“Did you take pictures of your house?” my neighbor asked as we stood in our driveways on a blistering hot Saturday afternoon.
I hesitated for just a moment before replying nonchalantly, “Yeah.”
He nodded, seemingly convinced. Of course, I was lying. My three kids ages five and under were loaded into our car along with our two panting Chihuahuas and a slightly less than completely random assortment of our belongings. Hurricane Irma was bearing down on our home in the Orlando area. My wife was already at work for the duration of the storm—she is a labor and delivery nurse—so the kids and I were scrambling to position ourselves as much out of harm’s way as possible. After much consideration, consultation of computer models and forecasts, flip-flopping, and hemming and hawing, we had settled on my parents’ house on the east coast as our storm shelter. It seemed like it would be somewhat out of the way of the western track Irma had chosen and, at the very least, I would have help with the kids.
Taking pictures of one’s home before a hurricane arrives is certainly the responsible thing to do (I guess? I mean, how else will my insurer know about the empty cardboard box with holes cut in it that perpetually inhabits our hallway and the stacks of paper, assorted plastic blocks, and sticks that live on all our countertops and tables?). But, like many responsible things, it got lost in the shuffle because of kids. It turns out that re-locating three children is quite a chore. Even when they are very helpful and pack their own suitcases.
The days before Irma’s arrival were typical for Florida under threat of hurricane. I’ve lived here all my life and if there is one thing you can count on it is that Floridians prepare for hurricanes with flamboyant zeal. It is our state’s favorite pastime. Boarding up windows, buying water and snack foods, hoarding batteries, filling up our cars and seventeen plastic containers with gas: We love that stuff! In most cases, the preparation goes to waste when the storms veer off into the Atlantic or swerve into the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps it’s a bit macabre, but you can almost feel a whiff of disappointment in the hot, humid air when the hurricanes turn away and leave us to consume ungodly amounts of granola bars in our air-conditioned homes.
Hurricanes are one of the most exciting parts of living in Florida and they are perhaps our communities’ greatest shared experience. They bring us together. And, while no one will say it, we secretly relish a good hurricane scare. Florida summers are long and demoralizing. The presence of a hurricane can break the monotony, shake up our routines. It’s only when one makes landfall near us that we remember how much it sucks to have our routines disrupted. Fortunately, landfall happens much less than you might expect: I’ve lived here thirty-five years and I can remember experiencing the direct effects of a hurricane in my part of the state maybe a handful of times. In other words, there is plenty of time in between to forget what it’s like.
On Saturday night and all day Sunday, we waited. And waited. And waited. As the hours ticked slowly by, it started to feel like Irma had been threatening Florida for about two weeks and was still perpetually three days away. Finally, late Sunday afternoon, the trees started rustling outside and bands of mostly light rain started sweeping through. Hurricanes tend to creep up on you. And even when the storm has arrived, there is still a lot of waiting. Except for the hour or two when the center of the storm is passing through, there are regular breaks between the bands marked by relative calm.
Late in the afternoon, the tornado warnings started flying. We had told my 3-year-old (Bennett) and 5-year-old (Jacob) that we were going to seek shelter in my parents’ bedroom closet when the storm got dangerous. This turned out to be a huge mistake. Not taking shelter in the closet so much as telling Jacob about it. Because when the television and cell phones stared blaring with regularity as possible tornados spun through the area, Jacob insisted that we move immediately to the closet. Much like the storm, he was relentless.
Our second mistake was telling Jacob that tornados sound like oncoming trains.
“I think I heard it!” Jacob said shortly after another tornado warning alert blared from the TV. “It sounded like ‘choo-choo’.”
“I don’t think that’s exactly what they mean,” my mom said.
“Oh, so more like ‘clickety-clack’?” Jacob asked.
For all I know, he could be right. I could have been imagining things, but I thought I heard some clickety-clacking on a couple occasions. I took cover behind the couch cushions in the closet just to be on the safe side.
Eventually, as evening gave way to night and the sky outside darkened to a deep charcoal gray, we gave up and just moved into the closet for the duration. The wind began to howl and the trees creaked under the strain. Ominous bumps from debris falling onto the roof punctuated the heavier gusts. The wind gusts are the most disconcerting part of hurricanes. The steady roar of the sustained winds starts to grow louder and louder and all you can do is wait for it to subside. And when the ruckus finally reaches a crescendo, there is a moment of near silence in which your heart skips a beat in anticipation. Again, you wait. Like when you hear the squealing of car brakes in the distance and you wait expectantly for the sound of a collision.
There wasn’t much sleep for us in the closet. All three kids (the boys plus 1-year-old Olivia) fell asleep briefly before the storm reached its peak around midnight. The boys managed to fend off Olivia’s advances successfully for a time, even when she climbed on them and plopped down on their faces.
However, around midnight someone got scared, I don’t remember which one, and woke everyone else up. And that was about it for sleep. We weathered the rest of the storm wide awake—in the closet mostly, but venturing out from time to time to roam the house in ill-fated attempts at finding a place to rest. The boys were scared to venture out very far into the dark house, but Olivia was undeterred. She charged off into the pitch black hallways without a care in the world, banging plastic cups together as she went.
