Watching Irma Come
When I read the news of a big disaster, I am always sad for those who are affected. Yet sometimes the scale and distance make the event seem impersonal. I know that there are people in Texas who lost everything in Harvey, but I don’t feel a personal grief because I’ve never been to those places and I don’t have any friends who currently live there. This is why the news seeks out individual stories and photos because those personalize the disaster for people like me who don’t have a prior connection to the disaster area.
Irma is different. I’m crying a bit about Irma before the images and stories even happen. Some of the reasons feel small and silly compared to the size of the coming disaster. (And compared to the disaster already created.) But even if they’re insignificant portions of the reasons to grieve, they are pieces of what I feel as I check in on the news to see whether Irma’s track has changed, where she’s going to hit land, how strong she will be.
Twenty four years ago I landed in Sarasota Florida for my honeymoon. Howard grew up there and his siblings still lived in the family home. (They’ve since moved to Utah.) Howard drove me around the neighborhoods where he used to live and the beach at Siesta Key where he spent so many of his summers. We stayed at his grandmother’s condo. As Howard showed me places, he talked about the threat of a hurricane as a fact of life. Some of the houses were built up on stilts in preparation for that event. I remember him telling me that a hurricane was inevitable at some point and that when it came all the buildings on the keys would be scoured away. People knew this. Builders knew this. They built on the keys anyway because the hurricane could be a hundred years away and in the meantime people wanted to enjoy the beauty of the gulf coast. And I can’t say they were wrong to do so. It was beautiful. I’m glad I got to go there. I hope many people got to see it. What the builders and home buyers can’t accurately say is “we didn’t know this would happen.” Because they knew. Everyone in Florida knew, hurricanes always come eventually.
Irma’s current track shows the eye of the storm rolling right over Sarasota or passing just to the west of it. Irma will likely be a Cat 3 hurricane when that happens.
I remember visiting at the house of one of Howard’s friends. It was a beautiful middle class home that would have fit right into the neighborhoods where I grew up, but the back yard did not end in a fence. It ended in a sea wall. I could walk straight out the back door, across 100 feet of lawn, and then jump off that wall into the ocean only about four feet below. It wasn’t open ocean, but a canal-like area with other neighbors across with way who also had a sea wall. And a dock. These houses all had a dock with a small or medium boat. Ten minutes of slow boating would take any one of these people out to open ocean spaces. It was beautiful for an adult, frighteningly fenceless for parenting a toddler. The house was six feet above the high tide line.
The expected storm surge with Irma will be 10-15 feet. That entire house will be underwater and probably scraped away entirely. These people we know will lose everything they didn’t take with them. I hope they evacuated. They had thirty years of living in this idyllic place, but this was always a possibility. I hope they prepared for it.
My brother evacuated from Tampa. He left on Friday morning when the storm track showed Irma rolling over Miami. We were glad that he was going even though at the time it looked like Tampa would probably be fine. Now Tampa will be hit hard and we’re glad he is elsewhere.
Last September, not quite a year ago, I went on a cruise in the Caribbean. We made port at Nassau, the Bahamas, St. Thomas, and St. Martin. All of these islands felt the force of Irma in the past few days. The places I visited and found beautiful are destroyed. It will be years before they are beautiful again.
For all of my life, the name Irma was just my Grandma’s name. It was a name I’d never heard anywhere else. I knew she didn’t like it much. It hadn’t been a fashionable name since before she was born. The name wasn’t passed on to any of her grandchildren or great grandchildren (though her middle name was). I felt a little sad for the name Irma, so unwanted. So I wrote notes for a picture book featuring a little girl named Irma whose name was old-fashioned and who liked old fashioned things. In the book she would doubt herself but learn about individuality. I hoped that the book might give the name Irma some charm. I knew most people would never have heard the name before. Now everyone has heard the name and has a very specific association for it. My little fictional Irma will probably never get her story.
All of this is in my head muddled up together with images of the storm track and of post-hurricane disaster scenes. And yet I don’t have as much cause to grieve as Howard whose childhood locations are about to be scoured away by wind and water. Nor as much cause as the people who currently live there and may lose everything they have. My grief is small, a piece of my experience of today. There is nothing I can do to alleviate the coming damage. So I check in with the storm track, and then I step away and try to appreciate the day and home that I have. I want to enjoy my sunshine, flowers, family. Because some day disaster may strike here instead of elsewhere, and when it does, I’d like to have stored up years of happy living first.
Also, I should review my emergency preparedness supplies. That is also a good use of the day. Because when disaster strikes Utah, it will likely be in the form of an earthquake and we won’t get to see it coming for us. I’m not sure which is better, watching it come slowly and having to make choices about what to lose or having it hit fast and just having to try to salvage. No matter where we live, there is a disaster which could happen and which preparedness could make more survivable.
Stay as safe as you can Florida. Please.