I always thought it would be easy to decide what to do if a hurricane was headed my way. Of course I would leave, without hesitation. Who would be foolish enough to stay? Time and time again, I’d watched stories on the Weather Channel of people who didn’t get out, who’d waited for some official to give an evacuation order that never came, who’d waited until there was no way to leave or nowhere left to go. Hadn’t they seen the forecasts themselves? I wouldn’t need anyone to tell me to leave.
A force I never anticipated overcame me four weeks ago as I watched Hurricane Irma roar through the Caribbean. I watched this monster storm, larger than any tropical storm in recent record, churn in my direction, and I thought what do I need to do to prepare my family to ride this out. My first thought was not where to go or when to leave, but rather I want to stay.
I insisted we rush out to buy bottled water, bread, peanut butter, and canned foods. My husband and I started filling bags with ice. We filled our gas tanks and a five-gallon gas can. I convinced him to stand in line at Home Depot with all the others waiting at 5:30 a.m. for the next shipment of plywood. I bought a watertight box to hold all our important documents. I gathered disinfectant wipes, flashlights, and a hand-crank powered radio.
For three years, we’ve lived ten miles from the Gulf of Mexico and two miles from Tampa Bay. My husband convinced me to move here after we’d driven down from Atlanta every summer for a decade to vacation in this area. Not that I needed convincing to leave Atlanta—it was much too far from any major body of water for my liking, though initially I thought I’d prefer to be on the Atlantic coast. But I loved swimming in the calm, warm Gulf water, and my husband sold me on Tampa Bay’s good fortune in rarely being the spot where hurricanes make landfall.
We knew enough to avoid buying any property that required flood insurance and to seek a structure held up by concrete blocks rather than wood beams. Still, I told my husband from the beginning that I’d never risk my kids’ lives by staying here if a hurricane was coming directly for us.
The National Hurricane Center posts updated forecasts every three hours while a storm is named and active, at 5:00, 8:00, 11:00, and 2:00 each a.m. and p.m. Adrenaline stockpiled in the crevices of my body as I absorbed new information on Irma’s wind speed and direction of movement. Every spaghetti plot in the tangled forecast models depicted a possible nightmare for some portion of Florida. My eyelids puffed, my joints ached. This storm was too big to escape.
We boast that our house sits in a non-evacuation zone, because we are elevated 70+ feet above sea level and, therefore, not subject to storm surge. No one would be telling us to leave. We put on a new roof when we bought the house—heavy concrete tiles, supported by thick beams, difficult for most winds to blow off. Our house has one interior hallway we can completely close off and also a large master closet with no windows, space enough for the four of us and our dog to ride out the worst weather. I wanted to stay.
Early forecasts hinted that Irma might either skirt the east coast or make landfall in Miami and then head due north. Hurricane force winds extended 50-60 miles from her center; the middle of Florida is about 150 miles across from the Gulf to the Atlantic. If the storm stayed east, we would be fine. I wanted to stay.
Before we were married, my husband and I had spent a week at a postcard-perfect resort on the Caribbean side of Antigua. We each held our breath as we waited for word of how the island and its sibling Barbuda fared as Irma passed through. Then, the answer came: devastation. But the storm could lose strength when it passed over the larger land mass of Cuba, the meteorologists said. A front from the upper Midwest would swing down and pull Irma north and east, they said. I wanted to stay.
The forecast for a hurricane’s path is called the cone of uncertainty. The cone gets wider every forecast day into the future, because historically the margin of error for predicting where a storm will make landfall has been greater for every day into the future the forecast has been made. Even three days out, meteorologists can’t be sure exactly where a hurricane will land.
Irma was forecast to hit the Tampa Bay area late on Sunday. By the previous Tuesday, five days in advance of the storm, store shelves were empty of water and bread, and gas stations were running low. Hotels all over the state and up into Georgia and Alabama were rapidly becoming booked.
