Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Odyssey: A hurricane story

There isn’t a Floridian who doesn’t have a Hurricane Irma story. Here, for what it’s worth, and it’s not worth much, is mine.

Three weeks ago today, at 1:45 in the morning, my wife, our two dachshunds and I pulled out of our driveway and headed north. I can’t say what was going through the dogs’ minds – not much probably ­– but my wife and I were convinced we would never see our home again.  

We had planned to ride out Hurricane Irma in the house, which sits at an elevation of 12 feet above sea level, a mile or so from Estero Bay. All week we had been busy moving the outside furniture inside; cranking roll down storm shutters over some windows; installing massive aluminum panels, some 12 feet high, over the windows that didn’t have roll downs; running from store to store trying to find the batteries we knew we’d need when the electricity went off; buying bottled water, canned goods, fresh fruit, cookies and crackers for the the days we would be without refrigeration; waiting in lines at gas stations to top off both cars’ tanks; going to the bank for cash because credit and debit cards wouldn’t be usable once the electricity was down, and running to Home Depot for hardware and tools to install the storm shutters.

We stopped our preparations every few hours to check the website most Floridians have bookmarked, the National Hurricane Center, to see the latest forecast that is updated four times a day when a storm is brewing in the Atlantic. Early in the week the NHC showed Irma was likely to hit Florida’s southwest Gulf coast, where we live, head on. Then it showed the eyewall shifting slightly to the east, coming up the center of the Florida peninsula. Then it moved to the east coast. Then they projected it would move up the coast off shore, hovering somewhere between the mainland and the Bahamas. On Thursday, as things became clearer, the forecast shifted back to the Southwest Gulf coast, and there it stayed.

The 11 o’clock local weather forecast Friday night scared us shitless: Irma, it was almost certain, was going to hit us sometime Sunday afternoon head-on as a category 5 with 150 plus mph winds. The storm surge – water rushing from the gulf to the bay and across the low-lying lands bordering the bay on top of the predicted eight to 12 inches of rain Irma was sure to bring, was going to be even more destructive than the winds. The governor was on TV, telling us that if we planned to evacuate, this was our last chance.

We looked at each other and said, “We’re outta here.” We threw clothes into suitcases, and tossed blankets, towels, cases of water and boxes of food (human and dog) into the back of the SUV. The last thing I did before we left was to install aluminum panels over the side door to the garage. I only had four screws left to hold three panels but it didn’t matter. The house was a goner anyway.

We love our house. It’s full of stuff we’ve collected over the last 40 years, some of it irreplaceable. Funny but when you learn you’re in the path of what forecasters are saying will be the most catastrophic hurricane to hit Florida in a decade, you don’t care about all that stuff as you pull out of the driveway. You just want to get away with what’s important, the people and creatures you love.

My wife’s mother lives in a recently built Assisted Living Center a few miles south of us. It’s a fortress, built to withstand even a cat 5 storm. We had been assured a plan was in place to take care of its residents, including generators, food and staff. She, at least, was in good hands. We weren’t so sure about us.

Within 10 minutes, we were on Interstate 75, headed toward Tallahassee in Florida’s panhandle, 420 miles to the northwest, where my nephew had graciously invited us to stay. Earlier that evening I had emailed him that we were still planning to ride it out. That was before we watched the 11 p.m. forecast. I decided I’d text him when we were about an hour from his house which I figured would be sometime around noon if we were lucky enough not to encounter stop and go traffic and/or run out of gas because the stations, the news said, were out of it.

To our surprise, traffic was moving just fine and didn’t even become heavy for 100 miles or so until we reached Sarasota. We had heard horror stories from friends who had already fled north. It took one couple 24 hours to drive the 800 miles to Jackson, Mississippi, the nearest hotel room they could find. Other friends spent two days getting to Nashville. Still others tried to get out of Dodge and returned hours later with tales about bumper to bumper traffic and no gas.

