The sign in front of a closed bar in Cocoa Beach says it all: “Go Away Irma, You Bitch!” In the immortal words of George Patton, you’ve gotta love such eloquence, especially when it’s bolstered by reports that potential victims of Hurricane Irma are taking matters into their own hands by calling on residents to fire aimlessly into the storm in an effort to shoot her dead, which is much to the consternation of the state authorities, not to mention those unlucky enough to be in the path of the stray bullets, but what can you expect when Florida law explicitly states that you’re supposed to be able to “Stand your ground”? Well, stand we did against Irma, at least in my home, but I can’t say it was a smart choice.
I’m in the North Carolina mountains when the storm tracking begins, and that might seem like a pretty good place to be if 185 mile per hour winds are bearing down on your home in the Sunshine State, which they still call it with a straight face, in spite of the fact that a foot of rain will soon be dropped like a giant God-sized bucket on the hapless citizens so quickly that the adjective Biblical doesn’t do it justice. But of course, a reality-based ad campaign showing screaming tourists running for their lives from an epic tidal wave doesn’t exactly help fill the theme parks, so I’m not looking for any changes anytime soon, at least so long as we’re still greedy capitalists. Nevertheless, since I am, at this point, at least an honorary native Floridian, I should know by now the real danger of braving such storms- and stay the hell away. But, I reason, that’s just what a normal person would do, so I immediately pack up the travel trailer and head back toward the eye of the storm.
On the way, I notice pretty quickly that I-95 North is a long skinny parking lot stretching all the way to the Georgia border, while I’m only sharing my side of the road with emergency response trucks, which would be a clue to a sane person, but, well…you know. We (unfortunately) spend the night at a Motel 6 near Brunswick, GA, a process that involves moving all of the perishable contents of the trailer and into the room for just one night, but at least we can enjoy the historic 1980’s ambience of the facility, which is accurately reflected by the lack of Internet access, the absence of any acoustic attenuation whatsoever (a point driven home to us in rhythmic fashion by the denizens of the room above us), and the original orange carpet, now stained to a vintage, multi-hued, mixed media collage of color and texture worthy of a modern art exhibit.
When we arrive at our RV storage facility in Palm Bay, nothing has been done to prepare for our arrival in spite of our explicit instructions to clear a path for our vehicle, which is something that, regrettably, we’ve become used to, even when we threaten eviction of the irresponsible, yet somehow deadbeat tenant, so precious time and energy is spent just to park the trailer, but at least we are able to secure the essentials that we need to survive at the same time: 2 dogs, a cat, and my Mother-in-Law. “Free at last” from the burden of our trailer, if not our livestock and relatives, we speed back up north to our home on the beach.
That evening, we learn from the infobabe on the local news channel that the island of Barbuda has been utterly flattened by Irma, so she frantically begs us, with her teary blue eyes, pouty lips, and big American…uh…hair “TO PLEASE EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY BECAUSE THIS WILL BE THE BIG ONE!!!! ESPECIALLY IF YOU LIVE ON THE (cue horror music: dum, dumm, dummm…) BARRIER ISLAND”. They don’t call it that for nuttin’, and if it makes you wonder why people like me live on it, the answer is that absolutely nobody ever did until after WWII and the invention of air conditioning, which is when Canucks, Yankees, and other jetsam discovered they could tolerate the heat and humidity so long as they only ventured outdoors long enough to play bocce and/or spend the last of their 401K money on Amber, an independent contractor who works part time at Thee Doll House in Ft Lauderdale (not that I would know for sure). The islands used to prevent major damage to citrus crops on the mainland, so the name made some sense back in the day when we used to actually grow something on the fertile soil other than strip malls, but now the barrier islands themselves are the most valuable real estate- a point that is, however, irrelevant to mother nature.
For days before the anticipated devastation, we scurry around buying things: water, batteries, sandbags, gasoline, tarps, plywood, used cars, sports memorabilia, designer shorts…it gets to the point where we don’t really know exactly what we’re supposed to be buying but everyone else is out power shopping and you don’t want to be THAT GUY, the one who didn’t prepare, the one who, the newscaster regrettably announces, would be alive today if only he had stocked up on more flashlights and duct tape…what was he thinking? At one point, I’m queued up at Ace Hardware buying Tapcon screws, which are like regular screws except they’re blue and I can never get them to work right. The row of people stretches down one aisle and into another state. A man walks in the door, takes one look at the line, and cheerfully calls out, “Oh, no! We’re all going to die!” To which the customer at the front helpfully responds, “Get in line!”. Ah, Florida doomsday humor. Gotta love it!
