Before the Storm
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. Psalm 46:1-3
I’m a Florida girl. Hurricanes don’t scare me. Some of my best childhood memories are from hurricane season. Evacuating to friends’, preparing the house. It was all a big adventure. Sometimes, as an adult, towards the end of summer when the heat is oppressive and life is boring, I even think just for a moment, what we need is a hurricane. So, when Irma was predicted to hit Florida, I was calm. I did all the things that they tell you to do. Board windows. Pick up things in the yard. Save water. Stock up on canned goods. Pack a few things for family and dogs in case we must leave. But, to be honest, I looked on the coming days as a vacation from work. A time to be confined to home for a while. I would sew and bake until the power went off. Then, I would read, maybe write. Until the wind was high, I would sit on the porch enjoying the breeze and the rain. A chance to clear my head and relax. Maybe even take a nap in the house darkened by plywood. In my adult life, here on Terra Ceia Island, we have only evacuated twice. Once during Elena in 1985 when we were already scheduled to go to a dog show and had hotel reservations in Orlando. Another time in 2004 during Charlie, we went to friends’ house and the hurricane followed us there! Both times, we were only gone overnight and then, returned home. Even without power, we made do with generators and cold showers. It was all a welcome relief from the ordinary. A strange attitude I know. I admit to being fairly complacent when it came to hurricanes. That was before Irma. We planned to stay home until Irma failed to make a turn as predicted. She went farther and farther west until it looked as though she might make landfall at Tampa Bay. We live on the south side of the bay. The side that would get the most tidal surge. The news media warned that law enforcement and medical personnel would not respond to calls once winds reached 40 miles per hour and that we might expect a storm surge of 10 feet. I was worried about my parents who have medical issues. If we went to a shelter and they needed help, we could get it no matter the storm. We held a family meeting and agreed that if things still looked bad the next morning, my parents and I would go to a shelter. By mid-afternoon, reports circulated that the shelters, particularly, the ones that took pets were filling fast. We decided to go in after supper and began to pack. Glen and our son, Rob, decided to stay at home, but were willing to go to the shelter to help us get settled in. About six, a caravan of three cars set off for shelter. Little did I know what awaited us.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day. Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts. Psalm 46:4-6
I’m a confident girl. I know how to get my own way. Politeness and kindness take me far. So does confidence. But, I was unprepared for what we found at the shelter. The elementary school we went to first was full. The parking lot of the middle school next door already overflowing onto a soccer field. A young National Guardsman directed us to park and then, register before we unloaded the cars. Would this shelter be closed before we could register? We waited in line to get forms. Waited in line to turn in the forms. In our haste, we did not fill in the forms correctly and had to redo them. Waited in line again before a Red Cross volunteer took pity on us and helped us fix our forms. I overheard a volunteer tell a fellow evacuee that they had too much stuff and must return some of it to their car. We were only allowed 20 inches of space per person. I asked about the cots I brought for my parents and the kind volunteer made an exception for them. After being assured that there was room for us, we unloaded our cars of three small suitcases, two cots, extra food and toilet paper, lawn chairs, three dog crates, dog supplies and three dogs. Because they were not going to stay, Glen and Rob could only bring it to the front entrance of the school. The dogs had to be placed in the crates before they could come in. How were my parents and I to carry all the stuff including two hundred pounds of dogs in crates? A swarm of young Palmetto High School students arrived with carts and dollies, loaded up our possessions and helped us get everything where it belonged. The dogs, to the pet area; us, to a math classroom on the second floor of the building. Our roommates, two large Hispanic families speaking little English must have thought we planned to move in permanently. They had blankets on the floor and one backpack each. But, they kindly welcome us and helped us set up the cots. The dogs were shocked being deposited in a room full of barking, growling dogs, birds in cages and stinky cats. Cory’s eyes begged me to stay, but I had to make my parents a priority. Periodically, I went downstairs to take the three dogs outside for a walk. I think their shock kept them calm and enabled me to wrangle all three at once. It was an unnerving situation for three country dogs unused to a lot of noise or crowds. (Glen had decided to keep Lucy home with him-a wise decision, she could not have stood the chaos). As it grew dark, we spent the evening checking our phones and watching the hyperactive/nervous children in the room with us. They played, “tornado”, spinning around the room and taking shelter under my dad’s cot. They acted like I felt. No longer confident, I bedded down for the night.