Within three hours we had traveled 150 miles and were just outside Tampa where we stopped for gas – no waiting – and, having been awake since 6 a.m. the previous morning, drove through the drive-through window of a McDonald’s for coffee. The vehicle in line ahead of us was a 1980s mini-van. Its rear window was missing. The only thing in the cargo area was a miniature aluminum Christmas tree. The van had a hand-lettered cardboard license plate and the driver’s door was stuck open at a 45-degree angle, like the flaps on a plane that’s coming in for a landing. The inside panel of the door was missing. There was some altercation – we couldn’t hear it – between its occupants and the server before they drove away. “Crackheads,” the server told us, shaking her head. “They probably headed south,” I joked. She laughed. “Good luck,” she said, handing us our coffee. Everyone in Florida was punch drunk at that point.

We stopped several hours later in Lake City, Florida for more coffee. Dunkin’ Donuts was packed. Strangers were asking each other, “Where are you from and where are you going?” A guy in line ahead of me from Miami said he had no idea where he was headed. “I just want to get the hell out of this goddam state.”

Traffic was heavy but moving. Just north of Lake City we saw parked by the side of the road dozens of trucks bearing the logos of out-of-state utility companies from as far away as New Jersey that were awaiting word to proceed to southern Florida once the hurricane had passed.

By 9 a.m., to our amazement, we were in Tallahassee.

My nephew and his wife installed us in her parents’ beautiful home overlooking a golf course, telling us we’d be more comfortable there. Her parents were at their summer home in the Rockies. I went to the supermarket and bought some food and three bottles of wine. It was packed with panicked shoppers, who had picked some shelves clean because Irma was now predicted to hit Tallahassee, which sits 20 miles inland, on Monday. The scene was a repeat of the frenzy we had witnessed in our local Publix a few days before. We finally fell asleep around 1 p.m.

My niece-in-law’s parents had turned off Comcast for the summer (a decision my regular readers know I agree with) so there was no Internet or TV. Desperate for news, we found a Hooters for dinner that had outside TVs and allowed dogs on the patio. The weather forecast hadn’t changed from the night before. Southwest Florida was officially ground zero. The group at the table next to ours was from our town. They, too, had fled the night before.

Sunday morning I checked the messages on our home phone. There were two robocalls – mandatory evacuation orders from the local government, telling us that if we didn’t leave that very minute and go to one of the many shelters set up in local schools and arenas, that we were on our own if we needed help.

We watched live-streaming Ft. Myers TV all day Sunday on my cell phone as the hurricane approached and hit. It struck the Keys in the morning and mid-afternoon made landfall at Marco Island, about 30 miles south of our home, as a category 3. The weatherman said it was going to continue thundering up U.S. 41. We live a mile west of U.S. 41. Swell. He rattled off the names of the neighborhoods, including ours, that looked to be directly in Irma’s path and could expect massive flooding. Irma hit our town around 5 p.m.

Around 7 p.m, after the eyewall, to our horror, had passed directly over our house, it was downgraded to a category two as Irma unexpectedly swerved ever-so-slightly to the northeast, sparing Ft. Myers and Cape Coral from the worst of her wrath. The weatherman said he had good news: The expected storm surge was minimal because Irma had hit at low tide.  

We turned in early, physically and mentally exhausted.

The next day was windy with some light rain and the hurricane, we learned, had blown through Tallahassee overnight as a tropical storm. My nephew and his wife, who were without power in their home, stopped by with their daughters. We were playing a game when my cell phone rang. It was our neighbor, George. He and his wife had attempted to flee up I-75 on Wednesday but had returned after realizing there was no gas to be had. They had ridden out the storm in the stairwell of another friend’s mid-rise condo. He couldn’t talk long because he was trying to preserve cell phone battery, but reported that our house looked to be OK. Some trees were down and several screen panels on our pool cage were torn but that, as far as he could tell, was the extent of the damage. He said the rest of the neighborhood got off with about the same amount of damage as we did, but that streets were impassable due to downed trees and, needless to say, there was no power. We could barely believe our luck. 

We had been planning, for months, to spend that week in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where our son and his wife had rented a house. “Let’s go,” I told my wife. “There’s no reason to go home since there’s no power.”

“We ought to wait and leave tomorrow,” she said. “No,” I told her, “if we leave now and overnight somewhere in Georgia, we can get there tomorrow night and have four full days to spend with the kids.”