By Wednesday evening, forecasts began to show Irma moving more westward than previously anticipated. Perhaps she would land in the Keys, then travel directly up the center of the state. Our house would be just outside the reach of hurricane force winds, but we might still get very strong gusts. Our windows are original, vintage 1986, single-paned, not at all hurricane rated. And they are large. Most of the backside of our house is glass. There is glass 20 feet up on the front of our house due to the vaulted ceiling. The storm was likely to pass to the east of us, therefore we decided the strongest winds would come from the north and the west. We would focus on protecting those windows. We were only able to get enough plywood to cover a few of them, plus we would need to measure, cut, and install it ourselves, learning as we went.
We started to imagine being inside our house with the windows covered. The storm hitting during the night and the power going out. Wind howling as we crouched together in the hallway with all the doors closed. The bang of a tree falling onto the roof. The dog shaking as she does during every thunderstorm. The kids huddling against us, crying. During dinner Wednesday night, we told them we would decide whether to stay or to go based on the 8:00 p.m. forecast on Thursday. Irma could still go east. I wanted to stay.
I wasn’t stupid. I didn’t want to put my kids’ lives in danger. It wasn’t that I didn’t have evacuating on my mind at all. Friends back in Atlanta said we could stay with them, and I gave them a heads up that we might, in fact, do just that. My husband argued that he didn’t want to deal with the long drive back to our old neighborhood in Georgia, with the kids and dog crammed into the back seat. The traffic would be horrendous, gas would be hard to find, and we’d all be on edge. I countered that, as much as he might want to, he couldn’t will the storm away and he couldn’t hold up our house against the wind. If it was just the two of us, maybe I wouldn’t have even considered leaving, but we had to think about the kids, too. Deep down though, I hoped that the Thursday evening forecast would give us justification to stay.
Thursday night, we all gathered to watch the Weather Channel. Irma’s track had shifted even farther west. Our house potentially would be in the field of strongest winds. On Friday we would prepare to leave, knowing that if the forecast changed over the next 24 hours, we could always unpack our bag and stay. I wanted a reason to stay.
We spent most of the daylight hours on Friday measuring and cutting and installing plywood, and bringing everything loose around the outside of our house inside. I packed one suitcase of clothes and a bag of toiletries for the four of us, and a small bag of necessities for the dog. These, along with some water and food, the box of documents, the flashlights, and a first aid kit, would be everything we’d take. We unplugged everything we could to protect against power surges. We put a few valuable things on high shelves in closets, just in case.
At 8:00 p.m., I turned on the TV, hoping. The forecast for Irma’s location in two days put her smack dab on top of Tampa. The cone of uncertainty was narrowing. At 4:00 a.m., we would leave.
I wanted to stay. In three years, this place had become home. We work and play here. My kids go to school here. We care about people here, and some of them were staying despite the latest forecast. This is the place we chose, a place I’ve fallen in love with, the only place I want to live. I couldn’t risk putting my kids in danger, yet I still wanted to stay. Before we even got on the road, all I could think about was how soon we’d be able to come back home.
We made it to Atlanta and back, and Irma came through on Sunday night as forecast, a bit east of Tampa and much weakened by hours over land, though still a hurricane. Our house stood strong, undamaged. We could have stayed.
And now I get it. I understand why so many don’t evacuate though a hurricane is heading toward them. I understand that, even when time or money or transportation or a place to stay aren’t issues, it’s incredibly difficult to unwillingly leave the place you feel is your home. That even when the people you love most in the world will travel with you, the place you love most still matters.
As I write this, Puerto Rico is largely without power and is short on food, fuel, and potable water after being devastated by Hurricane Maria. The Virgin Islands were also hit hard. Portions of south Florida are recovering from Hurricane Irma, and Houston is recovering from Hurricane Harvey.
Donations to help those most impacted by these storms can be made to the following organizations:
I’m participating in Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge. This is #16 of 52.