As I make preparations for the impending arrival of our first major hurricane of the season, I realize how much of a difference two years can make.
Florida is known for its hurricanes.
Hurricane Irma was an indescribable storm that hit the West Coast of Florida causing some extremely damaging destruction. Our home, which is up to disaster code, had a tremendous amount of damage. Roof shingles peeled off like paper, screens were torn off of the lanai, leaves plus debris from trees scattered in every corner of our property, leaks from the roof peeling caused inside ceiling issues, the garage door bent and there was no water or electricity for days.
The news programs advised before the storm to prepare with supplies of water, medications, flashlights, batteries, can foods, a battery-powered radio, barbecue LP tanks filled, gas in your car and a plastic bag with important insurance and homeowner papers. It was recommended that bathtubs be filled with water to flush toilets.
But, was it enough?
We thought so but as the announcements about storm surges commenced I began to panic. The doom of our home being overtaken by huge waves was frightening. Since I’m a non-swimmer, I was concerned about the surges. I began to have a panic attack because of the stress. We decided to forego staying at home and opted to go to a shelter.
Northport High School was one of the places being used for shelter. The school was a year old. It had state of the art construction built into it for hurricane safety.
The line was long and parking a disaster. I stood in line with our cat, in his carrier, while my husband parked the car.
A man came up to me and asked, “Is this your cat?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Just then, my hubby came up to us and asked, what was wrong?”
He was told, “Please bring your cat and come with me.”
I stayed in line. When I reached the door a national guard soldier turned to the person after me away and said, “Sorry, there’s no more room.”
He closed the door behind me. I told him my husband went with a man and our cat somewhere. He signaled me to move forward.
In front of me was a non-english speaking woman. She was being told by the check-in staff person to try to find another shelter since this one was filled to capacity. Waving her hands, she gestured she couldn’t understand. Eventually, someone translated. And, off she went wailing as she left.
She was telling me the same info she just told the woman in front of me.
My husband heard her as he approached me. He asked if there was another shelter.
She said, “No, they’re all full to capacity.”
I felt both relief and fear all at once. Where would we go?
My husband said, “It’s time to go home and hope for the best.”
He asked the staff member, “Could I go and get our cat from the pet area?”
“You have a pet in the pet area?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Then, here is the room where you’ll be able to stay.”
We were stunned. Had our cat gotten us into the shelter?
It turns out, he did.
Were we prepared for a shelter?
It turned out we weren’t. Yes, we had water, a few rice cakes for peanut butter, meds, a lap-blanket and a pillow for my bad back.
I’d never been to a shelter. I had no idea what to expect.
There were no cots. Floor space was at a premium with everyone hoarding every inch.
I felt like I was with homeless people. The people stockpiled their personal items like there was going to be an invasion of thieves. Since we were in a classroom they created squares around themselves with desks as their walls.
A woman created a private area with shower curtains for her husband who needed adult diaper changes often.
In the hall, there was a gal walking around with a sleeping bag hanging from her neck, “Shouting, I’m being raped. Someone stole my belongings.”
A man in a wheelchair screamed, “My leg is being cut-off.” No, it wasn’t. He had no legs.
I escaped to the bathroom to throw some water on my face and calm down.
I found a young woman crying. She became aware that her elderly neighbor had no one to care for her because her caretaker had taken off leaving her alone. She felt she had to do something.
She didn’t have a clue on how to take care of her but began to make a bed for her in the bathroom. The woman wore adult diapers. After having had an accident, the people in the room they were in through them out. As people entered the bathroom questions were being thrown at this poor young woman. She was chastised without reason.
She cried even more.
They said, ‘She was cruel for putting her in the bathroom.’
She tried finding a staff member in charge but to no avail. Everyone was overwhelmed with issues to clear up.
The older woman was sitting in her wheelchair crying. She kept saying she was sorry over and over and over again. I began to shake and told the young woman I’d find help for her.
Eventually, she was taken to a senior facility until the stormed passed.
There are people who come together in a disastrous situation and others who become mean and aggressive. Survival comes in many shades of color.
A family of seven settled into the area of the room opposite ours. I would later find out they were from Granada. Although they were wearing Indian clothing and spoke in a foreign language. There was the young husband and wife with their two children; a boy 18 months and a girl 4 years old. The husband’s mother and father and his mother in law. His father-in-law passed away 3 days before the storm.
They were prepared. They had suitcases. Blow-up mattresses, pillows, sheets, blankets, water, food … real cooked food … Kuerig coffee pot, healthy snacks and toys for the kids plus love. They were all loving and caring about each other; especially the woman who had just buried her husband. Each time she cried, someone went over to comfort her.
The children were extremely well-behaved. The baby cried a bit but soothing hugs and cuddles were immediately given which calmed him. The little girl helped her mother with him.
Since it was an art classroom, there were lots of markers and paper. I asked the mother if her daughter could draw with me. We sat and talked about what to draw. I told her we should exhibit her drawings on the blackboard. She was excited.
Photograph of her at her exhibition:
I don’t know her name. I don’t know anything about them. They kept to themselves as most did including me and my husband. There were feelings of distrust in the room.
The school was on automatic timers. The lights went out every night at 5:00 pm. People would gather outside the room for a glimpse of daylight.
The National Guard came to each room the night the hurricane was going to hit land. We were told to stay in the room until morning sue to the winds. The door opening could lift the roof off the building. They emphasized placing a desk in front of the door as a reminder.
Do people listen?
A man who was a heavy smoker and reeked of burnt ashes as he passed you, opened the door to go outside and smoke.
No one stopped him.
A woman left to use the bathroom.
No one stopped her.
The little girl claimed she wanted to go to the bathroom and brush her teeth. A nightly ritual I found out about later.
No one stopped them.
Another man and woman wanted to get some more beer from their car.
No one stopped them.
It was frustrating. It was scary. It was disrespectful to the national guardsman and the others in the room. We felt like we were being put in danger.
The most difficult part about a hurricane is your inability to do anything about what is going to happen. You’re at the mercy of the storm. There’s an eerie quiet before the storm hits. No matter how prepared you are; you’re never really prepared. Emotionally, it weakens you. Your inability to communicate helps panic set in. Your mind races to the worst scenarios.
As I’m waiting for the arrival of Hurricane Dorian, my thoughts are of the safety I feel when I’m in my own home. No, shelters aren’t on my plan unless we are forced to evacuate.
My home environment, regardless of the danger outside the door, is invulnerable, calm and safe.
May this be a passing intense storm with little ramifications afterward.