We’ve been on the road for days fleeing Hurricane Irma. Our beloved home in St. Petersburg, Florida, has been left to fend for itself, and it feels as wrong as leaving one’s own kin. We love our home. We love our neighbors in Placido Bayou, a truly peaceful bayou where swans greet you as enter and where neighbors can’t simply go for a walk, they go for a ‘social hour’ wherein you must stop house by house to chat on the days’ events. Dogs are not animals, but starring personalities known by name.

Saint Petersburg is a spirited town where the young and adventurous live, paint, create, and party and the more established enjoy lives of palm tree-lined properties, waterfront wine and food culture, and boating sports of all kinds.

St. Pete, also dubbed ‘The Burg,’ is currently a bullseye, and the arrow is being aimed by Hurricane Irma. At 3:30 a.m. Sunday, September 10, 2017, I sit next to another wide-eyed Tampa-area evacuee in the lobby of a Fairfield Inn in Birmingham, Alabama, watching the weather reporters explain that the once fast-moving hurricane has slowed to a halt, transforming this massive media orgasm into more of a situation of highly uncomfortable constipation.

Friends have asked for updates, as up until now we’ve been distracted nomads. Though I continue to give in to distractions, watching the hurricane news and chatting with other evacuees in my hotel, I will try to collect some key points about our journey thus far here on this page.

And as I move forward I must say what is first on my mind: I hope that every person in Florida and my community in St. Pete fares well. I hope we all come out with what we value most, each other, if not our material belongings. The winnings for tonight’s big game on TV are homes and schools. No Super Bowl provides such tension or high stakes.

So here are a few bullet-point-style updates on our journey and experience thus far…

 

Tuesday September 5

During all past hurricanes since we moved to this fine state five years ago, my husband and I have been the hurricane nerds in our neighborhood, putting up hurricane shutters and preparing rationed food stores. Every hurricane or tropical depression has quietly blown by with little ado.

Hearing the news of Hurricane Irma on the news did not get my undies in the least bit of a bunchie. Tuesday, I went out for a jog with only an audible book on my mind. But I passed a neighbor, Robert, who yelled “Have you booked your flights yet?” Hold the phone. A Floridian heeding warnings of a hurricane? My ears perked up.

Robert and I jogged together a bit and he told me about his flights out Friday. We came across another group of neighbors whom I did not know, but Robert did. He asked a neighbor who was an insurance agent for the down-low. His message was “it depends… if it goes west, yes, evacuate.”

Robert warned me to book hotels asap. I cut my run short, killed my audible book, and got on the phone with hotels. Booked. Booked. Booked. At home, I got online and found Orbitz with pages and pages of red “no rooms available” as well as Marriott’s site, hotels.com and others. I finally found a room near Ocala and booked it. Over the coming days we searched and search for rooms and could only get a second hotel 2 days later in Perry, Florida, not even as far west as the Panhandle. But we booked it if only to be used for neighbors or a backup. Things were already getting frenzied, but with more weather reports, as the insurance neighbor said, things could die down. But best to be sure.

Wednesday September 6

After only a day back to school after the long Labor Day weekend there is discussion of school closures in preparation for the hurricane. As fierce as Irma had been, many saw this as yet another to be endured, like past hurricanes.

Neither my husband, Steve, nor I grew up in St. Petersburg, so we are very to-the-letter in our interpretation of hurricane warnings. Though it was an otherwise normal day, we had a family meeting before school started and agreed that I would start doing evacuation preparations that morning, and my 16-year old son would skip his basketball training after school that day and rather come straight home to help Steve and me put up our hurricane shutters. He also ended up picking up his younger brother later on from school, and got him food for dinner, which enabled my husband and me to continue preparations. My boys are powerhouses when it comes to seeing the need to contribute to a family effort and making shit happen, without complaint. They did this expertly throughout Wednesday and Thursday.

Every morning before school, and especially on weekend mornings, my sons fill the kitchen and family room with music. I LOVE my kids’ taste in music. They pull out the best of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and beyond and we rock out daily. From “Wakeup Little Suzy” and “Bing Bang Walla Walla Wing Wang” to Kiss to Aerosmith to Petty to Modern rap (and dude: check out French rap – it’s wicked), we play every day before getting out the door.

