Sunday, November 12, 2006

Blogging for Books: Summer of Hurricanes

Up until August 13, 2004 I had a fairly smug attitude about hurricanes. We've lived in Florida since 1992. The first few years we lived in the Panhandle, and the few storms that came our way were tropical storm strength, and didn't seem so bad. Now we live virtually in the center of Florida, and never imagined that a storm could come so far inland and still be a hurricane.

As Hurricane Charley approached I figured that we'd get some wind and some rain, and then life would go on as usual. I shared this attitude with my new-to-Florida sister-in-law on August 13th. We were supposed to host a first birthday party for her daughter at my home.

My sil and her family, as well as my il's, came to our house that Thursday as scheduled. In addition to the planned party, they live in Southwest Florida, and wanted to get out of dodge before Charley arrived. Central Florida seemed like a good place to go. Friday morning we made a quick trip to the mall before it shut down early in advance of the storm.

After we got home, the wind was picking up and it rained a bit. We finished moving some of our outside things into the garage and went along with our day. I was still feeling confident that this would be no big deal. We watched the news and the Weather Channel. The storm was hitting Lee County, but they couldn't really tell us about how the storm affected the region just yet.

We idled away the afternoon, had dinner, and waited for the storm to come. The wind and rain picked up; the adults tried to keep an even demeanor for the sake of the four kids with us. At about 6:00 the power started flickering. By 6:10 it was off for good. And by 6:15 my smug attitude was wiped away as well.

I don't recall much of Charley as the grown-ups were busy distracting the kids with flashlights. Around 10:00 pm it seemed that the storm had passed, so we took a look outside. It was very dark so it was tough to see even to the end of our driveway. There were trees down, that much we could see. We managed to dissuade my father-in-law from trying to drive back to the motel they had a room at and sleep at our house instead.

The next morning we were able to explore more. There was no damage to our house, thankfully, and one of our cars narrowly missed being hit by a tree. Everything was just a mess though—leaves everywhere, downed trees and power poles. Our phones were out and the electricity as well. Using the gas grill and our camp stove we were still able to have a typical weekend breakfast of eggs. Fortunately in the first day or so after the hurricane the air was not thick with dampness.

I was able to reach my mother via cellphone if I stood in the middle of the street. I learned that the storm was still a hurricane when the eye passed through our town. I also learned that a nursing home in town evacuated its residents after the storm ripped the roof off of their building!

The next day we were running out of ice to keep things cold. We took a drive, and learned that they were giving out ice and water at City Hall. I was impressed that they could get assistance like this set up so quickly. I was discouraged and upset to see the condition of our town—it is just shocking to see the place that you live torn to shreds like this.

Before a week had gone by our power was back on. I spent some time at a friend’s home before that because she had power, a pool, and two kids the same ages as mine. Our phone was still out of order (and wouldn’t go back on for nearly a month after Charley). Gasoline was hard to come by in town; nearly all of the stations had extensive damage that would need to be repaired before they could open again. More houses had blue tarps on the roofs than did not.

A few weeks later I found myself parked outside of Wal-Mart crying. We’d been watching the weather for a few days, and we were beginning to prepare for Hurricane Frances. I was completely on edge, watching the news every night, waiting and wondering if this storm would come here too. And now here I was, outside the store preparing to buy more storm supplies. The store was a madhouse—folks taking canned goods off the shelves as fast as the folks working there could put them up. I still had to try to fill up my car’s tank, too.

We didn’t want to remain in town for a second storm, so we drove to my in-law’s home on Sanibel. The storm was approaching from the east coast, and they have hurricane shutters to boot. Their power flickered, but never went off. With the shutters down we couldn’t hear much of the storm, and it was nice to feel so sheltered in their home.

In the next few weeks, we watched the Weather Channel religiously. Hurricane Jeanne took a loop-de-loop through the Caribbean. It seemed like the storm was trying to torture us. With nearly half the gas stations in town still closed, getting gas continued to be a challenge. Huge displays of batteries, flashlights, and canned goods were at the front of all the local grocery stores. When we drove around town our two year old commented about the mess made by the ‘big wind’ (that’s how we described hurricanes to her). Our five year old caught us watching the Weather Channel and asked in a worried voice “is that one coming here too?” We were all on edge, and while we were thankful that there is advance notice of approaching hurricanes, we were terribly tired of anticipating the storm.

Finally Jeanne put us out of our misery by making landfall. During Charley I was occupied by keeping the children distracted. We missed experiencing the worst of Frances by traveling to southwest Florida. Jeanne, though, Jeanne was scary. The storm hit in the pitch black of 5 am. I woke up to find my husband and son walking around the house with a flashlight. The howling winds woke them up. I lay down with my son for a few moments, and found myself having to work at keeping calm while chatting with him. I was shaking. The wind sounded so loud, so intense. There were odd creaks that made you wonder if the roof was going to have a gaping hole at any time. My husband came back to bed, and I went to sleep with our daughter. As I lay there listening to the storm, I willed myself back asleep. I was still shaking, and I wished that we were all sleeping together.

Last year we watched the horror of Katrina on TV. There are a few more weeks of hurricane season 2006 left and we are grateful that there haven’t been any major storms in Florida this year. I don’t see any more blue tarps around town, but things are not completely back to pre-Charley conditions. One gas station remains closed. The nursing home just reopened, after two years of extensive reconstruction. A local Italian restaurant only opened up about a year and a half after the storm. And people are wondering why recovery in New Orleans isn’t further along? I know that we are lucky that our home sustained no damage in 2004, but my stomach can’t help but get tied up in knots when I recall how we spent the weeks of August and September that year.

--November 2006 Blogging for Books entry

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