Now the telecasters are announcing that if we stay in our homes we’ll all certainly perish in the most powerful hurricane since Andrew, but if we leave (as the state has demanded under the mandatory evacuation order now in effect), the looters will probably clean us out post haste. We both find that the anticipation is worse than the actual event, so we decide the best thing to do is turn off the 24 hour doom and gloom on the TV (even though the ridiculous Miami weatherman is leaning into a gale force wind on SoBe and screaming that Irma’s “only” a category 3 or 4 now) and simply enjoy what’s left of our lives before the end of the world as we know it descends inevitably onto our little slice of paradise.
I busy myself over the next 24 hours boarding up my home, drinking, and praying, though not necessarily in that order, but I feel like I have a pretty good handle on things as the storm, which has been moving north at the speed of a septuagenarian’s golf cart, finally approaches. I have stocked up on critical items like wine, beer, and a portable air conditioner, and still have a generator from my last Floridian disaster, so I’m getting a little cocky, and tell my wife we won’t bother with the sandbags because it will be easy to fill them at the last second, which sounds a lot like something an idiot would say in a disaster movie.
The first wind comes, and it is a mild puff, a baby’s breath, a birthday-candle-blowing-out breeze compared to even a windy day, let alone a Cat 4 monster ‘cane, yet it causes a critical power failure instantly throughout the neighborhood, just as it did last year when we suffered through Mathew. And just like last year, within mere days, a FNPL (Florida No Power and Light) truck is dispatched to the scene to fix it. In the meantime, we’re left on our own to enjoy Florida’s balmy heat and humidity au naturel the way Ponce De Leon did just before it killed him (not really, the Indians did that, but whatever).
Then the rain hits us, and it doesn’t stop for 24 hours, even though it’s coming down in great, ship-floating, Niagara-esque torrents. Otherwise, it’s like normal rain, except it blows sideways, and sometimes, now that the wind is really howling, it whips around you to sting you in the side of the face. I know this because the generator is in the bed of my truck and it’s run out of gas, and, as the quasi-man in the house, it’s my duty to venture out into the screaming gale, at night, to fuel it up, which I do, so I am soaked to the bone almost instantly, but at least it’s good therapy for my bum shoulder to hoist the 40 pound gas container over my head to get a steady pour into the fuel filler neck while keeping an eye out for falling trees.
Back indoors, we’re safe and we have power, though I’m too cheap to break out the brand new portable A/C unit, reasoning, in spite of their laughably pathetic track record, that surely FNPL will have us up and running in no time, so why bother unpacking my new toy and risking some kind of obscure no-return clause in the Lowe’s sales receipt if we don’t have to? Certainly not worth it, not to a Scotsman, not when it’s only 88 degrees inside! So we are sweltering, but we amuse ourselves by bickering over who gets to have access to the power strip and extension cords, which are running all over our house like the tentacles of an electric squid.
That’s when I take a look in the backyard, and I notice it’s underwater, which wouldn’t be so bad if the prevailing current didn’t threaten to breach the sill of our sliding door, so my wife and I spend the next few hours implementing the sand bag plan, and I give her eternal credit for not cursing me as she sat there in the rising mud and water desperately loading wet slime into a burlap sack so that we can save our home from the Great Flood. After only a few quick hours of this household chore, which we cheerily complete in a rain squall, we’ve got a solid but completely inadequate barrier on the front and rear of our home, so I must quickly dig a ditch to drain the lake still forming at the back door. The ditch leads to the side of our house, where I excavate a small reservoir for the overflow, which I name Lake Folly, but, I note with absurd pride, it is doing its job, and the swamp has been drained successfully. President Trump, I’m ready for DC!
Satisfied, I retreat to the relative safety of the great indoors, where I find that my Mother-in-Law has helpfully shored up the front door against any potential water intrusion with an antique Persian rug, while I enjoy the kind of aromatherapy that only sweat, catnip, dog drool, and unburned hydrocarbons can provide. But, I reason, at least I can take a shower and cool off before bed time; that is, if the water is still working, but of course it isn’t, since this is, after all, the day from Hell, so I go to sleep sweating profusely, drifting off to the sweet sound of thunder and the gentle howl of hurricane force winds hurling walls of water at the house, which is shuddering under the impact.