The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Psalm 46:7
We took shelter more than 30 hours before Irma arrived in our area. Our first full day there started with another line, this one for coffee. I am not a coffee drinker but took a cup so my parents could have more. Breakfast was a small plastic covered package of pancakes and syrup, but I ate from my stash of food, blueberry scones. We started to live for meal times to break the monotony although as the winds increased, we had to take the meals to our rooms to eat. Peanut butter and jelly for lunch, chicken nuggets for dinner. We spent the time in between taking the dogs outside, walking around the covered courtyard, watching the spinning children or reading. I started Anne Lamott’s new book, Hallelujah Anyway. The first words are, “There are times in our lives-scary, unsettling times-when we know that we need help or answers, but we are not sure what kind, or even what the problem or question is.” Apropos. About 5, they said that it would be the last time to take the dogs out until after the storm. I ran them to the far side of the playground and let them loose to play and stretch their legs. The rain on my unwashed face felt good as did the cooler air compared to the stuffy classroom. I returned them to their crates with apologies. It was going to be a long night. The rain pounded against the windows, and the wind growled. Power went out about 8:00. With nothing else to do, most people, including the exhausted children, in our room went to sleep. I worried about the dogs and checked on them once, then, went to sleep in my lounge chair, too. I woke about 2 AM to silence. I don’t know if it was the eye of Irma passing by or that the storm was over. I slept again until 5, then, decided to try to take the dogs out. Though other evacuees told me I couldn’t, I wanted to try, leashed the three dogs up and opened the door before being told by a deputy to put them up and go back to my room. Angry, sad, humiliated, I did as I was told. I think the loss of control was the hardest thing about being in a shelter. We ate when we were told to, turned off the lights when we were told to, took the dogs out when we were told to, and stayed inside when we were told to. Finally, at 9, they told us we could go home and like the other 1300 evacuees in our building, ant-like, we streamed to our cars. Without the help of Glen and Rob and with no high school students in sight, I made several trips to the car before our roommates helped me carry out the cots and two National Guardsmen carried the dog crates for me. I came home exhausted, took a shower and slept for four hours.
Come and see what the Lord has done, the desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Psalms 46:8-11
Our house has no power, and FPL predicts it will be ten days before we do. But, we have water and no damage other than a lot of downed limbs and leaves scattered about the yard. It will take Glen several days to clean it all up (I tried to help, but the heat impacted my MS so I had to retreat inside.) Not even Glen’s shed loaded with motorcycles is hurt. We are blessed to have a trailer to sleep in and a generator to provide AC and keep the fridge cold. Our neighbors are helping to clean each other’s yards and keep generators going. Other than cancelling a camping trip this weekend, our life is mostly unchanged. The dogs, however, particularly Sai, may never be the same. He is still nervous and subdued. He has been sleeping on the bed in the trailer since we got home. Cory is very clingy as well. While my environment will be fine, I am a mess of emotions. First, dealing with the loss of confidence and control. The dependence upon others to make decisions for me and to restrict what I can do. The worry over my parents and my dogs, the feeling that I needed to care for them, but could not truly protect any of them from the storm was unnerving. Standing in line for a cup of coffee made me imagine how others around out world stand in line for a cup of water or a bowl of soup. And yet, despite the hardships and the rules, I realized that 1300 people of all races, ages and genders could amicably get along, share and treat each other with kindness. I saw no one yelling or demanding. No one pushing or shoving to get their way. Everyone, quietly standing in line, helping each other, sharing what they had. Even those of us who could not speak the same language could smile and help. When I think of what our country is going through, of the shouting, violence and marches of the past year, I wonder how could we be so different in a time of crisis? What keeps us from showing the gentler side of ourselves all the time? I recall the National Guard soldiers, the police officers who patrolled to keep us safe. The volunteers who cooked our meals. The custodial staff who worked round the clock to pick up trash, keep the bathrooms clean, make sure the air conditioning stayed on. I am pretty unhinged emotionally right now. Like Sai, I want to retreat to my bed and think these things through. The shelter was like a different world, a better world. Where everyone is kind. No one expected you to believe a certain way before they served you. You didn’t have to act a certain way to be allowed inside. Everyone was welcome. I hope we all learned some lessons from Irma and that the world be will be better place after the storm.