Its hard to know where to start the story of Hurricane Irma. Maybe its best to tell the end of the story first. We are well and our property had very little damage. That was not how we thought the story would end as we sheltered for three nights at a local high school.
We do not live in SW Florida permanently, but we do own a home there that is a vacation rental. We needed to go there during the week of September 7, 2017 to transact some business related to a water/sewer improvement project. There was an assessment that needed to be paid during a short window of time to get the best rate. We planned the trip a couple months earlier when we learned that our house would be included in the project. We had plans to fly in and out.
People keep asking me how it is that we decided not to leave when we knew there was a hurricane coming! But the week before our trip, I was on Washington Island in Door County WI at a yarn spinning class. I was staying in a converted barn dormitory and there was no TV or internet. It was peaceful and refreshing, but I was a bit out of touch. So I did not see the lead up to hurricane. I was only home one day before leaving for Florida and that day was spent unpacking, doing laundry, and repacking.
We arrived in Florida Monday noon. There were some issues at the house that grabbed our attention. The pool had not been maintained very well so we had to get ahold of our pool cleaner. The pool pump was not running reliably so we contacted the company and made arrangements for a new pump to be installed Wednesday. But worst of all, the AC was not working and the house was very hot. We contacted the AC repair people and then started waiting for all the repair people to arrive. It was only then that we saw the news and knew that Irma was a large storm and that ONE, just ONE of the models predicted it might affect us directly.
On Wednesday, our repair people came, the AC repair had to be done twice for some reason. Neighbors let us sleep at their house, the first kindness that was to become a week filled with such incidents.
We kept hearing from the newscasters that the track of the storm was quite unpredictable and that by Thursday the models would probably coalesce into a more clear picture. The forecasters kept referring to “spaghetti models”.
On Thursday most models showed the storm heading up the east coast or perhaps even staying out into the Atlantic. But there was that ONE pesky model, the “European Model”, that kept showing a track through our area. We started thinking about taking the rental car and driving north into Georgia, or even farther, to wait out the storm and then drive back to assess any damage and catch our flight home. But by that time a great problem was beginning to become apparent. There is only one route out of SW Florida, Interstate 75, and it was packed with traffic and they were running out of gas. Veteran storm survivors knew to have some extra cans of gas ready to go, but we did not. And there were no gas cans for sale.
On Tuesday we had decided to lay in a few supplies, mostly in case the power went out. We went to the grocery store and bought food that did not need refrigeration and could be heated up on the grill. We bought extra tanks of propane for the grill, though this was the most difficult supply to find. We bought buckets to fill with water and planned to fill the bath tub as well. Since we do not have city water, if the power goes out, so do the well pump and filter system. While other folks were planning for possible weeks without power, we knew we were flying home after the storm, so we were just planning for a few days. We bought a couple small LED flashlights and stocked up on batteries. We moved the outdoor furniture in.
There were a couple supplies that I could not find. I wanted a cell phone charging pack (or two) but those were all gone. Even Amazon could not guarantee delivery before the storm. Even Amazon!! I also wanted a crank radio but could not find one. We knew the car had a USB port that would charge a phone at least a few times. I also charged up my laptop thinking its battery could charge a phone.
I contacted family to let them know our plans and not to worry if they didn’t hear from us. I promised to take video with my iPad and document the storm. Our house is new and built to withstand 160 mph winds. After Hurricane Andrew, building codes in Florida were updated. We were nervous but did not feel unsafe.
I started seeing posts on news and Facebook about weathering storms.
Then, late Thursday and into Friday the forecast began to change. More and more models were predicting a more westerly track for the storm. First they said central Florida and then the gulf coast. The most frightening prediction of all was the storm surge. Some predictions had it as high as 15 feet for our area. By this time we were glued to the TV news. They showed the effect of various levels of storm surge on houses. A surge of 15 feet would have destroyed the house and killed anyone inside.
We are pretty close to the coast. The authorities have mapped out evacuation zones based on altitude and proximity to water. We learned that we were in ZONE A, the most vulnerable. Yes, yes, I know. Didn’t we consider that when we bought the house? Well, no. Everyone said there hadn’t been a hurricane to affect this area in decades. The new houses were built higher and stronger than before. And we were pretty naive. Close to the water means better boating!