When morning came, we ventured out to assess the damage. There were many tree branches down, two large trees in the backyard had tipped over like toys (not onto the house, luckily), and, of course, we lost power. The loss of electricity would pretty much define the rest of our week.
Much like hurricane preparation, Floridians know how to do hurricane aftermath. There is nothing we love more than walking around our property the morning after, surveying the wreckage, and shouting comments to the neighbors we otherwise never talk to. “That was some storm, huh? You guys come out alright?”
Then we gather up our yard equipment, slip on our work gloves, and rush to construct huge piles of tree limbs and leaves in front of our homes. We like to do this immediately for some reason. As if the branches wouldn’t be there a few days later. And it goes without saying that it is everyone’s goal to build the biggest pile of debris. The person in the neighborhood who has the biggest pile wears that accomplishment like a badge of honor until the next hurricane comes through. (Or maybe that’s just me?)
However, after the heady first few hours of frenetic yardwork and weird neighborly conversation, the reality of life without power in the Florida summer sets in. Yes, some people have generators to bridge the gap, but I consider that to be cheating. But, generator or not, there are certain things we do next because we are at our core a helpless people. Mainly, we drive around in our fully-fueled cars to survey the damage around town and see if any fast-food restaurants or grocery stores are open yet. When we’re not out foraging, we busy ourselves with once-in-a-hurricane chores like cleaning out the refrigerator (because it’s empty, so, why not?) and organizing our rations.
And that’s pretty much what we do for the next three or four days. Oh yes, and we curse the persistent buzzing of the generators that drips from the air day and night because it reminds us of those lucky cheaters with their functional air conditioning systems.
Well, perhaps I should only speak for myself on this one. Because, of course, there are a lot of people who get straight back to the business of putting our communities back together while I drive my kids around in the air-conditioned car and consider the hellscape that is life without any operational coffee shops. Yes, while I and others who don’t have a clearly-defined role to play in the recovery cruise around scoping out the restaurant situation—to be fair, we do our part by reporting our findings on Facebook: “Dunkin Donuts is open!” “7-11 has coffee!” “Publix has ice!”—many heroes start getting stuff done.
Seriously, shout-out to the people who just get on with it. I did my best to carry on, but I felt worthless at times. It took all my energy to keep my kids fed, watered, and entertained. The university where I work part-time was closed for a week. And there was no downtime at night for writing because there are no separate or clearly-defined bedtimes in a house without lights or air conditioning. There is only a gradual and chaotic decline into fitful and energetic sleep on assorted pieces of furniture, like a roving family of house cats. So, huge props to nurses like my wife who had to take time away from their families to help others (her unit delivered several babies during the storm, but, disappointingly, no Irmas). And kudos to the food service workers who got back at it to keep us fed and the utility workers who literally put their lives on the line to get our power back on and the sanitation workers who collected debris in the scorching heat. Everyone who chipped in to help get us back to normal.
But while we were trying to get back to normal, we quickly realized just how fragile our whole way of life is. Most of the damage in my neighborhood was relatively minor: a few missing shingles here and there and lots of plant debris. For the most part, the trees were the greatest victims.
But the electricity, that’s a whole other story. When the power first went out, Jacob asked me if they put little bits of fire into the wires to bring power to the house and I was like, “Yes, that is my understanding of the situation.” And, I wasn’t really lying. I thought about electricity for the first time in many years and quickly realized I had no idea how it works. Much like I have no idea how water gets to our faucets or where the water from the toilet goes when it flushes. I’m reasonably certain I’m not alone in my ignorance. As a general rule, we the people know nothing. But, a few days without electricity makes you understand how quickly things could descend into chaos. While I was driving around in the days after Irma, trying to figure out why there were cars parked like ghosts at the empty gas stations, I thought about how lucky I am to have been born in a specific time and place and with a level of inherent privilege that I can flip a switch and lights come on, turn on a faucet and clean water comes out, flush the toilet and it goes away somewhere and doesn’t come back, and push a few buttons and make my house comfortable even when the temperature outside is over ninety degrees.
Finally, after four days of nomadic zombie-istic pursuit of ice, gas, and junk food and four nights of stripping down to our underwear to sleep fitfully in discomfort on dusty couches with sweat dripping from our skin, the lights came back on. What a relief it was to go to the bathroom without clutching a lantern like Laura Ingalls Wilder! And, just like that, we slid back into our routines. Perhaps more than anything it is these cozy routines—morning coffee, school, work, family dinner—that prevent us from becoming adrift. Without them we are lost. And when our routines are disrupted and we are forced to confront the brutality of the natural world we live in, things can quickly go off the rails. I’ll tell you one thing for sure, I won’t be taking electricity and air conditioning for granted any time soon. I’m certainly glad things are getting back to normal. And my heart goes out to all the people who were more significantly affected by Irma and Harvey and the other natural disasters around the world. Having experienced just a few days of minor hardship, I can’t imagine what it is like to have your world completely upended and I definitely hope I never have to find out. Speaking of which, I just noticed there’s yet another storm churning in the Atlantic. Maybe I should go ahead and take those pictures of my house after all.