Watching all the news stories about hurricane Katrina, I'm having a lot of memories of life in Florida at this time last year. A lot of those feelings are behind me, but in a way those things never quite get behind me...
August 12, 2004
I'm very tired, so this will be jumbled. A category 2 or 3 hurricane is on its way here, and my neighborhood was evacuated. I'm staying with Amy and Adam; Christy and Amy are staying with Amy's dog's puppy raisers. (I'm so glad they live so close and were available!)
I've been trying to figure out the proper perspective for this event. I remember Dad riding out a hurricane like this in 1983. Mom, my sister, and I were visiting Mom's dad in Oklahoma. All I remember is that Dad took the animals into the big closet in the master bedroom and slept there. My sister asked where he put his head, and he said in the shoes, which she thought was very funny.
During the fall of my junior year, I got on the bus one morning and heard some banter about a hurricane headed our way.. When I got to school, I asked a teacher about it and she said that yes, it was headed our way and it was a category 5. I didn't and still don't understand how a category 5 hurricane can develop without a bunch of newscasts building up to the announcement. I guess it had been out in the Gulf for quite a while, and that's just proof that it's impossible to know the path that these storms will take or how soon we will know about them.
My parents decided that we would take the opportunity to drive to see Dad's parents in Oklahoma City. We started packing the car and planned to leave the next morning. But by the next morning, the storm had moved farther west. A couple of days later, Gilbert gave southwest Texas and eastern Mexico a gift of 175-mile-an-hour winds. I was so glad it hadn't come to us but so sorry for them!
The next summer, we were visited by two tropical storms, Allison and Chantal, and one hurricane, Jerry. Interestingly, Allison was the most damaging to our home. We lost quite a few shingles. I don't remember the sound of the wind very well, but I do remember the plop of the shingles falling off. I remember wondering if eventually we would have gradually lost the whole roof. I don't remember Chantal at all, but I do remember Jerry. I remember that this was a category 1 storm, and a big to-do was made about it. We ended up just getting a bit of rain, and people dubbed the storm a dud.
I know all the preparedness steps because we lived them every summer when I was a child. I remember taping and boarding windows, buying supplies, Dad creating a pet carrier large enough for two cats, etc. But I don't have any experiences with a storm this size. If it had stayed small, I would have compared it to Allison. But it didn't stay small.
The only memory I have that might give me any meaningful context for understanding what I may experience this weekend is something that happened one summer when I visited Dad's parents in Oklahoma City. I don't remember all of it, but I suspect that this was the year the lightning struck and blew out the TV. I was probably ten or eleven years old--after I turned 12, my sister started visiting with me; and she was not there for this event.
Anyway, something happened and we went to the cellar. I had always wondered what the difference was between a cellar and a basement. The difference is probably only in the usage--and cellars are smaller from what I can tell. Grandma and I were down there with the dog, and the wind began to pick up. We later found out that it reached 80 miles an hour. What I remember is a sound like the sound of a bus engine. I suspect that part of what I'm remembering is the sound of a bunch of trash cans being blown around--I remember Grandma commenting about this later. So perhaps I don't know what pure wind at high speeds sounds like.
Right now it's very still and quiet outside--just a normal night. I can remember standing outside on the day that I found out about hurricane Gilbert and feeling the same way. How could anything happen? It was pretty outside. People were mowing their lawn, driving around. But then I remember Allison... It was dark and windy and rainy, and we couldn't let the dog out. Is this how it will be tomorrow? Will the winds sound like buses? Will we have tornadoes? A tornado is my worst fear!
From what I have been able to piece together, the storm surge is the greatest concern. This is where my perspective has to change. I'm not in Houston. Houston is 50 miles inland and not at sea level. Here we are only a few miles from the water no matter which side of town we're on. I discovered while thinking about all this that I don't really like living in this area and someday I hope to move somewhere away from the water. Anyway, flooding is the biggest concern. The newspeople are saying that the surge could be as high as two stories and have waves on top of this. That seems very dangerous, and I am actually concerned about being stranded away from home for several days. I really hope I'm not--and I really hope that God will spare us water damage. We could lose so much, and we already have so little! But what a selfish prayer! Some people lose everything--and some of them have so much less than I do.
