hurricane irma, part five (the actual storm)

(this is a continuation of my previous entry
there’s also part one,  part two, and part three)

On Friday night everything was finished- I was mostly packed, the house was boarded up with hurricane shutters, everything was brought inside, the entire container garden dismantled, cut down, and brought into the garage, and any butterflies we had flying in the lanai were released.

The butterfly garden was a hard thing to let go of. Since we haven’t had a big enough storm in several years to dismantle the garden (it’s all in containers and pots), it was huge and basically a living part of our lanai- we had butterfly vines twined up the screens, plants entwined in one another and growing into clusters, chrysalises tucked away… it was heartbreaking to have to cut it all apart and trim all those plants into nothingness, even if we knew it was for a good reason. The garden was its own eco-system, in a way- there were lots of little lizards and ladybugs and tiny frogs and other living things tucked in there, as well. Argh. We also knew that depending on how long the plants were in the garage, and if they got hit with flood water, we might lose a lot of them and would have to start over. We did need to really edit the garden- since we use it for butterflies now there were still a lot of older and straggly plants from my gardening-for-fun days that I was just hanging on to out of nostalgia. And I’m not sure we would have done a big “edit” like that if there wasn’t a storm to contend with, but I would have rather have done it in our own time. *heavy heart*

So we had one last night at our house before we had to get to my parents building around noon on Saturday. The power was due to cut out as soon as the winds reached 40mph and the manager wanted everyone inside and settled before he kicked on the generator in case the elevators didn’t work.

National Hurricane Center track of Irma on Saturday Night

So eight days after Tom’s surgery, four days after he was released from the hospital, we got all our stuff and our pets and drove over to my parents’ building to wait out the actual storm itself. We got all the pets settled in their little rooms, brought our stuff into the little room we’d be staying in. There was nothing left to do but wait. On one hand it was a relief, because it was all out of our hands. On the other hand… it felt like it might be just the beginning of something bigger and more complicated, which I couldn’t even think about. However, you have cancer surgery and a major hurricane (the first in more than a decade) in the same freakin’ week and you start to believe that anything else could be possible.

The room was completely dark because there were hurricane shutters over the windows. Tom flopped down on the bed and fell asleep instantly- his first real rest since leaving the hospital. Grace read for a while and then drifted off, as well.

It was hard for me to shift from all the doing-planning-prepping to LITERALLY doing nothing, but sitting on a chair so I was too wired to rest or relax.  I put HGTV on the TV for a little noise (house Hunters is pretty much my version of comfort food- I’m absolutely addicted), and stayed glued to the weather radar and forums on my phone and iPad, hoping for any last minute sign the storm might disorganize or go off track or something. I brought some colored pencils with me and drew for a while, but I couldn’t stay focused.

So I just sat in the little bucket chair in the corner of the room and hit refresh-refresh-refresh on my iPad. All that happened was that the storm came closer, and the wind picked up outside and started howling.

Tom and Grace briefly woke up, we made some sandwiches, fed the pets, went up to my parents’ floor to see them, talked about the weather, and then we all tried to go to sleep. Tom and Grace conked out immediately, and I stayed up. I slept on and off, but every time I jerked awake, I grabbed my phone, hoping for some good news, but there wasn’t any. I did that until around 7am, when I finally got up.

On early Sunday morning, the power and water were still on and we all had just enough time to go to the bathroom and brush our teeth and stuff before it all shut off from the intensity of the wind outside- they had expected the power to shut itself down on Saturday, so it was nice that we got an extra day of it.

I had filled a giant bucket in the bathtub with hot water before the water went off, so we had that water to use along with some bottled water. I have a thing about washing my hands, so not being able to do that with water out of the sink made me a little edgy but there were bigger things to be concerned with. Like how hot it was getting inside the building. I really thought that it would take a few hours for the building to heat up after the air conditioning went out with the power, but it got hot instantly, I guess because the building was completely closed up (no air moving inside) and we were several stories off the ground. It was still in the 80’s outside, 100% humidity, and usually in closed up interiors it can get hotter than that because no moving air.

