Lessons From Hurricane Irma: My Personal Experience
Thursday, August 31 (10 days out)
"Hap-py BIRTH-day!" my sister sang through the phone.
She'd called for my birthday, and to catch up about her upcoming trip to St. Maarten over Labor Day week. She goes every year at this time, playing a sort of vacation roulette with hurricane season. She’s been lucky so far, but this year was different. Apparently there was a hurricane coming.
“I'm not sure if we're going now or not. It's heading right for the Leeward islands.”
Really? Cancel a trip somewhere? I hadn't heard of Hurricane Irma yet, and my first inclination was never to listen to the weather predictions until 2 days out because the path always changes. We’ve had to reroute several trips over the years because of hurricanes interrupting our fun but they're also notorious for changing their course at the last moment.
“They think it might hit Florida too. We have two days to decide whether to go” she said hopefully.
I hung up the phone and immediately turned on The Weather Channel where I sat glued for the next straight week. Hurricane Irma was currently a Category 4 hurricane that was quickly gaining steam over the southern Atlantic. It was forming a perfect eye, so perfect in fact, the Weather Channel team was practically giddy at the classic textbook formation. Look at the size of that storm! The eye is so well-formed! This is a textbook storm and gaining speed!
Happy Birthday! Now get ready for a wild ride.
Friday, September 1 (9 days out)
The next day my sister called to say she was cancelling her trip. Early paths had the storm moving directly over St. Maarten. But it was still so early, I thought. Anything could happen. These islands get pelted with hurricanes all the time, and probably don’t heed warnings until the last few days. They could be spared completely if it turned a little this way or that. But something was different about this storm. It wasn’t the path that concerned me. It was the size. This hurricane was so ginormous it covered St. Maarten and ALL the islands around it simultaneously. So even if it turned a little this way or that, it was still going to wallop that island and many others with it.
By Saturday, the predictions began as to where the storm would make landfall in the US. They had it moving over the Leeward islands, then Puerto Rico with its outer bands reaching up to the Bahamas, that’s how huge the storm was. Later in the week it would reach Cuba, and possibly head out into the Gulf again. But the jet stream dipping down into Florida from the west was influencing the storm path and could turn it right into the Florida peninsula.
Saturday, September 2 (8 days out)
So Hurricane Irma was heading for Florida. No big deal. Hurricanes hit the Sunshine State every year in one form or another. We’ve lived in Naples, Florida for several years now and have caught many of the wicked storms from hurricanes passing nearby. Our neighbors were proud of the fact that Naples had successfully weathered direct hits from Andrew which quickly moved west across the state from Miami to Naples in 1992, Charley in 2004, and a direct hit from Wilma in 2005. The last hurricane to hit Florida was Matthew in 2016. But the most devastating hurricane for Naples was Donna in 1960, the worst storm of the season that year, which ravaged the Keys and Naples on the exact same date 57 years earlier.
Irma was even bigger than Donna and following the very same path. “We’ve never lost a shingle”, our neighbors said almost in unison. “We’ve been here for 40 years, and have weathered them just fine.”
We were still a week away from the projected landfall in Florida, and for the next few days we sat in suspended animation in front of the TV until I couldn’t take it anymore. My husband and I disagreed over what might happen - he preferred the best case scenario and I preferred the worst - and the disagreements escalated from the added stress. The Weather Channel storm team was frankly making us crazy with the constant references every hour of the “impending catastrophic event” heading our way, and the "devastation unleashed" as it passed over island by island. In one week - 168 hours - their collective tone on Hurricane Irma escalated from awe-inspiring to life-threatening to total potential annihilation with such authoritative urgency. Day by day, hour by hour, we watched as the bright red and purple counter-clockwise storm spun slowly westward toward Cuba.
We eventually turned off The Weather Channel. We had to. It wasn’t helping us do anything but panic.
