Curiously enough, about two years ago, we were out to dinner with our good friends, Marsha and Paul, and both couples were talking about upcoming vacation plans, y'know, where to go, what to do, where to stay..... And I said, innocently enough, that of late I was more about new experiences, doing things I've never done before. I said something about how as I got older I was realizing that time was running out for me to do everything, go everywhere, try everything. Our friends nodded in agreement and that was kind of the end of that part of the conversation. I believe I meant things like RV camping in a National Park or travelling by train instead of car or airplane. I'm pretty sure I didn't mean encountering a massive hurricane. My fault for not being more specific.
We knew that hurricanes were a possibility before we moved here. But the small likelihood of having a full on hurricane smack us in the fact here in Venice was at least one of the many factors that has us choose our little town. For whatever reason, Venice just manages to avoid the worst of what Mother Nature has to offer. Local rumour has it that this area is protected by the spirits of the Calusa Indians who once inhabited this place about 12,000 years ago. Other people say it has more to do with the relatively shallow water plate on Venice's gulf exposure. Who knows. I do know that we were banking on at least one of those being true.
We certainly has plenty of warning. Media weather reporters were quite clear on the possibility involved with Hurricane Irma. As she churned closer it was just about all anyone talked about. We watched and read these reports with interest and a small amount of concern. Eventually we talked to locals. The long time residents were first concerned then full out worried. Many of them left way ahead of the evacuation order. There were reports from the travelers that the roads were nigh on impassible, arteries completely clogged with cars, reports of many accidents caused by frantic drivers and of course the news that gas stations were rapidly depleted.
Having no idea what to expect, we stayed calm. When the local report came out that sand was available locally for sandbags, it stood to reason that we should take advantage of that. So Thursday before the storm I drove to the designated spot. Sure enough, lots of people filling read sand bags and more people filling garbage bags. I asked about that. Sure enough, they ran out of real sandbags. It's BYOB and the second bag is for bags. Ahhhhh, see? Learning already. I managed to secure out allotted 10 bags and placed them, as recommended on the west side of the house. Apparently that is the vulnerable side of the house here and it's supposed to be protection from storm surge. As we are only about 4 blocks from the ocean, (it's a small island, nobody is far from the ocean) we were told that it was a very real possibility that the house could flood. Ok. Duly noted.
Another thing we learned was, 'Hunker down against the wind, run from the water". So it seems that the water is more to be feared than the wind. Okay. Committed to memory. After that, the rest of Thursday and Friday was spent purchasing "hurricane food", that is lots of water and food that requires neither refrigeration nor cooking. tying down everything tie-down-able. Moving bicycles and garbage cans inside. Inside we moved things up in case of flood, trying to leave as little as possible on the floor or down low. Moving up books from lower shelves, for example. Unplugging everything, lowering all blinds and closing curtains. Turning off the power and water. Learning that on the back of the house we have a hurricane curtain and figuring out how to use it. Securing valuables like important papers. And trying to decide where to go. Spent a lot of time working on that.
Friday night the sunset was beautiful and the sea was a calm as glass. It was hard to reconcile what we saw with what was lurking in the distance.
Saturday was the day we had to make the decision. Evacuation orders went out but there was a lot of confusion. The official lists of where to go weren't up to date. Oh dear. We stayed in close communication with two sets of friends here both of whom live on our street. We all discussed possibilities, where to go, when to leave. It was a time of indecision on everyone's part. We loaded the car with essentials and set out We tried one shelter, it was full up already. We tried another on the list and it turns out it wasn't opening as a shelter this time around despite the full parking lot and endless line of people waiting to get in. With gas being used driving around looking with little clear direction and little chance of being able to refill the tank we grew more concerned. Finally we received a call from one of our Venice friends. We were offered a second floor condo that was currently renter free by the owner. Bless them. We are grateful beyond words. Off we went. We got the keys and the tour from the owners just before they took off to their own bunker of choice and introduced to a few other residents of the building that were also in house. Relieved to have a spot up high and uncertain as to whether or not it was the best choice, we alternately settled in and watched news reports. We were invited to join some of the other residents gathering by the pool that afternoon for drinks and snacks.
