September 11, 2017

My First Hurricane: Impending Doom, But Mostly...Waiting.

As I write this post, I sit at the kitchen table of a Mexican diplomat in the heart of Atlanta, Georgia. Gray skies and steady rain have moved into the area as the remnants of what was Hurricane Irma swirl above the Southeastern United States.

It's my first hurricane experience and my first evacuation. Our quaint 1949 duplex in the Beachside area of Ormond Beach, Florida was clearly the wrong place to spend a hurricane that had been predicted to rip up the Eastern coast of the state. The predictions had been bothering everyone in Florida for about 10 days prior to the storm making any US landfall. Seeing the massive storm churn around its well-defined eye in the mid-Atlantic was exciting and worrying. The "cone of uncertainty"--decidedly the funniest way to describe a projected area where the hurricane's strongest force would occur--showed the entire state at risk, with Daytona and Ormond facing what forecasters would have you believe was certain doom. I made Alan come with me to the grocery store to pick up canned food and huge jugs of water on September 2, long before it was cool to get your supplies. Turns out that was a really good move, as shelves were emptied just a few days later with hurricane-preparers loading carts full of bottled water, Gatorade, chips, beer, toilet paper, batteries, and baked beans. I would say that list also represents the priorities of during the storm, though beer could probably also rank number one in many households.

News coverage hailed Irma as a catastrophic storm capable of immense and widespread damage throughout the entire state of Florida. Everywhere you looked, Irma was on the lips of people and on the screens of phones, and coming over the radio waves.

So we had supplies as we watched the storm inch across the Atlantic, still going about our daily lives relatively unbothered. Every day the storm advanced closer to the Leeward Islands, still hundreds of miles from Florida. By last Wednesday, our university announced that we would close for a week to let people evacuate and come back from the powerful storm. In the final class I taught on Wednesday, students were glued to their phones and laptops trying to get messages to their friends and family about their plan. One student was frantically trying to contact friends in the French Air Force stranded on St. Martin.

The beautiful weather in Daytona Beach in the days leading up to our evacuation betrayed the ominous monster looming somewhere in the ocean, wreaking havoc on tiny island nations, decimating houses as it went. Floridians, meanwhile, ran gas pumps out of gas, kept store shelves empty and booked every hotel room south of the Mason-Dixon line.

On Wednesday evening, Alan and I made plans and back-up plans with friends of friends of friends in Atlanta, and parents of friends in Live Oak, Florida. We would have to see what the path looked like, we said.

Thursday morning, we woke to beautiful, clear skies and an eccentric neighbor trying to haul an abandoned couch to her place. We tried to help, but alas, no use. It was way too heavy. She planned to ride out the hurricane at home, so I gave her the ice cream that I knew wouldn't last on our evacuation route.

Preparing for the worst case scenario, Alan and I planned to stay with a friend's parents in Live Oak, Florida, hoping to get out of the brunt of the storm without having to drive too far. We imagined that heavy rain, wind and storm surge could ruin our house and our newly acquired couch and mattress, so we did all we could to prepare. We packed all of our clothes into suitcases, tucked all dishes into cupboards, and got everything off of the floor. We lifted our new couch onto a table and hoisted our mattress onto chairs in the hope of keeping them out of any storm surge. I carefully secured the tarp flap that covers our outdoor laundry area, with our old noisy washer and dryer set, secretly hoping that maybe if it were to get damaged, that I'd be able to get a new one that works a little better. We also put most of our dry food into bags to take with us, and emptied as much of the fridge and freezer into our cooler as we could. The last thing to do before leaving, our landlord had advised, was to turn off the power at the breakers.

We pulled out of the driveway at about 2 PM, most earthly possessions in tow, with two cars and a cat. We were immediately confronted with heavy traffic. Everyone was trying to go north on I-95. It was difficult driving, to say the least. Floridians have a special way of driving that involves hard acceleration and sudden braking. That is fine in a sports car, but not in a heavily-loaded Subaru with an animal inside.

Things cleared up significantly when we turned onto I-10 West at Jacksonville. We met our host at the McDonald's near the exit so that he could guide us to the place where we would weather the storm. As we skirted the very small town of Live Oak, idyllic pastures and green lawns dotted with plantation-style houses again betrayed the impending doom that the radio was claiming. We turned off the paved highway onto a sandy dirt road, dipping down into a dense forest. Small houses stood among the trees, while Confederate flags waved and bald eagle statues hovered over Trump/Pence yard signs. We finally pulled into the steeply-downhill grass driveway of the quaint house of our hosts. Once we had our things inside, the host showed us the grand Suwannee River, rushing by, just a few hundred feet from their house. I remembered playing that song of piano several lifetimes ago.

By this time, the infamous "cone of uncertainty" had shifted to a path straight up the spine of Florida, putting Live Oak more or less in the line of fire; yet, still two days from any mainland US landfall, the path seemed just a guess and no basis to make a decision. Our hosts insisted that we were safe and that there was no reason to worry. The next morning, Alan and I contemplated going further north to Atlanta, but ultimately decided that we would just fill up our gas tanks instead. In the micro-town of Live Oak, a steady stream of cars was driving out of town, toward the interstate. Cars full, we headed back to our secluded river house to spend a lazy day at the dock of the river, pondering the coming hurricane.

Given the updated predictions that the hurricane would be bringing much of its fury to North-Central Florida, Alan and I made the decision to wake up early Saturday morning and head to Atlanta where we could relax a little more. Our gracious hosts packed us big lunches with tons of snacks and sent us off with hot breakfast. It felt like we were leaving on some kind of mission. Turns out that hundreds of thousands of our closest Floridian friends were doing the exact same thing. Even at 6 AM, the interstate was crowded, rest areas and truck stops were absolutely packed, and the coffee makers were nearly out (can you imagine?). By mid-day, the traffic was even more intense, and we waited in chaotic lines to top off our gas tanks. We veered off of the packed interstates in favor of rural highways, which took about the same amount of time, but was far less stressful.

Metro Atlanta was a big mess when we arrived Saturday late afternoon. Traffic on a 12-lane road was at a stand-still, creeping forward with 1 out of 4 license plates from Florida.

We're staying with a friend of a girlfriend of one of my new coworkers. It's amazing how people seem to just come out of the woodwork to help. I must have had 10 or more distant friends contact me offering places to stay. Some of them were way too far away, but it was still nice of them to offer. Things have been uneventful since arriving here. The place we are staying is next to a walking trail and park, so we've been out among fit Atlantonians with their dogs.

We've had one eye on our phones the whole time, checking for updates as Irma eventually did make landfall in the Keys and then up the west coast and into central Florida overnight last night. No word about the state of affairs in Daytona yet. I've heard that the bridges to the Beachside area are closed until they are inspected tomorrow, and that it's very likely that we do not have power available at the house.

The plan, then, is to wait in Atlanta as the wind howls today, and head out early tomorrow morning (with our millions of Florida friends) and make the trip back to the south to see what Irma left in her wake.

Here's to my first, but probably not last, hurricane.