Every time I heard the name Irma mentioned in September, I thought of one of my father’s favorite films, Irma La Douce (1963) by the great Billy Wilder with the equally greats Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon. Of course, every time I had to realize we were not talking about the film.
I have lived in the US on and off for many years and survived snow blizzards in New England, and the occasional storm that would make it all the way up to New York or Boston, even North Carolina, but I had never lived through a tropical storm proper. Enter Irma.
A needed skill in the US is the capacity to parse the always fear mongering news. One needs to develop highly critical thinking in order to live a reasonably fear free life in this country of killer bees, zombies, or swamp things. Admittedly, this is difficult when a Category 5 hurricane is thundering it’s way to your town. Irma destroyed Antigua and Barbuda in the Lesser Antilles, but it took about a week to skirt Puerto Rico, Hispaniola. and Cuba. So I did not know what to expect.
Then there is the cone of possible trajectories, this is the cornucopia shape that stems from where the storm is. The West Coast of Florida featured prominently on most of those “cones”. Fear was creeping in. Tuesday before the expected landing of the storm on Florida, school announced closing thursday and friday so families could evacuate. But on wednesday the school population had significantly thinned out as people started their exodus.
All along I planned to stay home. I live on a second floor apartment, how bad could it be?
The days before the storm where a mix of utterly quiet and busy preparation. I stocked enough food to feed a Cavalry Division, but I also went on quiet walks on the empty beach and around what looked and felt like a ghost town.
The Saturday of Irmageddon* arrived and I was busy preparing the apartment for the strike.
There was also the storm surge to consider. Storm surge is not quite a tsunami, but apparently the water level of the ocean, and in our case the “bay” rises. All along the rise had been maxed out at 10 feet. Armed with a tape measure I measured the height of my apartment relative to the ground, 10 feet, I was fine. What was not fine was that a. The fantastic sliding doors/windows of the apartment did not have storm shutters – or any kind of shutters – and b. They were now saying up to 15 feet storm surge. Florida being as flat as flat can be, I figured that if the ocean surged by 15 feet and I am less than a mile from the beach I would surely get hit. But wait, the “Bay” side of the apartment is literally only a few feet away.
I was pondering all this when a good friend called. She had not put plywood to protect her windows and now needed tools and help to protect her windows. We cut a deal: I would help her out and then stay at her place with her parents and her daughter to pass the storm, as she lives further inland.
With limited tools and with the storm and darkness encroaching, we had to improvise a patchwork quilt of plywood pieces to fit each window, . We finished late, exhausted and soaked by the rain.
Sunday started easy enough, some rain, easy breakfast, and then power blinked and left. It was time for the main show, and what a show it was! She howled and ripped and roared for a few hours. It felt like when you are standing on the platform at a station and a train blows by you: same noise, same rush, same wind, same feeling of getting sucked into the void.
And then the eye came. It was surreal. Quiet. Peaceful. We ventured outside, the yard was flooded, the whole street was flooded, leaves, branches, trees strewn everywhere.
The second part of the storm was not half as bad as the first. Apparently, the storm had picked up some dry air which was breaking it up, causing its eventual disintegration.
Monday morning arrived sunny, warm, quiet and calm. A friend came in his massive SUV to check on us and he gave me a ride back home. The devastation was everywhere: flooding, fallen trees by the hundreds, roofs ripped off of buildings like the top of a can of sardines, debris everywhere, signs, including every single street sign ripped out of the ground.
My apartment had only a trickle of water that had come in through the old sliding doors. Not bad at all. That same afternoon power came back, maybe too soon. With everything being wet, very wet, when the power came back on, the water must have caused some sort of short circuit. I was walking outside my apartment to pick up Rocinante from the municipal parking lot, when I smelled the acrid smoke of burning metal. When I finally discovered the smoke coming out of the electric closet I called 911. Within minutes the firemen where able to keep the fire from spreading. Phew!!
The destruction from the storm was overwhelming: trees, roofs, signs, trailers, if Irma could move it, she did. The first wave of street cleanup happened within the first couple of days after the storm. Today a month and a day after the storm, Naples has electricity and water, but the cleanup is going to take well into 2018.
* Vinnie Monzone