The long weekend of Hurricane Irma

There is something comforting about seeing working traffic lights and being called into work.  Normalcy and routine in the aftermath of tension, stress, and physical discomfort can be a welcome thing.  Adrenaline in the face of hurricane force winds, rain, and flying debris can only keep you going for so long.

For any of my readers who have not endured a hurricane—and endured is the operative word—the experience is one that can’t be described in any meaningful way.  The genesis of the difficulty is that the experience is a very personal one.

Once all the preparations are done—boarding up the windows, stacking cases of water, and taking stock of food on hand—there is the waiting.  Waiting, no, there’s more to it than that, apprehension.  Imagine you’re trapped in a windowless box on a mouse trap.  You know that the box will be crushed, but have no way of knowing when, or if the whole box will be crushed or just part of it.  Oh, yes, and the invisible entity that triggers the trap keeps changing its mind about the how, when, and where of your impending doom.

Everyone deals with the waiting in different ways—anxiety, calmness, manic, anger, lethargy, and the list goes on.  Animals, reacting to changes in atmospheric pressure, exhibit many of the same characteristics.  How do I know this?  Well, this weekend my house contained four adults, thirteen cats, two rabbits, and three birds.  And that deserves some explanation, because that sort of sets the stage for this tale.

  • Four adults: Myself, my wife, my son, and his wife.
  • Eleven cats: My wife has seven inside cats and two feral cats. The feral cats live on our fenced in back porch.  My son and his wife have two cats.  Finally, two cats belong to friends whose vacation in the United Kingdom just happened to coincide with the Hurricane Irma weekend.
  • Three birds: my wife has two birds. The third bird belongs to my daughter-in-law.
  • Two rabbits: My wife has two rabbits that share the cat’s living space.

Fortunately, we no longer have the chickens, ducks, or an anti-social iguana.  If we did, I would have had to sleep on the porch and take my chances.  It is only recently, as a result of two heart surgeries, that my wife promoted me to the same level of care as the animals.

But I digress.  So, by Saturday afternoon, we were all in place.  Windows were boarded.  Power still on.  A/C blasting.  My son was casting Evil Bong, annoying his mother no end.  Winds were picking up, with intermittent rain.  Dinner was Chinese take-out.  The cats, especially the gray and white Sky, had begun to act strangely needy—perhaps prescient fear of a force they couldn’t possibly comprehend.

On Sunday, the winds picked up and brought more rain.  My Dewalt Worksite radio gave us the blow by blow both for the progress of the approaching storm and a new threat—tornadoes.  The northeast quadrant of a cyclone typically spawns tornadoes—and tornadoes, on the whole, are scarier than hurricanes.  Their devastation is localized, powerful, and uncontrollable.  The only way to prepare for a tornado is to not be where the tornado is.  And we knew that, hunkered down and awaiting the hurricane, there was no safe place for us to go.

All we could do is watch and wait and play a marathon game of Super Scrabble.  (Super Scrabble has twice as many tiles as regular scrabble.)  Sure, I know that the traditional hurricane game is Monopoly, just because it can kill an entire night to play, but we wanted something that would actually challenge us.  During the game, the power went off, then on, then off, then on, then at 8:30, power was down for the count.  By battery powered lights, we finished the game, but that was it.

Playing Super Scrabble by flashlight.

With the power, of course, went the Wi-Fi.  In the area we live in, on a good day, you get three bars of 4G by standing out at the end of the driveway.  In the house, under ideal conditions, one to two bars is possible, but during a hurricane?  The hurricane violated the easy availability of our technological connectedness.  The shared feeling of isolation was unspoken.  No updates for friends and relatives?  Not for hours.  Having ridden out hurricanes previously, we knew the drill though.  We switched our phones to ultra-power saver mode (pretty much just phone and texting), which would extend the battery to last from hours to days.  In the morning we would sit in our cars, charging the phones and trying to catch up on all the texts and notifications that amassed while the hurricane changed the face of Florida.

