Hurricane Irma


Hurricane Stories: The Event

A reader recounts her stay in Mirror Lakes Elementary during the hurricane.

This is my interpretation of a VERY long, uninvited weekend with hurricane Irma.

In the week leading up to the hurricane stocking up on healthy foods, pet supplies and necessities, was crucial. While noticing many shopping were in complete panic mode, a women made a comment about my ball cap reading Namaste, asking where she could find one like it. I mentioned that I got it at a Yoga retreat in Maui, HI, years ago. Most certainly via the web there must be many caps for sale, with Namaste embroidered on them? I suggested she do a quick research on the topic.

I was surprised with the entire chaotic flurry around us, as to how calm she was. Come to find out, this was her 5th hurricane, she considered herself quite an authority on major storms. She introduced herself to me as Thelma. I paid the sales clerk for my items and wished Thelma all best dealing with the hurricane, she thanked me, and then we both went about our day.

 With it now being Friday and Irma soon approaching over the weekend, most meteorologists and news anchors alike, were drawing the same conclusion, and following the European model of the storm more fervently. It seemed like all from Collier and Lee counties, were going to take the direct hit from the eye wall of this storm, followed by a surge of h20 10-15 feet, the likes we’ve never known.

Ayyyy yayyy yayy. Can’t prepare for that…

 

With a mandatory evacuation order having been announced Saturday for the district I was in, my once confident feeling in staying at a friends place, grew weaker.

Bella

I began doing the calculations in my head of a surge that forceful, my security, now wavering. Yet guilt in leaving Dora alone also troubled me, I couldn’t do that, it’s not in my nature.

Thankfully, her neighbor knocked on the front door to check in and said, “when the water starts flowing in, you call me, and we’ll come to get you”.

Feeling a weight lifted and knowing Dora wouldn’t be alone, with a back up plan in place, I now needed to figure out my primary plan.

With a sense of relief somewhat restored, I made an executive decision to quickly repack my vehicle, all-inclusive a crate and 1 beautiful Akc Brittany named Bella (Spanish for beautiful). I profusely thanked Dora for everything, and she totally understood my reasons for vacating…pets are family too! If a surge that big was going to power through this area, I wasn’t going to risk losing Bella.  Looking at the clock, I had some time not much though, to put together a plan towards logistics.

In hearing that Germain arena was now at full shelter capacity with an enormous crowd of people, the decision to get on 75 N was inevitable, with the idea of heading more inland. Stopping at the fire station on Daniels seemed like sage decisions, who better to know of the latest updates for shelters. The winds were fierce, and whipping small branches to the ground. looking up at the sky, was not a cheerful sight. The men of South Trail, were helpful and gave me the latest pet friendly shelter information, it was in Lehigh Acres? Lehigh, isn’t that 20 miles or so away? I’ve never been to Lehigh in my life!

As I thanked all at the station, one of the men said, “I suggest you get there soon, the storms a comin”.

715 Thomas Sherwin Ave was the address given aka East Lee County High School. I put the info in my iPhone, called my “point person” my sis in NY, towards letting all family know of Anna’s change in “hunkering down” at a friends place, to my latest challenge, finding a shelter.  I started the engine, direction heading, to Lehigh Acres, distance 22 miles.

Once arriving at 3:30pm, not only was the rain coming down in sheets, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The East Lee County High was also at full capacity, and turning folks away.

With tears streaming down and prayers being said, a friendly woman handed me a piece of paper, with directions to Mirror Lakes Elementary School.

She then placed a hand on my shoulder, smiled and said “god bless you and be safe”.

 

Mirror Lakes was only 4 miles away. Trying all in my power to focus, and barely being able to view anything, I slowly forged ahead. Barely being able to notice safety lights rapidly blinking. I rolled my window down for a nano-second to speak with a man in Orvis rain gear, by a blue & white sign reading the word SHELTER. Carrie Underwood’s song Jesus take the wheel, was playing in my mind, for that and my faith were the only way I safely arrived. A higher power took the wheel and drove, due to the hammering rains, I couldn’t see nor navigate what was in front of me.