The other thing that makes this perspective different is the fact that this area hasn't had a direct hit from a storm since 1921. So none of the new buildings and procedures have been tested. That makes me realize that some of this caution may be overdone; but it also helps me to understand why it's overdone. We need to err on the side of caution because there is so much we don't know. It's just sad to me that hundreds of thousands of people are displaced. And I think that the overcaution intensifies my fears. My response to that cannot be complacency. That's dangerous. I must exercise caution without being consumed by fear.
I'm actually doing better with this than I thought I would be. I am comfortable, and I feel reasonably safe. I'm with people who know how to assess danger and keep their heads about them. But I miss my cats. I boarded them at a boarding place here in town. Mom thought they could survive on their own, and maybe she's right. But my cats are like parts of me, and I couldn't live with myself if I didn't make sure they were cared for. They don't have someone personally looking out for them who knows their quirkks, but at least they are being fed and physically cared for and they don't have to fend for themselves in potentially dangerous water. I know that everyone is at risk right now and my kitties aren't completely safe, but I do feel better that they aren't alone. But I miss them so much, and I want them. I want to feel their warmth and hear their purrs. I want to feed them and see them eat and settle down because they're satisfied. I even want to hear their calling in the night. I have Meghan here, and she helps me stay calm, but I miss my kitties so much and I'm so afraid something will happen to them and I won't be able to "say goodbye."
August 14, 2004
Yesterday morning around noon the storm was upgraded to a category 4 storm. I didn't know that what I wrote about Gilbert could be so prophetic, and I understand better now why we hadn't known about Gilbert earlier. For some reason, storms can strengthen quickly in the Gulf of Mexico. I really don't understand the mechanics of that, and I can see myself doing a bit of research later because I think I would feel better if I had some kind of understanding about what builds these storms.
The storm (which, by the way, was named Charley) came ashore south of here. We were to expect rain and high winds, but they never came and the evacuation order was lifted this evening. We had only a shower for all that trouble.
I'm back in my house. Amy asked if I wanted to stay one more night, and I considered it. But all the watches and warnings have been cancelled, and I needed to be at home where I could relax and work through my thoughts and feelings more openly.
We had to turn off the power when we left because of the risk of fires in unattended homes. I just last week stocked up on groceries, and we were all concerned about the potential for spoiled food. We took a fair amount of perishable food items away with us--I figured that if nothing else I could contribute to the pot luck if Adam and Amy's house became a popular shelter for people from church, her other friends, etc. And if nothing else, I could eat my food if I was there for a significant amount of time.
Upon returning, I found that very little of the food in the refridgerator had spoiled. The only thing I had to clean up was water from where the freezer had started to defrost. I am probably the only person in the neighborhood who returned home this evening--it's very quiet and feels desserted. I was afraid taking the bag of garbage out to the dumpster... What if people were out there planning to take advantage of the fact that no one was home? I called a friend and asked her to talk to me while I did it.
But I am also counting my blessings. I feel a bit like I must be gloating because the rest of the state wasn't so lucky. Michelle was calling from Orlando as soon as I plugged the phone back in. We were cut off during the conversation, and I don't know how much damage was done there. I do know that many people from Pinellas County evacuated to the counties where the storm ended up hitting.
I'm having a difficult time emotionally with the knowledge that I have no way to make a real connection with anything that happened in those other counties. Part of preparing myself for an experience involves preparing myself for the physical sensations and my responses. I do this in other situations, too, although I've not been very aware that I do it. When I went to train with Meghan, I prepared myself for meeting her by imagining myself greeting various dogs. Because I've had exposure to a lot of dogs, I was able to imagine a variety of scenarios. Meghan didn't fit my imaginings in every way; but when my instructor told me that she was a Labrador retriever, that gave me some very basic information to use to categorize her. I knew that she would have short hair and floppy ears. That made me able to concentrate on other aspects of who she was: her personality and her size. Meeting Meghan was much less something to adjust to than was meeting Elli in 1991, when I had had much less exposure to dogs and had no idea what to expect.