After the game, my son went to bed—and slept through ‘til morning—while the rest of us held watch.  We sat on the couches, reading, while the radio provided the soundtrack.  Reading was more like staring at the words on the pages.  We avoided each other’s eyes.  None of us wanted to show that the storm had dominated our concentration.  With the radio on, the noise from the talking heads gave us something to focus on other than the sounds from the winds slamming against the windows.

Around 1:30 Monday morning, we figured that the “core of the storm” had passed us to the west.  It was time to call it a night.  In the dark of the bedroom, my wife’s anxiety and apprehension burst forth from the facade of calm.  In the absolute silence of a house free of electronics, A/C, and other white noise, all that remained was the power of the storm pitting its terrible force against all too fragile windows, frame, and roof.

After a night of broken sweaty sleep, in a stuffy house without A/C, in a bed shared with cats, morning broke and the damage survey began.  Standing water by the road.  A few branches down.  A couple pieces of soffit missing.  No big deal.  But there was something else: besides no power, no running water.  The county Emergency Operations Center (EOC) had sent out a notification that due to broken pipes, when water was restored, it would be contaminated and unfit to drink or cook with, for several days.

While we did have plenty of drinking water, there are other things water is used for, like washing dishes and flushing the toilets.  Okay, so the dishes can wait, but the toilet not so much.  If you’ve seen the Ben Stiller comedy Meet the Fockers, you might remember the adage, “if it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down”.  It was funny when Bernie Focker (Dustin Hoffman) said it.  Not so funny when it is applied in real life.  Not funny, but necessary sometimes.  The good news is that, just as we were about to implement that rule, we discovered that just enough water was getting through to refill the toilet tanks.

Getting back to the waiting.  Without power, the refrigerator was off limits, especially the freezer.  My son had a butane camp stove to cook on—or at least to boil water for coffee or tea.  You couldn’t cook a meal on it, and if you did, you’d create dishes you couldn’t wash.  Enter the miracle of peanut butter and honey—not refrigerated and nutritious.

On Monday afternoon, the house was getting too hot, remaining too quiet, and I suggested that we go for a ride to see how my son’s house had fared.  This probably wasn’t the best idea, but we needed to do something.  By this point no one was in the mood for games.  We were all yearning for normal.

Just a clue, we didn’t find it.

Headed down I-95 south, we ran into a backup of cars we assumed were headed back to the Florida Keys.  Good luck with that.  Lines of power company trucks, many from out-of-state was a good sign.

Once we got off the interstate, there were several other hurdles to deal with.

  • Traffic lights were out and the concept of a four-way stop at the intersection seemed to elude most drivers.
  • There was flooding on some streets. Cars that became islands were testament to the inability of drivers to remember that if you can’t see the pavement, you shouldn’t attempt to drive on it.
  • Virtually everything was closed (hardly unexpected), except for Lowe’s and a very few gas stations.

When we finally arrived at my son’s house, the power was off and there was very little damage (some shingles, fence damage, but nothing structural).  That was good news.  As we went to pull out of his driveway, his outside lights flashed on, then off.  Surprised, we watched with great interest.  It happened again, then again.  Certainly that meant that the power would be there by the time they returned, right?

We rushed home, packed them up and they sped on their way to power, A/C, Wi-Fi, hot showers, and a home cooked meal.  That was the game plan.

The reality was that the flashing lights were just a tease.  The power wasn’t restored until mid-afternoon Tuesday.  It was a letdown to not have power waiting for them, but in the end they got what they needed most, a good night’s sleep in a cool house.

Tuesday morning it was back to work.  And now we’ve come full circle, with something that imitates normal.  Now I wouldn’t say that my experience is anything near that of someone in the Keys, taking the full brunt of a Cat 4 hurricane.  Amp what we experienced up by 100 and you might get it.

Since this is being posted, obviously, I now have power and life has begun to resemble some form of normal.  And normal allows me to consider the issues greater than my parochial situation.  Those greater issues, not surprisingly have to do with writing, and how this experience might generate something worthwhile—another story or another novel.

© Copyright 2017 by Kevin Fraleigh