Saturday, September 23, 2017

The 51st State (The State of Emergency)

It started like most innocuous atmospheric depressions, swirling westward off the coast of Africa and heading harmlessly out to sea. But as ill-timed blemishes often do, it blossomed into a glaring whitehead in record time, becoming an angry entity seemingly with a mind of its own.
Irma in Good Health

It is said that hurricanes as powerful as Irma can make their own weather. This makes it harder to predict what they’ll do, where they’ll go or how they’ll intensify. But in late August and early September of 2017, computing power used to model and project storm behavior couldn’t seem to keep up with what eventually became a category 5 monster that appeared hell-bent on destroying Florida and everything that came before it.

The “spaghetti” models plotted on a map of the Atlantic and Eastern Caribbean regions factored in data on interacting pressure systems, frontal passages and ocean temperatures. Like a diagram of dozens of possible paths for a bowling ball down a well-oiled alley, the question persisted: will it hook or go for “Brooklyn.” In this case, up the Eastern coast of Florida, or in the pocket to the west.

And that’s when anxiety began to build, inversely proportional to Irma’s barometric pressure, dipping to frightening lows. Meteorologists called it a “healthy” storm with a well-defined eye. And with winds of 185 miles per hour immediately surrounding that eye for 37 hours, it became a record setter.

So it was that four months after we moved to Florida, following a prolonged drought in hurricane landfalls in our chosen retirement destination, we were in the crosshairs of the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean.
Spaghetti Models

Within days our new governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for the entire state of Florida. We would much later be issued, and choose to ignore, a mandatory evacuation order due to an anticipated storm surge (we live 13 feet above sea level.)  On the heels of the recent hurricane in Texas, and with memories of Katrina, Wilma, Andrew and others, this storm was being taken very seriously.

We come from the Midwest. We are not strangers to powerful storms. In Illinois they come without warning in the Spring or Summer. The sky blackens with notes of olive green within minutes or hours, spitting iceballs the size of grenades or spawning demonic Cuisinarts with an appetite for high schools and trailer parks. The most you can hope to prepare is a trail of tears to the corner of a basement in hopes that the roof and floor above you get in the way of your being sucked out and thrown like a bean bag in a drunken game of corn-hole.

No, hurricanes grant you days or weeks to prepare for a beating. They broadcast their punches, but carry a toolkit that also includes uppercuts, fakes to the right and left, and a callous disregard for all things human. This leaves us disregarded as we decide to stay or go, putting up storm shutters lost for a decade under piles of crap in garages and sheds, and coming disconcertingly close to the point of competitive near-riots at local stores, seeking water, food and gasoline. The amount of preparatory work and the unpredictable nature of the beast carries with it an almost necessary element of procrastination. Why do all that work if it’s not absolutely necessary?

Steel Hurricane Shutters
We began to button up with a growing sense of dread as the spaghetti shifted in our direction. We sought out water, filled tanks with gas and installed steel window shutters that lay outside our shed in the backyard for nine years. We identified an interior closet where we would hide, with a twin mattress at the ready and bicycle helmets to protect our skulls while our limbs were crushed. This same closet has an attic access panel that seemed loose to me, so I tightened it up with eight screws, because one inch wood screws are known to resist the sucking force of 160 mile per hour wind in the absence of a roof.


Submerged Kayaks
By the morning the storm hit, Port Charlotte was along a line on the west coast of Florida directly in Irma’s crosshairs. Many of our neighbors had survived hurricane Charlie in 2004 in their current homes. They were gracious beyond belief, offering us lodging, generators, food and last rights. We even went to a hurricane party the afternoon before Irma’s arrival. It was cloudy and a bit cooler than usual, the wind beginning to whip the palm trees along the canal between our house and theirs. I glanced with concern at our screened pool cage, our flimsy looking shed and the umbrella-like canvas covers over many boat-lifts. There were our two 12 foot kayaks, poised like bright red ICBMs on their launch platform, the back wall of our shed. I could only think to sink them in our pool. I wondered if WE could hide in the pool, but quickly dismissed the idea. Shrapnel-like debris is a problem.

Have you ever tried to hit a baseball at Major League speed in a batting cage? The first time I tried I heard a hissing noise and wondered when the ball would come. Now imagine objects becoming projectiles at twice that speed! Eventually we retired for the night with profound apprehension over what the morning would bring.

I was up at 6am. Irma’s predicted path had not changed. In almost total darkness I went out onto the pool deck with a box cutter, took a couple of deep breaths, and began cutting the largest row of screens out of our pool cage in hopes of preventing loss of the entire structure. I can only compare this to what it might feel like to take a sledge hammer to your living room walls in order to save the underlying wooden studs. It was a calculated risk based in part on hearsay, and also on the knowledge that our hurricane insurance covers only $10,000 for the cage on what might be a $20,000 repair. Factor in a $5000 deductible and no coverage for the screens – cut away.

To say it would be unfair for Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda to take another hit like the one Hurricane Charlie delivered in 2004 is a poor choice of word. But it would have been doubly tragic for the area and its long time residents. And there is no “fair” in wishing the tragedy elsewhere. But the unfortunate souls who live in Key West, Marco Island, Naples and Bonita Springs eventually took the brunt of the storm, serving to shred the eye wall in such a way that the storm quickly diminished by the time it reached us. We lost power for a week. In Florida. In the summer. So we were uncomfortable, but suffered little else beyond the loss of our refrigerated food. I compare it to a bad camping trip. But we got to stay in the otherwise familiar comfort of our own home with running water and flush toilets. Not that bad.

Our attention immediately turned from our own survival to that of our daughter and son-in-law, who had moved to Jacksonville two months after our move. Early preparations had us considering evacuating to a hotel near them. We searched hotels in Tallahassee, Gainesville and Valdosta to no avail. Similar to our search for water, we waited a little too long and had fallen behind the tidal wave of other evacuees, seven million of them. We eventually canceled the Jacksonville reservation and subsequently heard that its location on a river prompted evacuation of the hotel as well. We would have been evacuated from our evacuation. That left us anticipating a tidal surge that drained our canal and virtually emptied Charlotte Harbor and Tampa Bay as the storm approached, pulling the tide away similar to the effect a tsunami has on oceans.

By the time Irma hit Jacksonville, it was downgraded to a tropical storm. The dreaded surge never materialized, though our canal filled almost to the top of seawalls by the next morning. The worst damage had occurred elsewhere. We were among the lucky ones.

The islands that were so badly pounded by Irma prior to her arrival in Florida have been ravaged again. Puerto Rico, the Leeward Islands and the Dominican Republic among others may never fully recover. We are reluctant to consider ourselves veterans of a hurricane at this point, but we did have a really effective drill. We’ll know better next time. If the generator we buy is never used, it will be an effective insurance policy. Hopefully, we will be in the position of offering our home and help to others, as others so kindly did with us.

There are those who asked us why we were moving to Florida just in time for summer and hurricane season. On this first day of Autumn, I just shrug and smile and look out over a sparkling pool at a boat gliding toward the Gulf of Mexico. I take a sip from my drink and realize that, all things considered, I wouldn’t trade this experience for even a single blizzard. After a hurricane, the ground is still warm, the sun shines and the pool is inviting. In a few months it will be cold enough to freeze engine oil back home. We’re good.

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