We did have cell service, though, which was great- I guess the ATT cell tower on the roof of the building was also powered by the generator in the building.  We were able to  set up hotspots with our iPhones so we could stay online. Tom and I used our iPads to watch the weather radar and keep an eye on the news, and Grace watched movies and surfed Pinterest and read.

I have to admit, I’ve felt a little guilty about owning an iPad because I mainly use it to draw mandalas (the Apple Pencil is a wondrous thing), paint in ProCreate, and read books. But the iPad was such an amazing thing to have during the storm (and after). It’s worth its weight in gold for just that purpose alone. When we went through Wilma, it was before smart phones  (!!!!!!!) and all we had was a weather radio (with a D battery and a metal antenna!) so we just stayed stuck to it, waiting for updates and information. It felt like a luxury to be able to just “summon” any information that we wanted when we wanted it. Viewing the real time radar and being able to read what other people in different parts of Florida were experiencing at the same time really changed the feeling of the experience- you don’t feel like you’re quite as isolated, locked behind storm shutters and closed off from the rest of the world.

image from NPR

Hurricane Irma made first landfall on the Florida Keys early on Sunday, and then went back out in the Gulf of Mexico and drfited up the coast towards Marco Island. There was no wiggle room anymore- no way out. Pretty much the worst case scenario was inevitable- we were going to be hit pretty much head on by this thing.

As with most everything else in life, the reality of a situation is usually completely different than your anxiety makes it out to be. Sitting through that storm was scary, and it was not like a passing rain shower- it was hours long, howling, damaging, building-shaking- but the days leading up to it were a zillion times worse. Plus, when you’re in the middle of a hurricane, you’re in the middle of it- you’re not thinking about anything else. Your brain is only on one thing, one moment, and not spiraling out in 40 different directions.

As the storm came closer, Grace, Tom and I (along with most of the other residents of the building) moved to an interior common area, away from the windows and doors. The residents of my mom’s building (along with most of the population here…) are mostly in their 70’s and 80’s, so they were fairly non-terrified and chatty. I think they all felt tucked in and secure, more so than Grace, Tom, and I did because at the end of the storm, we wouldn’t be able to just get on an elevator and go back to our home and our lives. They gathered around our iPads to watch the weather/news/radar and stretched out on lounge chairs from around the pool the manager had brought up for them to sit on.

After 1pm, the storm got more intense and started rattling the building a bit. It was unsettling, but I didn’t feel like we were in any real danger. I kind of wished we could have seen what was going on outside, but going near windows that didn’t have shutters on them wasn’t such a great idea in 115+ mile an hour winds. So we listened to the storm rage outside and watched it swirl on the radar.

We were away from windows and doors, but my dad and Tom would occasionally go and peek at the storm through an unshuttered window, and my dad said he watched several palm tress snapped like matchsticks. He started talking about him and Tom driving one of the cars up to the higher points of the island during the eye of the storm, so that if the island flooded from storm surge, we might be able to get off the island and got o their place in North Carolina after the storm. But as the hurricane became more fierce, that idea was abandoned.

Hurricane Irma - image from CNN
Marco Island during Hurricane Irma – image from CNN

There are two things I really remember about the storm- one was feeling the building sway in the wind. At once point Grace and I were sitting on the floor, our backs against a wall, and we could feel the building sort of shimmying a little bit, like we were on a moving platform or a low-intensity ride at Disney. Which isn’t much until you remember you’re in a building, and it’s not supposed to be moving.

That was nothing compared to when some of the windows and sliding glass doors in people’s condos started to blow out. Most of the windows in the building had storm shutters, but intense winds can sometimes still break the glass behind them, and there were some condos that had no protection at all. Since we were in an inside hall, we weren’t in any sort of danger from debris, but as the storm got more intense, you would hear the loud crack of a window being blown out (it sounded like gunshots), then the sound of glass shattering, and then the “whoosh” of the wind rushing through the condo. The wind came in so hard and so fast that the the apartment door would rattle in its frame from the wind and there would be a super-eerie low whistling/howling sound as the wind seeped under and around the condo’s front door and into the interior halls and common areas  inside the building.

