“Are you sure you’re not evacuating? It’s coming right towards you.”
I said to my mother and father numerous times over the course of three days, starting on Monday, September 4th, when Hurricane Irma’s eye wall was forecasted to follow Florida’s eastern coastline with nearly pinpoint accuracy. My family would be a mere 40 or 50 miles from where the eye was supposed to make landfall in Homestead, the same area where Hurricane Andrew caused mass devastation just over 25 years earlier.
We Floridians had been lucky: we hadn’t seen a hurricane make landfall in our state in almost 12 years. When Hurricane Wilma blasted through the state in 2005, I was 10 years old, in fifth grade, and incredibly ecstatic that the power went down in my city and I would be out of school for a week. The memories I made with the other kids on my block were – and still are to this day – some of my favorite memories of my childhood: playing manhunt until that twilight hour when everything is tinted blue and you can’t tell if that mass in front of you is a bush or a member of the other team hiding; eating food off the grill for days because it was the only reliable method we had to cook; gazing into our hazy, debris-filled pools and wondering if any sharks were lurking at the bottom; and taking freezing cold showers followed by bundling up in fleece pajamas because no power meant no water heater, and Wilma had brought a cold front with her.
When I was a kid, the aftermath of a hurricane was the closest thing to unbridled freedom and fun I would ever experience. Now that I’m an adult, it’s become my greatest fear.
Charley, Frances, Jeanne, Wilma – all hurricanes I lived through during my first two years of moving back to Florida, none of them were above a Category 3 in magnitude.
And now a Category 5 was barreling towards us.
“Our windows are hurricane-proof, right? They have to be.”
My sister and I had never been through a hurricane on our own before. After all, it had been 12 years since we had been through one at all, and we weren’t even old enough to truly understand what was going on at the time. The idea of preparing for a storm that scientists and meteorologists were saying was going to cause “catastrophic damage to the entire state” seemed at once terrifying and nearly impossible.
Our original plan was to ride it out. Despite my senior manager asking me to travel so that I could continue to support our client and my sister’s senior manager telling her that the expectation was for her to stay in New York so that she wouldn’t get trapped in Jacksonville after Irma cleared, my sister was going to fly into Jacksonville airport on Friday and we were going to diligently get to work putting things into cabinets and getting our valuables off the floor and away from windows. By Tuesday the 5th I had stocked up canned food and soups, 24-packs of water, and $100 worth of miscellaneous hurricane supplies on Amazon as well as filled both of our cars up with gas. We were as prepared, supply-wise, as we were going to be.
But as the days passed, the forecast seemed to get worse and worse for the Jacksonville area. The cone of uncertainty shifted from the west coast to the east, putting Jacksonville Beach right in the path of the western eye wall of a Category 3 Irma.
My apartment is on the first floor of our complex and I have a good-sized tree sitting directly outside of my bedroom window, both of which can be a recipe for disaster when a hurricane comes through with 100+ mile per hour winds. I started to get nervous.
I emailed the leasing office of my apartment complex to ask what kind of preparations we would be required to make given that the hurricane was fast approaching. I also asked for confirmation that the windows were hurricane-proof, and if not, what kind of protection the leasing office was going to offer. They sent out a general email about hurricane preparations but never answered my question about the windows.
After I emailed them again with no response, my sister finally called the leasing office and confirmed what we both feared: the windows were not impact- or hurricane-resistant, there were no shutters to be put up, and we were not allowed to board up our windows.
“Alright, so you stay in New York, and I’ll go to Alpharetta. Hopefully we’ll both be home next weekend.”
On Wednesday, September 6th, after an extended conversation between the leadership of my project at work and my team, I made the decision that the safest option would be to evacuate the city. My team’s work requires that we be on production in real-time, which is impossible to do without power or internet, therefore at least half of the team needed to be in a location safely away from the worst of the storm so that we could continue to support our client while our Jacksonville office was down for the count. The closest office was either in Atlanta or Alpharetta, but the only place we could find a hotel for all six of us was in Jasper, Georgia, about an hour north of Alpharetta by car. So we would be working out of the Alpharetta office for the week.