So, we enjoyed tunes throughout this journey and the tune that hit me most on Wednesday was Should I Stay or Should I Go by the Clash. My teenage son and I joked about the lyrics of this song as we worked to box up and elevate anything of value around the house, thinking this was likely just a drill, not a true evacuation…

SONG OF THE DAY: Should I stay or Should I Go?

 

Thursday, September 7

Wednesday afternoon the school announced closure plans for Friday, and then followed up with an addition of closure on Thursday. Beyond helping shutter the house and collect his younger brother from school and take him to dinner, my older son drove back to school to collect study books for both of the boys to take with them during evacuation, since the school would be closed the next day. I’m so thankful to have such young but mature boys on their own handling these things.

Their school, Shorecrest Prep, communicated a primary concern for ensuring every family’s safety and health. Beyond that, they communicated their intent to deliver curriculum content and keep the kids learning while, again, placing safety well ahead of that goal. The school has a strong virtual infrastructure with almost all content provided or available digitally. (Our printed books are a redundant but very valuable resource for kinetic learners who benefit from the touch and feel of real books). Virtual portals for parents and students enable access to teachers and communications from anywhere at any time. Who knew how important these tools would become. Now, with families dispersed across the US and dates of return still very much in question, Shorecrest’s virtual tools may serve as the metaphorical walls and ceilings of this wonderful school’s classroom over the coming weeks. (I am cognizant as I write, that I can choose an optimistic word like “days,” or less-optimistic words like “months” or “years.” I’m choosing balanced wording: weeks. It doesn’t matter. It will be what it is, and it is just a measure of time.) As an aside, the high school students perform community service throughout the year and then spend an entire week in spring doing community service in various places across the US and sometimes outside the US. It dawned on me that Service Week this year could be spent in some way in our own town, perhaps on our own school.

But I digress; it is just good to be at a school with such forward-thinking “business continuity” tools. Continuity… is there a song for the concept of continuity? I think that’s all we seek. But I doubt anything sexy rhymes with ‘continuity.’

Thursday, we worked all day to prepare to leave at 2pm, with a go-no-go decision point at 2pm based on extent data at that moment. Boxing, bagging, lifting and storing sealed boxes up high. Time was ticking and my husband had to go top off our cars with gas while it was still available. Soon it was already 3:00 p.m. and I was still scurrying to box up key papers. My older song was dutifully videotaping every room in the house for insurance reasons. My husband then received a call from a tenant of ours: she had fallen and hurt her knee and was in the hospital. We were the only people with access to her apartment and she needed some items from her apartment. Oddly, tension did not raise too terribly. We were still following a plan, and checking off my many pages of meticulously-documented bullet-pointed tasks, so this seemed just one more task, though time-consuming and unplanned. My husband drove to her apartment, picked up her things and met her in the hospital. At the same time, my neighbor, whose husband was flying home from a business trip, not to arrive until midnight, needed help moving a very heavy basketball hoop out of harm’s way. My son went next door to help them. I was still removing certain items from around the house and so was able to chat with my neighbors. One, Robert, was due to fly out of town on Friday, so he was in relatively good spirits, though we were all unusually huggy with each other, saying goodbye multiple times and such.

By this time, our go-no-go decision become a certain “go.” This was truly the day of departure as the Eye of Sauron had turned its gaze on the west coast including Tampa and around 1pm local government announced mandatory evacuation for our zone. Our last decision was to determine which car was best to take; if the storm surge was light, our new maximum hurricane force garage doors would protect our newer cars, so we’d take the older of the three. As new came forth, we swallowed the reality that even that might be protection enough, so we headed out in our new 2017 car, stuffed with one bag per person, school books, electronics, water bottles, protein bars, and a gluten-free bread loaf for me.

SONG OF THE DAY: Everybody’s Shufflin’ (Party Rock Anthem)

 

With a full tank of gas headed we plodded toward a Fairfield Inn near Ocala. Amazingly, we made decent time. Many recommended Waze maps for traffic management but my trusty GoogleMaps app has never failed me and it proved my best resource on this trip.

