Sunday, October 24, 2010

Hurricane Wilma - 5 Year Anniversary

Today is the five year anniversary of Hurricane Wilma in South Florida and many people have asked me what it was like to live through such an experience, especially while living on the beach in a mandatory evacuation zone. We chose not to evacuate because the hurricane was coming from the west, which lessened the chance of storm surges and because we felt safer at my family's home which was just built, is two stories and all up to current hurricane safety codes. We also had no idea how bad the hurricane was going to be. Luckily we were ok.

Living through that hurricane can be described in a lot of ways. There were scary moments, sure. It was frustrating and uncomfortable at times after the storm had passed. Life was chaos for at least two weeks for most people and three for us because that's how long it took to get our power back (and we were lucky). A lot of the time we were bored, but mostly we managed very well. The biggest surprises of all were the positive effects the hurricane had on me, my family and our friends and neighbors. Hurricane Wilma brought me some of my fondest memories of time spent with people I love and it helped to alter all of our perspectives about what things in life are truly essential. Surprisingly, electricity isn't one of them, but natural Cheetos are.

By the time Wilma got to us, we were hurricane pros. 2004 had been a bad year with Frances and Jeanne hitting back to back, but they didn't hit us here in Broward directly and they weren't that bad where I lived. August of '05 brought Katrina to South Florida first, where it made landfall as a Category 1 before it crossed into the Gulf and really raised holy Hell. It wasn't pretty here, but we managed to get things back together after about a week and by then that storm had devastated New Orleans and we South Floridians felt like we had been spared. For us, Katrina was like getting grazed by a hollow point bullet that went on to hit someone else directly in the heart and then explode.

Had it not been for Katrina, the failed levies, the Superdome and the endless terrible images of bloated bodies carried away in the floods, I believe Wilma's impact on South Florida would have been a much bigger news story. After New Orleans though, it just didn't seem right and no one complained lest we look like a pack of whiny little brats. The news crews paid us no mind because they knew we here in South Florida, most of us anyway, weren't exactly comparable to the underprivileged in Louisiana. We needed to suck it up, clean up, figure things out and wait for the power to come back on and we did. Probably didn't hurt that our governor was the president's brother. I can't remember a single person I know complaining the entire time, but I can remember almost everyone talking about how lucky we were that we weren't New Orleans.

Perhaps it was also Katrina's devastation that made so many of us dismiss the forecasts. Oh some hurricane is down in the Yucatan. Cancun or something, we said and then went back to watching Anderson Cooper exposing the horrors on the bayou in his tight black tee shirts. We ignored our weathermen because after two straight years of hurricane hype, we'd had it. We were over it. Most of the storms didn't amount to anything anyway. They withered away under wind shear or spun into oblivion way out to sea. The tracking cones were unreliable and we all thought the news people were just trying to scare us and create a sensationalized story out of the weather. A lot of us should have probably paid more attention that October.

My husband and I got our marriage license the Friday before and it was a rainy day. After we'd received the document I joked that it was a good thing we got it out of the way because according to Channel 7 the world was ending on Monday. Little did I know that by Monday that courthouse would be almost completely destroyed along with the school board building nearby. It really was a good thing we got our marriage license that day because we wouldn't have been able to get it in time after the storm and our wedding was exactly one month away.

We decided to take our cat and stay with my parents because they had a bigger house, a pool and a gas stove along with an outdoor grill. These things had served us well in past storms and it's much more comfortable to be in a bigger house with impact windows than it is to be in a cramped apartment with no AC or TV.

I don't remember a lot of preparations. My mother made a pot of soup. We probably brought the patio furniture in. My cousin Bella lived here at the time and decided to join us because she was afraid of storms and also lived in a small apartment alone. The atmosphere was generally festive Sunday night, if a little windy outside.

That changed by dawn on Monday when we realized maybe this storm wasn't like the others after all. The lights didn't last long. We watched through the windows as transformer after transformer blew, creating beautiful turquoise arcs in every direction. The wind blew the water out of the canal. We saw our neighbor's roof peel back like the lid of a can and another neighbor's dock collapsing into the waves. Coconuts cannon-balled. A palm fell on our car. The fences all failed as huge trees blew down, ripping up sheets of sod which draped like cheap shag carpeting around their large and complicated root systems. Clusters of small tornadoes, filthy with water and debris dervished destruction through the neighborhood. The wind was at once a solid and a liquid thing. It played with the glass lantern in our entry way until it got frustrated and hurled it against the front door where it shattered and then swept it all away, so that when the storm ended, we couldn't even find where the pieces had blown.