Essentially, I was lucky enough that my work was offering me a paid evacuation.
The night before I left was quite possibly one of the most stressful experiences I had ever had. Not only had I not attempted to hurricane proof my apartment at all in the days earlier in the week, but now I had to hurricane-proof my apartment completely alone. All that was running through my head was the worst-case scenario: the tree outside my window crashing into my room, devastating all of my belongings as wind and rain whips through the small space; the lake outside of my back patio overflowing into my living room and kitchen, ruining the rug we worked so hard to find and the sleeper sofa my parents bought so that they wouldn’t have to stay in a hotel when they visited us.
I couldn’t stay focused on one thing. I’d start to move all of my clothes into my sister’s closet (the room with the most doors between it and a window) and then abandon that job to start packing my suitcase. I’d be picking things up off my sister’s floor and then abandon it mid-project to put away the various cookbooks and utensils sitting on top of my kitchen counter. Every few minutes I sat down, hard, on a bed or my couch and started bawling and hyperventilating as I looked at all the work that still needed to be done. Within a minute the panic attack would be over and I’d keep moving, only to start sobbing again a few minutes later as I attempted to shove one last pair of jeans into my overflowing suitcase.
I was packing up my entire life, everything I had worked so hard for in the past few months since I started working, into suitcases and duffel bags that would fit into my car. The rest would stay behind where I had no control over what happened to it. I could come home and it would all be gone or ruined and there would be nothing I could do about it. All I could do was cry, and a few minutes later, hope for the best.
“I just looked it up in on my GPS and it says it’s only about 6 hours to Jasper, so I should make it there just fine.”
The next day, Thursday morning, I arrived to work with my car packed and ready to head to Alpharetta. We were released early and I was cautiously optimistic that I would make it to our hotel around 8:30pm, a pretty reasonable time and the same amount of time it would have normally taken me had I not driven during one of the largest evacuations Florida has ever seen.
Needless to say I was very, very wrong.
My GPS continued to say that I had 4 hours remaining as I inched further and further north on I-75. Despite having made continuous, albeit slow, progress, it was as though I hadn’t moved at all in the eyes of time. By the time I made it to my hotel it was nearly 1am, 11 hours after I had started my trip, and by the time I made it into bed it was almost 3am.
I was only able to work in our Alpharetta office for one day, however, before plans quickly changed: as it turned out, Irma’s shift to the west put us right in line to get hit at tropical storm strength winds on Monday and Tuesday, which would cause our mostly-glass-windowed-office to shut down and thus effectively null our contingency plan. The new plan was that we were to drive an additional 5 hours to Charlotte, NC, on Saturday morning, where we would be working for the next week while the expected damage in our Jacksonville office was assessed and our local utilities company worked to restore what power we knew would be lost.
I can’t say that I was originally thrilled with the prospect of travelling again, which, to be fair, I had gotten less than four hours of sleep the night before and had already put over almost 1000 miles on my car within one week of getting a new lease.
I was also more concerned about my parents, who live in Fort Lauderdale, than ever before. Irma’s shift meant that it could put the worse part of the storm, the north-east eye wall and winds, directly over south-east Florida and devastate the region. South west Florida, where my boyfriend’s family lives, would also suffer a terrible hit, potentially leveling much of the area.
How I felt about the situation didn’t really matter, though, because we were expected to do what needed to be done to support our client, which meant travelling the next morning to Charlotte. And honestly, after a couple good meals and a good night’s rest? The prospect seemed much better, and I resolved to make the most of the experience. I went hiking with a few coworkers at Pilot Mountain National Park on Sunday and explored a few good restaurants during the couple of days that we were there. On Tuesday morning, after the storm had completely passed, we received notice that we would be leaving the next day to come home because our office in Jacksonville was good to reopen.
“Why don’t you just leave?”
When I came home Wednesday afternoon, after being gone for almost a week, the only forget-me-nots that Irma had left behind in my area were piles of twigs and leaves strewn about the streets and crumpled billboards on the side of the highway. Other areas in Jacksonville, such as Riverside, San Marco, and downtown, all fared much, much worse. As of Friday, September 15th, those areas were still experiencing record-breaking flooding. Dozens of houses and hundreds of cars were flooded and totaled.