Tuesday, September 5 (5 days out)
To be fair, this storm wasn’t easy to predict. All but three of the hurricane spaghetti models (why are there so many?) had the storm hitting the northern coast of Cuba and then turning right, onto the upper Florida Keys then making landfall in Miami. Three models had it hitting Cuba and shifting left out into the Gulf of Mexico. So, this could all be for nothing, we thought. All this worrying and planning, and evacuating could be for nothing?
Wednesday, September 6 (4 days out)
By Wednesday, supermarket shelves in Naples were bare and home improvement stores were sold out of plywood, generators, and other storm necessities. 6.5 million Floridians (not to mention thousands of tourists visiting south Florida) were ordered to evacuate (flee) their homes and were heading up I-75 and I-95, the only two interstates that run north out of Florida. The largest evacuation in Florida's history created a maddening gridlock for days, and all but wiped out any available gasoline and hotel rooms from south Florida to South Carolina.
“So what should we do?” my husband and I asked each other. “Should we stay or should we go?” We weighed our options:
We pack enough clothes for a week, take what valuables we have, and a few mementos. Pack up the cats, enough food and litter for a week. Then we hit the road and leave our home. If we flood, it’s a good decision not to be here. We should definitely leave.
But on the other hand, if a window breaks and we’re here to cover it up with a tarp and prevent water from getting in, it’s good if we stay. We might prevent more damage. Maybe we should stay.
But if we stay and storm surge is as bad as they’re predicting, it could be life-threatening. Maybe we should go.
This went on for days to the point of paralysis. There were no easy answers. In all the recent natural disasters when we see people stranded in life-threatening situations, our thoughts are usually “why didn’t you leave?”, right? It seems like a no-brainer to just flee.
But now that it was us in that situation, it wasn’t so easy. It’s your home you’re leaving, the one thing you invest in every time you upgrade or buy something new. It’s where your life plays out, and it's not so easy to walk away. And in this case, where would we run to? The path of the storm made it impossible to escape Irma completely.
Thursday, September 7 (3 days out)
By now, the news was turning dire for the entire state of Florida, with Big Fat Irma bringing her unprecedented size to a very narrow peninsula and threatening to move on land at the tip of the Everglades squarely between Miami to the east and Naples to the west and roll straight up the entire state. All of Florida except the Panhandle would be hit if the path moved up the middle.
Well that’s not so bad, we thought. They say the northeast quadrant of a hurricane is where the worst winds and rain are. We’ll only get the western bands in Naples which won’t be so bad, right? We’ll stay.
Hour by hour, our resolve and determination changed with the path of the storm. Our stress levels were maxed out, we were scared, and we were getting conflicting information between The Weather Channel and our local news. Thursday morning, we began moving rugs and furniture to the second floor in case we flooded. I dug out photos, letters, and my most cherished keepsakes and packed them in boxes. We battened down the hatches outside and checked the homes of our snowbird neighbors for potential flying objects.
We went to the beach and shoveled sand into heavy duty garbage bags to wedge up against our doors. If you didn’t know a hurricane was coming, you’d have thought it was just another beautiful day at the beach. People were swimming and sunbathing. One woman laughed as she set her beach chair in the sand. "This is my 'hurricane prep'!"
Thursday evening, the storm shifted west for the second time away from Miami. It could keep turning. We should go.
Heading north wasn’t an attractive option. We heard reports that it was now taking 72 hours just to reach the Georgia state line. There was little to no gasoline left in the entire state and no hotel rooms. I’d read that Airbnb had implemented a Disaster Relief Program with many hosts in northern Florida and Georgia providing refuge to evacuees at no cost but you may never get there. If you got stuck in gridlock traffic on the highway or ran out of gas, you’d be forced to sit out a Category 5 hurricane in your car - the last place you’d want to be.
Friday, September 8 (2 days out)
Friday morning, we decided to hit the road and determine our ultimate destination as we heard the updates. We packed our car with clothes, valuables, mementos, and safety items, before making one last trip for the cats. We saw our neighbor outside.
