Me and Irma

September 11, 2017. 10 pm. The power is out. Ugly Irma is on her way. It’s too late to go to a shelter. They’re full. Nothing to do but wait. We sit in the dark talking by flashlight. Trudie and Jeff and I are at Marilyn’s house to ride out the storm: New to Florida and newly friends, none of us have ever been in a hurricane. We have stumbled our way through preparations and planning to this moment.

Each day since September 1 had become increasingly intense as Irma grew to a record-breaking monster in size and strength. A Category 5, four hundred miles wide with sustained winds at 185 miles per hour, she was predicted to flatten, rip out, and destroy Florida from the Gulf to the Atlantic. The newscasters declared her to be the worst storm ever to hit the state. We were about to be devastated.

From the beginning, I hadn’t a clue what to do—whether to go or stay. Undecided, I Googled How to Prepare for a Hurricane, copied the lists, and began taking action. I went to Publix to get the recommended 5 gallons of water per person. The atmosphere in the store was a kind of subdued hysteria, as if people were trying to control their panic. The shelves that normally held water were empty. But at the head of the aisle, a young employee was passing out gallons of water from great stacks as fast as he could. A woman piled her cart with so many my eyebrows raised. She saw me and hissed, “I have kids!” I took three gallons and decided not to buy a lot of food. I could survive on protein powder if need be. I waited in line behind a shopper who had so many canned goods, she could have fed an army. The check-out clerk was whizzing items passed the thing that beeped and smiled gently when she handed the buyer a long, long receipt.

Every day I went online to look at the NOAA Hurricane Center’s website to get their latest reports. I did not watch the Weather Channel. Personally, I think TV presenters just scare the hell out of us so we’ll keep watching. I didn’t want my growing anxiety to be pumped up by fear-inspiring newscasters. The factual information on my computer screen was scary enough as I watched wind speed go up and the graphic hurricane cone edge closer.

In my total inexperience, I had no real plan in place. The one thing I knew was that I didn’t want to go through this hurricane by myself. I considered several options: get in the car and drive up north, go to one of my friends’ houses in mid-Florida or the east coast, or simply stay here. A most surprising and generous offer to ride out the hurricane came from a lovely woman I had only previously spoken with for 15 minutes in CVS.  During that conversation, she invited me on a tour of Ringling College where she was in charge of programming. We had discussed the possibility of my teaching there. When we cancelled the next week due to Irma’s impending arrival, she invited me to shelter from the storm at her house with her, her husband, and a friend “you will like.” We would play charades. I was deeply moved by her generous offer and was seriously considering it.

Another Florida friend phoned to urge me to leave. She was frantically packing her car and leaving her rented house to drive up north. A psychic had told her she had to leave NOW!  As a homeowner, I wasn’t so ready to pack up and flee.

It seems as if life presents one opportunity after another to face up to terror. I have heard FEAR as an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real. But, for me, it’s more like Future Events Appear Ruinous—like standing off stage opening night on Broadway, or listening for the doctor’s phone call, or staring at graphics of a big mother of an approaching hurricane. There were way too many days of that. Waiting was hard.

During that time, it helped to be active, but when I wasn’t—especially in the middle of the night—fearful thoughts about what was coming were almost impossible to resist. I did my best to be present with the sensations that were whirling around my body. It was a roller coaster in and out of shaky fear and calm. Given that dying in a massive hurricane was looking like a possibility, I rewrote my will, had it witnessed, and put other important papers in an in-case-I-die waterproof packet to wear around my neck if a storm surge swept me away. Hurricane Harvey’s disastrous floods in Texas were fresh in my mind. The instruction to residents to write their social security numbers with indelible ink on their arms haunted me.

On September 8 Irma’s cone moved west on the NOAA website. Now, it looked as if she was in a direct line right over my house at a whopping 155 miles per hour. By the time I thought it was a good idea to leave, it was a bad idea. A quarter of Florida’s inhabitants had jumped in their cars and were fleeing north. The highways were packed. Gas stations were running out of gas.

Marilyn,  who had only just bought a house and moved here three months ago, phoned me. Evidently, she had been watching the Weather Channel way too much and was in a clear panic. “Katherine! We’ve got to get out of here! I’ve found a guy who will fly us up to DC. It will cost us $15,000 each, but it’s worth it! Come on. Pack your bag and let’s go!”

I wasn’t going to give that kind of money to some greedy bastard. And what would I do in DC? Go up to the White House and ask them to put me up for a couple of nights? But I said, “Okay. First, let me come over and help you see if your hurricane shutters work.”  She had them, but had never tested them. “You’ll need to secure your house.”

When I got there, she grabbed me by the forearms. “Let’s go!  I’ll pay for you! Really! We have GOT TO GET OUT OF HERE!”

(to be continued)