3 Gifts Hurricane Irma Gave Me
- Irma Gave Me an Adventure. You can have an adventure, you can have a story to tell, so a story is something that belongs to you and something someone–or something–can give you. Up in the Tampa Bay Area, which is west-central Florida, however, we haven’t had a real hit within puny human memory, so we had no hurricane adventure tales, only tales of hyped-up letdown and near misses, like the time Charley was headed this way and hit Punta Gorda instead. As Irma devastated distant islands, I told myself the only threat I’d face was the murky, internal struggle to weather the survival guilt caused by getting lashed with footage of Hurricane Harvey and the threat of North Korea and the Chiapas Earthquake that killed 98 people and injured over 300 more.Basically, the week before Irma saw me busy boarding the windows to my soul and rolling my eyes at our adult children, who didn’t have the lifelong experience with hurricane hype that I did, and so were thrashing after last-minute plane tickets they couldn’t afford and trying to rent hotel rooms that were booked up even though each one lives in the safest possible structures and zones and have friends in even safer areas that would take them in. In fact, my daughter’s place never even lost power. As for me, it didn’t occur to me to leave my cement-block home well above evacuation zones. That’s why I’d chosen this place in the first place. Besides, it was just good civic manners to leave the shelters, highways, airline seats, and hotel rooms to those misfortunate enough to lack fiscal, physical, or emotional resources to brave the storm. Most of us can just stay put and be smart. When, one by one, our kids all independently texted us that they’d skipped town in the middle of the night, I finally woke up to my own hurricane adventure—just in time to miss the chance to buy water, plywood, and flashlights. Irma’s forecast had changed in the night, and we could now potentially get at least a category 2, if not a 4.One by one, I added tabs to my browser—Accuweather, WeatherUnderground, National Hurricane Center, Wikipedia’s page on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. One by one, I added apps to my cell phone: The Weather Channel, Hurricane Tracker, NOAA Weather, Tornado Time, FEMA. I was suddenly playing a real-life game: how to “win” at surviving Irma with nothing but limited, last-minute, half-assed resources and some pluck. I built alliances with neighbors and nearby friends, I inventoried our considerable battery supply and our pitiful flashlight supply. I filled every conceivable receptacle with water, including wine bottles and gallon zip bags, which I cleverly froze (and which tore and later leaked all over my kitchen—the only flooding we suffered). From hurricane perspective, my tiny patch of earth looked different. For example, the bird feeders were now potential rockets, so I packed them away and scattered extra feed for my avian friends, wondering what happens to them during hurricanes.The towering Norfolk pine I usually admired was now a monster that could stomp the west side of the house (it’s now permanently leaning our way, but heavy mansplaining has convinced me not to worry about it).
The walk-in closet in the east side suddenly became the most precious room in the house, especially since we’d failed to get hurricane shutters or plywood.
I emptied it and dragged a mattress in there and dubbed it “The Bunker”—Irma was planning to spend the night, and I wanted us in the safest possible place. Irma-intoxicated, I walked all day for several days, moving precious pets, plants, and items out from harm’s way and from under the Norfolk pine. I even double-bagged our fire safe in case, somehow, the house flooded. Although we’re well above flood zone, if the roof gave or enough rain rushed down the hill (yes, I live on a hill in Florida), we could take in water.
In fact, I spent one afternoon building—all by myself—a dam out of ten-gallon pots of dirt, paving blocks, and 50 feet of continuous landscaping plastic to direct water past the back of the house, which, I must say, worked beautifully. I made all my neighbors come admire it, and they agreed, it was brilliant. Thursday night I went to the gym, since I’ve been an endorphin junkie for about eight years now. The familiar faces in my spin class looked wild-eyed. The trainer made storm jokes, played storm-related tunes, and wore a shirt with lightning across it. “She needs a life,” my one friend muttered. “This is her life,” I said. As I pedaled and sweat, the faces I’ve watched huff and puff for years but never spoken to all looked different now, like vulnerable mortal creatures I might never see again, characters I never realized I loved. I gazed at them and wished them each well. Across the spin room, an older woman who’d lost her husband a year ago locked eyes with me. I raised two fingers in a peace sign. She smiled.
Saturday, things came together. A friend offered us her extra plywood, enough to board the east side of the house and the great room, but had no fasteners. Another friend had extra fasteners. As the first outer bands of Irma brushed our skin, my husband boarded windows and I collected the last projectiles: outdoor furniture, potted plants and orchids, dog toys, and brought them indoors. Once, as I came through the side door to the garage, buffeted by mere fifteen-mile-per-hour winds, (according to my various apps and tabs) Irma slammed the door behind me. The little window in the door shattered, spraying me with more glass than it possibly could’ve contained. “Our first Irma-related damage,” I said, and wasn’t sure I’d made a joke.