Amazingly, there is actual daylight the in the morning, and I spend some time surveying the damage, which doesn’t seem so bad: a soffit down, a broken roof tile, and a few cubic yards of debris on the lawn. After I finish some repairs, I notice that my neighbor’s car has been idling in their carport for most of the day, so I go over to check it out. There they are, in their car, reading some books, enjoying some gasoline-powered air conditioning, and I think to myself, “That’s pure genius!”, since it simultaneously allows for some relief from the heat and pisses off Al Gore at the same time, so I go and do likewise.
So there I am, reclining in the blessed cool of my pickup truck, playing a game of chess with my best friend Mac, and about to have a rendezvous with destiny in the land of Nod, when I get a text from my friend and neighbor, who reminds me that it’s happy hour. I decide that no silly-ass hurricane is a reason to quit drinking, au contraire, so I drive over to her house straight away.
No sooner have I arrived than my wife calls, who gently reminds me in four letter words (translated into three languages) that before I left the house it might have been wise to disconnect the generator in the back of my truck from the wires leading to the house. Now, at this point you may say I am a fool, and you have a valid point, but I will say in my defense it had been a very long couple of days and nights since I’d had any rest, and the lure of Happy Hour was strong. Still, I have to admit that when I exited the truck I probably should have noticed that the generator was still merrily humming away in the bed, or at least that it was sitting cockeyed on the tailgate with a broken wire dangling on the ground behind it. And yes: maybe I could have walked the 100 yards to my friend’s house as well.
When I arrive back at the scene of the crime, my wife is steaming hot, and not in a good way. I can’t say I blame her, since it must have been somewhat disconcerting to inexplicably see all of the lights and appliances suddenly flying towards the closed door at warp factor 7 before being smashed to pieces, but then I suppose my neighbor, who was also hooked up to my generator, felt the same way.
It only takes me a few weeks to get back in my wife’s good graces, but in the meantime I decide it’s best to leave her alone, so (after some field expedient repairs to the damage) I return to my friend’s Happy Hour, only (wisely) on foot this time. I am not sure exactly when I come home, but I make certain it is way later than my wife will be awake.
The next day I decide perhaps an act of contrition would be to set up the portable air conditioning that I had so stingily denied us before, so I do, and naturally it’s at that exact moment that the FNPL people throw the switch on for our neighborhood, thus rendering my labor utterly useless. I try to calculate the odds that power would perversely resume (after 3.5 days) at the exact moment that I finally assemble and use my own A/C, but give it up as just another exercise in negative reinforcement, which I am very good at, instead of focusing on the positive, which everyone else is, a point which is driven home all the more clearly when I hear whoops of joy all over the Cape as the lights, and, more importantly, the A/C compressors begin to kick on.
In the days that follow, I learned that thankfully few people lost their lives, and at least one of those, identified only as “a surfer”, probably qualified for a Darwin Award anyway. I’m able to score some free government water from the National Guard, which, as a testament to the efficiency of governments everywhere, only needed a single infantry platoon to load a case into my car, and I returned my Mother-in-Law to her rightful place an hour’s drive away (though the barn animals are still with us). Lake Folly has completely drained, and within my lifetime the streets will be free from all the debris.
So, what did I learn from all this? That man shouldn’t live in a gator-infested swamp? That we need a different way to pick ‘cane names (Irma, really)? That if you have to choose to lose water or power, don’t pick both? That I need to walk to Happy Hour? Yes, all of that’s true, but I also learned that disasters bring us together and make us better people. I met neighbors, nice folks I never knew and never would have met otherwise, cooling off in the community pool because of Irma. A woman nearby rescued a lost dog. A man helped evacuate his 80 year-old friend. A couple volunteered to clear the streets in the aftermath, and a wife forgave her stupid husband. Everyone shared their food, wine, water, and electricity. I personally spent a whole lot more time praying than usual, and I doubt I was alone. For the second time in a year, God listened, and disaster was averted. Irma wasn’t pretty, and I still wish she’d stayed completely away, but she proved Nietzsche was right when he said “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”. If that’s so, in the words of a Russian proverb, I’m “strong like bull.”