The Professional Guest: Evacuating Irma

hurricanefacts

“For here am I
Sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing
I can do”
“Space Oddity” by David Bowie

Evacuation

September 5, 2017. Hurricane Irma, now a Category Five (Cat 5) storm was decimating the Caribbean and on track for a direct hit on Florida. I live in Naples on the southwest Gulf coast, right in the line of fire. Remembering my cousin’s evacuation plan during Wilma years ago, I made hotel reservations in Kissimmee located in central Florida. Flying out wasn’t an option since this was also the month I needed to pay quarterly taxes and auto insurance. I thought if I could at least get inland, my chances of riding out the storm with basic life essentials (like water and air conditioning) might be better.

Family and friends began to contact me, urging me to get out.

“This looks like a big one, Sheryl. I don’t think you should stay there,” my oldest brother, John warned from Minnesota. I wanted to get out, I just wasn’t sure how to manage it. As a freelance graphic designer, I was also under deadlines with several of my clients. I tried not to worry…

Irma

Hurricanes are predictably unpredictable. A change in the jet stream, an approaching weather front, or rise in ocean temperatures can alter their course. One cannot say for sure just exactly where the storm will go until the last hours before it hits. Scientists and forecasters theorize and feature models showing projected tracks but it can be a crap shoot. Everything indicated landfall in Florida but upon which coast still remained up inIrma track the air (no pun intended). They were all in agreement, however, that they had never seen anything like Irma before. She was a monster, the largest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic. The governor held press conferences urging people to evacuate. Only weeks before, Hurricane Harvey had devastated the Houston area and displaced thousands. Folks were skittish. I began stockpiling water and canned goods.

Nationwide, it had been an uneasy time of evacuations everywhere. On August 21st, the country experienced a total solar eclipse. I learned a new phrase: “The Path of Totality.” This path, where the moon completely covers the sun, and the sun’s tenuous atmosphere—the corona—can be seen, stretched from Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. Folks rushed out to buy “eclipse glasses,” then drove, flew, biked and hiked to the states that would experience this complete dark-out, viewable for the first time in the contiguous United States since 1979. It felt like a spiritual experience en masse.

At the same time, wildfires were burning out of control in the northwestern United States and Canada. The skies were hazy as far east as the northern plains causing stinging eyes, sore throats and headaches—small discomforts compared to the fire-affected areas. Entire towns were engulfed, forcing residents to flee.

From dry conditions and extreme heat in the northwest to days and days of torrential downpours from Harvey in the southwest which filled up Houston like a swimming pool, starting on August 25th. Nearly the entire city along with neighboring towns were underwater. It looked like Katrina all over again. Swimming, wading, boating, the masses moved on.

And now, as rescue agencies worked to aid Harvey victims, a monster of Biblical proportions was bearing down on Florida. Although diminished to a “mere” Cat 4 after causing catastrophic damage to Anguilla, Barbuda, the British Virgin Islands, St. Martin / St. Maarten, the US Virgin Islands, and Turks and Caicos, Irma was nothing to sneeze at. Hotels and airlines were booking fast. My brother said he’d send money, just “get a flight and get out.” Searching online for a last minute flight, I would no sooner type in my name and address before that flight was listed as booked and I would have to search another airline. I finally secured two one-way flights to Minneapolis out of Orlando, a 3-1/2 hour drive away, for Saturday morning at 11 a.m.—just 24 hours before Irma was scheduled to hit Southwestern Florida. At least I’d be a couple hours north if the flight got cancelled. Fearing snarled traffic, I decided to go up the day before and stay overnight in a hotel. I’m pretty sure I got the last hotel room available in Orlando that night.

gas lines

Throughout Florida, people were heeding the warnings. With Harvey fresh in everyone’s minds, gas lines were long, stores were completely sold out of bottled water, non-perishable food items, batteries, lanterns and bleach. Stores that sold propane tanks and generators were jammed. And all the plywood was gone.