Soaked from head to toe, not giving a damn that I was, rolling the window down to view a sign of hope, Mirror Lakes Elementary aka Solace; I raised my head to the sky saying THANK YOU!!!

The school had only recently opened up as a sheltering spot, so the lines were short. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to offer my ID when asked, than that moment.

After registering, I noticed the auto wash deluge outside had stopped. Placing all packed items on a large cart, then leashing Miss Bella, I couldn’t help being aware as to how the volunteer’s and all were incredibly accommodating. A man named Steve asked if he could help me, a breath of Namaste flooded me in relief. The phrase “seeking shelter from the storm shall forever moving forward, carry a greater meaning.

Building #6 of Mrs. Shaw’s 4th grade classroom, was where I quickly settled in, comforted Bella’s anxiety, then assisted others getting organized and to some degree, comfortable. My group of 20 came from all walks of life…to name a few, the Jamaican “ahem” business man, a Naples investor with emphasis on aqua and eco friendly acquisitions i.e.: think Mote Marine Laboratory, a retired service man who was in Operation Desert Storm, the 4H Youth Development Agent and her 2 gorgeous young girls, some super cool Latina’s, who work in the health field in Cape Coral, a couple of FL “Billy” crackers (their chosen introduction not mine), and a Lehigh resident who resettled in FL from IL.

Saturday evening was all about getting acquainted with my shelter slumber group, by playing cards, games, sharing some laughs and stories all mixed in with that wonderful cultural exchange of food!

Although the temperature in the classroom was that of a meat locker, and 1 I could relate to if I were in the meatpacking district of Gansevoort in Nyc. I was quite amazed at how revived I felt awakening in a foreign space, sleeping on a hard floor, with my only salvations being a Chanasya warm blue throw and double Yoga mats.

I couldn’t help but sense many of intense stress, granted it wasn’t a normal Sunday. To try and avoid that energy, and keeping a somewhat normal morning routine, I opened the pet crate, leashed Bella, and explored the school campus. Aside from the concert of people who arrived in the night, and a slew of pets, there were also 10-12 police officers, 4 EMS, and many from the Army National Guard, just pulled up at 6:30am.

As the morning started to unveil it’s pantone shades of grey to dismal, an announcement came from the speakers, saying that breakfast was being served in the cafeteria. I walked back to classroom 6, with most filing out towards the cafeteria. It was feeding time for Bella. I afterwards glided over to my food bin, pulling out Organic French roast coffee concentrate, almond milk, coconut yogurt, wild blueberries from NC, and homemade ginger, cinnamon, sumac, turmeric spiced granola. Ahhhhh, a healthy and wholesome breakfast-Treat!

With a few people having stayed behind gazing directly at me, and my feeling somewhat under the microscope, I asked if they would like some coffee. There was a microwave near by so all were grateful, and I was pleased everyone had brought their own breakfast items, aside from the liquid gold in the form of Java. I mentioned that it was super strong like having a double espresso, so be warned, if one doesn’t’ like robust coffee, to dilute it with some water.  All who stayed behind had to pledge to me, NOT to share that I had coffee, for there certainly wasn’t enough for 20 people.

What seemed like hours flew by swiftly, with many playing board games or streaming the latest updates of Irma, even with having minimal charge left.

 

As the day progressed so did the anxiety levels. And the sky was helping, in now showing shades of blah, blazè and morose.

A friendly voice came across the speaker, instead of introducing himself at first, he alerted all that hurricane Irma just made landfall in Marco Island with winds of 130 miles per hour, and had reduced in strength to a category 3 storm. He then introduced himself by saying

“Good afternoon everyone I’m Scott Cooper and I’d like to update you on our event.” I absolutely cringed at his chosen lexicon. The word event has always held a much different meaning to me. I found myself daydreaming of a great idea, If Scott was looking to house an event, I would gladly contact Milda Vivada of Soirèe Celebrations, Teri Hanson & Melissa Cofta of Premiere Marketing, a brigade of Chefs, with SUPER Culinary talents from; Bryan Sutton, Brian Roland, Michael Psilakis, Gerald Sombright, Bob Boye, Gloria Jordan, Diana Hartman Willis, Gaston Sanchez, Todd Johnson, Marco Coricelli, Melissa Talmage, and myself, and for the confection side, none other than Pastry Chef Paw Mikkelsen, photographers of choice Andrew West and Nick Shirghio, florist Botanicals on the Gulf, entertainment, my begging a friend to ask Carlos Santana to perform, and lastly the glorious Grape, ahh wines by Chappellet, Carte Blanche and Hunnicutt Winery.