Within an hour we were back on the road again, heading north into Georgia. Thomasville, about an hour north of Tallahassee, had no power. Nor did any other town we passed through for the next 200 miles. While Florida got most of the media attention, Irma did some massive damage to southern and central Georgia, too. We saw an armada – literally hundreds – of utility trucks and tree service trucks headed south.

I should have checked the forecast, because we drove right into the remnants of Irma. The further north we drove, the harder the rain and the heavier the winds we encountered. At Macon, I took what the GPS showed to be a backroads shortcut over to Interstate 20 so we would avoid the Atlanta metro area. For two hours we twisted and turned through darkened countryside, dodging fallen trees, downed road signs and rain as heavy as any I have ever driven though. My wife was furious. “I told you we should wait a day.” I readily admitted she was right. It was out-and-out scary, the worst ride of our lives.

When we finally made it to I-20, I stopped at a Holiday Inn whose lobby was packed with people trying to sleep on the floor. No room in the Inn. The clerk said there were likely no rooms anywhere in central Georgia that night. But at the next exit I found a fleabag motel – no electricity – where a clerk was engaged in conversation with a couple through a bulletproof screen. The couple – the wife carrying a baby who looked to be the age of our youngest grandson -- had a pit bull terrier that was running up and down the sidewalk off leash. They stepped aside as I approached the window. “Do you have a room?” I asked the clerk, an Indian woman, shouting to be heard over the wind and driving rain. “Yes. It’s $125.” “I”ll take it,” I said.

At that moment the young man told the clerk, “We only have $40. Can’t you give us a room for that?”

“No,” she snapped.

Knowing I had been blessed beyond belief, I told her I’d pay for their room, that nobody should have to be out in that weather.

“How can I ever repay you?” the young man asked.

“Some day you can do the same for someone else,” I answered. His room was $125, too. I later found out the hotel’s regular room rate is $60.

When I went back to the car and opened the door, the couple’s pit bull leapt into the driver’s seat and jumped up against my wife, who was holding our two dachshunds in her lap. She somehow resisted the urge to scream out in terror. I didn’t want to reach in and pull the dog off, lest I provoke him to attack her.

“Get your fucking dog off my wife!” I shouted at the young man, who reached in and pulled the dog off.

Our room was on the second floor. There was no power. It was hard to carry the bags up the open stairs with no light to guide us, through wind gusts so strong the rain appeared to be falling horizontally. The parking lot was full of cars with Florida plates. Fellow Irma refugees.

“This stinks,” my wife said when we got into our pitch-black room.

We couldn’t take showers – no hot water and no power. It came back on sometime during the night but went off again a few hours later and stayed off.

The next morning we found out why the room stank. My wife had stepped in a pile of dog poop some other guest’s dog had left in front of our door. There was no way she could have seen it.

A woman in the parking lot said she had fled Florida with her 90-year-old father who had to breathe through a machine. “There’s no power and I’m almost out of oxygen tanks. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” I wished her well and we continued on our way. There was no electricity so we couldn’t find a place selling coffee until we reached Augusta, near the South Carolina line. We arrived at the Outer Banks around 7 that night.  

When we logged on to the Internet, we found emails from friends and family concerned about our safety and, for the first time in days, had access to web sites that enabled us to see a fuller picture of what Irma left in her wake than we had been able to learn from radio news broadcasts. It wasn’t pretty.

Over the next four days we tried, we really did, to act normally around our children and grandchildren but we were exhausted and on edge and I know they could sense it.

We left Sunday morning and made it 700 miles to Jacksonville, Florida where, in the parking lot of our hotel, dazed-looking people draped with Red Cross blankets were smoking cigarettes. A man told my wife his house had caught fire during Irma and burned to the ground. Just as we were turning in, I got a text from a neighbor that the power at our house had just come back on. Sweet.

The next day, as we continued south through Daytona, Orlando and Ft. Myers,  we saw lots of damage. No missing roofs but lots of uprooted trees, flattened billboards and downed power lines.

Our own development was a mess – trees down everywhere, some pool cages missing, almost every yard covered with broken branches, leaves and other debris that had blown in from who knows where. I took the storm shutters off the garage door and we went inside, half expecting to find rain had leaked through the roof or water had somehow seeped through the storm shutters covering the windows. But everything was good.