“You guys heading out?” she asked.
“We are. Aren’t you?”
“No guts, no glory” she said as she tidied up her walkway. “I’ve lived here for 40 years. We’ve never lost…”
“Yeah I know, never lost a shingle”, I shot back. I wasn’t in the mood for glory. “It’s not the shingles I’m worried about, it’s the storm surge. We could get 10 to 15 feet of surge here, and I don’t want to be here when that happens.”
“We’re at 14 feet, Lori” she said. “It’s not likely we’ll flood.”
We let it sink in. That made good sense to us. Finally, some mathematics that gave us a solid basis for a decision. We could live with that. OK. We’ll stay.
We brought our bags and boxes back inside and I phoned my parents to break the news. “We know you’re all worried about us. We’re worried about us.” I explained the situation to them: narrow peninsula, huge storm, an entire state evacuating, no gasoline, no place to go. “All things considered, we’re staying. We’ll ‘shelter in place’.”
I felt sick, and terrified. My first hurricane ended up being the biggest one in Florida’s history. What are the odds?
Saturday, September 9 (1 day out)
We didn’t sleep that night, and at 5:30am we turned on the local news. The Chief Meteorologist was explaining the meaning of storm surge. Some people, he explained, had the misconception that surge levels are stated above sea level, when in fact it’s calculated to be from ground level. In other words, if we’re at 14’ elevation, the storm surge they’re predicting could be 10 to 15 feet above that! This was a game changer.
At 6:30 our neighbor called to tell us they were going to a shelter.
The storm was slowing over the coast of Cuba. By the 8:00am update, it was threatening to finally make it’s northward turn toward the lower Keys and Key West. It was time to be prudent. We decided if the storm was tracking west, our best option was to go east. Rather than face the direct hit and potential flooding, we would opt for the hurricane force winds they would have on the other coast, but hopefully with less flooding.
We grabbed our bags, still packed from the night before, said goodbye to our home and belongings and were on the road to our friends' house by 11:00am. For the next 24 hours we tried our best to drink, laugh, and board game our way though the horror of watching it unfold on TV. Mile by mile, the eye moved over Key West heading straight for Marco Island and Naples.
Sunday, September 10
We were three hours north of Naples in Melbourne on the east coast when the winds started howling on Sunday morning. That’s how far reaching this storm was. At 4:00pm, the eye wall of Hurricane Irma hit Naples, and blew away our home and our town. Or so I imagined. The Weather Channel guy was suited up with his LLBean rain gear and protective eye goggles to show everyone watching at home what a fantastic career moment this was for him to experience moving through the eye wall of a now Category 4 hurricane. We watched in bewilderment as he risked life and limb for his bucket list moment (this is sarcasm in case you were wondering), and once inside the calm eye of the hurricane, the rain and wind subsided long enough for us to glimpse a street address behind him. He was a block from our home, and I felt sicker still.
I imagined the worst. When you have no idea what to expect, you brace yourself for that. At least I do. Windows crashing in, our neighbors who stayed being washed away, our house flooding and all our memories washed away. Somewhere in the dead of night I awoke panicked and crying when I realized I’d forgotten to move the box with my wedding gown upstairs from downstairs under the bed.
The next morning, we got word from a neighbor who’d stayed at home. Miraculously, despite heavy winds, there was no damage to our home or flooding as of yet. Not even a shingle had come off. The wind was fierce and downed a lot of trees, but the storm had turned slightly inland as it moved up the coast, which spared Naples the heavy storm surge that was predicted.