On the way, we saw many gas stations without gas. Cars would be lined up around the gas station, so you’d have a moment of belief that there was gas, but upon doing a drive around, which we did often, we’d see pumps closed, handles bagged. And people were either just parking at the pump in order to go inside to buy water, or were ‘hovering’ in hopes that a tanker would soon arrive with a new shipment. This happened over and over again, many false alarms. My husband’s car gets excellent mileage, but even at ¾ tank he continued to attempt to stop and get gas at any available station because to run out would place us in dire straits.

At the Fairfield Inn, we were in evacuee mode, running light and planning for the next day’s trip. However, we went to dinner near The Villages, a massive retiree community, and these folks were out partying and having a good time. This hurricane was not being dealt with lightly, so there was little talk of ‘Hurricane Parties’ as in the past, but there was little apparent plan for departure in The Villages.

 

Friday Morning

I woke up around 4:30 or 5 and started searching for hotels further west than our Perry FL reservation. There was concern about where within the exodus one might fall on the highway, as traffic was bad and availability of gas was worse. Getting ahead of a given wave of drivers would be good.

I googled, and scraped, and massaged, and manipulated websites and called directly to Bed & Breakfasts, Inns and any odd residence-for-rent I could find. I was able to secure a houseboat on a lake: I’m completely serious. (When I gave her my credit card info, I asked the kind woman “Is it tied up to a dock at least?” I then secured for the next three nights, a cabin on an organic, sustainable, kind-kill vegetable and cattle farm on the border of Georgia and Alabama. At the time, we thought western Georgia was safe grounds, well west of the original northward path of the storm.

By 6:30am or so, from down in the hotel lobby, I started texting my sleepy men upstairs regarding room options and the likelihood of houseboats and farm cabins in our future. I asked for help massaging The Google as I’d learned from several hotels that they’d soon be releasing rooms in Tallahassee based on the USF game’s cancelation. Steve then took the advice of our clever 12-year old son, Luke, and used Trivago et voila: a room appeared in Tallahassee.

I spoke with many kind, concerned owners and innkeepers in my search for rooms. Many called back or texted back in response to voicemails I left. So many beautiful people. Good always wins over evil of any kind. Humanity is good. Let me give a shout out to some of the great places I found in my creative searches for space.

Let me give a shout out to a few memorable locations I encountered:

  • White Dog Plantation – Classic old Florida B&B and wedding site. Looks adorable and in different weather, definitely worth a visit.
  • Trails End Resort – Where we put our credit card down on a houseboat, but there are land-based accommodations around the Georgia camp as well.
  • White Oak Pastures – First of all, just call their phone number simply to hear their phone tree welcoming message. You will fall under a spell of this man’s charm. This is a cattle & produce farm unlike any other I know. They are sustainable, organic, kind-kill and transparent. You can stay in cabins on the farm to learn about their work and observe all the in’s and outs. There is a general store and a restaurant. I can’t imagine what it’s like to eat today what you petted yesterday, but that is the truth of it even when you buy from your local grocery store; but you’d like use meat differently if you had to look your meal in the eyes every day. I have a book at home … have forgotten author/title… but a researcher studied native recipes of the healthies cultures around the world and one of her findings was that meat is not disallowed, but it is not seen as the main or majority on the plate; it’s rather more of a spice, accent or topping to a larger based of veggies in beneficial spices. This farm looks lovely. They sell and ship their goods and I absolutely hope to rebook a visit there in the future.

 

If I recall more places we came across, permit me to add/edit. For now, those are a few that piqued my interest.

Also, a shout out to Gloria at the Lady Lake Fairfield Inn who single-handedly took care of residents keeping chatter lively, refilling coffees and creating connection upon connection. I could imagine that perhaps Corporate said “keep them happy so there are no rumbles in the lobby!” but it seemed simply her nature to chat and be friendly. Things were obviously chaotic; all the hotels in which we stayed were allowing dogs for evacuees, so imagine a lobby full of TV chatter, adult chatter, children squealing and dogs dogging. It was busy. Gloria’s boss, Dave, was also entertaining the masses by showing people how to charge your cell phone with a 9-volt battery and a metal spring you can pull out of a pen. What good people. We will see how Lady Lake fares in the storm. Wishing them well.

The trip from the Ocala area to Tallahassee was an End-of-Days-like experience. The first bit of the trip was self-induced pain; slow local driving to the nearest Starbucks because my husband can’t drive, or breath, without a Starbucks at the ready. (Sigh) But there was an unusual frenzy and much congestion and packed lines of cars at any working gas station, and an odd quiet at closed gas stations.