In all, we had seven trees down, seven pool screens that needed replacing and our pool cage suffered structural damage. It was apparently lifted up and detached from our house and how it is still standing I’m not quite sure, but there’s no way we’re going to be able to find anyone to fix it until well into the next year. Friends report pool cage repairmen’s voice mailboxes are full so they can’t even leave messages.

It’ll cost us a few thousand out of pocket since our insurance policy doesn't cover anything until we have shelled out $22,000. High deductibles are the only possible way insurers can afford to offer coverage in a state that juts out into storm-prone Atlantic waters.

Since then I’ve taken down shutters, moved furniture back outside, cleaned the swimming pool which was full of debris and mud, and cleaned the fridge (gross – I forget to empty it when we left in the middle of the night and the power was off for a full week). Jose, our perpetually cheerful yard man, is slowly but surely carrying away debris each time he visits but says it will take a while because all of his other regulars have as much if not more of it than we do and his truck only has so much room.

I work at the local Food Bank one day a week and have been volunteering for extra shifts, handing out food and other supplies at local temporary pantries. It breaks my heart. The neighborhoods that were hardest hit – the ones that suffered the most flooding, the ones the power companies restore electricity to last – are the poorest ones, the ones populated primarily by immigrants who do most of the heavy lifting around here, folks who live in trailer parks and shacks way out toward the Everglades. Entire families are without food and running water and many wage earners whose jobs depend on agriculture – orange pickers for instance – and tourism have lost their incomes. Many of them work in our own community and have been hard at work removing downed trees and serving up fancy meals at the country club to people whose homes have only been cosmetically damaged and lightly at that. Residents of our community have teamed up to raise funds to help them out.

Tourists are avoiding southwest Florida, assuming we are devastated. We’re not. Everything tourism-related is pretty much up and running. The malls are teeming with people buying stuff they don’t need at post-hurricane sale prices. Restaurants are packed with homeowners who’ve returned from their northern homes to see that their properties are OK. Here in our development the streets are lined with tree stumps, branches and other debris awaiting pick-up by city workers. A man at the monthly meeting of the board that governs our community complained city workers aren’t moving fast enough for him and proposed that we try and find private companies to clear the debris, as if any of them aren’t working. When you step outside, you hear chain saws and see FEMA trucks whose workers are cutting overhead branches dangling above roadways. I find it odd that FEMA trucks are in our gated community. Seems to me they’re needed more in Houston and Puerto Rico.

We’ve heard some amazing (and funny) stories. We had dinner the other night with a couple our age who had intended to ride out the storm in their home but, once they were ordered to evacuate, wound up spending two nights in a high school shelter. It took them hours to check in because authorities first had to identify that they (and the four thousand or so other shelter guests) weren’t registered sex offenders. Had it been discovered they were, they would have been assigned their own room with their fellow offenders where they could have presumably molested each other. The day after the storm, knowing they had no electricity at home, they headed toward Tampa in search of a hotel. Their worried son, who had access to the Internet at his Georgia office, texted them the names of the two or three hotels he was able to find that had available rooms. One of them was a clothing-optional hotel. They came home.

Some well meaning people have said the reason we escaped with minimal damage is that God was looking out for us but I don’t buy that for a minute. If He was looking out for us, why wasn’t He looking out for St. Maarten, Antigua, Barbuda, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Cuba, whose residents have been decimated by Irma and Hurricane Maria? Or for the 200,000 Houstonians whose homes were flooded by Harvey? Or for the unfortunates lined up at the food pantries a few miles down the road for cases of water, boxes of Keebler cookies, jars of peanut butter, packages of cheap diapers and cans of tuna and pears imported from China? Yes, China. The country where, when I was a kid, we were told people were starving, is now sending food to poor Americans.

As my Aunt Margaret used to say when confronted with a question for which there is no easy answer, I don’t know. I just don’t know.

But I do know and appreciate how, whatever God was or wasn’t doing, we got off lucky.  

Front yard of the house across the street, piled high with hurricane
debris awaiting removal.