Long_Lines_For_Water_at_Publix

There was an unusual amount of goodwill in these Florida retail lines as we had witnessed how the good people of Texas and most of the country had gotten behind the storm victims in Houston. But this is Florida. Goodwill only lasts so long before it descends into the usual Floridian chaos of every man for himself. It was to become the largest evacuation in U.S. history—70,000 in shelters, 5.6 million people pouring out of the state, starting with the Florida Keys and on to points north. As it turned out, points north weren’t safe either.

Meanwhile, I was working fast and furious to get as much design work done as I could before departure. After sending a pdf proof out for review, I would try to pack some clothes, get the hurricane shutters closed, make phone calls to my bank and mail order companies, put my computers in an interior space, and run out for more supplies. Anxiety levels were running high. My neck and shoulders screamed with pain from all the computer work and I fell into bed exhausted every night. I’ve been through earthquakes and tornados, but this was my first hurricane. My roommate was up in Atlanta and kept assuring me that it was all news media hype to scare us, but I wasn’t so sure. There was little time to eat. By Thursday night, “Ground Control to Major Tom” was playing on repeat in my head. “Take your protein pills and put your helmet on.”

Friday morning, waking early, I threw on some makeup, zipped up my luggage, turned off the water in the condo and unplugged all the appliances. Under beautiful blue skies with just a few puffy white clouds, I climbed into my space capsule, a VW beetle.

“Commencing countdown, engines on
(five, four, three…)

Check ignition and may God’s love be with you
(two, one, lift-off)”

Road to Orlando

Google Maps had plotted my course to Orlando up through central Florida on a less-traveled, rural route. There was not the slightest hint of an impending storm. Traffic was light—only a few cars headed north and a handful of National Guard trucks and semis headed south. Cattle lazed in pastures under the shade of trees, already hot in the 85-degree, humid September morning. Farmers were still planting despite the threat of Irma. They had to. They plan their crops by market times for that crop. If they miss a planting date, and nothing happens, they’ll miss the market. It is better to plant and take their chances than miss their future “sell by” date.

Recent heavy rains had flooded the roadside ditches which were alive with fluttering white egrets, herons and cranes hunting frogs and other small aquatic prey. I wondered where birds go during a hurricane?* After a brief pitstop in Arcadia, I was on my way up US Hwy. 17 for another long, lazy stretch of driving. Vultures circled overhead. As the humidity rose, more clouds began to form. I passed gas station after gas station, all with yellow bags over the pump handles indicating “No Gas.” One station had put small handwritten notes with”Diesel only” (not visible from the road) at their pumps and car after truck played “Round ‘n Round the Mulberry Bush,” circling the pumps in hopes of filling up, only to see the small notes and drive off.

Flipping radio stations, fiery sermons blared, old-timey gospel music accompanied by trilling Hammond organ whined and small town advertising cackled along the way. Travelers drove the speed limit at a civilized distance between cars, an anomaly from motorized Naples (or any other larger city in Florida) and a real dissemblance from drivers on I-75. Refreshing. Near Lakeland, I got on Hwy. 570, passing by Fussells Corner and Auberndale. I always wonder how towns get their names. I presume there was an early settler or prominent family with the last name Fussells for which the town of probably 250 people took its name. As the toll roads began, all the toll booths were opened. The governor had cancelled toll fees to speed up the evacuation process. There’s a sort of gleeful, naughty feeling one briefly entertains when approaching a toll booth at slower speed and then gunning through it without stopping.

Finally I reached Hwy. I-4 toward Orlando and was immediately swept up into the pack of swarming, full-tilt drivers hell-bent on getting one car ahead of me. A squall blew in from the ocean and the heavens opened up just as I reached my economy lodging for the night. Now, I enjoy a luxury hotel as much as the next person but when you’re already spending money you didn’t plan to spend, you’ll take an army cot. As I pulled into the parking lot, I checked my phone. It was blinking with half a dozen messages and missed calls so I sat in my car and returned as many as I could. Funny how disasters bring people together. I chatted happily with clients and even an old friend from high school who now lives in Orlando. He was standing by in case I needed anything. Good neighbors all.

