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I’ve lived through 30 hurricanes in Florida since moving from Cork

Floridians are usually skeptical about big storms. Irma is different, writes Cathy Tobin

Cathy Tobin with daughter Ciara in Orlando, Florida: ‘We have joined our fellow Floridians in the stealthy preparations for Hurricane Irma.’

Residents of Saint Martin talk about the impact the destructive hurricane Irma has already had on their lives, and their home. Video: New York Times

It has been 24 years since my husband, Tom, and I first moved to Florida from Cork. There has been much to get used to in that time; mosquitos, alligators, American football . . . the sun. but hurricanes are probably my least favorite Floridian feature. Since we arrived, the state has been impacted by more than 30 hurricanes, and countless more tropical storms.

Our most recent dalliance was with Hurricane Matthew last year. In the run-up to Matthew, a national newscaster announced to the people of Florida that if we didn’t evacuate, we’d all die and, for extra dramatic effect, so would all our kids. We lived to tell the tale.

In the wake of Matthew, the running joke on Floridians’ Facebook walls was pictures of overturned lawn furniture captioned with, “Hurricane Matthew 2016 - We Will Rebuild!” We were grateful to be spared but honestly, in a horribly ungrateful way, we also found the whole thing a bit anti-climactic. Huge hurricane hype and little actual damage results in a population that regards incoming hurricanes with a strong degree of skepticism.

The state of Florida is in the track of where Hurricane Irma may make landfall. Photograph: Getty Images)

That’s not to say that we haven’t seen some decent storms in our time here. Charlie, Frances and Jeanne hit us, in trifecta, in 2004, and took out our new minivan, and our electricity. Ten days with three small children and no air-con in August in Florida is not something we’re ever likely to forget. Our street was blockaded by fallen trees, and it took a month for the heaps of debris piled along our little cul-de-sac to be carted away by local government.

Floridians’ usual hurricane skepticism has, no doubt, been affected by Hurricane Harvey, which recently caused such horrible destruction in Texas. Even before Irma was identified as the strongest Atlantic Basin hurricane in recorded history, I have noticed a difference in how my friends and neighbours were viewing its approach.

Irma is as big as the entire state of Texas, and the usual Floridian jaded hurricane bravado has been replaced by stoicism and stealthy preparation. Though the storm isn’t due to hit us in Central Florida until Sunday, northbound traffic is already nightmarish, there are huge lines at petrol stations, grocery stores have been stripped of supplies like bread, water, and canned goods for days now, and generators are nowhere to be found.

Empty bread shelves at a Walmart in Port St. Lucie in Florida on Thursday. Photograph: Jason Henry/The New York Times

Though Orlando is considered one of the safer cities in Florida to weather a hurricane in, a lot of people are getting out of town and heading north. My father, visiting from Cork, flew home four days early, happy to have landed the last available seat on the Aer Lingus flight out of Orlando on Thursday night.

Tom and I are impacted in our jobs. Tom is a lieutenant at a local fire department and he is sure to have some long days ahead of him. As a member of the administration team at a local public Montessori school, I have been communicating furiously with parents and staff about our district’s vacillating closure decisions. We were due to be open on Friday, but Irma’s sudden jog to the west spurred our governor, late Thursday night, to mandate closures on Friday and Monday.

While doing classroom walkthroughs on Thursday, a little kindergartner, noticing my happy countenance, quietly grabbed my hand, and as though telling me the worst news ever, said, “You do know about the hurricane, right?”

I do know about the hurricane. Hurricanes are a strange phenomenon; a potentially deadly threat that you get to see coming at you, slowly. It does seem, at this point, foolish to try to imagine a scenario where we won’t be impacted by it. The question is how badly.

Shoppers wait in line for the arrival of a shipment of water during preparations for the impending arrival of Hurricane Irma. Photograph: Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP

I am not going to panic, though. We have joined our fellow Floridians in the stealthy preparations. The freezer is crammed with zip bags full of water, which we can use to cool food if we lose electricity, and then drink, if we lose tap water. The cupboards are stocked with non-perishables and the Charlie/Frances/Jeanne learning curve means we now have a gas stove, so if the power goes we can still cook. We have candles, matches, flashlights and batteries. We’ll charge the laptops, phones and portable chargers.

All we can do for now is wait and see. If Irma does us damage, in addition to being grateful for our normally easy access to things like gasoline, water, bread and canned goods, we’ll also start appreciating other first world things like clean tap water, electricity, air conditioning, passable roads, garbage collection and such.

If Irma doesn’t hit, or passes us by with little impact, we’ll add to our skepticism, pretend that we weren’t really worried to begin with, scoff at the hysterical newscasters, and share the latest toppled deck chair memes on Facebook. Say a prayer it’s the latter.

Cathy Tobin is originally from Co Cork. She now lives in Orlando, Florida with her husband, Tom, and their three children, Ciara, Aoife and Tomas. She is an assistant principal, blogger and freelance writer.

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