Imagine you live in the middle of an intersection. No house surrounds you, so you are vulnerable and subject to the whims of passing traffic. Sometimes traffic is heavy or annoying, but most of the time, it is light and unobtrusive.
Occasionally, it is deadly.
Fortunately, you can usually see the danger before it comes too close, and take action to avoid being smacked. Sometimes, however, even your best laid plans are all for naught.
Welcome to my world, where hurricanes are a regular, seasonal occurrence. Life on the Gulf Coast is like a traffic intersection, only the “traffic’ is weather; big, scary weather. You learn to be alert and prepared, or you risk losing your life.
I have lived somewhere on the Gulf Coast of the United States for much of my adult life. For the most part, you get used to the preparation, the planning, the stocking up, the anxiety, phone calls, monitoring the TV and the Internet for updates. It’s like having a second job.
Preparing for hurricane season is part of the price you pay for choosing to live here. And in spite of all the hardship, hurricanes are usually a rare occurrence. You have to plan for the worst, but the worst doesn’t often arrive. In any one location or state, direct-hit hurricanes are occasional, maybe every few years.
All that changed in 2004 and 2005. In a 14-month period, from August 12th, 2004, to October 24th, 2005, Florida was hit by no less than 7 hurricanes.
Say it out loud, and it almost becomes meaningless: 7. Seven hurricanes. Seven hurricanes in 14 months.
Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Jeanne and Ivan all hit in 2004, the only time in recorded history that 4 hurricanes hit Florida in the same hurricane season.
And then came 2005: it was the most active hurricane season in recorded history. The season began on June 8th with Tropical Storm (TS) Arlene (which hit Florida), and ended with TS Zeta (which did not hit Florida). Zeta formed on December 30th and dissipated on January 6th,, 2006.
In Florida that year, we were directly hit by 3 hurricanes: Dennis, Katrina, and Wilma. The Keys were also affected by the brush-by of Hurricane Rita, so we actually were impacted by 5 hurricanes.
There were so many storms in 2005, all of the proper names for hurricanes were used. After Wilma, the remaining storms were named Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, and Zeta.
The impact that the 2004-05 season had on Floridians was severe and palpable. By the time the 3rd hurricane was approaching us in 2004, we were astonished. One hurricane, ok. Two, maybe. But three? Unheard of. A fourth? No way.
We couldn’t believe it. And we felt that somehow our disbelief would make it better, make it go away. As a neighborhood, as a city, a county, a state, we were collectively stunned and numb.
The hurricanes came one after another, boom, boom, boom. One hurricane would hit us, and the next day the meteorologists would be announcing another, also heading for us.
Some inland counties in Florida were hit by all 4 hurricanes in 2004. They still had the tell-tale sign of blue tarps up on their roofs when the 2005 season began with a bang (TS Arlene).
Depression was widespread. We collectively learned the definition of “post-traumatic stress disorder”. On TV, local reporters talked about how to deal with anger, helplessness, and depression. They advised getting help of the therapeutic kind, especially for children.
You could see it written on the faces of friends, family, and everyday people. We talked about it everywhere: on buses, standing in line at the bank, shopping, coffee shops and restaurants. We traded stories. Strangers became friends. We witnessed for each other. We talked it out. We were all in a perpetual state of shock.
Seven hurricanes are a lot of hurricanes. But that’s not counting Tropical Storms. Depending on their structure and make-up, tropical storms can have as big an impact on human life as a hurricane.
I was living in Tampa when Frances cut across the state. By the time she got to us, she was a tropical storm. No biggie, right? Except that I was out of power for 2 weeks after Frances. Two weeks. Talk about hot and steamy: no AC, no fans, no refrigeration or ice (except what you brought home). It was like living in a sweaty greenhouse.
Frances also dragged on for 12 hours. Stuck at a home with a small dog that was begging me to go out, I decided to walk him, quickly, between squalls. The street was lined with houses and apartment buildings, which helped to block the wind, but I had to lean into the wind to walk. The wind pushed me back, and I had to use muscle to stand and walk. I kept a close eye on trees and power lines overhead.
Down the street, strong gusts were whipping down an open alleyway. As soon as we walked into this little wind tunnel, the wind picked up my 10 lb. Pomeranian and carried him a few feet. The leash stopped his flight, but that was enough. He turned tail and ran home. Later, I learned that the wind was gusting at 50 miles an hour.
After the storm, there were millions of people without power throughout the state. We learned how power gets turned back on when that happens: hospitals and police stations come first, followed by nursing homes, then neighborhoods. The local coffee shop was near a hospital, so that neighborhood had power. We clustered there, soaking up the AC and iced coffee.
One day, a young woman brought her beautiful Golden Retriever to the shop. She was frantic. The dog couldn’t walk, couldn’t lift his head. None of us knew each other, but we all stepped in to help: I (as a nurse) diagnosed him, and other people brought water. The shop tenders brought ice and let her carry the dog inside, into the AC. Another person volunteered to drive her and the dog to the closest vet, others held her while she cried.
He was dying of heat exhaustion and dehydration.
Her apartment was too hot for the dog, she said. Even with all the windows open, the heat was unbearable and the poor dog didn’t stand a chance. We listened to her and nodded our heads. We were all in the same boat. In the aftermath of the storm, the sun was brutal and the air was thick with water. Houses and apartments were deadly hot; that’s why we were all at the coffee shop.
As she left, several of us cried, knowing that the dog probably wasn’t going to make it. Ours tears were an expression of grief for her and frustration caused by the heat, the exhaustion, and the stress we were all feeling. You see, there was already another hurricane out there.
As I write this, Hurricane Gustav is pounding NOLA. What’s more, it is just a little more than a year since Katrina hit the same area. There is no doubt that Katrina was an extraordinarily tragic event, a tragedy compounded by an inept and uncaring political machine as well as bigotry. It will take years, activists, educators and historians to bring about the change we need in this country.
But the fact that Katrina’s impact upon NOLA was devastating does not mitigate the destruction visited upon Florida in the aftermath of 7 hurricanes in 14 months. How does one measure disaster? Adding up the toll in dollars or even in deaths does not describe the personal sacrifice, the personal loss, the personal experience.
One strong hurricane is catastrophic. Seven in 14 months is a holocaust.
I don’t know if the experience has made us wiser or more cautious. I don’t know if we now know when to stay or when to leave. I only know that I was one of the lucky ones.
I live in St. Petersburg now. A peninsula surrounded by water. So far, my home is intact, and my city is standing. I still have a job, and my son lives safely down the street. My life is more or less normal, at least for now. Only God knows what tomorrow may bring.
After all, I am living right smack in the middle of the intersection. And we all know that if you live and play in the street, you’re bound to get hit someday.