 Sorry, I digress…yet you have to admit that would be an epic event of audacious proportion!!!  No for some reason, Scott saying event seemed to take on a more astringent meaning, and with knowing that Irma was in Marco, she soon sadly would be saying hello to Naples, then where? Hmmmm.

A Pet Vet was on campus. I immediately tracked her down and asked for a calming sedative for Miss Bella. She suggested that I give her the pill with some cheese. I asked her, “Where am I to find that?

She smiled and then gave me a piece of cheese. I thanked her then went back to classroom 6 and played with a pet toy, then a little trickery in given Bella her medicine.

Scott returned to relay another update “All right everyone, there’s now a Tornado warning in effect, for Lehigh. Please, please stay in your classrooms, stay away from all windows, and do not open any doors, nor go outside.”

After a period of time, the all clear was given towards tornadoes. The lights all started to flicker. Scott Cooper came back on speaker saying that there are generators for back up to power, in some of the classrooms, he  recited the list of classrooms which have been awarded that gift, and #6 was among the gifted.

Only that’s not what happened, the generators never powered on, and all at Mirror Lakes Elementary went to the dimness of battery power, with 2 lights shining in the room.

Again, Scott alerted all, only this time before speaking to everyone 720 strong in audio attendance, he was having a conversation with another in the media room. You could hear him say, “Are you kidding”. Then focusing back on  all of Us that had sheltered at Mirror Lakes in saying  “I need you all to listen to me. There is absolutely no more smoking outside, nor going outside. I need everyone to stay in his or her rooms and hunker down. If you listen to what’s being said, you’ll be fine. We’ve received word that the eye wall is about to hit here. First starting with the front. So please everyone, try and remain calm and do not leave your classroom.

I looked over at Bella, and her eyes were taking on a glazed look, the sedative was working. Remain calm in knowing that a cat 3 hurricane and her eyewall is about to hit? As difficult as that can be, all in my classroom were trying to do so.

Quickly, I opened a bin and pulled out a pair of red Hunter boots, and put them on. Many looked at me as If I was 1 fruit loop short the cereal box, all with the exception of 2 of my new acquaintances, the Jamaican and Naples businessmen. “Smart idea woman, and very smart indeed”were there comments. I looked over at them and slowly shook my head in agreement.

The classroom was now no longer frigid; no it was now at inferno temperature. A soldier from the Army National Guard came in searching for what he called a power cord. Upon locating the cord, he quickly left and seemingly looked as if he were going into the next classroom to do the same thing?

Someone announced that the toilet was no longer flushing. To anyone who’s never been through a hurricane, they would find the chain of occurrences currently happening, the cord being taken out of the classroom, the toilet not flushing strange. To all of us who have experienced a hurricane or 2 prior, these are a few tell tale signs of preparing for the aftermath of what could occur from Irma.

A gal asked me “Why the boots Anna?” I answered “because of the water afterwards due to the wind bands.

She looked at me as If she had taken a sedative along with Bella. Whhhhattt do mean by afterwards and wind bands she asked. Trying to now calm her, I said no worries, “Scott will announce all I’m sure.” The woman was puzzled from my response.

The intercom came on only it wasn’t Mr. Scott Cooper making the announcement, this time the voice was more robotic. “ Good evening everyone. I need you all to stay in your rooms. Now is the time to hunker down. If you listen and follow, you’ll be fine.” Wow, Mr.X couldn’t have delivered a more cut & dry message. This was serious, his tone of voice, speech delivery all was spoken with concern. Irma was above our heads in Lehigh Acres, and I thought going inland to avoid the hurricane was such a smart idea.

