I find myself, over the last several days, obsessively watching the news, looking for any information regarding the looming, massive hurricane that is heading towards the Carolinas – or so the forecast says. I fear for those who live on the Southeastern coast of the United States. I understand the anxiety they are experiencing as this seemingly unpredicatable hurricane approaches the coast, and the uncertaintly of which way this hurricane will finally go – will it make a sudden jump to the south, or will it bounce and make a jog to the north, or will it behave, and continue on the path predicted by the weather services. Why am I am so worried about all of this – when I live way over on the West coast?
Because, in 2004, when we moved to Jacksonville, Florida – we lived through three hurricanes; Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan, and it was truly awful. We moved to Jacksonville in August of 2004, and almost immediately after settling in, the parade of hurricanes began their march towards the state of Florida. The first one was Bonnie, which occured in the early part of August – it was just a tropical storm, and really just a precursor for the storms to come. I don’t remember much of Tropical Storm Bonnie – there was rain and wind. At the time, I thought, Oh – that wasn’t such a big deal. But the hurricane that came behind it, Charley was a Category 4 and hit Punta Gorda and then travelled northward past Jacksonville.
Hurricane Charley was truly one of the most terrifying things my family and I have had to experience. And we were not in anyway prepared for this hurricane. As I scroll through the news, regarding the approach of Hurricane Florence, and see the photos of people boarding up their houses, and the rows and rows of empty shelves at the grocery stores, I think back to when my husband and I realized (being hurricane newbies) that we should probably prepare for the arrival of Charley.
Several days before Hurricane Charley made it’s appearance, and wallopped Florida – the skies began to fill with angry clouds. And all anyone was talking about was this hurricane, and being prepared for it. I don’t ever remember them calling for evacuations, but I do remember the feeling of impending doom, as the skies darkened, and everything became really still. As Charley came closer and closer, everyone went into panic mode, and at the time I thought “I should maybe think about getting some lanterns, and possibly some bottled water, and non-perishables of some kind, just in case.” So, I set off naively for Lowes and Home Depot to purchase said items, but when I arrived, I was faced with the empty shelves. There were no lanterns, and so I had to become creative. I searched the hardware stores, looking for lanterns, but to no avail. There were no lanterns, no candles, no generators – people with forethought had bought these items days before and completely wiped all the stores out. How was I going to minimize the scariness of this, for my children – while we sat in complete darkness? As I continued to scurry around the town of Jacksonville, going from one store to another, I sensed we had really screwed up, by not taking the weather reports more seriously. We should have listened to the old-timers, the native Floridians, who had been through a multitude of hurricane watches.
And in my search for lanterns, I ended up at Toys R Us. it was all I could think of. I knew they sold flashlights, because my kids over the years had had Spiderman flashlights, and Yu-Gi-Oh flashlights – so hoping and praying, I entered the Toys R Us in Orange Cove (which is just outside Jacksonville) to see if I could find some kind of battery-powered light sources. And I was in luck!! There was Scooby-Doo Lanterns and Power Puff Girls lanterns. I purchased about 6 – and I even found batteries to fill all of them, and spares, just in case. I did eventually locate some bottled water, but I am sure I purchased it at an inflated price.
As the hurricane came closer, the streets emptied out. The skies, having been cloudy and grey for several days now, suddenly cleared, but off on the horizon, we could see what was coming. As night fell (why do hurricanes always seem to hit at night?) the clouds came in, and the skies took on a kind of greenish ombre quality. At the time, all I could think of, as we sat and waited, was about the Ancient Mariner, on his ship, with the suffocating stillness, and the oppressive, greyish, green skies. I remember at the time, we prepped the children on what to do if we became separated – we came up with a place, where we could all meet. I don’t think we had cell phones at that point – so we needed to designate a site, that the kids knew how to get to. We told them to stay there, until one of us arrived, and if we didn’t, to find a firefighter, or a policeman, or someone like that, and let them know, they didn’t know where their parents were. That’s a really hard thing for which to prepare your children.
We filled the baths with water, and packed bottled water, along with fruit juice packets in the coolers. And we waited. The winds began to stir just as the sun set. We let the kids play outside in the backyard with the neighborhood children. We could tell the children were on edge, they had so much nervous energy, and just ran back and forth. As nightime settled in, we still had electricity, and watched the Weather Channel. Jim Cantore (from the Weather Channel) was our new hero, as he reported the events as they unfolded while standing outside, being pummeled by rain and wind.
At some point, later in the night, the winds kicked up, and whistled relentlessly for hours. We sat out on the back patio, huddled together. The only light we had, was that of the Scooby-Doo and the Power Puff Girl lanterns. We watched as the enormous palm trees bowed to the force of the viscious, unrelenting winds. So forceful were the gusts, the palms bent over, their tops almost touching the ground. The rain was falling with such velocity, it was horizontal.Our boys were terrified, we were terrified. It was then I realized, that despite what we think, humans are really pretty insignificant when the forces of nature take over. With all our technological advances, we were no better than the cavemen who had huddled together around fires, waiting for some calamity to pass.
At some point during the night, we all fell asleep. The lanterns stilled burned brightly, as the wind and the rain crashed down around us.
In the morning, we awoke and hesitantly stumbled outside. The trees were down, the roads covered with torn apart limbs. Roads were blocked. The air was silent. No air conditioners or pool filters were humming in the background. Just complete silence. No cars hurriedly backing out of the driveways, with people running late – on their way to work. There were just clusters of neighbors, surveying the damage, half-heartedly trying to clear limbs and debris from their front yards. In our backyard, we discovered an alligator – presumbably he had been whipped out of the pond. There were snakes, and turtles, all displaced – searching for the right body of water to hide in.
We went without electricity for several days I think. The air was laden with moisture, and there was no way of escaping the oppressive humidity. Every activity induced a torrent of sweat trickling down our bodies. The children were hungry and satisfied themselves with eating dry cereal, and drinking juice packets. They too, played half-heartedly, worn out from the events of the night before.
In the days after the hurricane, people scrabbled about, trying to bring some sense of normality back into their lives. Many of us, who had lost income, because of the storms, wondered how we were going to cover the bills that kept coming, depite the storm. And just when things seem to right themselves, and we were all back to our daily routines, another hurricane was forming over the waters to our east, and then another.
And so, I tell you all of this, as we wait for Hurricane Florence to hit. This is the stuff people don’t see on the Weather Channel, or on the news. The panic in preparation, the actuality of sitting and waiting for the hurricane to pass, and the real aftermath and how it affects the real people. I never ever want to experience another hurricane, again – ever. So we moved to the West Coast, and instead talk about when the “Big One” is going to hit. It’s always something, isn’t it?