I tried to form some kind of concept based on pieces of information about the storm. There could be tornadoes. I've never experienced a tornado. There could be flooding. I don't think I have a very accurate understanding of flooding. The streets can flood and make driving impossible without water getting into homes. But with a storm like this, would water get into our home? There was a lot of lightning in the storm. Lightning I know--and lightning I hate. I don't recall lightning in the storms we had in Houston. But that doesn't necessarily mean there was none.
Then there is storm surge, and that is something I really don't understand. If a wall of water surged into St. Petersburg, how far would it go? If it was 18 feet high when it came in, would it still be 18 feet high when it reached my house? What would a wall of water like that do to the house?
So there are a lot of unknowns for me about a hurricane and especially about a big one. And I am not having an easy time resting. Tropical storm Danielle is brewing "about 235 miles south-southwest of the Cape Verde Islands, moving west about 14 mph." I don't know where that is. Also, from CNN, "The National Hurricane Center said Tropical Depression Five, which at 11 p.m. ET Friday was about 895 miles east-southeast of the Windward Islands, has the potential to become a hurricane that could threaten Jamaica in five days." Does that mean we could go through all this again next week? Jamaica was Charlie's first stop on Wednesday. I don't want to go through this again EVER, let alone next week!
I didn't sleep well last night. I was very upset about being here alone, and I chided myself for being upset after making a choice to come home alone. I finally realized that what I needed was to release pure emotional stress. Being here alone allowed me to do that without inhibition--and I did. I cried like a little child, sobbing at the top of my lungs like a baby. I've been hot and tired, and I've spent two days holding myself together because there were practical things to take care of and what Adam and Amy did not need was me crashing so severely while their little girls were also in meltdown. If we had actually had a storm, there might have been a point to letting the crash come at some time. But I needed to have "the crash" come uninhibited--my own little storm needed to blow itself out.
As I finish writing this, I am noticing something: a noise that is normal. But I find myself second-guessing it. Because I was the one to come home first, I was the one to turn on the power. I had difficulty with one of the breaker switches, and I later discovered that I had missed one when I went to investigate why the air conditioner wasn't running. So I have been afraid, and I go outside to see if what I hear is really rain or if it could be the crackling of fire since I am also noticing the sound of the air conditioning unit outside for the first time. It's rain--big drops coming in a torrent. It lasts for about five minutes and then slows to a nice shower.
September 1, 2004
It seems that we're going to play run from the hurricane again. Mom called at 11:00 P.M. and said that my uncle is willing to pay for a flight out for me. Of course, this is all complicated because I want to take my cats. It's going to cost about $450 to get the cats out and back. That's twice what it will cost for my own ticket, and Mom thinks it's stupid and I should just leave them. But I couldn't live with myself if I did that! It would cost about that much to board them, and boarding them might not even be safe.
No one is awake. They all went to sleep, and I'm here with my adrenalin. My roommates are sleeping, and Christy is going to go to work tomorrow like nothing is going on. Knowing the past pattern, I wouldn't be surprised if I spend all this money to go be safe from the oh-so-deadly hurricane and then come home to a perfectly normal town and home. I hate this! I hate this so much! Most of all I hate the way people think my cats are so disposable, and I hate the fact that I am poor and can't do anything to improve the situation. God, please help me make the right choice--not just for me but also for my animals. I do understand that maybe this is Your way of keeping me safe and that I need to trust You and trust who Your Holy Spirit sends. I wish You would send someone to talk to me. I wish I could sleep peacefully. But I know I can't, and part of that is because I don't even know where I'm going to be tomorrow night.
September 2, 2004
I didn't go home. Frances is heading for the east coast of Florida, and we will likely get some very bad weather. We are not expected to experience major damage, and no one is being evacuated. My mom and her brother and sister are calling (mostly Mom and her sister) and asking me repeatedly to leave, questioning what I'll do if this or that happens... That is more stressful for me than storm preparation could be. The most recent call came right on the heels of a prayer that Amy and I prayed together for the preservation of life and homes for people as well as animals--not for the sake of materialism but for the sake of life.