Flight

After a restless night in an uncomfortable bed, I got up and headed for the long term parking lot where I would leave my car and take a shuttle to the airport. Thank God for Google Maps but once in awhile, Ms. Google steers you wrong. After typing in the address, I arrived at a dead end with houses on one side and an open field on the other. Searching for the name of the Park n’Go instead of the address, I finally navigated safely there. It was an uncovered lot with only a few surrounding trees and the parking attendant assured me that my car would be okay; “probably just get a couple good car washes.”

Arriving early to the airport, I ordered a Cuban “Cortadito” coffee and gabbed with a family who were also on their way home to safety. The TV monitors in the airport broadcasted a steady stream of news on Irma which was now pounding Cuba and appeared to be headed straight for Naples/Ft. Myers. Irma had been capricious, at first taking aim at Miami on the east coast. Folks in that vicinity were making plans to head over to the gulf side. But last minute, she wobbled and set her sites on the west coast which sent the west coast folks zig-zagging over to Miami or parts north. She wobbled like a drunken sailor from west to east and back to west again. Now I was REALLY glad I had evacuated. I didn’t want to be part of a mischief of drowning rats scurrying up and down the sides of a listing, storm-tossed ship.

Some hurricanes are wind and water events with downed trees and flooded homes like Houston. Irma was predicted to be a “power event,” which meant that the biggest problem would likely be days, even weeks, without power, sufficient to shut down everything from homes and businesses to care facilities. In Florida, in September, being without power means no air conditioning in oppressive heat and humidity for a long time. You sit and swelter in your home (or shelter) and watch the mold grow on the walls. I don’t tolerate heat and humidity well. They would have found me dead in my room two weeks later. (“And so, tell me again, Sheryl, why is it that you moved to Florida?”)

The first leg of my trip was on Spirit airlines from Orlando to Dallas. My suitcases were overpacked and heavy because I hadn’t had time to really think through what I would need for one, possibly two weeks away from home. I just threw stuff in and hoped it would be right for September in Minnesota. With the large bag checked, I remarked to the smiling flight attendants that I hoped my 61-year-old arms were strong enough to lift my carry on luggage into the overhead bin. They kindly helped me and later in the flight, one pretty young attendant whispered to me, “I meant to tell you, you look good for 61. I hope I look that good when I’m 61!”

I replied, “You just made my day!” She’ll never know how much her words encouraged me because the seats were alarmingly small. I am at the outer limits of where my butt will actually fit into a single seat. Five more pounds and I’ll need to pay for two seats. Spirit Airlines’ nifty advertising slogan, “Your ass plus gas” doesn’t consider the middle-age spread.

Irma from OrlandoBy this time, dark, brooding clouds were closing in ominously as the outer bands of Irma reached the Florida coast. Layers of grey, puffy lower clouds raced clockwise while solid masses of heavy, darker grey clouds swirled counterclockwise above. The sky never looks so electrifying as it does just before a storm. Breathtaking. As we took off and soared high above the clouds where blue sky and sunshine belied the drama taking place below, I began to experience Sublimation.

Sublimation is Sigmund Freud’s conception by which a person funnels troubling urges into socially acceptable ones. My troubling urge was to pound down several Bloody Mary’s in rapid succession to calm my jangled nerves. But having sworn off the stuff, I longed for a  cappuccino and Cinnabon roll. I settled for a Baby Ruth instead.

