Thoughts on Irma – The Aftermath

*This is a five part piece – I encourage you to start with “Thoughts on Irma #1” and read forward… JC 

It’s been three days since Irma turned North and hit our little town dead center, about half of us have our power restored, a few stores and restaurants are opening back up, but normal still seems a fair bit off. There are long lines at the few gas stations that have fuel and those that fled early are unable to return for fear of running out before making it home. On every street the steady whir of chainsaws fills the air from dawn till dusk and the scent of fresh cut wood is inescapable. The piles of limbs and brush line the avenues and side streets, growing in stature as the once mighty oaks fall to the blade, some as much five or six feet across having seen hundreds of years – now lie dead in the unblinking sun. Leaves cover the ground and streets like fall in New England – an unexpected blanket of green.

As evening approaches folks start to return to their homes, grills are fired up, candles lit, and the rhythmic chatter of a generator punctuates the still air. It’s hot and humid, the air lies heavy and still – not even a hint of breeze as if the wind had exhausted itself earlier and now is slumbering somewhere far from here. It’s not quiet but the sounds are all different, no TVs, no music, even the traffic has disappeared – they have been replaced with the hoot of a hunting owl, laughter from a few doors down, the tireless chirp of the lake frogs, and the stray bark of a lonely hound.  News is exchanged on the sidewalk and the interaction of neighbors harkens back to an earlier and simpler time.

Life is already moving on, the inescapable pace of today’s society can’t and won’t wait for our emotions, anxiety, understanding to catch up. It’s going to take time to fully process this experience, we talk about it – sharing the memory, the feelings, coming to grips with this brush against our mostly ignored mortality.  Today we hung the pictures back up and moved the porch furniture back into position – symbols of normalcy. The electric is back on – something we celebrate with embarrassed restraint as there are so many still waiting. Tomorrow will bring a trip to the grocery store to replace the provisions that have spoiled in the unforgiving heat and life’s mundane routines will begin reasserting themselves.

I imagine it will take weeks to fully restore all power, services, and cleanse the landscape of wreckage and in that time we will exchange our stories of that night and come to grip with our personal lists of would have, should have, could have – but the reality is our psyche will only allow a tepid remembrance lest we live on trapped by the understanding of our insignificance.

Thoughts on IRMA #3

The weather started deteriorating around noon today as we watched Irma come across the keys and head north toward us. The benefits or modern technology, weather radar, social media and the wall to wall news coverage is obvious – prepare, prepare, prepare – but on the other hand nothing ratchets up the anxiety like watching the slow march of an inevitable disaster. No question being informed and prepared is the better option, but it takes an emotional toll. The calls, texts and messages from friends and family continue to pour in, they are watching the same coverage we are – geography goes out the window at times like this, Florida is a big state – but we live in Florida and that’s enough.

A couple of interesting observations today though: it’s a strange experience taking down your pictures, wrapping them in plastic and boxing them up. Backing up your computers, debating what to pack and store in the center of the house and what to leave in place. It’s like moving but being told you can only take what can fit in three or four boxes and oh we are leaving in six hours so hurry up. Then there is the network of folks that develops around you in these situations, the folks you know, long time friends, and neighbors – all of us sharing in an experience none of us would have willingly chosen to be part of, but the “check-ins” and messages of support go a long way toward dispelling that feeling of isolation being locked up in your house creates.

I took a walk around the house late this afternoon between rain bands, checking and rechecking – wishing I had tightened that gutter up, probably should have trimmed that tree back – an inner monologue of should have dones, too late now to do anything about, it will be what it will be. A final check with the kids, “are you sure you don’t want to come stay here?” They have their own homes, pictures, fears, and plans – I understand but still wish they were here so I could know for sure they were okay. My two boys on the West coast stay in constant communication, I’m sure worried and feeling helpless to do anything.  The family has decided on hourly updates via group text, it’s a poor substitute for having everyone together, but measurably better than not knowing.

Dark has fallen now, the wizards at the Weather Channel are discussing whether there is an eye or a center of rotation – neither choice changes the forecast of 100MPH winds in the next few hours. The wind and rain have picked up substantially and you can’t avoid the eerie whistle and staccato of the driving rain against the windows, the shadows cast by the streets lights undulate through the windows strange patterns cast by the wildly swaying trees. The band of storms is moving so quickly the thunder seems to roll across the horizon from right to left creating a strange symphonic effect. The thought of this elevating in intensity is disconcerting, but the experts say the worst of it should be here within the next few hours…

Thoughts on IRMA #2

Today is about final preparations and second thoughts. There is a palpable anxiety in the air now and folks are more openly questioning their decisions. Should we have purchased a generator, what about boarding up our windows, is it too late to head North. The unfortunate reality for most is that these decisions are no longer viable and items are simply not available and even if they were the time for this level of preparation is diminishing quickly. We are probably 24 hours out on serious weather, much too long to contemplate should have, would have, could have, but not nearly enough time to rationally shift your strategy. The challenge now is to stay occupied double and triple check everything without giving into the fear and anxiety that accomplishes nothing beyond paralysis. The calls from family come in earnest now, the posts and messages from friends rain down on FB: “keep us posted, come visit, you stayed?, we’re praying for you… have you heard of Zello?”