It’s been a week since we experienced the wrath of Hurricane Irma. Millions of people are still without power, potable drinking water, and adequate housing. Some in Florida and throughout the Caribbean lost their lives. Like any traumatic event (especially for first timers), this will stay with me for some time. But the experience also comes with some valuable lessons learned that will help out when the next big storm comes along. Maybe they’ll help you too:
1. Ignore the Cable News Hysteria: Level Heads Are Best
Some media coverage of Hurricane Irma, particularly by several cable news programs and The Weather Channel, frankly scared the crap out of me. More importantly, it offered little to the folks in Florida who needed information, not entertainment. Their dire message of “Get out, now!” may have gotten people moving, but to what end and in which direction? Their hysteria could have easily turned chaotic given the amount of people and localities involved. The local news in southwest Florida presented the most rational picture for us - what they called the “Reasonable Worst Case Scenario” - of the impending storm versus the “catastrophic” view of our impending demise we heard constantly from The Weather Channel. The local coverage at NBC2/ABC7 was straight forward and professional, and ultimately more accurate. Plus, their “we’re all in this together” demeanor was reassuring and greatly appreciated in a time of crisis.
2. Be Prepared!
You have little control over things in a natural disaster situation. The one thing you do have control over is how well you’re prepared. Listen to the authorities on how to prepare and call assistance hotlines for more advice and information. Stock up early on things like plywood, cash, gasoline, water, and/or ice. If you can't get sandbags, make your own with sand from the beach or use bags of potting soil or mulch. Prepare your home as best as you can, especially in case you need to evacuate.
3. It Is Possible to “Shelter in Place” If It’s the Right Place
Many people prefer to “shelter in place” during a hurricane. If you feel comfortable doing this, that’s your decision. Make sure the structure you’re in is able to weather the conditions they’re calling for. In this case, they were predicting winds up to 155mph in Naples. That force requires a heavy permanent structure with a reinforced roof to survive. But know where the local shelters are, and the best way to get there in case things don’t work out for you to stay put.
4. Understand That It’s Not Always Possible to Leave
“If it were my family, I wouldn’t stay”, I heard someone from The Weather Channel say. When it comes to evacuating, understand that it’s not always possible for people to leave. Evacuation is a luxury. Circumstances and economics play a big part. Many people don’t have the resources (money, transportation, or out-of-town friends) to evacuate. It’s not easy for families with pets to find a shelter, and shelters fill up quickly. And what about the elderly or infirm, or the family who cares for them? Be sympathetic and don’t judge, or assume irresponsibility.
5. Lend a Hand and Pay it Forward
Natural disasters bring out the best and the worst in people. Fear, stress, and anxiety are high when people risk losing their lives and property. Do what you can to help a stranger in need who maybe can’t help themselves before and after an event like this. Check in on your neighbors. If you don't know them, it's the perfect chance to change that. I’m forever grateful to our friends for welcoming us into their home, 2 rambunctious kittens included.
6. Things Could Always Be Worse
Seriously. And sometimes there's comfort to be had in that. Not to take pleasure in other people's suffering, but to be grateful yours isn't worse.
7. Devastation Can Be Rebuilt
In the week since Irma blew through, people are still shocked at the devastation and thankful for what they do have. Clean up has begun and will continue for months. Since I still don’t have internet, I haven’t been able to watch it on TV or see pictures online. The few images I have seen on Facebook of the damage in my town are of the same mobile home park. But it’s short-sighted to assume this is the worst these places have gone through or count anyone out completely. No place is ever done for good. Some places won't be made whole immediately, but Key West will be up and running in a few short months, as will Naples, St. Maarten, Turks & Caicos, even eventually Barbuda. What makes these places special is the spirit that exists there. The heart and soul of the folks who live there, and love it there. The community spirit that emerges and resolves to rebuild.
They’ve been through worse and have lived to tell the tale. #FloridaStrong #HurricaneIrmaBlows
Update: It didn't take Naples, Florida long to clean up from Hurricane Irma. By November, things were pretty much back to normal, and it's a great time to visit Naples, Florida!
Have you experienced a natural disaster like Irma? I'd love to hear your story. Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
Cover photo: Courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)