Everyone was very friendly and welcoming. We chatted, a few people swam. It was a lovely afternoon despite the underlying tension and worry. In the midst of the stress as we sat there pretending that everything was fine, I noticed while there were no birds at all which is unusual, no lizards, no bunnies or squirrels, there were butterflies. Four of them, endlessly circling us, The entire time we sat out there, which was several hours, these butterflies flitted around and around the group bravely acting as if it was an ordinary day. I chose to take it as a good sign.
I think part of what was so unnerving was that the weather guys kept saying, this was an unprecedented "weather event', and that they had never seen anything like this before and they were unsure about the hurricanes path. The eye could travel virtually in any direction but regardless of the direction, everyone in the entire state would be affected. Well that kind of sucks doesn't it. I think we were more concerned about the fate of our house than ourselves. We did talk about it a little bit. At one point Tim said that if the house was destroyed, well we still owned the land and so we would buy an RV and live on the land in the RV until we could rebuild. Ok. At least we had a plan. We got antsy and took a late night walk. The streets were so quiet we felt as if we were in a Twilight Zone episode. But the sky was beautiful.
We ate cheese crackers with guacamole. It wasn't bad.
There was no sleeping while we waited. The TV was on the background, usually old black and white tv shows and movies, but occasionally Tim would flip to the weather just to update us. It will drive you crazy if you keep watching and listening to the words of doom. We read while we waited. And a funny coincidence. As I read the following words, at the exact same time, someone on TV said almost the exact same thing:" We are, each of us, more than we think we are: stronger, smarter and braver." Timely. I said, "Thanks, I needed that."
Sunday morning at about 7:30 Irma made landfall in Key west as a category 4 hurricane. We had just light rain and it was a little windy. We continue reading and watching old TV and weather news alternately. Occasionally we talk with others in the condo. As the wind and rain increase the weather guys are telling us that Irma is on a direct path for us. Interesting. What do we do? Where else would we go? We decide to stay. We watch out the window as trees falls and lights flicker. Occasionally there is a crash in the streets below as something large and metal first hits the road and then skitters down, pushed by the increasing wind. We busy ourselves taping up the windows in the condo where we are riding the storm out and then helping others do the same. Some people's windows are leaking and we help to continually mop up. We lower the blinds as the wind and rain increase in intensity hoping that if the windows break it will be at least some measure of protection. We text with our friends and relatives (we have two nieces in a town east of here). They have all lost power already. Shortly after 8 pm we lost power and water.
We continue storm tracking on our phones, caught between not wanting to use up the phone charge and needing to know what is coming. The storm is scarier in the dark. The building shudders and trembles against the storm and the rain sounds like bass drums. The wind is a combination of banshee wails, freight train, ghostly moans and demon shrieks. Near midnight I see an exceptionally bright light flashing. I peek beneath the blinds. It's lightening but not the zigzag bolts that we usually see with thunder cracking. It's more like giant flash photography. The entire sky lights up white yellow, orange and white light for just a second. My storm tracker has moved the eye east of us. A relief.
Monday morning, when the light finally dawns, it's still raining and windy, but not as furiously. We realize that this is 9/11 and for the first time in too many years, this date will be not only the anniversary of the worst enemy attack on American soil but it will also be the day we know that we survived the worst hurricane to ever come ashore. As soon as possible, we will go to the house to see how it fared. We know our friends are okay and our nieces survived as well. We are ridiculously elated to still be together and in one piece. While we are concerned about the house, we have multiple recovery plans and we know that whatever else happens it's okay.
Stay tuned for Part Two, the Aftermath.
Yup, this is me. Some people said, "Sam, you should write a Blog". "Well, there's a thought", I thought to myself. And so here it is.