Mostly we all stood in silence and watched. With our camera's video setting, my husband filmed a lot of the storm because he'd just moved from California and had never been in a hurricane like this. Katrina had been his first and it was nothing like Wilma. But really, he wasn't the only one. None of us had been in a hurricane like Wilma.

The storm ended here around one that afternoon. It really didn't last that long, or as long as it could have and after it passed, the sky streaked with blue very quickly. By that evening the sun was out and a cold front had moved in, bringing with it crisp fall weather. That cold front had atheists reconsidering their stance on the divine. It was a miracle because let me tell you, living in South Florida with no AC in the height of sweltering humidity can make a person downright suicidal, and we were quite comfortable with our windows open the night after the storm passed and from then on out.

By that night, everyone slowly emerged from their homes to check on the damage. We all went to the home that lost the roof and to our despair we found that it belonged to a young family with a toddler. The wife was five months pregnant and now they were homeless, with all their things destroyed by the rain and wind. They left immediately for a relative's home.

The rest of us were spared. We just had the darkness and our refrigerators full of rapidly warming food to contend with. A few lucky people had generators and some of these people were kind enough to lend out refrigerator space. What didn't fit had to be eaten, so for the next several days, as freezers melted, large, impromptu block parties ensued where everyone pooled the food together, cooked it and then shared. We ended up eating better than normal. I remember one dinner involved someone's freezer full of Florida lobster tails that they had saved from mini-season. We also feasted on filet mignons, chicken parmesan, shrimp scampi and pots of jambalaya thick with sausage and seafood that would have all gone to waste. These community meals, served outside, lit by citronellas, were easily some of the most delicious things I've ever eaten, but the company was even better. If it hadn't been for the storm they never would have happened. Without TV, we'd sit outside with our friends and neighbors for hours laughing and talking for entertainment. We played cards and Scrabble and forgot that the next day we'd have to go wait in the water line again or that we still couldn't get gas in our cars. It helped us avoid thinking about when the electric might be restored or how we were going to have to haggle with the insurance companies once the power was back on. We just had a good time because we had no other choice.

We were dirty and the water wasn't safe. It was also cold and in our house the water pump must be electric because it wouldn't work in most rooms. I am proud to say that we bathed in the pool and yes we were a little chloriney, but it worked. I washed my hair in a  swimming pool and didn't complain about it. We brushed our teeth with bottled water and didn't complain about that either. There was something a bit freeing about being a little dirtier than usual and it just didn't seem to matter very much.

During the day when we had light we all read. We didn't go out a lot because we needed to conserve gas and because a lot of the roads were still blocked with fallen trees and debris, but we did get stir crazy a few times and venture out to survey the mess. And oh, was there a mess. Strip malls obliterated. Signs in the middle of the highway. A boat storage facility looked as if it had been bombed. Nearly every home's roof had at least one blue tarp tacked to it.

Publix tried to open with a partial generator and most of the store was dark. There were no refrigerated items and we rushed to the shelves to find whatever was left that we could make a meal out of because by then we'd used up all the food from our freezers. We ate a lot of chips and bread, dry cereal and tuna. We cooked canned soup and packages of dried rice and beans. I remember one moment of nirvana involving canned pears. I began to look forward to ice and half and half. Everyone else was drinking black coffee strained through a one cup cone filter, but I need the cream in mine. I'm spoiled like that.

And so that's how it went on. In many ways it was like everyone had been given a vacation all at once (albeit a no-frills camping sort of vacation). We enjoyed not having to go to work. We loved meeting our neighbors and getting out there with them with the chainsaws and helping out. People made friends and told stories. We never missed the televisions or computers. No one I knew did anyway.

Most people went back to work after about ten days or so and by then, all of us were happy to see our co-workers. We had a new found appreciation for our jobs too. My job had electricity with a microwave and a TV that worked. We had ice! Of course no one got any work done for at least another week because we all had to compare hurricane stories and try to top one another. 