A friend had to evacuate his house and so came to ride out the storm in ours, which was much safer now that most of the house was boarded. We watched a Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, and then, as the wind and rain gusted harder, laughed at the newscasters all squinting into rain and shouting on television that they shouldn’t be standing where they’re standing. “The police just came by and told us to clear out!” One of woman was reporting live in my very town, sharing footage of a traffic light swinging maniacally over an intersection. There, too, was an electrical transformer in flames in the rain. I’d been comparing forecast sources all day, but none, I realized, matched the credibility of live reports. Things, apparently, were a little worse than we’d expected. So we donned raincoats and rain pants to try—and fail to—walk the dogs. Nothing could protect us from the 75-mile-per-hour gale of stupidity for going out in that wind. Who did we think we were? Newscasters?
Later, with the cat and our guest tucked into the great room, my husband, the dogs, and I crawled into the cozy closet bunker. In there we had both electric light and battery back-ups. As we slept, the storm was muted by the cement block walls and the roar of our air conditioning and refrigerator, but not to worry. Noise from thee FEMA alerts woke me frequently; I got up-to-the-minute wind speeds, flash floods, rip tides, tornadoes. At 1:45 am, the power cut out and in the silence Irma’s volume seemed to escalate. I later found out at that hour a tiny tornado toddled through my neighbor’s back yards, twisting and toppling trees. At 4 am FEMA woke me to tell me that Irma’s eye was now passing through a neighboring county. It passed us just shy of a Category 2. I no longer believe I’d try to ride a Category 3 like cowboy.
Our house guest—the one not named Irma—reported he’d slept surprisingly well on our couch with a near Category 2 banging on the plywood. The neighbors gathered in the street to share the gifts of their hurricane stories and to show-and-tell damage to fences and trees. The winner with the most dramatic story was the neighbor whose palm tree totaled his truck. That morning, despite a siren in the distance, life almost picked up where it left off for one little difference—we had no electricity.
- Irma Gave Me a Neighborhood. Everyone says communities pull together in a disaster, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I like to think of myself as a friendly, outgoing person, but apparently, I’m not. I moved into this so-called neighborhood over three years ago, and although I waved and jogged across the street to introduce myself, not one of my neighbors rang my doorbell with a pie or a plate of cookies. That first Memorial Day, I held a party and invited them all. Only one family came, ate heartily, monopolized the conversation, and never invited us to their place in return. At first I was hurt, but I’ve come to understand that not only are they too busy to get to know us, we actually live way too far apart. Nowadays, distance is greater than it was when I was a kid. “Next door” means “next galaxy.” For example, my informal studies suggest that three of the five houses on this cul-de-sac have children all about grade-school age, but I never see them ring each other’s doorbells, play in each others’ yards, or ride bikes together. One of them does hit us up frequently for fundraising candy bars, dangerously addictive Girl Scout cookies, and a strange sheet of plastic punch-out gift cards we throw away, but I digress. The point is, after three and a half years, until Irma we didn’t know each other by name. My husband swears one of them goes to our gym, but I don’t recognize her face. As far as I’m concerned, what we have isn’t a neighborhood of five houses, but a grouping of five islands separated by digital and cable galaxies. I’d know them better if I friended them on Facebook.
The morning after Irma, however, we were cut off from Internet and cable and stranded on the same island of black top. We were all doing the same outdoor damage-assessment and clean-up chores. We still didn’t see any children, who apparently had back-up power for their smart phones, tablets, and gaming consoles and remained safely floating through cyberspace.
One family had a generator, so we never saw them at all.
Suddenly they were grateful that I was willing to listen to their Irma adventure stories and take Irma tours around their properties, tsk sympathetically over in the downed fence panel, show sufficient awe by the felled row of trees, and shake my head in dismay over the sunken retaining wall. They had names and backstories. They seemed to find me likable.
“How about you?” they’d say, and I said, “We lost one of our fifty papaya trees, but whenever that happens, our property value goes up.” And they laughed.
When someone exclaimed, “I’d kill for a cup of coffee,” I was thrilled to be able say, “Are you kidding? The first thing I did when I moved to Florida fifteen years ago was buy a camp stove and a cowboy coffee maker. Come on over!” That established our house as the place to score free coffee. Soon neighbors were walking right through my front door without knocking. They brought empty mugs, lounged on my lanai while the coffee brewed, and even hung around to drink it while we talked about ourselves, the other neighbors, and other gripping true-life dramas, just like people used to do in real neighborhoods.
We were productive too. The coffee clutch planned to rake one disabled neighbor’s yard and carried it out, at least the front part, by the driveway. A few insisted that when the power came back, I must come for coffee at their houses, so we could talk some more, and I said of course, I’d love that, and tried not to doubt it would happen. When it came time for us all to empty our freezers, the man with the crushed truck promised to host a neighborhood barbecue party that very night, but he didn’t. Another said that after this, she was going to buy her own camp stove so she could make coffee just like me during the next storm, and I smiled, but it was the one thing I hoped wouldn’t happen.
