Saturday, July 11, 2009

Recalling Hurricane Wilma - Summer 08

We’re two months into our second hurricane season in South Florida. Last year I was nearly frantic with worry that we didn’t have storm shutters, that no one had trimmed the coconuts out of the palm trees across the street and did we have enough bottled water if a storm hit. And of course, my worries were unfounded. Nothing happened. Nothing even threatened to happen. So this year to date, our hurricane preparedness plan can be summed up by saying we have a few gallons of water, some canned goods and we watch the weather every day.

But hurricanes are a regular topic of conversation down here. Everyone remembers the last one, Wilma, in 2005 and a few long-timers even remember Andrew in ’92. Never having been through a hurricane, I’m curious what it’s like. All I really know is what I’ve heard on the news – the same news channels that broadcast “Winter Storm Watch 200-” causing runs on the grocery stores at the first sign of the shadow of a snowflake. So I asked around.

Preparing for the storm is the first step, of course. Stocking up on food and water is a given but also on alcohol, ice for drinks and gas. I asked Mary the Martini Queen what she did to prepare and if she was worried before the storm. “Had plenty of vodka and ice. No worries.”

Dorie commented on having to bring in everything from outside such as yard tools and lawn decorations…and the bugs and spiders that live on them and the oil that leaks from them. Nice.

Lisa adds, “Don’t wait for the last minute to get supplies.” The lines get longer the closer the storm gets and the supplies run out quickly.

Other tips included figuring out a way to keep your cell phone charged, learning how to cook everything from frozen pizza to coffee on the grill outside because Sterno is gross, and having cash on hand because the power is out and most places can’t run your credit or debit card. I found that last bit helpful because I seldom carry cash and it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me.

And then the storm hits. Wilma reached Fort Lauderdale as a Category 2 hurricane in the middle of the night and the power went out around five in the morning. The first part of the storm was loud and fierce but the second part, when the eye had passed and the back wall hit around 9:30 in the morning, was vicious. Lisa saw a privacy fence lift off the ground in a single piece and shatter outward. She thought she was imagining things until it was confirmed by her brother. Darleen, from her 15th floor perspective saw a stretch limo picked up and flipped over. Lauren passed the time drinking with neighbors. Danny slept through it all. But aside from Danny, everyone else seemed to pass the time watching the storm and waiting it out.

The aftermath. People were outside investigating damage by two in the afternoon and the weather was nice. Cool, clear, comfortable. But by sundown a cold front had moved through behind the storm and the temps dropped low enough to require jackets. Debris, in the form of tree limbs and anything else the storm could pick up, was scattered everywhere, making travel by vehicle nearly impossible. A1A was buried under a mound of sand from the beach. Power was out, water was off, and it was darker than South Florida had experienced in ages. Standing outside that night you could look in any direction and not see the faintest glow of city lights. But the stars were out in force and everyone recalls how magnificent the night sky looked and how silent the city was. No traffic, no hum of air conditioners or roar of planes overhead. Just silence.

The days that followed were tougher for some than others. Power and water outages ranged from three days to three weeks. Showers were taken in cold water or not at all, toilets flushed infrequently with water saved in bathtubs before the storm, people stood in lines for ice and water, and communication with the rest of the world was infrequent.

But the human spirit comes shining through in moments like this and people drew together. Sean commented that it was the first time he’d met many of his neighbors and everyone kept an eye out for each other; shared food and shared power by way of extension cords run across yards and streets. Ric said he gathered with friends every day to throw whatever food they had on the grill (things you wouldn’t normally eat together) and drink warm beer or rum and cokes with no ice. Lauren mentioned the neighbor aspect too. She said the kids played outside together while the adults mingled and talked and got to know each other. Not a bad way to pass the time while waiting for life to return to normal. Actually, not counting the damage and the costs, both large and small, not a bad way to pass the time in any circumstances.

So maybe a few gallons of water and some canned food isn’t the best preparation. Maybe we need to think a little further ahead. But as with anything in life, you take the bad with the good. And the good that came from the last storm was acknowledged by everyone I spoke with. And not a single one of them would consider moving elsewhere for even a moment. I’m not suggesting that a hurricane is fun or exciting, not by any means, but it sure does make you think about things in a slightly different way. And maybe that isn’t all bad.

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