The rest of the flight(s) back to Minneapolis consisted of the following mini scenes:

  1. A baby cried. A lot. It wasn’t a normal baby cry. It sounded like a cross between a ghoul and a fox being killed. Chucky’s laugh would have been more endurable. It was so alarming, I’m not sure I could have even gone near to help her if she needed it.
  2. An airline employee (a pilot) sat next to me and we exchanged small talk. He used to be a drummer in a band. Do drummers just wake up one day and decided to be commercial airline pilots? Maybe graphic designers could do that.
  3. During the stopover in Dallas, I wandered through shops and discovered that Texas even has big chocolate shoes and boots for sale.Chocolate shoes
  4. Checking my phone messages, I got one from Madame Renée back in Naples. She was sitting at the police station. Her house is west of Hwy. 41 and under mandatory evacuation but at 91 years old, she had gotten her wires crossed and missed earlier special needs aid so there she sat. I wasn’t sure who to feel more sorry for, Madame Renée or the police. A strong-willed and stubborn little Jewish woman, Renée does not listen to anyone and does things her own way, even in a crisis. She had the police running her around from shelter to shelter but all were full or could not handle someone with her age and requirements. I don’t know where she ended up. I did send up some prayers for her safety and will look in on her when I return.
  5. Outside the airport, I chatted with an older off-duty firefighter who was helping direct traffic as his second job. His daughter and son-in-law are both military and were having difficulty raising their autistic son in between deployments so he and his wife decided to take the boy into their home and raise him to help out. He had plans for retirement but all that had changed now. We shared our challenges. It reminded me of what my friend, Rhonda’s granddaddy had said, “Always listen to people. You’ll come away not only knowing your own story, you’ll know theirs too!”
  6. On the second one-way flight from Dallas to Minneapolis, I sat next to Lawrence, a middle-aged African American man and small business owner who spoke so animatedly that his whole body jumped and quivered in his seat. The air was punctuated by rapid hand gestures and his eyes held mine with a piercing gaze…for the entire two-hour flight. This would have exhausted me had he not been so interesting. I have seldom found such enthusiasm for work, life and the philosophy of life bundled up into one man’s heart. My biggest take-away from our conversation was his outlook on the story of “The Widow’s Mite” in the New Testament. Other temple attenders were giving money out of their financial abundance to the temple treasury but a certain widow came in and gave all she had—two mites. Lawrence observed that giving up all the livelihood she had put the widow into a position where she had nothing left to lose—and all she could do was gain. There was no place to go but up. I liked Lawrence.

Bog Bogeys and Life Unplanned

My time in Minnesota was extended from one week to two as news from Naples neighbors reported they were still without power and internet for many days. Water restrictions meant spare flushing and laundry, and boiling water for drinking was still in effect. I spent these two weeks basking in the joys of seeing family, friends, familiar Minnesota lakes, countryside and landmarks and although I seemed to have brought a heat wave with me, I still barely broke a sweat. After two years of unrelenting heat and humidity, this was one of the “pleasantest” things about my stay.

I learned that if things always go as planned, you have little to really remember. This unplanned “vacation” will be remembered forever.

I also learned about “Bog Bogeys” while staying with my brother and sister-in-law at their lake home which is on the reedy, marshy side of a beautiful lake, terrific for fishing. He has built a 300-foot dock to get out past the lily pads and cattails far enough to launch his fishing boat and canoes. Cattails sometimes form large clumps of floating bogs which can eventually choke out the shoreline and entrap boat lifts so, like all natural growing things, they must be managed. He wrote about these clearing ventures below:

John's dock1

Bog Bogey Bumper Pool: A New Game for Lakeshore Owners

A new game has been developed by lakeshore owners in Minnesota. Its called Bog Bogey Shuffleboard, or as some call it, Bog Bogey Bumper Pool.

A bog bogey is a floating mat of cattails and marsh plants bound together at the roots.  Some of them in northern lakes reach awesome sizes of a hundred yards or more in length. Bogs this large can crush docks and boats and are not eligible for play.

The object of the new game is to dislodge a wind-driven floating bog that has settled in on your dock area, and send it drifting to someone else’s shore. Its a matter of timing and wind direction.