- Irma Gave Me Nostalgia. While I still had power on my smartphone, I could see that people suffered more serious consequences than sweaty nights, missed television shows, and a garbage can full of wasted refrigerator contents. Eight people died in a nursing home. Several of my friends run their own businesses, and every day without power meant lost revenue. Irma was a monstrously disastrous storm, and she hit us hard, which is why I kept wondering, day after day, why I was so happy.
Open windows reminded me of my childhood, padding downstairs in the morning barefoot on the cool linoleum, the feel of the wet morning air on my bare legs when I ran outside, the sudden heat of the low sun on my skin, the lazy afternoons swimming and lounging in a wet bathing suit, not bothering to dry off, sipping from a warm glass of water, the rise and fall of cicada song, nothing whatsoever to do except check my plants for new growth and watch the romances, alliances, and betrayals that went down soap-opera-style on my bird feeders. How brave the female cardinal was to chase off that squirrel! How convinced the young squirrel is that she’s going to be the one to solve the puzzle of my squirrel-proofing, although the older generations of squirrels couldn’t.
I spent entire days and nights barefoot. I enjoyed sensations it seemed I hadn’t experienced for decades—the sound of a wet breeze through trees heavy with summer-green leaves, the scent of acorns warming in the sunlight, the way it felt to peel off a wet bathing suit in the dark shadows of a midday bedroom and let the damp ghost of it evaporate slowly while I puttered around the house, the friendly call of neighbors at my front door (while I ducked out of sight to grab a beach towel), the surprise that eighty-eight humid degrees is actually quite comfortable when you lie still in the shade, the chatter of the cat when a squirrel bounces across the screen of an open window, the morning breath of trees and dew-sparkling grass, the silky stroke of a midday breeze through a dark living room as I lie turning pages of a novel with my sundress hiked up shamefully high to expose as much skin as I can to the air without risking getting caught naked by a neighbor again. The summer air is exactly as it was when I was a child and my mother made us pack the car early for a day at the beach. The cat went slinking in and out of open windows exactly as cats had always done. I sat outside reading a book, my hair matted with chlorine and my face without a trace of concern over my appearance when all my great new neighborhood friends stopped by. There I sat in almost all my glory. And there I sat some more, reminding myself I couldn’t work if I wanted to. In fact, I actually had less to do than I do on vacation.
That first post-Irma day, after making shaggy, mastodon-sized piles of Irma debris, the neighbors from two adjacent houses, both with school-age children, and the guests who weathered the storm with them all gathered along the curb with folding chairs. They talked and laughed and drank beer. As night fell, someone produced a large grill, and candles and flashlights came out, and then even children came outside, the very same way they did when we the power went out long ago. I took my dogs out front and threw the Frisbee wistfully. No one, not even the children, showed interest in me or my super-cool Frisbee dogs. No one called the coffee lady with the cool dogs over. The scraps of conversation I overheard told me this group had grown up right here in town. They had actual ties to this place, they were lifelong friends, their lives were full, and I was tired. I took my dogs back indoors and read by candlelight next to the window where I could hear them. At the party the beverages were different from what they were in my 1970’s New Jersey memory—beers instead of cocktails—but the shouts of children playing in the dark long after bedtime was the same. A drizzle came down, and the neighbors laughed and scattered. Then someone pitched a small cloth roof on four poles, and there was just enough room for them to stand shoulder to shoulder and laugh even harder. I called my husband over to see it and share a vicarious smile with me. When the rain stopped, the group subsided to the chairs again.
Before bed, my husband and I walked the dogs, and none of the mid-life partiers so much as waved at strange, tall, stooped, skinny, aging old foreign farts. Still, I was grateful, because there, overhead, was the Milky Way, right where I’d left it so many light years of light pollution ago.
When we went to bed, the neighbors still hadn’t run out of things to banter about, and the children were playing a game they invented. I lay awake, naked under my thin sheet, cooled only by the light breeze cutting across the room and real, live crickets, sparing me my dependency on a sound machine’s annoying loop of cricket song. I dozed, grateful that, at least for a few days, we weren’t boxed away from each other in climate-controlled rooms, weren’t keeping company with cable television characters that didn’t exist and sure as hell didn’t know us and didn’t care that a palm tree totaled Curtis’ truck or how the neighbor known as Crazy Dave got his name. Those nights without traffic or motor engines of any kind, I slept better than I had in years.
So, for a few days, thanks to Irma, my neighbors came through my door without knocking. They brought empty coffee mugs and sleepy faces full of gratitude. They sat around my pool, sharing my fascination with my super-awesome dogs. For a little while, Irma returned to me the balmy breezes of childhood summers unspoiled by air conditioning. I had the company of birds and cicadas by day and the Milky Way light show and a cricket symphony at night. For a few days, I had relief from hard and chronic longing to connect to a patch of land and its beasts and people, and I knew again, exquisitely, what we once meant by “the good life.”