We drove west to get to 19, a more local road, per advice of our neighbors. Things went well for a while, but the more the road merged with other traffic, it was clear, there were more cars than surface space on the roads. Gridlock. And amongst the gridlock, a frenzy around gas stations, often despite no gas. There was always chatter about when the next truck was due to come. I was very thankful we chose to take our energy efficient car. But we started to look carefully at our ‘miles ‘til empty’ number. And at the many points where we sat for long periods perfectly still on the road, we held our breath. In some cases, backed up roads were due to cars lining up at gas stations into the road. So that a mile back no one knew who was stopped for what. Steve and I determine it was best to scout things out before blindly sitting in queue either unnecessarily, or in hopes of getting gas when there was none. In one case, there was only diesel fuel. In another example, I got out of the car and ran about a block or more ahead to check out the gas station. I asked “are you actually getting gas?” They said yes…but… and I looked at the hand-written note taped to the machine. It was cash up front, maximum $20, and 87 octane only. Our car requires 93 octane (we later called a dealer who indicated we could go more than a few tanks on 87 without damaging the car, but at the time, we skipped past 87 octane petrol).

We eventually decided it was Tallahassee or bust. Stop checking for gas, just move on. For that last stretch Steve watch for gas stations on the right side as an easy stop. All he saw were gas stations on the left-hand side. So, can you guess the song for that drive? >>> Pass the Dutchie on the Left-hand Side

Tallahassee: We and our sore rear ends were overjoyed to reach Tallahassee. The kids and I followed our baggage up to the room. Steve ventured out to reload the car on gas, with fresh gas station recommendations from the hotel staff. They came up empty, gas gone. Steve then found a station with 15-20 cars circling like sharks. He went in and parked at a pump. All were empty. He chatted up the staff a bit; they were locking up and preparing to leave but Steve noticed some shifting of plans. He gleaned a bit of useful information… that their boss was soon to arrive to open back up… Steve befriended one of the workers and asked for any sign, a wink, a hand, if a gas tank was coming. The guy eventually gave Steve a wink and a high-five five-minute signal. Steve patiently waited for the tanker carrying the lifeblood for our horseless carriage.

In parallel I was calling about to get verification if/that it was ok to put 87 octane fuel in a 93 octane Audi. Our Florida car dealership was not accessible, so I was calling random European dealer in the Tallahassee area. It was just around 6pm on a Friday and so both the chaos of the storm and shortages as well as the hour of the day made it hard to get answers. One fellow, John, who was to be leaving his shop, was gallant and helpful in both attempting to connect me with his soon-to-return-to-work-on-Friday-night boss as well as by doing research for me. I eventually called our old old Audi store in Palo Alto and they confirmed quite a few tanks of 87 octane could be handled.

I called my husband to let him know 87 was ok; turned out he’d already left that station, having found the freshly-delivered gas was 87 only, and on a side road nearer downtown Tallahassee, he’d found a Marathon with 93 octane. Yay, a full tank of gas means we can sleep well tonight and head off in the morning.

Friday at the hotel after a long drive and clever, valiant efforts to secure gas, Steve’s work was still not done, as several business calls that day had to be deferred due to dead zones west of 75 and into the Panhandle. I, in addition to my gas scouting runs through traffic, constant navigation and path optimization, I also had the job of playing secretary and phone-dialer for Steve’s full schedule of business. The kids had headsets or earbuds on their ears so the rest of the car was a business zone. Courtesy window-open anyone!?!) Unfortunately, in a handful of cases we had zero bars or dots on our phones and thus had to reschedule calls for that evening, or future dates.

Steve was keen on sushi for dinner, and magically, there was a California-quality sushi restaurant next to our hotel: Jasmine Café. Lovely service, lovely food, and it was refreshing to say “ikura” or “sake” and be understood, vs. forced to give the English terms. It was odd to leave the restaurant and see a massive crowd of loud, drunk college dudes and scantily-clad (bandeau tops, barely-there shorts) USF coeds partying in the street outside a bar. I always see the past, present and future in everything, especially now. I just think, what if they are partying now, and then in days they are fighting for their lives because Irma’s PMS got worse and she decided to rage on Tallahassee. I hope not, but I’m constantly playing before and after videos in my head.

