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A Week with Irma: Reflections on My First Hurricane

I grew up in a tiny Illinois farm town in a swath of the country known at Tornado Alley.

Each spring, I spent my fair share of time hunkered in a basement as storm sirens blared. I saw the aftermath of an unexpected mid-winter tornado that flattened the neighboring town and helped my best friend dig through the rubble that was once her home after a pop-up summer storm. In other words, I understand wind and the damage it can do. But hurricanes are a different story. Hurricanes are wind plus water. “You have so much warning, though,” they said when we were making our move to Florida. Seven years later, Irma is the first true hurricane I have faced.

What I learned is that ample warning is a good thing, but it can also drive you mad.

I’ll be the first to admit I watched far too much Hurricane Harvey coverage – my eyes glued to the television as people waded through waist-high water, or worse, stood helpless on roofs and car tops awaiting rescue. So when Irma first made appearance on Aug. 30 (a.k.a. a lifetime ago), I took note. The first update offered an optimistic outlook that she would skirt up the East Coast, avoiding Florida all together. Ok, no problem – I had witnessed this scenario before. Fast-forward to Monday, Sept. 4, when a Florida hit became a distinct possibility. Suddenly, local meteorologists and would-be Harvey experts like myself were on alert. A mere 24 hours later, Irma had morphed into the largest hurricane to form in that Atlantic, and the question was not if Irma would hit Florida, but where – east, west or straight up the middle.

The scramble for hurricane supplies ensued.

Trying to remain calm, I went into list mode: flashlights, check; weather radio, check; spare batteries for flashlights and radio, check; propane, check; food – two cans of soup and a pack of ramen (I made a mental note to stock up on canned goods); water – wait, I need how much water? (I made a second mental note to stock up on a ridiculous amount of water.)

On Facebook, fellow Westchasers began toying with the idea of heading north. “Stay or go?” one post implored.

I filled my gas tank – just in case. Water was suddenly in short supply. As I drove in search of what was now essentially liquid gold, my van died. My heart raced as I pictured two adults, two teens and a 90-pound dog crammed into my husband’s mid-size sedan as we fled Irma’s wrath.

I booked a rental car.

By Tuesday night, things went from bad to worse. Remembering a tip I once read, I began searching for pet-friendly hotel rooms in the interior of the state. Apparently, I am not the only one who read that tip. I snagged what appeared to be the last two rooms (one for my family, one for my parents) in Wildwood – a tiny town just south of Ocala that boasts an adult bookstore and a Mexican restaurant.

I had a plan. We would be fine.

On Wednesday morning, our high school carpool was shy one kid – my son’s best friend had headed north. I avoided eye contact with my son and sent him off with as much cheer as I could muster at 6:30 a.m. I clicked on my Hotels.com app to double-check my booking in Wildwood and then started searching for rooms further north – nothing. I called to confirm my rental car would be ready by noon as promised. My mental state was rapidly deteriorating.

Later that afternoon, a glimmer of hope as Irma’s track shifted east. I had my rental car – although with gas now in short supply, the tank was barely half full. Hearing about a gas shortage is one thing – driving from empty gas station to empty gas station is terrifying. Remembering that I had a full tank in my now-defunct mini van, I Googled “how to siphon gas” – just in case. I called my parents and told them they should seriously consider heading north. By Wednesday night, with the track still headed east, I booked a second hotel room near USF, safely out of storm surge range in case we were ordered to evacuate.

Thursday was a day for decisions. School had been canceled. My parents heeded my advice and headed north – the question was: should we follow? My husband was not ready to leave (he had a department to manage at work) and despite my growing fear, I was not willing to split up the family– so, we stayed.

On Friday, a quick Facebook poll reassured me we were not alone in our decision. Irma continued to track east and so I canceled my room in Wildwood. I found two cases of water and two bags of ice. In the meantime, Irma continued to grow – a monster, unprecedented, potentially devastating.

I got a text from a neighbor who had decided to stay with family in Lakeland. A few hours later, a second neighbor let me she was headed to her in-laws’ house north of Orlando. [vulgarity] it! Why did I cancel that reservation in Wildwood? Fear and isolation kicked in.  I considered leaving the state, but reports of standstill traffic and gas shortages conjured up images of my family of four and our hulking dog stranded on the side of the road. Besides, there wasn’t a single hotel room to be had between here and Atlanta.

Evacuation orders were issued for low-lying zones in Pinellas County and the City of Tampa. I clicked my Hotel.com app to double-check our reservation near USF. “Water kills, not wind,” I chanted in my head. Although I am from the Midwest and I know full-well wind can kill.

Friday night we took a break from the incessant Irma coverage to watch a movie. For the first time in days, I drifted into a deep sleep – so deep that the middle of the night weather alert on Irma’s dramatic shift west wove itself into my dreams. At 5 a.m. it hit me and I woke in a state of sheer panic. A quick Facebook check revealed an ominous stream of posts: “Packing the car and heading north,” one friend wrote.