The referees for this game are the DNR and the Sheriff. The rule book says the bogs must not be redeployed when striking one’s property, which merely adds a clandestine element to make the game even more fun.

A typical play goes something like this. A player discovers a sizeable 50-ft bog pressed tightly against his dock and boat lift, totally blocking his property and preventing him from launching his boat.  Since the boat is the launching tool for the game, he must first push the heavy monster clear using a long pole with a bumper on the end. This is called a Big Bog Bogey Bumper. He only needs to move the bogey enough to launch his boat. But he needs to wait for the right wind conditions to avoid having the bog right back on his dock.

The next step is to toss the boat anchor over the bog bogey and reel out enough rope to allow the boat propeller to clear bottom so he can slowly start lugging the bogey away from shore. All of this must be done when no one is looking of course.

Once the big bogey is clear of the shore and far enough out in the bay to catch the wind, the anchor is retrieved and the bogey sent off with whispered cheers over a cold beer.

The next part of the game is to take the boat out to see where the bogey bumbled, waving brightly at the poor shore owner working to clear the bogey for his turn at play.

(I am not saying that my brother ever plays this game.)

Irma’s Aftermath

Irma, worked its way all the way up the state of Florida and beyond. The storm made its first landfall in the Florida Keys as a powerful Cat 4, causing widespread damage. So great was her fury, even some of the “never-leavers” packed their cars and left. Irma will join Donna, Wilma and the Great Labor Day Storm of ’35 on the list of meteorological greatest hits down there. The disruption to tourism and the destruction of the reef will cost untold billions. Fortunately, few people died (let’s hear it for building codes and evacuation orders) and it will take more than a Category 4 to snuff the spirit of the Conch Republic.

She made a second landfall on Marco Island, south of Naples, as a Cat 3, with winds as strong as 115 miles per hour. Despite taking a direct hit, the island appears to have escaped some of the major damage feared by officials. A 10- to 15-foot storm surge that was predicted did not materialize; the storm surge was between 3 and 4 feet. One resident said, “It was not a nuclear hurricane, but it was a badass hurricane.”

As Irma moved north, so did power outages. By Monday morning, more than 6 million households in Florida had lost power. As restoration began in some places, others, such as areas of Georgia, went dark. Jacksonville, where many evacuees had fled to, experienced its worst flooding in a century. The Ribault River overflowed and flooded the area with not only water but hundreds of snakes, some poisonous. Brrr! Even alligators were reported swimming through flooded streets in parts of Florida. Hurricanes are bad, but snakes and alligators are worse.

It’s been a year for bad storms. Four of this year’s monsters went on to become Category 4 or 5, and three of those made landfall in U.S. territory. The U.S. has never been hit by three storms this strong in the same season in modern records. As for Naples, power, clean water, internet and the stores are all back up and running. But the trees are down. Oh, the trees are really down. It looks like a war zone out there. And, note to self: Empty the refrigerator next time.

IMG_5073

Epilogue

I am profoundly grateful to my family for sending me aid and rescuing me from Irma. My brother and sister-in-law who hosted me are living examples of hospitality and open arms. And my Minnesota-based clients who arranged for me to have my invoices paid while there to make up for the unplanned financial shortfall that comes with evacuation, I appreciate you beyond words. The bills are paid. Fellowship and food has been enjoyed. It has been soul-satisfying on the deepest level possible to get in on end-of-summer boating, fishing, live music, dinners out, shopping and even flying over the Brainerd lakes with my pilot nephew, Brad. I can’t say that it didn’t cross my mind more than once to just stay here in Minnesota, my home for so many years. But I will return to Naples.

“Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go…”

 

*Author’s note: I found out where birds go during hurricanes. Some fly along the outer bands of the storm, some shelter in place, and some get caught in the eye of the hurricane which interestingly showed up on a radar map of Irma. The center of the storm which is usually clear on radar showed a large colored mass visible. The weatherman said, “See that? Those are birds caught in the eye of the hurricane!”

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