Experiencing Hurricane Irma up close

Fri, 09/29/2017 - 8:15am
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It was 5:32 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 10, and I had just sent the last couple texts I would be able to send for hours, while laying on a cot in the shuttered cafeteria of the Palmetto Ridge High School in Collier County, Florida. It was being used as a shelter for evacuees of Hurricane Irma. My parents and I were three of those evacuees and had hunkered down there on the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 8.

Internet service was already iffy, so my parents and I were relying on texts from my sister and girlfriend, who were in Austin, Texas, and Portsmouth, R.I., respectively. They kept us updated as the hurricane touched down on us. 

“Water is rising by us from a surge. We could be getting water in here,” I typed and sent to them.  

“I don’t think it is surging yet, it’s probably just flooding,” my sister returned. “I mean not just flooding, it’s flooding but you shouldn’t be getting surge there.” 

“Well, if we do, we’re definitely going to have water in here,” I replied, having wiped a spy hole out one of the school’s glass doors, hazed over with condensation, and seen the rush of water making its way past the line of buses and cars being used as an added barrier from whatever Irma was going to unload. 

And then my final text to the two of them, “They are going to sandbag the doors.”

The last text I was able to receive before cell service, internet and power kicked out was again from my sister.

“I am looking at the radar and the worst is over you now.”

I had arrived in Naples, Florida early on Monday, Sept. 4 to attend to a family matter. It was not entirely a planned trip and I had no knowledge of the impending hurricane. But by Tuesday, there was nothing else being discussed anywhere in Florida, or on television, as Irma was already bearing down on the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and predicted to make a category four or five hit to the east coast of Florida and everywhere else in between. 

Even on the west coast of the state, where we were, people were already stocking up on supplies and gas, preparing. But there wasn’t an immediate thought of needing to leave, to flee. That came abruptly a few days later. 

My parents live in Naples, in a community called Lely. It is a beautifully manicured community of adobe-style houses, palm trees and swimming pools. This is in Collier County. And on that Tuesday it was about two hours from where Irma was being predicted to make landfall, near Miami. 

On Wednesday, we bottled some water, went to Publix and got some non-perishables, batteries for the flashlights and waited in line to fill the gas tanks of their two cars. We did what everyone else was doing. I even got a little bit of work done and went to the gym. But all the while, the resounding line every weatherperson was using was “predicted path of the storm.” There was a chance of it meeting a front before hitting Florida and either veering further away or pulling back in towards the West Coast.

On Thursday the prediction was for it to move more west, but not much more west. 

We had thought about leaving Florida, going to Georgia or driving to Austin to my sister’s house. But by the afternoon of Thursday the reports of gas outages all along the highway out, coupled with the probability that leaving would mean not being able to get back any time soon, and compounded by the family matter I had originally gone there for, left us with only the option of staying. And so on Thursday night, the three of us went to a Mexican restaurant and over paella and fajitas, came to an agreement that if the Hurricane had moved anywhere closer to us by morning and the evacuation order was given, we would pack and go to a shelter. There was, after all, a shelter opening at Lely High School on Friday afternoon, just half a mile from the house. 

My father is up by five every morning. He goes to 7-11, gets his morning paper, a cherry Coke and enjoys an hour or so on his own reading the sports page. On this Friday morning he did none of that. 

“Hey, kid, get up,” he said knocking at the door of the guest room I was in. It was shortly after five. “Come look at this.”

The Channel 2 news was on and there was Irma. Same category four to five storm it had been for the past four days as it pummeled it’s way towards us, but overnight its trajectory had shifted dramatically to the west. So dramatically, that the 75 to 100 miles east that the eye had been predicted to hit was now most certain to be a direct hit on Naples, right where we were. Downtown Naples, they were saying, could be under six to 10 feet of water due to the storm surge and the entire area could be washed out and devastated by Irma’s winds. But, no evacuation order had yet been given. And so we waited. 

That Friday was a beautiful, sunny, tropical Florida day. Folks were still golfing. People were out walking, riding bikes. But on the roads, at gas stations and grocery stores, there was a frenzy. There was no water left to be had. Anywhere. There were no more batteries. There was no more gas. It was good we had filled up earlier in the week. Around 11, I went to a Staples and bought the last two remaining battery packs for charging phones that they had. Back at the house, my laptop was charging, not to be used to do anything other than charge our phones should the battery packs be depleted. 

At about 12 p.m., the evacuation order came. 

I threw a couple days worth of clothes into a backpack. Mom and dad each packed a suitcase. We bagged some folded linens and they each brought a pillow. We threw together a makeshift cooler with what turns out was not enough to last more than a couple days. We wrestled with two folding chairs. Then we killed all the power in the house, save for the fridge, turned off the water main, locked up, got in my mother’s car and drove the half mile to the shelter at Lely High School. It was 1 p.m. 