“Right behind you,” another replied…and on and on.

I woke my husband with fervent pleas to leave the state. “And go where?” he replied. He was right. We didn’t have gas reserves on hand and our closest relatives were in Tennessee.

Saturday was the longest day of my life. As day broke, calls and texts poured in from friends and family up north. “The track has shifted west – are you leaving?” As if I didn’t know. As if I hadn’t been tracking Irma’s progress by the hour for the past five days. They meant well, but they were fueling my fear. I stepped outside in search of answers and there I found my neighbor packing his truck to head north – my native-Floridian, isn’t-really-shaken-by-much neighbor was fleeing with 20 gallons of gas and an intimate knowledge of the state’s back roads. “Take us with you!” I wanted to cry, but instead I wished him well and asked him to check in when he was safe.

I spotted another neighbor down the street packing his family up to make the same trek. Fear and isolation intensified.

With no plywood to board up my windows and neighbors dropping like flies, the hotel at USF seemed like the right move. I left my husband to pack the van while I made one last Publix run before they closed at noon. The people I encountered that day were in it for the long haul. All wore a dazed look of uncertainty – it was like being on the deck of the Titanic as she began to flounder, only instead of searching for lifeboats or make-shift flotation devices, we were seeking solace in one last round of spare batteries and canned goods.

Later that morning, a text from our neighbors who were now in Lakeland: “Hey, don’t panic. You are welcome in Lakeland.”  Oh God, is USF not far enough inland? 

My kids are old enough to track Irma’s path. “Why didn’t we just leave?” my oldest asked.

I calmly explained that you are really only supposed to evacuate tens of miles – although at this point I am not sure that is great advice.  We checked in at our hotel and I immediately sought out safe spaces – the stairwell, the main floor bathroom, the laundry room.  “Are there any specific plans if things get bad,” I asked the front desk clerk, who couldn’t have been much older than my high schooler.
“No,” he shrugged.

I fought back a wave of nausea. A bit later a text from my neighbor safely tucked north of Orlando: “Is your hotel structurally sound?”

Oh God, oh God, oh God. I was going to die in a La Quinta.

With every forecast, Irma inched closer to Tampa. I had read the articles proclaiming the city was long overdue for a direct hit – and what that would mean for our city. Now we could very well be facing that scenario. I called my parents at their cabin in Tennessee to assure them we were fine, while I secretly longed to be there. We checked in with my in-laws in Indiana and, again, assured them we were fine. My insides were Jell-O. I took a walk to check on my safe spaces – the stairwell, the main floor bathroom, the laundry room.

The rest of Saturday was a blur. Watch and wait. Wait and watch. Every update that showed a continued northwest track spelled doom. I was an amateur meteorologist by now. Governor Scott stressed that time to seek shelter was running out. Mayor Buckhorn declared Tampa should be prepared to take a punch in the face. I was sick to my stomach.

On Facebook, there were a slew of posts from friends who had made it to their destinations up north, accompanied by photos of their kids sleeping safely out of Irma’s path. I looked over at my boys and then took a walk to check on my safe spaces – the stairwell, the main floor bathroom, the laundry room.

After a fitful night of sleep, I woke in a cold sweat. I had a nightmare that…oh wait, that was no nightmare. Today was the day. Irma was now a Category 4 hurricane – a massive hulking beast that could swallow Florida whole – and Tampa was in the line of fire. More texts and calls from friends. We were safe I assured them. Texts between friends who had remained in Florida were the only thing keeping me sane – there is safety in numbers after all. I roamed the hotel hallways assessing the looks on people’s faces.

Watch and wait. Wait and watch.

And then it happened – a turn to the north. I hated myself for hoping that the Southeastern half of the state would bear the brunt of the storm. We “hunkered down” as we had been instructed, playing cards to distract our minds. Wait and watch. Watch and wait.

And then Southeast Florida took the hit. God bless them. The guilt was palpable as a wave of relief flooded over me. Irma was still coming our way, but she was packing a lot less of a punch. Later that night, Irma passed over our hotel as a Category 2 hurricane. The wind howled, but at that point I was ready. I just needed her to be gone.

Monday morning was a blessing. We had survived Irma unscathed. More calls and texts flooded in. This time, I could confidently assure everyone we were safe. We waited for the all clear from the county and then drove the 14 miles home. Downed trees and power lines were nothing compared to what could have been. Our house was whole. Our neighbors were safe. I cried huge, gulping sobs of relief and gratitude.

Irma taught me a lot. I learned that even when I am crumbling on the inside, I can hold it together on the outside for the sake of my kids. I learned that I am part of a community that bands together in the face of adversity – even when we head in different directions to ride it out. I learned that preparing for the worst and hoping for the best is sage advice. Most important, I learned that if a hurricane sets her sights on Tampa again, I am getting the hell out of Dodge.

Karen Ring is a longtime WOW contributor. We’re glad she still wants to call Florida home!

By Karen Ring

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