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Surviving My First Storm: A Northerner's Outlook On Hurricane Irma

by Holly Gambrell Sep 12, 2017 03:46 PM

Waking up and falling asleep in a state of anxiety. Constantly watching the news for every update. Diligently tracking the forecast and predicted tracks of the storm. Asking friends and coworkers how to be prepared for Irma. Racing down the aisles of Publix to find the last bottle of water. Waiting in line for 30 minutes at a gas station. In summary, that’s how I’ve spent the past week.

If you’re a Floridian reading this, you’re more than likely used to hurricanes. You probably shrug off news of the spaghetti models and care more about stocking up on beer than the essentials Red Cross tells you to have in your emergency kit. After all, you need to have enough alcohol for your hurricane party.

But if you’re like me, a northerner who moved to South Florida not even a year ago, Hurricane Irma probably felt like an initiation. A weird hazing ritual that each resident must go through to feel like a true “Floridian.”

I’ve spent 20 plus years of my life growing up in Maryland, a state that has four distinct seasons and is drastically different from the constant heat and humidity of Fort Lauderdale. As soon as news of Hurricane Irma struck, I could feel myself starting to panic.

Throw me into any blizzard, and I’ll tell you everything you need to do to protect your home and survive the cold if the power goes out. But when it comes to hurricanes? I’m clueless.

I came into work the day after Labor Day and sat down to the main task of the week: reporting on Hurricane Irma and keeping our readers up-to-date. This meant that every day I was spending hours listening to officials give press conferences, tracking every update on Irma’s forecasted path and reading everything I could on how to prepare for a hurricane.

As someone who had never experienced a hurricane before Irma, the words “Category 5 storm,” didn’t really sit well with my stress levels.

Freaked out is an understatement when it comes to how I felt; especially after hearing horror stories from my coworkers about Hurricane Andrew and Hurricane Wilma.

“Roofs tore off people’s homes.”

“The buildings weren’t ready for an impact like that.”

“This storm is going to be a lot worse.”

“I’m going to stay here.” Fast forward five minutes later: “I’m going to (insert any state other than Florida.)"

*Imagine my internal screaming here.*

With every panicked comment my seasoned Floridian coworkers made, I glanced into a fake camera a la Jim Halpert from “The Office,” pretending that some audience was watching each aspect of my work day add to my repertoire of anxiety.

“Wherever you are going to be staying at during the storm, be there by tomorrow,” the Broward County mayor said during a press conference on Wednesday night.

Should I evacuate? I thought this to myself almost every minute during each press conference I watched. My office building is east of Federal Highway, where a mandatory evacuation was underway starting Thursday. Work closed for the remainder of the week and I started weighing my options.

Fly home to Maryland? Drive to a friend’s house in Orlando? Those were all good choices in theory if airline tickets hadn’t spiked Wednesday evening and if fuel shortages weren’t a concern for driving on the highway. This would also be a good time to hop on my soapbox and talk about systematic oppression of poor people who cannot evacuate on planes as ticket prices skyrocket, but I digress.

I decided to stay at my cousin’s home in Fort Lauderdale. She and her family grew up in Florida and assured me that their house was safe with hurricane impact windows and a concrete infrastructure; all components that my apartment doesn’t have.

I packed my bags Thursday morning and put all my valuables in my closet just in case my apartment windows broke before racing to my cousin’s house. Not to be dramatic or anything, but I literally thought my apartment was done for. I said my goodbyes to my coveted bed and favorite lampshade as a funeral dirge played in the back of my mind.

As Hurricane Irma raged on I witnessed my cousin’s tree in the front yard snap in half, watched the canal’s water rise and repeatedly stopped the blaring beeping coming from my iPhone with warnings of tornadoes in the area. Which is worse: an actual tornado or the shiver that beep sends up your spine at 4 a.m. when it goes off? Up for debate.

In retrospect, I’m not really sure why I got to their house so early. The storm didn’t even start affecting the area until Saturday. But hey, when your office is evacuated, the news channels keep speaking of the worse and you have several family members asking about your safety, you tell yourself more than once, “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Fast forward to Sunday: Irma has left behind damage, but less damage than I expected. There are widespread power outages across the state, and I’m getting antsy from being cooped up indoors all weekend.

I headed to my apartment to find no damage to my building or windows, but I had no power, no air conditioning, my food in the fridge spoiled and the only place open near my apartment was McDonald’s. I sent a Snapchat of the line in the drive-thru to my friends with the caption, “God is real,” and vowed to never talk bad about the preservative-filled food chain ever again.

I’m no stranger to power outages; when Maryland gets a heavy snowstorm there’s a high chance that the power will be down. But in my opinion, going through snowstorms without heat is easier than living without air conditioning during a hurricane.

I’ll always stand by that, too. After all, you can layer on heavy blankets and clothing to avoid hypothermia, but there are only so many cold showers you can take before feeling the effects of heat exhaustion. Plus, at least snow is pretty to look at. Fallen trees and storm surges? Yeah, not so pretty.

As I write this, it’s Tuesday. Hurricane Irma has come and gone and I’m left wondering, “I freaked out over that? No wonder Floridians always shrug off hurricanes.”

That’s not to say I don’t realize that damage has been done. South Florida is very lucky that Irma did not rip the area apart like it did the islands, the Florida Keys or the west coast.

But now I feel like I know what it means to be a Floridian, and I’m grateful to say that I’ll know what to do during future hurricanes.  

Lessons learned after surviving my first natural disaster:

  • Don’t freak out over a forecast that is days away from being accurate.
  • Publix will stock up on food and water every day leading up to the storm.
  • Hurricane season is not the time to debate whether you should give up alcohol. (You can save that for Lent.)
  • FPL is not prepared for this, and you should appreciate every bit of air conditioning you have ever felt. Also, don’t get your hopes up when their trucks drive by your house. That doesn’t mean your power will be back on soon.
  • Gallows humor will get you through storm preparations (“I hope there’s air conditioning in heaven!”) and sarcasm will get you through the aftermath. (“Well at least we didn’t die.”)

Thanks for the lessons Irma; only 78 more days of hurricane season left to go. If you need me, I’ll be enjoying the office’s AC.

 

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