Something that isn’t often spoken about during situations like this is evacuator’s guilt. I know I was lucky enough to live so far north and work for such a great company that getting out of the state wasn’t an altogether difficult burden. I drove, so I was able to bring valuables with me to protect them from potential damage, and I ultimately got myself out of harms way in the best way that I possibly could. And these things are all fantastic, there’s no denying that, and I’m incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to do them.
But these things, these decisions, didn’t come easy.
All over Facebook, and Twitter, and the news, I saw the same sentiment repeated over and over again: “Why doesn’t everyone just leave?” I’ll admit, I had the same thought when I was watching the eye come straight towards my parents. But as someone who vacillated between leaving and staying for multiple days before ultimately making my decision to get out of dodge, I can tell you with utmost certainty that the decision isn’t so cut and dry.
What you’re really saying when you ask “Why don’t you just leave?” is “Why don’t you just abandon everything you’ve worked hard for? Your belongings? Your home? The life that you’ve built in the place that you live? Why don’t you relinquish all control over everything in your possession and let the storm do what it will?”
For many Floridians, the uncertainty of leaving is and was just too much to stomach. Even if Irma didn’t rip off their roof and destroy their belongings there was no guarantee that they’d even have belongings to come back to because looting and vandalism are extremely common after hurricanes, especially if people have evacuated and the power is down.
I attempted to make the best of my situation while I was out of the state, but no matter what I was doing my mind kept running back to the same thing: how was my family doing in Fort Lauderdale? And my boyfriend’s parents in Naples, which the storm hit directly? How much damage was being done to their homes? Would they be safe inside their houses despite the record-breaking winds?
I felt guilty trying to enjoy my time in a new city while people I cared about went through one of the worst gauntlets of their lives.
My family and my boyfriend’s family chose to stay for one reason: if there’s one thing that Floridians know better than anyone else in the world, it’s hurricanes. They were prepared. And by the time the storm had passed and we were able to get in touch with them, they were fortunate enough to have sustained no major damage to their homes or properties (minus my boyfriend’s parents’ pool screen, which was a goner the second it was announced that the hurricane would hit Florida, to be fair).
But many, many people were not that lucky. My coworker’s car was totaled because the water flooded the spoiler, another’s tree fell on her roof and caused enough damage that water continuously leaks into house when it rains.
Areas of southwest and central Florida are still without power a week after the storm. Some houses flooded up to the counter tops and destroyed all of the inhabitants’ belongings, meanwhile others don’t have houses to come home to. Areas in the Keys have been completely decimated, not to mention many Caribbean Islands, like Barbuda, have been irreparably damaged and are no longer inhabited. In terms of breadth of damage, this storm has to be one of the worst in modern history.
I’ve seen a lot of people asking for donations to the American Red Cross in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and now after Hurricane Irma. While the American Red Cross is a good charity to donate to (89% of its donations go towards programs to provide aid to those who need it), if you’re looking to provide more immediate aid, I’d recommend donating to more local charities in Florida, such as the following:
- The Southwest Florida Community Foundation: This local nonprofit has partnered with United Way to support Hurricane Irma relief efforts, and donations can be general for the Southwest region, or, if you have a particular tie to an area in southwest Florida, designated to one of these counties: Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry, or Lee Counties. You can also text GIVESWFL to 444999 to donate!
- Feeding South Florida: this organization runs a disaster relief program and assists evacuees from South Florida and surrounding counties.
- Florida’s First Coast Relief Fund: In partnership with United Way, 100% of the money raised will go directly to local non-profits in the greater Jacksonville area that provide disaster relief.
- Charity Navigator for Hurricane Irma: Charity Navigator, the website, has compiled a list of the best charities to donate to for Hurricane Irma relief not only in Florida but also internationally, to help victims in the Caribbean as well.
Please, if you can, take the time to donate to one of the charities listed above, a little goes a long way in such a time of need. If you do donate, let me know in the comments below!