Four Lessons from Irma

Iris, I live in Tampa, Florida two blocks from Tampa Bay in a house surrounded by century old oak trees.

On Friday night, September 8, things were looking very ominous for Tampa. Hurricane Irma was fast approaching with a vengeance — the one hundred year perfect storm. The Hillsborough River, which empties into the bay two blocks from our house, had so much water flow out toward the bay that it was now ten feet lower than normal.

Most frightening of all: this was being reported on by Anderson Cooper, the “A Team” of CNN, stationed on the river walk fronting the river. That was most terrifying confirmation of all: the Tampa Bay Area was set for major and catastrophic devastation in the next two to three days from Hurricane Irma.

Already there was no bottled water left on the shelves. No available plywood to board up windows. No automatic phone chargers. No flashlights or batteries for radios. Gas was in short supply. I had been getting calls all day from my sons telling me to “get out of Dodge.”

My husband, our son Sam and I had worked all day dragging my vast array of potted plants and porch furniture indoors. Having anything outside that could go airborne was foolish and careless. I had stashed my dad’s World War II uniforms and dog tags in the washing machine to protect them, and put the the kids’ baby books and picture albums in the dryer. Thinking about taking anything else of value was too overwhelming.

The mass evacuations from South Florida were beginning to clog the highways, and gas stations along I-75 were closed due to lack of fuel. We made a quick decision to leave rather than wait for daybreak. At 1:30 am, with one small packed suitcase between my husband and I and a light weight duffel for Sam, we loaded up the car, hustled our dog, Lola the Lab, into the already cramped back seat and set out. Loaded with non-perishables to nibble on, $500 in cash, and a full tank of gas, we headed to I-75 in the shrouded cover of darkness.

I looked back just once at my house as we pulled away — with a sinking feeling of dread that perhaps I’d never see it intact again.

The highway traffic at 2am was bumper to bumper. The gas gauge seemed to go down rapidly. Armed with a thermos full of coffee that I drank at a rapid clip to assure wide-eyed wakefulness, I soon had a full bladder. All along I-75, the gas stations were dark. Close to Gainesville — about 150 miles from Tampa — I began to experience the angst of the refugee. My bladder was bursting and the next public rest area was miles away. With trepidation, we pulled off the highway onto a litter filled desolate stretch of land sporting an abandoned gas station. A sense of the surreal enveloped me. I should be soundly sleeping in my king size bed with my Egyptian cotton sheets, not squatting in the dirt urinating, with the wind whipping around my ankles and no rolls of toilet paper nearby.

We arrived in Atlanta mid-morning without running out of gas or being stuck in clogged traffic jams. By 2pm, we were able to check into a brand new Residents Inn that had opened only four days before. We slept and when we woke, we remained glued to the TV monitoring Irma’s haphazard path.

Sometime during that long day, I did make a pit stop at a Barnes and Noble just steps from our hotel. I bought three books on resilience after a natural disaster. An immediate glow of warmth spread through me. “See,” I said to myself, “even if I lost everything, I have already taken positive steps to rebuilding my library.”

That didn’t prevent a sense of dread and foreboding enveloping me as the long afternoon crept by. my anxiety continued to increase exponentially. High winds. Predicted powerful storm surges. Flooded roads. Power outages that could last for days, if not weeks. Clearly Hurricane Irma was heading straight for Tampa.

And most worrisome? My oldest son had stayed behind to ride the storm out. Being a public official, he was committed to being both present and available.

None of us slept Sunday night. Weather alert updates continued to confirm Hurricane Irma’s capricious flailing around the entire Tampa Bay Area. High tide at 5:30am did not bring the expected storm surge of three to eight feet. Our overhanging oak tree limbs had stayed attached to their tree trunks due to the non-appearance of predicted cyclonic winds and our electric porch lights continued to burn brightly as the sun rose over the bay. My son had survived, barricaded in his own home nearby and he reported no discernible damage to the exterior or interior of our house. Clearly, Tampa had not only dodged a bullet, as one pundit remarked wryly, but a cannon. Others had not been so lucky.

So what did I learn from Irma?

Buy suitcases with the capacity to store a charge — which thanks to a present last year from my sons we did have. Of course, we had never used that benefit nor did we know how — but we quickly learned and plugged those suckers in and charged them up as back-up for our cell phones as soon as hurricane forecasts began appearing on the news.

Don’t throw out all your old battery operated radios. Keep one handy with the right size batteries. Don’t guess.

Appliances are great places to store things you want to save, even microwaves. Just remember to empty them before using!

You can follow all the projections and forecasts, but in the end, Mother Nature, like a typical woman, has her own mind and agenda — sometimes defying all predictions and logic.

I hope you and your loved ones have been safe these past couple of weeks through all of the storms. I’d like to hear how you have learned to prepare for the worst, while living for the best?

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