Irishwoman in Florida: ‘Our sense of foreboding is increasing’

Hurricane Matthew ‘. . . will kill you’, our state governor earlier announced


Cathy Tobin, who has lived in Florida for more than 20 years, sent this report as Hurricane Matthew approached her home in Orlando last night.

Hurricane season in Florida runs from June 1st to November 30th. Veteran Floridians know that those five months are also silly season for local news and weather shows; the slightest bit of movement off the coast of Africa is likely to lead to pronouncements of impending doom. Usually the cloudy clumps on the weather map disperse or veer off, leaving the TV weather guys crestfallen, and the rest of us chuckling at our own insightfulness in not having been bothered to begin with. Sometimes, however, the pronouncements are accurate.

Hurricane Andrew in 1992 is a prime example of that. Andrew, a category 5 hurricane, hit a year before I moved to Orlando, but my cousin Val ran into it on his honeymoon in South Florida, and described it terms that put hurricanes right at the top of my “things I may not like about living in Florida” list - even beating alligators, mosquitos and snakes.

For the first few years after I moved to Florida from Ireland, I watched every slight swirl in the Atlantic with the exact degree of attention and trepidation that the weather guys wanted me to. Ten years in and I had noticed a definite pattern of dissipation or redirection, leading me to become almost native grade blasé about the whole hurricane thing. Until Charley, that is.

In August 2004, it became clear that one particular swirly mass coming headed towards Florida was not going to fade into oblivion. Veteran Floridians tend to play chicken with hurricanes. Even when the weather guys were yelling, “we really mean it this time”, it was only when the storm was a couple of days out that we started to pay attention. In fact, I went straight from blasé to terrified with no stops in between.

There’s something incredibly surreal about an approaching hurricane. We could see the storm tracking towards us on our TV screens and there was nothing we could really do about it other than stock up on water, canned food, batteries, flash lights, ice and such. The grocery store shelves were ransacked. I remember thinking it was odd how bread was such a hot commodity (people seem compelled to make sandwiches in hurricanes). Alcohol, more understandably, is also a hurricane staple, and hurricane parties are actually a thing.

In 2004, my husband Tom and I had expanded our tribe to include a one-year-old, a three-year-old and a five-year-old. We got as prepared as we could. We brought in outside furniture and anything that might become a projectile. We stocked up on the recommended supplies, filled the cars up with petrol, and reckoned the rest was out of our control. Then Tom had to go to work; he’s a firefighter and is wont to be at work during hurricanes and such. That left me, our three children, my mother, and our friend Colin, taking shelter in our little tree shaded bungalow as the winds picked up.

We watched the TV coverage for as long as we could before huddling into a small interior hallway which we had furbished with a single bed mattress, blankets, flashlights, water and food. Listening to the winds whipping outside, punctuated by the occasional crash and bang, was totally unnerving. Tornadoes were a worry so we tried to notice changes in the stormy concerto; anything that might signal that impending doom we had heard about for so long. The storm seemed to last for hours, but when things finally quieted down, Colin announced that he would venture out to assess the damage. We had heard one particularly painful metallic crunch, and that turned out to have been the swansong of my mini-van, which was discovered to have a large tree directly down its middle. Our cul-de-sac looked like a war zone and a huge pine had fallen across it’s exit, essentially imprisoning us.

The aftermath of the storm was even more traumatic than its visit. The damage to the scenery of our daily backdrop was deeply disturbing. Piles of debris stacked in front of houses sat there for weeks as our utilities companies struggled to meet the need. Worst of all was the fact that damage to the lines left us without electricity for a week. No electricity is a challenge under any circumstances, but in August, in Florida, it was unbearable. My three sweaty babies cried often and emphatically. But little by little, not helped by the subsequent visits of hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, the damage was undone and we scratched our way back to normalcy.

Shockingly, I have since grown blasé again about hurricanes. That’s likely a function of time, but also a probability thing - we hear the names of the storms as they form in the Atlantic or in the Tropics but since the majority of them really do fizzle out, we don’t pay attention. Until now, and Matthew.

As I write we are hours away from meeting the massive Matthew. I gave Matthew the same sparse attention I normally do when a name is first announced. Matthew didn’t fizzle out though, and here I am, 12 years post Charley, sitting in the same little house, waiting for a storm which our state governor earlier announced, “. . . will kill you”. My Weather Channel app sent me a notification a few hours ago which said, “Get Out Now”. Yet, I’m trying to remain optimistic.

We have two cases of water, food, batteries, candles, flashlights and petrol. All the patio furniture is stacked and the basketball hoop is reclined. Like last time, Tom’s at work and Colin will be over soon to spend the night. The toddlers are now teenagers (so deodorant is currently a hurricane staple too). The rain is here now and the trees are starting a slow dance. We will watch the wind pick up and our sense of foreboding will increase as daylight dwindles. We will attend to the TV for as long as it’s safe, or until the power goes out, whichever comes first. We will hole up in our safe space and listen to the harsh notes of the storm playing outside. This time we will have smart phones to keep us informed (for as long as the towers stay standing) and laptops to keep us distracted (for as long as the batteries last).

The TV weather guys won’t get to sleep tonight, and chances are we won’t either. There’s a heaviness around the uncertainty of what this night will bring. Either we’ll be digging out tomorrow or we’ll be wondering what to do with all the sandwiches and batteries. We’ll know soon enough.

Cathy Tobin, originally from Cork, is an assistant principal, blogger and freelance journalist, who has lived in Orlando, Florida for over 20 years.

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