Speaking of ‘before’ videos, here is a clip of a local guitar troupe playing at the Tallahassee Saturday morning market across from our hotel and near the state capitol building.

LISTEN TO MY RECORDING OF THEIR SONG: HARVEST MOON

“…just like children sleepin’ – we could dream this night away. But there’s a full moon risin’, let’s go dancin’ in the light. We know where the music’s playin’. Let’s go out and feel the night.”

What sign was there that the morning was not normal, however? STARBUCKS was closed and boarded up. STARBUCKS.

In Tallahassee, I was again up very early: 4:30 or 5am (but could not follow my intended Miracle Morning agenda). I was working on our next location at socializing a bit with others in the lobby near the Starbucks counter. We’d booked that cabin on a farm, White Oaks Pastures. I was genuinely interested in the place, but it was in Bluffton Georgia, now a new target of the storm, with up to 50 mile/hour winds predicted. No longer safe to stay. So, Steve did some magic with The Google machine and related tools and secured the CLOSEST room available: Birmingham, Alabama. We had originally thought Birmingham was insanely far – 600 miles from home. But with the growing evidence that this storm would bring potential devastation or long-term damage to our beloved St. Petersburg, we realized, we’re not searching for a one-night stop-over. We’re searching for a temporary home, where we can plug in, unpack and operate. That’s a shift. Sit there with that. A big shift when you’re suddenly not focused on how quickly you can get home, how quickly school will resume. There is a shift when the concept of being absent from school is no longer black or white, but more grey, optional, creative, ‘if you can’… or ‘don’t come back… yet.’

SONG: Don’t. Stop. Till Brooklyn (Birmingham!)

So, we booked our hotel in Birmingham, Alabama for 1 week: Saturday – Saturday. It would give us space and Wi-Fi. In addition, my sons normally train at the Gills YMCA in St. Petersburg, Florida – a WONDERFUL place where people from all over St. Petersburg come to get healthy, including pro sportsmen and hard-core ballers. But our family membership enables my boys to work out and play ball at a YMCA in Birmingham. This will be their oxygen until we get back to St. Petersburg. It will also relieve stress they have communicated over any physical or skills-based atrophy that might result from too much idle time.

 SONG FOR THIS SILVER LINING: It’s fun to stay at the YMCA!

Saturday, we complete the drive from Tallahassee to Birmingham, talking with friends and texting…some are in northern FL, some in New Jersey, or driving west toward, potentially, Arizona, and Wisconsin. Some bumper to bumper on that drive. Passing through Dothan we stopped so Steve could get another Starbucks. It was inside a B&N. He went in, and the woman in front of him and her daughter paid for his drink. No reason, just did it. He was thankful and confused and got into a bit of a conversation. He explained briefly our situation. She said confidently “I lost my home in January. Leveled, gone. You’ll do fine. You just go on.” Steve said he kind of needed that. You cannot control much, but angels will be dropped about your world when and where you really need them. Dothan’s angel, thank you.

Our Birmingham hotel is full of evacuees and fully booked. Two women from Cape Coral, a couple from Tampa, a guy from Chicago who’d just started a job in Miami… and more.

Good driving tunes:

 

In all this, there is a power far greater than anyone’s chosen greater power: Mother Nature. She’s got all the power. So, walking to dinner or such, we keep coming across more songs of the day:

 

I believe in swallowing reality whole. The news sounds bad, like very bad. The Eye of the Tiger is targeting my house. But I still feel somehow preserved inside, because my family and I know we are more than a house, and we take all the actions we can to preserve it, and us, and then we can only call upon ourselves for our next real action, not for conjuring imaginary situations.

So here are a few more songs that can help:

 

And as I’m a logic-leaning type, here is the analysis I did to help me assess whether there was reason to believe my house would be standing upon our return:

  • My house: Built 2002, was still standing as of my last check in our security cameras, which means it survived all the hurricanes in FL since 2002.
  • Charley: Cat 4, 2004, 130 knots at landfall, landfall: Ft. Myers area ***Possible comp.
  • Jeanne: Cat 3, 2004, 105 knots, landfall: West Palm Beach – Not a direct comp
  • Ivan: Cat 3, 2004, 105, Gulf Shores Alabama & loop back thru So-Flo – Not a direct comp
  • Dennis the Menace: Cat 3, 2005, 105 knots, Panhandle – Not a direct comp
  • Wilma: Cat 3, 2005, 105, Marco Island – Possible Comp and an equally un-hurricane sounding name to Irma

 

Until power goes out, I’m watching through a security camera out my kitchen window to the lanai.

