When the weather guessers began predicting that Hurricane Irma would impact the entire state of Florida, we took note. I was most concerned for our friends and acquaintances who live in the Florida Keys. On Monday, September 4th, my manager inquired on my family's plan for Irma storm evacuation. I responded that we would make a decision on evacuation on Thursday as the spaghetti model was at the time inconclusive. In fact it looked like a plate of spaghetti from Carraba's Italian Grill had be dumped on a map of the continental United States, but someone had somehow managed to salvage the meatballs. With the weather guessers continuing to say that even if Saint Petersburg, the Sunshine City, did not take a direct hit, we could see wind gusts over 100 mph, I took them serious.
I remembered when we bought our house the house flipper had installed the bolts and wingnuts it the exterior window frames and cut plywood for each window. I also recalled that he had not labelled them other than the guest bathroom window which is the smallest window in the house and quite obvious which board fits it. We contacted our friends that we had originally planned to hang out with at Disney on Saturday and cancelled. I figured Irma wanted to visit the Happiest Place on Earth worse that we did.
On Wednesday afternoon after work, I elected to dig all those sheets of plywood out and begin the process of elimination of identifying which sheet was drilled and cut for each of the remaining dozen windows. I knew this would be time consuming, so I thought the more time I gave myself the better off we would be. I figured we would need to have the windows boarded up regardless of our evacuation decision. I went for the obvious win first by boarding up the guest bathroom window. and what do you know, it was labelled correctly and fit. I then spent the remaining four hours of sunlight figuring out the four other windows on that side of the house and labelling them accordingly. As I was proceeding with the task at work, I could not help but notice the looks I was receiving from passers by and some neighbors - glares of disdain as if I had forgotten my pants or was wearing a tinfoil hat.
On Thursday, the weather guessers had adjusted their models and were now honing their focus in on the eastern seaboard of the Sunshine state. I announced that we would not be evacuating since the storm's projected path would be 100 miles to our east, but that we would continue with our storm preparations. Thursday, I resumed my game of Which-Window-Does-This-Piece-Of-Plywood-Fit. As I was now working on windows adjacent to the street next to our house, the glares of disdain intensified. I ignored them and continued my work until all of the windows were boarded up with the exception of the front porch window. If we were staying, I wanted to be able to see out of at least one window. I picked up a case of water and began packing the freezer as full of bags of water and jugs of water as possible so that they would freeze and provide a solid blanket of ice around all the food in the freezer.
On Friday, the weather guessers had once again readjusted the projected storm path and were now predicting it would pass between St. Petersburg and Tampa. They were also projecting it would continue due north and their map showed the entire state of Georgia and parts of Alabama in warning areas. We began to hear reports of people evacuating and the highways being jammed. A couple co-workers had spent 4 hours to go 4 miles and had run out of gas and the gas stations were all out of gas. We then began to here reports that there were cars littering the sides of I-75 to our north that had also ran out of gas. We decided that at this point the window of opportunity for evacuation had closed. I dug out emergency candles, coolers, checked flashlight batteries, and picked up an extra bag of charcoal for the grill. We received that all the area gas stations were out of gas and all of the grocery stores and big boxes were sold out of water.
On Saturday morning, I loaded the coolers into White Lightning, my 1970 Chevrolet pickup and ran up to the corner 7-11 store. I bought 6 bags of ice and noted their gas pumps had bags over them and that their shelves were void of bottled water, Cokes, and bread. We took down the American Flag and carried in all of the flowers and plants from the front porch. I tied the front porch glider swing to a corner post with a ratcheting strap and secured the cover on the BBQ grill out back with bungee cords. Saturday evening we went out for dinner and the normally crowded restaurant was half empty. The wait staff announced that they were serving an abbreviated menu. We understood as many had evacuated leaving the restaurant with a limited staff.
Sunday we filled the bathtub up with water. We piled blankets in the hallway and created sleeping pallets. We were watched the storm track on the Weather Channel and watched their reports of the storm's damage to the Florida Keys. A friend of ours was posting Facebook live video feeds from his home in the Keys and it looked devastating. The reports were predicting the storm to reach us between 8:30pm and 9pm. At 7pm the power went out. We lit the emergency candles, donned our headlamps and headed to the hallway. I began reading a book by the infamous Jack Riepe while we waited. Around 8:30pm the winds picked up and the noise level increased. The intensity of the wind noise and the noise of things hitting the sides of the house and the boarded windows continued.