As the storm got more and more intense, more and more windows around the building blew, and more and more doors were rattling and whistling, so by the middle of the storm, it was like listening to several freight trains coming at you from every direction. I’m glad the building’s generator kept some of the lights powered in the hallway we were sitting in because all those banging doors and howling was *seriously* creepy. It literally sounded like there was a person in each of those condos, smashing on the doors from the insides. I would not have wanted to be sitting there in pitch black listening to that.

As the eyewall of the storm started to hit us (the most intense part of the storm- where the tornadoes form and the wind gusted up to 150mph), we heard glass breaking from my parents’ unit. But they couldn’t go to see what had happened until the eye of the storm passed over us and the wind died down enough for them to get inside their condo there without the potential for serious injury. If they went in there while the wind was blowing, all sorts of glass and debris and whatever else the wind picked up inside their condo might be flying around, and just force of the wind  flowing through an open window could knock them down. My mom was ready to go up there RIGHT THAT MOMENT but we talked her out of it. They had to sit there for a half an hour or so and I know they were imagining the worst. My dad was so stressed I was worried he’d pass out.

Marco Island during Hurricane irma – image from Naples News

After the eyewall passed over us, we had a half an hour or so of less intense weather- the eye of the storm. All the residents took off to check their condos, and my parents and Tom went up to see what was going on in their condo. It turns out that and a wall of sliding glass doors had broken in their back bedroom. In the half an hour they had before the other eyewall of the storm was due to hit us, they were able to find some plywood in the building’s workshop to patch the hole in their condo, but the room was trashed. They barely finished getting the plywood up before the storm started picking up again.

When the eye passes through, it’s almost eerily calm- barely any wind, no rain. The sun sometimes comes out.But then the other eyewall comes and it’s INSTANTLY back to super severe storm. There’s no transition at all. So the second the wind started up again, everyone came scrambling back to the 4th floor to wait out the rest of the storm.

Hurricane Irma - image from CNN
Marco Island during the Eye of Hurricane Irma – image from CNN

The other eyewall was less intense, wind-wise, but as soon as the winds picked back up there was literally a succession of glass blowing out all over the building, all at one time- I guess several windows and glass sliders had become weakened by the first half of the storm, and when the wind picked up again, they just all gave away at the same time. It really did sound like all the glass had gone out in the building, but I think it was just several units (as opposed to the entire eighty or ninety in the building.)

Finally the storm moved north and the wind settled enough for everyone to go back to their apartments. My parents had a huge mess to clean up- the back room was trashed- everything in it destroyed and soaked. A woman who lived on the fourth floor next to the guest room we were staying in had a huge gash in her ceiling from where the water from my parents unit had poured down- just the pressure of the rain coming in a broken window for half an hour was enough to flood down that stack of units and crack ceilings all the way down to the main floor.

Some of the residents and the manager went around the building checking on the units who had broken windows- some of the units were salvageable (just had damage to one room) but there was at least one condo that was completely trashed by the storm.

local canal drained by the force of the storm before it hit- the concern is when the water comes back, will it rush in and flood over seawalls?- image NBC news

By this time it was later in the evening, and we were just sort of worn down. The storm wasn’t officially over, though- we had to wait and see if the island would flood from the predicted storm surge. The Gulf and the canals had been “sucked out” earlier that day from the storm and no one knew when the water would flow back, and how strong that flow would be. My parents’ building is directly on the Gulf of Mexico, so it would affect them, too, if it came back fast and strong. If it flowed up to the building, that meant that Marco Island itself would be underwater, so it was just a wait and see. And because all the windows facing the Gulf were shuttered, I couldn’t keep an eye on it.

We had no idea how our house was- we had no idea if any windows had broken or if our street had flooded or if a tree was on our roof… we just had to wait it out.

I tried to focus on the fact we had made it through the storm itself, and we were all *okay*. We were okay, the pets were okay, and we were all safe. The building had survived the hurricane, despite the broken windows. As long as the surge wasn’t four stories tall, we made it.

We made it through so much- the cancer diagnosis, the storm prep (which was as stressful as the storm itself), Hurricane Irma itself, and we were now just waiting so see if this whole situation might end for us now or if a whole new situation (needing rescue off the island, and I guess going to North Carolina to sat in my parents’ town home until we found a new place to live) was just about to begin.

(to be continued in my next post)

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