Witnessing a Disaster – Hurricane Irma  September 7, 2017 – Fort Lauderdale

hurricane irma, hurricane agnes, hurricane hugo

Hurricane Irma will be hitting Florida in 48 hours, September 9-10. It is currently in the islands of the Caribbean, battering one after the other with Category 4 winds upwards of 150 mph. This destructive force has hit Florida in the past, where I reside in greater Fort Lauderdale, but at no time has a hurricane of such a size, over 400 miles wide has been projected to start at the southernmost tip of our peninsula and carve a path northward until it peters out near Atlanta Georgia and points west.

Irma is wide enough to encompass 3 Florida peninsulas. The descent into the Stone Age of living conditions is a given for most Floridians. Not only will power be knocked out for quite some time, the destruction to homes, shopping centers, hospitals and infrastructure is sure to be significant.

If one could step back from all of this, it is to marvel at the vast machinery of such a tropical cyclone as Irma. It thrives on the warm air rising from a warm ocean, perpetually feeding itself, and roaring into a force of which there is no equal. Its utter power is without a doubt a force that must have been involved in the formation of our planet. The huge forces converging in the atmosphere and structuring such a cyclone and returning it to Earth demonstrates just how infinitesimal our species is compared to the natural forces of our earthly spaceship.

My fascination with hurricanes began when I was a youngster growing up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The metropolitan area endured quite a few hurricanes during the 50s, 60s, and 70s. As a child I believed a hurricane dropped candy canes on the lawn – obviously I was fixated on the syllable – cane. All it brought, however, was rain, rain, and more rain. It was years later that I realized that had those storms been as powerful as some of the hurricanes in Florida’s history, the two glorious huge maple trees in our front yard would probably have destroyed the little Cape Cod home and my pink bedroom in the wink of an eye.

My husband, daughter and I discussed what our preparations would be and whether we would escape Florida for another city or sit tight and prepare for the worst. There was not a little excitement on my part to witness such a disaster unfolding, as I’d been fascinated by hurricanes for many years, and read recovery stories and how the horror of destruction brings about a reset of human minds and a resolve to rebuild, rethink and reach beyond ourselves to others.

The first hurricane I remember was Hurricane Agnes, which hit D.C. in 1972, my boyfriend at the time and I were returning from a date in Bethesda, Maryland. We were driving to my grandmother’s house where the rest of my family was having dinner. Jim’s Volkswagen Bus chugged through flooded intersections along Old Georgetown Road with Jim assuring me that the vehicle could float if need be. The loss of control during these watery sojourns was disconcerting to say the least. The rain was pounding on the roof and the windshield wipers were trying in vain to clear a space in which to see the lane lines. It was scary and exhilarating at the same time. I remember wiping the windshield on the inside because it kept fogging up, and I half-expected the water to slosh into the bus at my feet.

When we arrived at my grandmother’s, we were greeted by my furious mother, who was worried sick about our driving in the storm. Naturally, we teens had no idea there was a hurricane going on. We thought it was funny.  It is interesting to note here that although my boyfriend and I broke up a year after that, we were reunited and married 40-years later. And here we are today sharing another hurricane.

Hurricane Agnes did tremendous damage to the Washington area, including rearranging the Potomac River’s Great Falls Park, where many of us picnicked and cooled off by the rushing waters during hot steamy summers. I never again recognized the park – it had changed so much. I marvel at the power within these monstrous storms.

After moving to Florida on Thanksgiving Day, 1982, I started work at a congressional office in Fort Myers. My boss, Congressman Connie Mack, told me of a “no-name” storm the previous year that wreaked tremendous damage to Fort Myers and southwest Florida with winds of 70-75 miles per hour, surprising the population. The fact that it had no name made no difference to its power to destroy an unprepared community.

The history of Florida’s hurricanes started to fascinate me. I picked up a book called I Take This Land, by Richard Powell, a fictionalized account of the settling of Fort Myers and southward, which had virtually no settlers except Native Americans, farmers, cattlemen (Crackers) and hunters until the turn of the 20th century. That’s when I read of the destructive forces of the unnamed hurricanes of 1926, ‘28, and ’35 that struck Florida.

In 1985 there was Hurricane Floyd, which hit Fort Myers from the west and kept right on going. I remember this because we had left on vacation before it hit Fort Myers, but when we finally ended up in St. Augustine, there Floyd was again, providing solid rain throughout our stay. As we sat in a restaurant looking out at the flooded streets, other people told us stories of Florida’s historic hurricane disasters.

Then there was Hurricane Hugo that slammed into Charleston, South Carolina in 1989. I spoke to the South Carolina’s congressional staff months later to learn how they helped constituents recover from the destruction. This was before the plethora of cell phones, but as it was, the cell towers had fallen so they had to rely on land lines, which since the trunk lines were buried underground, were still operating in the city. This helped shorten the process of coordinating recovery efforts.

Then came Hurricane Andrew in 1992 that slammed into Miami and tore west across Florida. By then I was the go-to person for federal disaster preparedness and response for Congressman Porter Goss’s congressional office in Fort Myers. Andrew passed 60 miles south of Fort Myers but hit the small seaside town of Everglades City, 37 miles south of Naples. I was tasked with getting FEMA’s attention on the fact that Andrew had flooded and destroyed Everglades City’s wastewater treatment plant. This took some doing, as all eyes were on the terrible destruction on the east coast: Homestead, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and the thousands people who had lost their homes.

Today I live on the east coast, awaiting a monster storm that threatens not only our water treatment plants, but everything else having to do with civilization, electric power, communication systems, housing and transportation. Very likely we will be forced back to the nineteen thirties, when only people-power and determination helped communities recover from devastation and loss. I don’t know whether cell phone communications will survive Irma, or how long they will be limited. I do know that first responders also rely on cell phones as well as radios, so the networks will probably be jammed.

My best friend lives in my house in Fort Myers, equally endangered – and there are no shutters on the house. I told her to leave it to Irma.

People have asked why we didn’t leave Florida with other evacuees. First of all, there were thousands and thousands in Florida who had no choice but to evacuate. They were the ones living on the coasts – the Keys, all the barrier islands, the beach areas. This meant hours and hours of slow driving on the highways out of this area. And where to go? We knew that finding a hotel room that will take pets (like my poor cat who’s under the bed right now) would be a nightmare. Now that the cone of certainty encompasses the entire state of Florida, this means we would have to travel even further north – but where? Not the Carolinas – they were in the cone too, now they say all of Georgia is in the cone.

After the storm we would have no idea what happened to our house, our cars, where our friends were. We’d be separated from my beloved husband, an essential employee of Miami International Airport, who must remain at work through the storm event. He’d be alone for weeks, maybe even months if my daughter and I had flown out. We would not be able to return as recovery efforts are mounted and brought in.

We are in a shuttered house and well supplied with food, water a charcoal grill, propane stove and supplies. If we’re without power for more than two weeks I’m sure I’ll be insane, but I’ll deal with that when the time comes. The main thing is we’re all in this Irma boat together; it’ll bring out the best in most of us and the worst in some of us, but I had to be here to experience the “Big One” that they all predicted would hit Florida someday.

That day is in 48 hours. God love us. We’ll make it through.

Christy Kelly


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