Around 3:30AM on Sunday, I heard a noise which I was almost certain was a tree falling near our house. I donned a raincoat and ventured just out the back door and checked the back yard and side yard. All seemed well. There were a lot of limbs down but nothing significant. I returned inside the house and stepped out on the front porch and surveyed the front yard again finding no significant damage. I stepped off the front porch to check the side yard by the street and to my dismay found a tree had split and half of it lying across the hood of my truck. I ran out to survey the damage and was thrilled to discover all of the truck's windows were still intact. A city policeman in an unmarked car was coming down the street inspecting power lines and homes with a searchlight. He stopped and asked if everyone was OK. I told him we were fine, and thanked him for his service. He continued down the street driving over the curb on the neighbor's side of the street to maneuver around our downed tree. I retreated to the house to get out of the wind and rain.
By 8:30AM on Monday, we had clearing skies and reduced wind. I grabbed my sawzall and a couple batteries and began cutting limbs off my truck. After half an hour or so, I had the limbs cut away from the truck and could find no damage. The remainder of the tree was still lying across the street blocking traffic. I grabbed a cold drink and began taking down some of the plywood over the windows so we could get some air moving through the house. I heard a noise and looked up to see a random man getting out of a pickup that had parked just short of the downed tree. As I rounded the house I saw him retrieve a chainsaw from the bed of his truck. He gave the saw a tug, it fired on first pull, and he began cutting up the fallen tree. I grabbed a set of gloves and began pulling brush out of the street and piling it along the curb. After a few minutes, he shut the saw down. He told me he had been sitting at home bored with no electric and decided the quicker the streets were clear, the sooner the electric company workers could restore power. So he was just driving down the street, stopping at every fallen tree and cutting it up to clear the street. I thanked him for the help, and he headed off for the next one.
One of Allison's co-workers who lives in downtown St. Pete called to check on us. They had not lost power. When they learned of our situation, they began searching for ice. Finding all of the convenient stores still closed and all the grocery stores out of ice, they went to a neighborhood bar with a cooler and the owner sent us a huge amount of ice. We had our freezer packed solid and were not opening it. All of the refrigerator contents had been moved to coolers. So, we drained the melted ice in our coolers and repacked with the fresh ice. They invited us and our two dogs to their home to sit in the AC for a while which we gladly accepted.
Tuesday came and went with no word on power being restored. A friend called and loaned us a generator, so we were able to provide power to the refrigerator/freezer, run some fans,and have some lights. But we didn't have enough capacity to run the AC.
Wednesday we were both expected back at work. I tried working remote by going to a local Starbucks which was open and had power but no internet. I gave up and drove into Tampa. Another of my wife's co-workers invited us and our dogs to their house for dinner and to spend the night. I returned home to protect our belongings and keep the generator running.
Thursday after work, friends arrived with a portable AC unit. We plugged it into the generator and closed the windows for our master bedroom and it began cooling things down quickly. About an hour with the portable AC unit running, I heard the sounds of large trucks. I walked out to see four bucket trucks taking positions along the power lines on our street. All of their vehicles had Missouri license plates. I approached one of the supervisors and shook his hand and thanked them for coming down to help us recover. A few minutes later, they threw a disconnect on the pole and restored the power in our neighborhood. Neighbors came running out of their houses dancing and shouting. Strangers were hugging each other and hugging utility workers and tears flowed.
We were extremely fortunate to only have a tree that fell across the street. A couple weeks later, we had a tree company take the remainder of the tree down. We were fortunate to have power restored after 5 days. And we were very grateful. We learned a lot during the storm and recovery. One of the greatest things we learned was what a great group of friends and neighbors we have. We were blessed to have people checking on us, inviting us to their homes, finding ice for us, loaning us generators and portable AC units, and cutting trees out of the street for us.
We continue to pray for those in the Keys and in Puerto Rico that suffered devastating damage during Irma. And pray their lives are restored.