 

The winds began to howl like a banshee. I looked over at Bella and she was feeling quite mellow. Then what all equate with a hurricane, that intense, locomotive sound began. The shingles were ripping off the building sounding as If one was making popcorn. Children were holding to parents closer, and parents holding on to their beliefs stronger. I closed my eyes, with hands together, placed them upon my heart and recited a verse of The Lords prayer. Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. All the could’ve, should’ve  would've thoughts started creeping into my mind. I must keep a more solid positive composure, and not allow negative thoughts to cloud my thinking. Taking a deep breath in, inhaled then exhaled slowly, with closed eyes.

The speaker system came on and startled my slight Ommm moment. It was Scott again on the sound system. “Hello everyone, I want to update you on the latest in our event with hurricane Irma. We’ve passed through the front of the eye wall, with minimal damage done to the buildings. I do apologize for my briefness and the generators not turning on. I will give you a complete update on all soon.” “We still have to go through the back of the storms eye wall.”

By now everyone was beyond anxious although trying to look collected. Holy schmoly, we now have to deal with weathering the back of the eye wall??? Ugggg, not good.

Soon again, was the locomotive sound, and this time it seemed like Riverdance was performing on top of the roof? The intensity of the wind and unknown debris flying about outside was haunting. Yet, this was the real deal and Irma was letting all know at Mirror Lakes she had arrived.

I was shocked Bella was sleeping, thankfully 1 prayer answered, the sedative worked to calm her into rest. No sooner did I see my pup in slumber, when all of a sudden there was a tremendously loud crash heard from outside. Bella was now in a groggy state and awakened. I pet her till she went back to sleep. Although my curiosity was addressed to the acute sounds from outside, I remained under my covers .

Next a violent Slam; whatever was happening was close, but thankfully not happening to classroom #6.

I crawled deeper into my make shift cocoon, boots and all, feeling like a child again, if for only a brief instant.

Mentally reciting Oh please, can this event soon be over.

A somewhat cheery announcement came through the speaker “ I want to share that e made it through the storm, hurricane Irma has just passed us. There will be some people coming around to explain all, which has happened here. Thank you everyone for listening and following orders. Our event is now over.

The door opened and a gentleman accompanied by a member of the Army National Guard entered. One spoke of the water being approximately 3 feet, outside the door, the other that there was fallen debris and nails were askewn everywhere due to the strength of Irma’s powerful winds.

 Trees and tree limbs were down, builing #2 had sustained damage, someone in building #5 had broken the fire alarm, then tried to fix it with tape?

2 of the mobile classroom buildings were completely flattened. Blessed to find out no one had been sheltering in them.

If people wanted to start putting their belongings in their vehicles, they could. But if they left the premises, they could not return.

Many seemed to be choosing to pack up their things and take them to their cars. I looked outside the front door at the rains pouring down, it’s 8:42 pm. Umm, this gals definitely opted for what I called the interior regrouping and stayin' 'till morning plan, rather than being foolish.

Based on the sheer exhaustion from all which led up to Irma’s grand visit for the weekend, and her soon exit of this location, somehow I slept for 5 hours till unfortunately was awoken by an elderly woman screaming of doomsday, who sadly forgot to take her meds. Let’s just say she had a Victoria Secret’s fashion show kind of moment. The Naples businessman sprang to his feet to find an EMS or police officer, able to assist our lady in the classroom, with her medical needs.

Now completely alarmed and awake, I couldn’t help but notice the stench coming from not only the classroom bathroom, but from the outside areas as well. Looking out the front door of the school, I noticed the water on the school grounds, had tremendously decreased and the SUN was shining.

Walking back into my appointed classroom, I took Bella out of her crate, gave her a big hug and a smooch, leashed her, and then walked over to my hurricane kit, and pulled out a pair of sani-gloves. My reasoning, if the National Guard pulled out a cord last evening, and the waters been turned off, then this area is soon going to be condemned and declared not safe to stay here.

