As the Category 5, Category 4, Category 5, Category 4 Irma came closer and closer to Florida, I was sure it was going to turn. I was sure the hurricane was not going to cross the Keys and the island chain would eventually be cleared of that awful cone projecting the likely path of Irma’s seemingly endlessly glaring eye.
I have lived in South Florida since 1989 and on Plantation Key since 2001, and have never left for safer ground due to the threat of a hurricane. As a younger man, I chose to stay when hurricanes threatened because I was invincible and had less to lose, because leaving was inconvenient and besides, after all the cones and all the warnings I have seen over the course of the last few decades, I had never experienced anything more negative than a few hours loss of power. Besides, staying was always easier and always a little thrilling, too.
Our house on Sioux Street, as far as structures in the Florida Keys go, was better suited than a lot of houses. The little concrete house has a metal roof and sits on relatively high ground in the Indian Mound neighborhood, well away from both the Atlantic Ocean and Florida Bay. It would take significant storm surge to reach the house. I told my wife, repeatedly, “We have a solid house and a new roof. We’ll be fine.”
If we decided to leave, where would we go? Half of South Florida was evacuating and from all reports, traffic was practically impenetrable, and gasoline was in short supply. The Florida peninsula was running out of gas and desperate times make people, in cases, act desperately. Maybe we have watched too many seasons of The Walking Dead, but disasters bring out the best in some people, but not everyone and, at least for us, the only thing scarier than running out of gas somewhere out there on a highway as a hurricane was bearing down, was breaking down on the side of a road.
If we left, we would not be traveling alone; there were two dogs and an incontinent cat to consider. Not that it mattered, in my head we were staying. It would be okay. The hurricane would turn. They always turn. Michelle and I sat on the couch. “We’ll be fine,” I told her. “We’ll be fine. Besides, where would we go?”
By Thursday, Sept. 7, the massive storm was forecast to impact Florida’s east coast. The in-laws had moved to Cape Coral on the west coast back in March. We could go there if we had to and make it on a single tank of gas. “Let’s wait to see what the 11 o’clock update has to say,” I told Michelle. “We will be fine. We will all be together. We’ll be fine.”
The next weather update would be more definitive and the experts with their spaghetti models would come into agreement. Glued to the television screen, I kept waiting for the growing sense of pressure to begin to lift, but it just kept getting heavier. The 11 p.m. update was not reassuring and delivered both a message and a realization. The storm’s expected turn to the north was not happening and that freaking hurricane just kept drifting west. The storm was not turning. “We have to leave,” Michelle told me. “We can’t stay.”
By 4:10 a.m., the wife and I, along with the cat and dogs were packed inside the Jeep. Before pulling out of the driveway, we looked back at our little purple house lit up by the Jeep’s headlights, and wondered what we would see when we returned.
We did not return for 10 days and had been warned to prepare ourselves. We had seen pictures of our community. We knew it was going to be bad and while the streets are still lined with piles of debris, what cannot go unnoticed is that while nature can have a furious temper, looking out at all the trees (those that are still standing), barren just a few weeks ago and now bursting with green leaves, nature is also resilient, as our island chain is resilient, as our communities are resilient, as our people are resilient.
Brad Bertelli is a freelance writer and Upper Keys historian who has written or co-written six books about Keys history, snorkeling, and the Netflix series Bloodline. His column, Notes on Keys History, appears biweekly in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.