victim-blame those caught in the storm’s wake.
It’s not worth comparing hurricanes.
We often compare hurricane strength, size, and destruction, which we usually speak of in dollars. It helps us understand how bad the damage is or could be. But honestly, it’s all bad. If a tropical storm destroys someone’s property, that is still bad. That person is experiencing grief and loss just like the victims of the Cat 5 hurricane. It’s all worthy of lament, tears, and anger. It’s all worthy of compassion. We shouldn’t let statistics and numbers dictate who is worthy of our sympathy.
Trauma is trauma.
When a person is struggling with the pain of their past, there is no amount of minimization that can make it go away. Rationalizing it won’t make it less painful. I wish I wasn’t nervous about hurricanes because of two bad hurricane seasons. But I am. And pretending that I’m not or trying to diminish my fear will not make it better. The same is true for everyone who was affected, directly or indirectly, by natural disasters. Acknowledging this will make us saner and more gracious.
Trauma can make us compassionate or bitter.
When we’ve gone through something hard, we can choose to let it harden us and become resentful towards its unfavorable outcome. Or we can be moved to be empathetic towards others who have experienced similar circumstances. I often fall somewhere between these two conditions. But I don’t want every trial of my life to morph me into an isolated harbor of bitterness. I hope that I allow it to create a reservoir of compassion to share generously with others. There will be more hurricanes. May we respond accordingly.
There is still room for creativity and resilient celebration in the aftermath.
A few weeks after Hurricane Maria, a few musicians took to the streets to deliver news in the most Puerto Rican way possible: playing Plena, a call-and-response tradition with drums and song. It’s often referred to as a “singing newspaper.” And what better way to give news when there is no power? It is a reminder of the deep, resilient roots of the Puerto Rican people, who have always embraced the power of music and song in every season of life. And it is a powerful act of protest: We will laugh and sing because we know that evil will not win.
These are simply lessons, not answers, and they are not perfect. Who knows what wisdom future hurricane seasons hold? I’m also aware that this is only my experience, and because the impact of hurricanes is so widespread, there are countless more stories and perspectives that contribute to the narrative of these storms. We now turn our eyes to the Bahamas, Carolinas, and parts of Florida and Georgia that took the hit from Dorian and refuse to let ourselves remain indifferent. Let us honor their struggle, their pain, their grief, and their loss with our lament, our prayers, our remembrance, and our resources.
If you have been brave enough to read this in its entirety, I want to thank you. It means so much to have my words read and my voice heard. And especially for those affected by Michael, Maria, and Dorian, I just want to say that I hold you in my heart always. I’m encouraged and inspired by your bravery and resilience.