A neighbor of ours had flown north earlier in the week because she works from home and needed electricity and internet for her business. But her husband stayed. On Friday afternoon, about 4 o’clock, he showed up at our door and said he was going to the shelter. We watched the news one last time. The forecast was dire and the surge predictions were terrifying.
We decided to all go to the shelter together. He had it plugged into his GPS. It was a high school built recently with shelter capacity in mind. These people are brilliant. It was on the highest ground in the city and miles inland from the gulf. We took about 15 minutes to do what we could. We moved some things up onto higher shelves. We did not have as much stuff here as permanent residents so that was fortunate. We grabbed a few supplies, some food, a couple yoga mats, a pillow, computers, phone chargers. I took some house keys, still thinking there might not be electricity when we returned, and some paperwork that showed that we owned the house. We still have out of state drivers licenses and I had heard that sometimes only residents are allowed into areas after the storm.
We got to the shelter about 4:30 pm on Friday. Others were arriving as well. We stood in a line to fill out a form with information about who was there in the family, what car we had in the lot, contact information, etc. A shelter worker OK’d our form. We were directed to a second line where police used laptop computers to do a background check. If you passed you got a red wrist-band. If you failed, I do not know what happened.
Then we got in a third line where a worker took you to a hallway spot that had been marked out with painters tape and told you this was “your spot”. “Please stay within your boundaries”.
Just as we completed our registration, a mandatory evacuation for ZONE A went out. This meant that hotels near the water were closed. All those people were seeking shelter and the lines became much longer. I was relieved that we had chosen to go when we did. I felt safe on the second floor (flood would only reach the first floor and tornado would take the top floor). I hoped that people on the other floors would be able to make it to our space in time.
The shelter ended up registering over 3200 people and 800 pets. Cats, dogs, birds, turtles, and at least in our hallway 6 new world monkeys. That was 1000 more people than were planned for and soon more shelters were opened.
We settled in Friday night to sleep. Others who had been through this before were much better prepared; blow up air beds, cooler full of food and drink. We were not locked into the shelter and could come and go as we liked. But two things kept us there. First, if you left someone might take your spot or your things. We did not yet know the folks around us nor how kind they would turn out to be. Secondly, when the wind reached 45 mph, the doors would be locked, no more in and out. There was no timetable for this, just a warning. Friday night, the guys went back to our houses to grab a few more things. Saturday morning, after the shelter quit taking more people, we all three went back. We got an air mattress, more bedding, more food. We took showers, made coffee, packed more coffee for the morning, put up a few more things on shelves and watched some more news (still dire). We hurried back to the shelter and stayed there for the duration.
There was electricity but limited outlets. Everyone took turns charging devices. We never knew when the power might be interrupted so we used our devices sparingly and kept them charged. I texted my daughter and asked her to be our contact and post updates on Facebook. She did a great job. Before that, I was getting lots of texts from people wanting to know how we were. I knew I couldn’t keep answering everyone so the Facebook solution worked well. Even those who do not use FB probably know someone who does. My daughter excepted friend requests from lots of people she didn’t know. I imagine this week she will have to sort that all out and unfriend some who only wanted to keep posted about us.
We found a coffee pot in one of the classrooms and had brought coffee and filters. We shared coffee and many were delighted.
The shelter served meals. It was the only shelter in town that did. The lines were long but moved quickly. After all, the cafeteria is set up to feed lots of hungry teenagers in a short time on school days. We tried to use the food we had brought, especially the food that was not going to keep, but ate a few meals in the cafeteria. There was orange juice at every meal, of course.
Anyone with medical experience was asked to report to the information desk. They were given masking tape name tags. Nurses made rounds to see if anyone needs medical attention. Any student who attended the high school was asked to report to the office. Many of them were acting as host/hostess walking around asking if anyone needed anything. Some folks brought trays of food from the cafeteria to those who are less able to get down there and stand in line. Women who were 38+ weeks pregnant were asked to come to a special room.
Some young men made paper fans and passed them out.
On Saturday night, a 90-something year old man and woman moved in across the hallway from us. They had an air mattress and food. She had a walker and a bad knee. She had difficulty getting up and down from the floor and he was helping her as much as possible. Soon, the folks in the hallway were there, helping her up and down, clearing a path for her in the hallway. They were cheerful, but it was obvious that the stress we all felt was hard for them, as it was for all of us. All night I worried about her. While we were at breakfast she felt unwell. EMS was called and decided she was dehydrated and needed to be taken to the hospital. The EMT was in radio contact and called for a transport. Then she said, we need to GO! They are closing the roads and locking down emergency services. So our (by now) friend, Mary, went out on the last transport from the shelter before lockdown. I was worried about her, but glad she had made the cutoff if she needed to go. Her husband went with her with just the most important of their belongings. We packaged up the rest and took it down to the information desk. Except the air mattress. We used that until we left and then took it down, too, I felt sure they wouldn’t mind. (Update: We have heard from our new friends and they are home and well!)