While taking Bella for her walk, and watching every step I made in case of a nail, or lord knows what critters were out and about this morning. I couldn’t avoid looking at the children’s swings, merry go round and play sets, solidly all in tact. It briefly brought a smile upon my face. Then my eyes focused on the mobile classrooms, which had been completely annihilated, the roofs on 2 other buildings damaged, and all the debris  numerous trees and signs, which had fallen overnight.

I looked at Bella and said “we made it through girl”, as she tilted her head probably trying to comprehend what exactly was being spoken.

Walking back inside, I asked one of my new “glamping” friends, if they wouldn’t mind watching Bella, while I went out to find if I still had a vehicle intact or a water logged issue, she gladly obliged.

Thankfully, the vehicle seemed fine, now to see if all was working properly. I started the car, and then tried all lights and blinkers. All in working condition. The Infinity SUV next to me, can’t say the same, and felt sorry for who ever owned that automobile.

Hello AAA, or at least 1 of the deputies would be assisting to aid the auto owner get back home.

Briskly, I walked back to the school and towards classroom 6. An officer saw my sani-gloves on my hands and said “great idea”, coming from him, I knew exactly what he was referencing. Time to go…

 

Getting back to Mrs. Shaw’s classroom, I began my organized packing, and quickly doing so.

An announcement came across the speakers letting everyone know that they can no longer stay at the shelter, for all working water has been shut off, and all cords for the landline phones have been removed. This campus is now deemed unsanitary and you must vacate the campus.

Hmmm, seems to me, there was worry for post Irma flooding?

Most were leaving in a non panicked orderly fashion.

Saying my good byes and giving hugs to many in classroom 6, then started loading all onto the cart, feeling the heft of what originally had been packed pre Irma, was now significantly less in weight. A sweet, young man asked if he could help. Ha, ironically, it turns out he was The Pet Vet’s son, and she had asked him to assist others.

Such a nice gesture, and definitely many were grateful to him, and his kindness.

Oh Joy, all was packed and loaded in the VW, and Bella was comfortably resettling into familiar smells of homemade sweet potato pupster snacks and her bed, such a great little trooper!

Stopping up front, to thank all first responders and volunteers. I then turned on the engine, placed on my sun shades, put on the tunes and said good bye to Mirror Lakes Elementary, making a mental note to make something for Mrs. Shaw, and surprise her in gratitude.

 

Driving out and towards the direction of 82 was surreal in many ways. What was playing on my play list was Loves Divine by Seal in hearing the lyric “Then the rain storm came over me. And I felt my spirit break. I had lost all of my belief you see. And realized my mistake. But time through a prayer to me. And all around me became still”.

That was quite paralyzing, and caused me to pause slightly, and reflect.

Stopping at the Stop sign off Bell, then headed to making a right turn had me saying Oy Vey, oy vey and OMG, WOW it looked like a war zone. Power lines were down, cell towers also, and everything from lawn and pool chairs, storage units, and garage doors were displaced all over people’s properties. Trees scattered everywhere, as if they were part of yard displays. Motorcycles were flipped upside down and kayaks were decorating the yards.

I noticed a camo truck in my rear view, filled with National Guards; they were motioning me to drive in the direction of their hands, so I followed their guide. After all, the Dali llama says its best to experience everything in life once (I’m not entirely sure I agree with that thinking), however when the National Guard is signaling the way, hey I’ll take that as a sign to follow. After my 4.2 mile escort, I gave them the Shakka sign. thumbs up, smiles and a Big thank you!

Rather than the continuing landscape getting better, it was becoming bleak. There must have been dozens of police officers and ambulances coming to the scene of many an auto accident on my way back to Daniels & 75. Sadly there are some who don’t understand nor obey the 4-way stop rule, when the lights aren’t working.

Once back to my zip code and destination, I turned on my “old school” battery powered radio, looked around, all was in place and intact. With minimal power left on my cell phone, called my family, and let them know, Sis survived the eyewall event with Irma. I felt blessed, I felt humbled, and I was HOME!