You might have heard of Hurricane Irma, who recently visited our lovely state. We watched in awe of her power, concerned for the wreckage she left behind in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Then she set her sights on my home state, Florida. By then, we had already gotten our provisions together and were making plans to leave our home if we needed to.
I have a brother, sister, and a cousin in the Fort Myers area of Southwest Florida, where we grew up. My cousin lives in Fort Myers Beach within easy walking distance from the Gulf of Mexico. I and two more of my sisters live within less than an hour in three directions from Orlando in Central Florida. We were glued to the Weather Channel and the local weather for days leading up to Irma's U.S. landfall, hoping above hope that she would turn before she got to Florida and head out to the Atlantic. It was not to be.
Florida is very flat. The highest point in the state, Britton Hill, is only 345 feet above sea level. That location is on the panhandle and practically in Alabama. The rest of the state is barely above sea level at all. Most of the coastal areas and a lot of the way inland, are about three feet above sea level. Three feet. A big wave can practically take stuff out. Fortunately, at least on the Gulf side of the state, you can walk out from the beach for quite a ways before it begins to drop off at all, making it hard for waves to get very big most of the time.
Then you get a hurricane.
Hurricanes come during our rainy season. The ground is already saturated and here comes a foot more of rainwater in just hours...not to mention the driving winds. Storm surge comes right up the waterways without much to impede its journey. If you read my previous blog about hurricane season, you have a feel for what it's like. Widespread flooding. Wind damage. Huge trees uprooted. Power out. Often water is out or even if there is water, boil notices (when you have to boil any water used in cooking or drinking or even brushing your teeth).
We watched and waited. We had a plan. We had clothes and provisions packed for ourselves and our two little four-legged girls, just in case. All the hatches were battened down and everything stowed the best we could. We had planned to ride it out here at home, but then Irma changed her course. When the order came for us to evacuate, we decided to take heed and bug out. Fortunately, a friend's niece had rented her a nice two bedroom condo-type furnished place in Orlando for the duration, and she invited us to come stay with her. We figured that would be safer and farther away from Tampa, where the eye was supposed to hit.
We were wrong. Irma decided to take another turn and drive the inland route. Practically the whole state got it.
The worst part of the storm came right over our house and where we were staying. In the middle of the night rain started coming in around the kitchen window, flooding the floor. Fortunately, that part of the floor was ceramic tile. Maintenance came up to our third floor place with what looked like fifty towels and mopped it all up. More towels went at the bottom of the window to catch the rest. Our bedroom window only leaked a tiny bit, thank goodness. We could deal with that.
Then when it was still dark I woke up just in time to watch a huge bright green burst behind the hotel across the street. It was pretty for a second, then the power was gone. It wasn't till daylight came that we could see the major power lines over where that green light originated. It appeared that a transformer had exploded.
The loss of power in a place like that is awful. Not long after daylight, it started getting quite warm in there and we couldn't open the windows to let in fresh air. We had prepared for a power outage and brought little lanterns to turn on so we wouldn't be totally in the dark, especially in the bathrooms. But they couldn't help with the stuffy air.
On Monday, as soon as we got word that our house was intact, we decided to go home. There was no power but we could at least open the windows. We hauled our things down the service stairs from the third floor, then went back up them and carried our dogs and the last of our stuff down them again. I'm not twenty any more. I was breathing hard. The ones I really felt sorry for were the ones on the nineteenth floor. One bank of elevators was supposedly working, but we couldn't see any evidence of that. Those poor people had to haul their stuff much much farther than we did. Of course, some of them were staying on because they couldn't go home yet or they were stuck because they were on vacation and there wouldn't be any flights out for a couple more days. I felt sorry for them, too.
The drive home normally would've taken about forty minutes. It took most of two hours. I-4 was clogged up and we inched down the road most of the way home. But we made it.
When we turned into our RV park, the devastation was immediately evident. Downed trees, debris all over the roads and every site greeted us. The lake had overflowed and several sites were well flooded. Then we were home. Our home. It was a glorious sight, still intact with no damage at all and well above any flooding. We were lucky that the water was still on and usable and counted our blessings for that.
Within just a few minutes, we had the windows open and were back outside, hauling big branches out to the road. We were able to free our golf cart and clear the driveway. Then we went around checking on houses we had keys to here in the park. Another blessing, we didn't find any horrible damage. Only one house still had a rather large branch on it, and we didn't move it to go inside in case their insurance company needed to see it first. One place we don't check had half a tree leaning on it, where it had split during the storm. My heart went out to the owners, who fortunately were still up north.
This picture was taken today, after the roads are pretty much cleared here in the park.
I can't tell you how many times we absently hit light switches, just to be reminded we had no power. The park we live in has a rec hall with a gas stove. The park paid for ingredients, and three ladies who live here made a spaghetti dinner on Monday night. It was the only warm food we'd have that day. We were told to come back Tuesday night for burgers and hot dogs, again paid for by the park. With hot food in our tummies, our moods were much improved. By dinner, we had cleared out a whole lot of our own debris and the place was looking much better. Still no power, but at least we were fed.
At exactly 12:50 am Tuesday, our heads shot up at the sound of our air conditioner coming on. It's right under our bedroom window, and let me tell you it was the most wonderful sound. We jumped out of bed and ran around closing all the windows and turning on the ceiling fan. Then I heard the refrigerator running. The second most glorious sound. We were like little kids running around grinning. I finally got to sleep once the house cooled down. I don't think I've ever been so happy for those noises in my life.
On Tuesday we went to check on my partner's customers' properties on the other side of town. The development had been too flooded near the front gate to get into Monday afternoon. When we drove in we could see the high water marks on the roads and golf courses. Some houses looked like nothing had happened, others had parts of roofs ripped off. There were carports and storage sheds mangled or destroyed, but the houses themselves seemed solid and there was no water inside, thank goodness. Like our place, there were downed trees and debris everywhere.
I feel very blessed to have everyone in my family safe and sound, with homes they can still live in. We are grateful that our friend Carolyn shared her place at Westgate Palace Resort in Orlando with us during the storm. Every single staff member at Westgate was very helpful and pleasant, even when they were under a lot of stress. Our RV park fed us when we had no power. Our friends kept positive thoughts and prayed for us. Lakeland Electric has been working around the clock trying to get everyone's power back on and our lives back to normal.
All in all, we were lucky.
Let's not do this again for a long time, okay?