Hurricane Frances is not a threat to my life. It is an opportunity to endure and grow in wisdom. It is an opportunity to prepare for events that truly require action. So was Charlie. I was unprepared in every way. I am more prepared now, but I also must confess that I became complacent after the news stopped talking about Charlie. I must be prepared in season and out of season--emotionally, physically, and especially spiritually. Am I prepared? And will I treat the coming of the Lord as I treat these storms?
September 6, 2004
So many thoughts...
I learned a lot of things this weekend--things about what a hurricane really is and how and why to be prepared for one. Fortunately, none of these things were learned "the hard way." I became a bit complacent after Charley. I can't allow myself to do that this time. God has been gracious to me, and I should never take that lightly! I'm thinking of Pastor Lyon's comment a few years ago about God sending the storm to awaken us. I'm thinking that there are some things that can never be predicted, and I must be prepared in and out of season. And I will write more on all of this tomorrow.
September 7, 2004
I'm so frustrated! I checked in with someone from church, and it seems a few people from church are without power. But there's nothing we can do to help. Even little things I've offered like making a pot of food or something have gotten the response, "Oh, that's ok. We'll manage." I'm just a drain on church resources. At least that's how I feel. No one wants anything real that I could do because I can't do what they really want done. If I was anyone else, I'd just show up with a good meal. But my showing up would be more of a drain on them than a help. They have a grill anyway, so they don't really need food. So the feeling of being a drain on the community is just really bad this morning.
Negative emotions seem to be welling up inside me in response to every little thing today. What I wrote above is a good example. I just feel like after making sure that we're ok, people went on about the real business of cleaning up after the storm. We're safe, and as long as we stay inside we won't get hurt. Don't touch anything. Let the people who can see take care of each other. They'll take care of me, too. But I have a mind and legs and hands that work.
I'm expected to be "independent" and not lean too much on people, but when I try to find ways to give to other people, I'm not allowed to or can't do things that any other adult would do. Because I have limitations, I'm just taken care of and left on the sidelines. I keep hearing my mom say that it just takes extra time to show me what to do, etc. So my help isn't really help at all but just something people allow me to do when they can afford the burden of showing me how to help.
One of the best ways to get out of depression is to get outside yourself. I'm trying... But I can't. I'm forced back inside myself. Maybe if I go to sleep for a little while, I'll feel better when I wake up. But what if I don't, and what if going to sleep is just a cop out? The fact that I feel like this doesn't make me eligible to just walk out on life. But trying to go about daily things in this frame of mind is just making the frame of mind worse.
September 9, 2004
Another hurricane is on the way. I've been thinking about moving home but didn't want to do it just because I'm running away. I've decided to go. I'm having a very hard time with it because this is not at all how I want to move, but my top priority has to be keeping as safe as I reasonably can. My life is always in God's hands, and He's ultimately the only safety there is, but I need to be prudent and also do what's best for my mental health. Florida is taking a beating, and I cannot afford to lose all the ground I've gained emotionally for the sake of physical stability. Mom is doing her level best to make this easy for me. I'm going to have to live without some things for a little while, but I'm looking into shipping what I can. Tomorrow could be a really crazy (and expensive) day. Tonight also promises to be pretty crazy with packing. I expect to come back and spend a week or so--hopefully around Christy's birthday but that depends on what the storms are doing. For now, I'm going through things and packing and purging, and that's very stressful. I'm feeling about like I felt when I was packing for my divorce, except that I'm not having negative feelings about Christy or Amy. I just don't like to do things dramatically, and that's exactly what I'm doing.
Living "independently" is very important to me--it's part of what maintains my emotional health. Lately as my migraines and the associated complex partial seizure-like symptoms have increased in frequency and severity, I have had to think a lot about whether I will be able to maintain the degree of independence that I have had all this time. But blindness is something I don't think about much because I've lived with it all my life and am used to the adaptations I need to make. I'm having to think about it now.
Hurricane Ivan is fluctuating between category 4 and 5, and forecasts seem to lean toward it heading for the same areas already ravaged by Charley and Frances. I have been keeping an eye on it and have decided to move out of Florida. This is supposed to be an unusually active season, and we didn't have big storms like this last year. But having two and possibly three major storms in a month has caused me to take a long look at my need for assistance from people in the community when I live on my own--and the fact that in a disaster situation people very often are in the midst of caring for their own families and aren't able to assist no matter how much they want to.