We have secured our house as best we can, unfortunately we are in that group that didn’t board up windows when we probably could have and should have. The storm track continues to show minor fluctuations but barring some large shift we are looking at 100+ MPH winds early Monday morning. Fortunately for us we do not live on the coast and will not have to face the storm surge that seems to continue growing. I spent some time on my back porch this afternoon, its stripped of everything that could possibly move, I watched the trees swaying from the early gusts – forewarning of what’s still to come – it’s a beautiful day. In the background, a cacophony of meteorologists drone on barely repressing the glee in their voices. It’s not so much that they are happy about things, but adrenaline is clearly driving them at this point.

It’s a surreal experience watching this beast on TV, the sun shining outside, kids playing in the neighborhood, the mundane debate on what to have for dinner – pork chops won. At some point you have to turn it off and take a break it’s too exhausting. FB is no better, the updates from local friends and co-workers read like a litany of final farewells while those you know in the rest of the states continue to post pictures of vacations, kids, college football and everyday life – the contrast is stark – further accentuated by the feeling of impending doom that is filling every corner. Look around, every room is filled with something precious a memory, family heirlooms, your favorite chair – what if it all goes away overnight? No don’t give in to that…

My granddaughter shoves another Oreo in her mouth smiling, “PaPa Joe walk me” she grabs my hand and leads me to the couch – “Bubble Guppies PaPa” it’s a welcome break from the reds and yellows of the radar graphs. We share some cookies and she dances to her favorite songs, it’s a sweet moment – a reminder that life isn’t about things – even precious things, but about those moments we share with the ones we love. She is two and has no inkling about what the next few days hold and that’s perfect; would we all were a bit more innocent and carefree in the face of those things we can’t change.  Chin kisses and PaPa hugs for those are the things I love; she heads home with my son and his wife, only blocks away, but still somehow too far.

It’s late now the wind has picked up a bit, but it’s still a beautiful evening as my wife and I take a “night drive” around town. Most everything is closed up tight, not the Waffle House of course, but most everything else. We cruise around the lake that our neighborhood surrounds, a brief stop in the middle of the street to exchange greetings with a lone police officer making his rounds, when did they start hiring so young I wonder to myself. He bids us a goodnight as we drive in opposite directions neither of us with a firm destination, waiting, waiting, waiting…

Thoughts on IRMA #1

I have lived in Florida for close to twenty years and this is the first hurricane that has significantly threatened my personal wellbeing and property. We have had some close calls especially during the 2004/5 seasons, but always managed to escape the worst of it.

We debated on the proper course of action on this one, stay or go, I’m sure like many of our friends and neighbors. We are not in an evac zone so no forced decision. This seemed easy mid-week, even as late as Thursday, but things change. The “track” evolves and shifts, there is no way to really know exactly where or how strong the storm will be; but there is no question the more the forecast matures the worse it is looking for those of us in Central Florida. So the debate begins again fraught with more anxiety and pressure than before – stay or go?

Looking in from the outside it seems simple, we always thought so – don’t be foolish GO! – things can be replaced. Seems logical and so simple, but now it’s difficult to find gas, the roads are packed – and there is a real possibility of being stranded somewhere that may not be safe either. What about family, kids, grandkids, employees – are these considerations? They have to be; can I really take to the highway, my wife safely by my side and know as I look in the rearview mirror that my son, his wife, and my two granddaughters are staying behind, or that my daughter and her new husband have decided to hunker down and hope?

So today we go through the surreal exercise of packing precious things in plastic, photographing belongings for insurance purposes, trying to stockpile food and water in anticipation of being without electricity for up to a week. Which means spending some time online trying to figure out whether the insulin my Type I wife needs everyday has to be refrigerated or will it last that long.  It’s a strange thing having to examine the pros and cons of a thing that literally may impact your life, not how you live or where you live but your very life. There is nothing unique about our situation most of the residents of this state are facing some level of uncertainty and dealing with similar issues and questions, but funny how it’s different when you experience it yourself.

Waited in a sandbag line this morning for a few hours, hundreds of folks from all walks of life with a single aim – find a way to protect themselves and their homes. I will save you the clichés of equality and coming together – the best of humanity etcetera. We have all spent the last two weeks seeing this in Houston and you can see it first hand in Florida. I watched the little old lady (white) in her very nice car being helped by the young African American – current resident of Polk County Jail pressed into service by the Sheriff’s department – it would make a nice meme. It was an interesting picture though, she was ever so thankful and he was helpful, polite and I think glad to be doing it.  It was good to see everyone working together, no fighting, no yelling, nothing but neighbor helping neighbor… so I’m not cynical, but don’t we sooner or later have to ask why it takes the specter of something catastrophic get us to stop acting like assholes to each other?

Anyway, time to get back to prepping and putting on the strong it’s going to be alright persona… my family all sees through the false bravado but it makes me feel better… More to follow as long as the lights are on and the interweb thing is working…

JC