When we arrived, the line in was already about 150 deep. We took our places and set up a folding chair for my mother. They would not let anyone in until 2 p.m., I was told by a National Guardsman, even though my mother needed to use the facilities shortly after we were in line. My mother and father drove back to the house so she could.  

While they were gone, another 200 or more people filled in behind me, and at 1:30, all hell broke loose. The National Guardsmen, or whoever was in charge, opened the gates ahead of time. People from the back began rushing the line, cutting around the people who had been there before them. I couldn’t move. I had to stay with our belongings as I waited for my parents to return. By the time they did, we were, I’m guessing, now at around the 350 mark, from all the people who had swarmed ahead. And yet we moved forward in the line until we came to realize that, after watching a few arguments and ne’re-do-welling to your fellow humans, we most likely would no longer have a spot in the shelter, and also that it might not be the safest place to be. 

At 3 p.m., we stumbled out of the line, packed everything back into the car and, deflatedly, went back to the house.

I had heard of another shelter that might be better, with fewer people, a half hour away at Palmetto Ridge High School. My father and I made a plan. I’d drive there to see if we could get in while he and my mother stayed at home making calls to do the same. I was about three-quarters of the way there when my phone rang.

“We’re in,” my father said. “Come back.” 

Around 5 p.m., there we were. And we had cots. 

Palmetto Ridge High is a sprawling two-story manse of a school, easily the length of five football fields. Its midsection is an equally massive courtyard with outdoor tables for eating, study areas, and more vending machines than Giants Stadium. It looks more like an academy of higher learning than a high school. From Friday, Sept. 9 until the morning of Monday, Sept. 12, its larger rooms, its gymnasium, and its cafeteria were being used to house Collier County evacuees (and at least one Rhode Islander).

I couldn’t sleep that Friday night, and had a lot of nervous, anxious energy. I was told the National Guard and the local fire and rescue was out back moving in 20 tons of bottled water. So as my parents slept, I went outside and around the school and found them pulling pallets off a truck and moving them into the cafeteria’s kitchen. Four guys with a pallet jack and myself moved water from the loading dock to the inside. And that exercise, along with all we had already been through, knocked me out until mid-morning of Saturday. 

The shelter provided food: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, mini-cheeseburgers for dinner, water, an occasional coffee, and apples. 

My parents and I made friends with our cot companions. One woman, turns out, had lived in Portsmouth and is friends with the landlord from whom I rent my office. Others lived just within blocks of my parents.

The high school, I was told, had received state funding to be fortified with extra protection from hurricanes and was less than 10 years old. I was happy to share that piece of news with the folks who were there with us.

On Sunday at around 4 p.m., the storm began to hit, but according to what my sister and girlfriend were telling us, had decreased in intensity to about a category two or three and we were not going to see the eye of the storm in our area, just the eyewall. The news was shared and was a relief. But when it did hit, it was hard to believe we weren’t actually in it. Power went out, and though the school had a generator to keep lights on, there was no air conditioning, no WiFi, no cell service, and no way to get any news about what was actually happening. 

For nearly five hours it raged outside. The water rose almost to the doors of the school, leading the police, rescue and National Guard to prepare to sandbag the doors, as my final text had said. Outside, it was dark. But you could hear large things banging, metal scraping. The doors of the school rattled, though locked and tied shut. 

Hurricane Irma passed through and was over by about 9 p.m. and we all wondered what we would find outside in the morning. 

I didn’t sleep that night and there was a mandatory curfew until 6 a.m. Monday, so nobody could leave the shelter. I had made friends with one of the sergeants of the police force who was on duty and at around 11 p.m., she opened the doors and let me outside to look around.  

In the front of the school was a large metal beamed roof that ran the length of the front entrance. It was held up by steel and concrete. Half the structure had been blown over and the beams of the roof had blown off, damaging car roofs and breaking car windows. The front of the school held about three feet of water. Streetlights had been blown over. I went back inside and told the woman in the cot next to my father, who also lived near my parents, about the damaged cars. Hers, it turns out, was one of them. We found a day later that her house had also been destroyed. 

Since I couldn’t sleep, I started preparing things to leave in the morning, packed up, folded bed linens, then took a walk out to the back of the school. There was one spot where a group of people were congregating. It was, I was told, the only place that had WiFi running, and there would be no cell service for another day or more. So I attached to the network.

“We just got WiFi back. We made it,” I sent to my sister and girlfriend.

“Your last text scared the hell out of us,” was the reply. 

My mother, my father, and I were on the road back to their house promptly at 6 a.m., as soon as the curfew was lifted. We were the first out of the shelter, after thanking all those who had kept us safe for those three days. They really did an incredible job at this shelter. Leaving the first one had been the right move. 

My parents’ house, it turned out, had sustained minimal damage. Although their road was flooded getting back to the house, water had not gotten inside. The only real damage was to the adobe-style shingles, a few of which greeted us in the driveway when we pulled in. They were, however, without power for another seven days. 

Their neighborhood was one of the last in Naples to have power restored.