I've always taken living independently for granted--I can do my own cooking, cleaning, etc. I've had to explain to people that my messy house is the result of laziness and not the fact that a blind person can't clean her own house. But the most important aspect of living on my own is preparedness for the unknown. I'm not talking about stock-piling or even putting up storm shutters or having a first-aid kit ready. Those are very important things. But for a person with disabilities, preparedness also includes knowing how to get oneself and one's belongings and dependents (be they pets or children or disabled/elderly family members) to safety. I have met my match in that regard, and I am finding it necessary to admit that I don't have the resources to live independently in Florida. If I had a job and could establish an emergency fund... But I don't and can't, so it's time to move to a place where I can live safely. I've had this concept of independent living as being able to provide for my own needs, take care of myself in a crisis situation, etc. It's just not an accurate perception. I have natural limitations and areas where I cannot be completely independent. I'll be independent where I can be, but I'm not an island and will never just be able to fend for myself without very significant changes that don't seem to be in the works for me right now.
I have four animals, including my dog guide. In Florida it is against the law to leave pets during an emergency situation--at least, that's what I'm told. And I don't take my pets for granted any more than I would take my children for granted. Evacuation procedures have caused me a lot of stress. There are really no safe places in Florida and especially locally. We have built our society right out onto the water, and that's a big gamble. I don't have the luxury of choosing to drive away somewhere, which is what I would do if I could see. The only evacuation mechanism available to me is flying, and flying non-service animals is very expensive. I can't fly myself in and out over and over, let alone my animals. I took a lot of risks and chose to stay in town with Charley and Frances that I am no longer willing to take. Hurricane preparedness has taken a major toll on my emotional health, and nothing is worth that price to me.
I will be relocating tomorrow, going back to Indiana where I have family, a large church community, and less likelihood of needing to evacuate myself and my animals.
September 10, 2004
Dad wrote me... Ivan is predicted to landfall south of here and move north right through this area. I'm very "sobered," and I think I made a very wise choice. Can't help feeling that God is protecting me even if only from very bad emotional trauma. I'm taking everything that means anything to me and shipping what I can't fly with. Storm surge is the greatest concern for anyone living in this area. We're in the process of putting things on tables in the closets.
These entries just cover the basics of the experience. I didn't write about what happened after I left, and it would be easy to assume that life returned to normal for me once I arrived safely in Indiana. The trip didn't go very smoothly, and the return to normal life was a gradual one--and I was touched in a very minor way by the storms. I have since met people who have lost most of their possessions.
When I arrived at the airport, kitties and Meghan in tow, I was informed that my ticket had never been paid for and I could not travel. I threw a fit that would embarrass even the most cocky person. I was not going to return home with a category 5 storm on the way, and they were going to let my uncle purchase that one-way ticket and I was getting on that flight whether anyone thought I was a terrorist or not! I tracked my uncle down on his cell phone, and he paid for the ticket again--and I handed over the cash for the cats' spaces--fortunately there was still room. Several people had the same idea and the airport was full of meowing and barking. Of course, all of my bags were dug through as if I was a serial murderer. I was terrified that I would miss the flight.
When I arrived home, Sierra had urinated in her carrier and desperately needed a bath. We had no idea who had done it until we got home and took the carriers to the basement one at a time, removed each cat so Dad and I could inspect her and I could then deposit her upstairs in the bathroom. Inca made herself right at home--Mom and Dad had never rented our previous apartment out, so she was in old familiar territory. The next morning I found her sleeping in her old familiar chair. Sierra didn't have a fun time with the bath, and she stank for several days, although Meghan did a very good job of comforting her and she didn't stay hidden once she was upstairs.