I was keeping a journal, writing small on a scrap of paper I found in my purse. I also tried to take some pictures and video. I wanted to document the event but not invade people’s privacy. It was a remarkable intimate view of strangers lives. I could see how people interacted with their children and spouses, watch people as they slept, notice all kinds of personal habits and actions. One young man brought enough clothes to change several times a day. The teenagers tried to maintain a good appearance. Most adults tried to stay clean but the hallways were a little less than fresh with all the worry and pets, especially after the doors were closed and locked. After that folks could not take their dogs outside, so a special area with concrete flooring was used as a dog walk. I never went there so I have no idea how it will be cleaned up.
As the storm moved in on Sunday, you could sense the tension. Each update plucked at already tense nerves. The storm slowed and predictions of surge were very scary. I couldn’t help thinking about the house. I imagined what several feet of water would do. All the furniture would be lost, all the lower cabinets, all the drywall up several feet. It was hard not be sad and worried. There was absolutely nothing to be done. I worried about people who had not evacuated, those I knew and those I did not. I wanted the storm to stay away from us, but didn’t want it to hit others either/instead.
I passed the time knitting “hurricane Irma socks”. Others were knitting, too. Lots of people stopped by to ask about knitting. I was glad I had my iPod to help relax. I had a book, a real paperback book, that I had saved for this trip. I copied a pattern for a cute baby sweater from a woman near us who had to leave the Westin. They were from the UK and here “on holiday”. They were smart enough to bring pillows and bedding from the Westin. They were not sure if they would be allowed to return there and the future of the bedding was in question.
Eventually, the storm hit Naples and then moved inland a bit more than predicted. It weakened and passed west of the shelter.
I did not hear wild wind nor see things flying through the air. The school seemed pretty sturdy. The palms were definitely bent and the rain came down pretty hard.
We began to hear that the surge predictions had gone WAY down and the storm was moving off. Low tide was going to occur at the same time as any storm surge. This was very fortunate. I went to sleep Sunday night hopeful but still anxious to see what would be left in its wake.
We never lost power completely at the shelter so when I woke up on the night I could check the status of the storm. Of course, no one could tell me how the house faired, especially since it was dark.
Monday morning at 6:20 am, they announced over the PA that they were unlocking the doors. We could go to our cars, even pack up in anticipation of leaving. But we could not actually leave because the entire county was under a curfew until 7:00 am. That dusk to dawn curfew remains this week because some hazards are hard to see in the dark.
We were able to drive directly from the shelter to our house without any flooding to stop us. As we went we noticed that there were lights on. Hard to believe. We were delighted to arrive home and find very little damage. One tree tipped over, one pool screen ripped. We still had power and even internet. 85% of the people in our county did not have power.
It was a remarkable lesson. We now have a second chance to prepare for a future hurricane. We will reassess our insurance coverage, acquire and store emergency supplies, and plan to evacuate early and often. I will research emergency preparedness and make lists of things to do and get. Perhaps I will write a future post about it.
I keep thinking about the people I shared space with at the shelter. They were certainly a cross section of humanity. Nearly everyone was as patient, tolerant, and helpful as you could ever expect good people to be in a stressful situation. I think if I saw them on the street now I would be tempted to hug them.
I need to get out some thank you notes. The folks who planned for this emergency did a remarkable job. I don’t know of anything they could have done better.
Here are a few more pictures.
National Guard at the shelter.
Five day old baby.
People sleeping in the stairwells.
Airbeds – some people have been through this before and knew what to bring.
White bedding from the Westin.
Masking tape name tags.
Snippet from my make-shift journal.
Red band souvenirs of the shelter.
Coffee and a shower at home.
After the storm many hazards remain – generator fumes, downed power lines, flooding, damaged roads.
It has been helpful to write about this experience. My best wishes to those who are still recovering from Irma and Harvey. My greatest thanks to those who serve others in planning for , protecting from, and recovering from disasters.