This happened everywhere though. It was the only topic of conversation for a very long time. Where we were, what we saw, what got destroyed, what our deductibles were, how bad that other neighborhood got hit and how long it took for us to get our power back. Generally, I found this was done with a spirit of optimism and a sense that we'd been lucky.

The one thing every conversation about Wilma had in common was this. We made it. It could have been so much worse. We are so fortunate. Look at New Orleans. We'll be ok and what can we do to help them instead?

South Florida made me proud five years ago. We pulled together and got through with little complaint. We rose to the occasion pretty well. 

In the five years since, we've had a couple scares and close calls, but we've been spared any more hurricanes. Although we did a good job at getting through Hurricane Wilma and although we managed to create some good memories out of a less than ideal situation, I hope we never have to go through it again.


aikin said...

I moved to Miami in May 2005, only to be greeted by the seeming back-to-back hurricanes that year. Including, of course, Wilma. I grew up in California and had never experienced a hurricane. Even after the slight grazing we got from Katrina I was paranoid, then came Wilma. Holy crap, is all I remember thinking. I was living in an cheap apartment in north Miami and I swear I thought the roof was coming off. The whole experience was horrifying! Give me an earthquake any time!

jennifer said...

i lived on miami beach on the 27th floor right on the beach. evacuation was recommended but i was on the safest side of the bldg so i decided to stay. The condo pool was full of palm trees and all i thought was, not my problem - condo associations problem. (also here during Andrew where it was all our problems) They gave power to the greatest amount of people they could first and b/c i was surrounded by hotels and 2 or 3 hospitals so i only lost power the day of wilma and got it back at 9 the next morning. I felt bad for my lack of suffering so went and helped distribute food, ice, and water at the war memorial auditorium. The plane there had ironically taken a nose dive. Not too bad for me but having been through Andrew, know what you went through. The aftermath (unless you were very south) was fun. It is a great way to meet the neighbors. Actually met many of my condo neighbors too while climbing stairs for 20 minutes.

Anonymous said...

I live in LHP and really relate to every single thing that you wrote about Wilma. It really took me back. We never talked to our neighbors before that, but we all congregated every day during that 14 day period. Sharing info on gas availability, electricity coming back (13 days for us, oh that was hard, but you are so right, that cold front at first was amazing) It was exactly like that for us. My roof lifted in one part of my house and we ended up with a year's worth of construction. But then, as you said, Katrina hit New Orleans and I chose to shut the hell up. I had my family, most of my house, and my job to go back to (eventually). I worked at FAU at the time. Crazy to think that that was 5 years ago already. Crazy time, for sure.

kerry said...

I love it when people choose their good side!

Your story sounds kind of like what happens after an earthquake. Different types of damage to everything, but the power goes out, no water, debris in the roads.

Upside Down said...

I lived in Broward at that time. I moved a year later. I remember going to sleep the night before thinking it was not going to be much. We had even gone to the video store to stock up on stuff to watch the next day. I woke up to no power and a suv in the front lawn of my apartment and tons of trees down. We were lucky it somehow didn't hit the building. But later that day as it stopped we wandered out to see the damage. The diner a block away still could use the grill as did the chinese place next door so we went there that day and the next along with the neighborhood. But we lost water sometime the next day so we drove to orlando to stay in a hotel and it was like mass exodus from S. Fla. There were tons of people up there too from our area. I think I was out of work for like a month because all the windows in my office building on Biscayne bay were blown out.

Anonymous said...

This sounds just like what happened in my community a month ago, only it was a huge earthquake instead of a hurricane. I'm so proud of my city right now! The way everyone has banded together is amazing. I'm now on the other side of the world, but my town has now had over 2000 large aftershocks in 1 month, and everyone is still looking after complete strangers. I love how it's brought out the best in everyone. (but I hate what it's brought out in the politicians...)

JoeinVegas said...

We did earthquakes in California, but Nevada is pretty devoid of major weather systems. The high winds and thunderstorms are 'normal' here, but nothing like you get.

Anonymous said...

Hey Wide Lawns!!

I was just thinking about how you're having your little baby today, and wanted to tell you that I'll be praying for you both (safe/painless delivery, healthy mom & baby).

woo hoo!!! go wide lawns!! we love you!!

Anonymous said...

Having never witnessed a hurricane or anything like it, I really enjoyed this post (as much as one can read about destruction/hardship). I particularly liked when you said the roof came off like the top of a can...what a vivid image!

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