I had shipped three large items: my Yamaha keyboard, my scanner, and my desktop computer. Amazingly, all were in working order when they arrived. I was very grateful because I had doubted seriously that they would be. Those three items helped me to feel like I was at home even though many of my belongings were still in Florida. I watched the NHC site very dilligently, trying to plan a trip back down to ship the rest of my things. Dad wanted to drive down and pick them up; but I was afraid that the season was so active that there would not be enough time for a drive. Besides this, it really wasn't necessary--a friend had offered me a trip on some frequent flyer miles, and it would be cheaper for me to ship things than to rent a truck or trailer and drive.
My roomies had evacuated and gone to St. Louis for the week. Of course, they turned off the power, hoping that the neighbors would go in and turn it back on if the storm moved away. The neighbors were not reliable. All the food in the refridgerator spoiled. The refridgerator was ruined, and the house stank until the refridgerator was replaced.
I did not go back until the end of September, after hurricane Jeanne came through on its way out into the Gulf of Mexico. When I arrived, there was quite a site to greet me. A tree had fallen and blocked the front entrance; and it had been chopped and stacked at the end of the walk leading to the street. The pile was so big that probably 15 people could have held hands and circled around it. I could see it from the front porch--and since my vision is very poor, this is very telling.
The tree disturbed me. Amy and I had stood on the porch during the afternoon and recorded the wind from hurricane Frances. As I stood looking at the tree and remembered Christy describing the sound of it falling, I realized that it had been the grace of God that kept it standing while Amy and I stood in that very spot, fascinated by the wind from the previous storm. Perhaps the tree only came down because Frances had weakened it previously. I don't know... I only know that I can never stand outside during a storm again. It was a very foolish thing to do even though it helped me to understand what a hurricane is.
I always thought that a hurricane was a circular storm with a constantly blowing wind of so many miles per hour. This was part of the reason for my confusion in high school: I expected constant howling. This isn't what a hurricane is at all. It's a series of storms that form a circular pattern with a calm center. The storms come in bands, and there are sometimes relatively calm spaces in between some of the bands. Some of the bands are light, and some are very furious. This is why meteorologists say that "maximum sustained winds" are so many miles per hour. Sustained winds may last minutes or longer periods of time. There is no way to know how long a sustained wind will last; but it is longer than a gust, which lasts a few seconds.
The other thing I learned while standing outside is that the wind speed is different in the tree tops than it is on the ground. This can make a significant difference to the tree--trees tend to be strongest near the bottom, but the wind speed is greater in the air in a hurricane. So it causes the trees to snap.
Indiana often gets fairly high winds during the fall and winter. I struggled a lot with memories of Frances during these times, but eventually I learned to accept these winds as normal and to remember that the house I live in had withstood many of these winds. I was strangely comforted during a winter storm when I heard someone say, "It's like a hurricane out there!" Somehow I felt less hysterical after that.
I became upset reading emails from people who kept hoping New Orleans wouldn't "get a direct hit." Of course, I wouldn't want anyone to get a direct hit. But someone was going to; and with the track Katrina was taking, it wouldn't have mattered much whether New Orleans got a direct hit or an indirect one. In either case, the damage to the city will be quite significant. The storm is too big geographically and too strong for the directness of the hit to matter much. I wish that more people understood these things.
Someone posted to an email list this morning about a blurb on CNN regarding prosecution of people who leave their pets behind. The idea of leaving pets behind disturbs me more than I can put into words. At the same time, the idea of being prosecuted for it also disturbs me. There are sometimes circumstances where the person is left with no choice. This is why I eventually left Florida. I am disabled, and my family out of state kept calling and offering me plane tickets home but telling me to leave my cats behind and let them fend for themselves. They didn't seem to understand that my cats could have to deal with floods and other animals that weren't natural to the area, debris, etc. But also to them, I could always get new cats. But I never would have been able to own cats in Pinellas County again, and it could have had repercussions on my work with my service dog, which my family of course values. There were no pet-friendly shelters in St. Pete, and I was/am on a fixed income so couldn't use the hotel option, and it seems all of my friends were allergic to cats. I was out of options, and the evacuation issue was more stressful for me than the potential loss of home. My cats and dog are the only family that's mine, and I was terrified of losing them and especially of being prosecuted over something that other family members insisted I do or that I was forced to do because I didn't have the resources or option to do otherwise.