My husband and I had planned to fly out to Florida to help set up hurricane protection for a family member of ours in September. We didn’t make it in time. Hurricane Irma beat us by half a week. It didn’t change our will to go. It made us even more adamant about our mission.
Let’s compare hurricane experiences in my mother country, Germany, and over here. Whereas here we know that hurricane season is over the Atlantic from September through November, there is no such thing in Germany. Over there they come when they come. We call our gales “Orkane” (note the etymological relation to the French word “ouragan”); and they are not subtropical and loaded with seawater, but goaded by a wild mix of high and low pressure areas, wreaking havoc just as much. I experienced my first devastating hurricane in Germany on Boxing Day in 1999. “Lothar” was a quick one that already had killed scores of people in France, before it rushed across Germany. Within five hours it ripped up everything in its way. I remember holding on to a closed window that was throbbing with the gusts, while a sound like breaking matches accompanied the shredding of a forest at the horizon. By the end of the day, that hilltop was bare.
Irma, German TV viewers were told, was almost the size of Germany, and whereas there has never been any hurricane evacuation in Germany, as far as I know, we are all aware of the evacuation of almost the entire coastal stretch of Florida, from the Keys to the Panhandle. Our emergency preparations therefore were quite serious, not knowing what we would run into: medical aid, water cleansing gear, emergency rations – we packed it all. Our airline waived the fee for changing the date of our flight out.
It was a subdued crowd of passengers waiting at SeaTac for the non-stop flight to Orlando. Only very few people seemed to be traveling for Disney World. The purser onboard had a tough time making seating arrangements for a family with three tiny kids, at first. And that’s when I found solidarity flooding through the cabin suddenly. Passengers volunteered to change seats until all the kids were happily settled near their mother and also the bigger passengers who had swapped found themselves in comfortable non-middle-seats. An after-Irma-effect?
Once we had reached Orlando, it was hard to find our car rental – every single bill board and advertisement was shredded. Utility crews were everywhere, taking care of ripped cables, torn metal poles, and destroyed business fronts.
It turned out to be kind of a pocket of destruction though. Further down south, apart from leafless trees and flooded fields, you wouldn’t have been aware of anything different from other times. Except that the turnpike was toll-free. And torn bill board canvas was flapping on unilluminated roadside structures. Once on the Treasure Coast, we ran into more damage again. The saltwater transported by the gales had turned what was left of tree foliage a reddish brown. Boats had slammed into the remnants of docks, been hurled onto shore, or sunk to the tips of their masts. Piles of yard debris as high as five or six foot were sitting by every driveway. A lot of houses were still shuttered. Paint had been razed off, store canopies were in an interim state of destruction and repair. But most of the residential buildings were still standing, unruffled due to their hurricane roofs and sturdy construction.
One of our last days, in the aftermath of hurricane Jose and before Maria, found my husband and me, after all our chores were finished, at my favorite place out there, Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge on Hutchinson Island. It is a weather-beaten complex of three houses built in the 1890s on top of a reef. The beaches around had mostly been devoured by the recent incessant wild surf. Where a couple of years ago people had lazed it with relax chairs on slightly inclining sandy beaches, seaweed was piled high on steeply climbing remnants of what once used to be. Beach houses were precariously balancing themselves on stilt pilings. And the surf crashing against the reef itself flew up to 15 foot, towering and breaking over anybody standing in the wrong place. Who knows how long the beach houses will withstand hurricanes in the future? Even the slightly battered House of Refuge?
On our way back to the airport, something struck my eye: the only bill board intact on the entire I-95. It thanked the people who had come down to help in Florida. It was humbling. It made me think that, so far, I have always been able to return to a safe and sound home. It has become much less of a matter of course to me now. There are people who are way less lucky, but more resilient than I. And they are still on their Mission Irma, cleaning up and helping each other, while I am having a cup of coffee, writing this.