Light Breeze Noon Sunday

Slightly Stormy Sunday Early Evening

 

Some short bite-sized thoughts:

  • When you see emails titled “Taking Refuge from the Storm” one would normally assume it’s a metaphor for emotional or mental storm wrangling. But we are receiving legitimate city emails titled as such.
  • I’ve had the practical thought that this will be a moment where home builders’ names become either gold or mud.
  • For a while during our drive I nerdily read out loud the history of the St. Petersburg pier and learned the word ‘trestle.’ So, 20 points for Gryffindor that day.
  • Met a guy in Tallahassee who’d been through Andrew. He said yeah, the storm the surge the destruction, whatever, that passes. The BIG issue is the ANIMALS. Animals and snakes break through from the zoo. He said for weeks during Andrew he was dodging aggressive monkeys and… well you KNOW what happened to the Python population in Florida. They went underground and proliferated.
  • The same guy shared that he was hoping to make it to Biloxi so he can gamble, but he was still trying find a room. He said he’d normally have brought his sister, as she’s the big gambler in the family, but she was stuck out in the ocean. She’d gone on a small private yacht trip just prior to the announcement of Irma; she was shooting for a short round-trip out to some islands, but the storm forced her not back to Palm Beach, but rather south to Mexico area, and then south and east I believe he said, because Jose was causing issues, and so she’s perpetually stuck playing keep away from hurricanes.

 

SONGS THAT BRINGS TO MIND: Kingston Trio: The man who never returned and Yellow Polka Dot Bikini

Gas stations became social watering holes with strangers chatting each other up unabashedly, asking where you were coming from, where you were going, how it was when you last got gas, how you found a hotel etc. ANOTHER SONG: Cotton-eyed Joe

It is always good to recognize your inner storm and name it (but not Irma). My husband, my sons and I have spent much time talking about our feelings. And as a group of four, we have to do a lot of communicating and pre-ambling so as not to get into a reactionary cycle, but to speak thoughtfully, even when urgently ‘grabbing’ available hotel rooms and gas stations etc. We’ve done great. Both kids are legitimately worried, about our home, our school, our life, and the people who remain closer to home. These friends are our life, and we don’t leave them simply by driving away. So, we’ve made a point to discuss how words, jokes, or even predictions of problems or even solutions, might be all too soon for others in the room. Even drivers, trying their best, are clearly a bit on edge or at least tired. So, we’ve had to say “yes that dumbass driver just did something crazy, but let’s remember their mind is racing and they may have just gotten some sort of very bad news, so for everyone, in our family and outside our family, we give a ‘by.’ I again am proud to have two teen boys who can say “I feel X, I feel Y, it’s ok, I can handle Z, but I have a need too, so can we fit that need in later today?” This is all one can ask, is compassionately communicating feelings and needs so we can fit everyone’s needs in and be kind to each other while uncertainty haunts us like a ghost in a closet.

If there is anything I’m glad we packed, beside the 3 diamond rings jammed onto two fingers, and beside our critical documentation, … it is our mindfulness and self-compassion. These are superpowers that will help us navigate anything. We cannot think we are the first or last to experience this and we can remain connected to all others who have had tragedy hit. Our expectations may not be met, we may be disappointed with the outcomes of this storm, but We Are Family, and, I believe, the rest is still unwritten. And by the way, some optimistic Floridians are having hurricane parties, so it makes just as much sense to take a drink of optimism along with my large plate of realism.

The Rest is Still Unwritten, Natasha Bedingfield

Staring at the blank page before you, open up the dirty window

Let the sun illuminate the words that you could not find

Reaching for something in the distance, so close you can almost taste it

Release your inhibitions, feel the rain on your skin

Drench yourself in words unspoken

Live your life with arms wide open

Today is where your book begins, the rest is still unwritten…

 

Click the image below to scroll through clips of our exodus. 

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