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TAMPA, FL — Here’s something I learned last week: When you evacuate your home, you actually cry a little bit.

Didn’t know that.

When we first heard tell of Irma, she was a major concern for SPW but not so much for me personally. After all, we’re here in Tampa Bay, where we’ve been for the last 25 years. I’m not a reactionary and I don’t panic. We’d ridden out countless tropical storms, a handful of minor hurricanes, and even went through one remarkable stretch in 2004 when Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne sailed over our heads in a few short weeks.

No harm, no foul – in fact, in the aftermath, we were positively giddy: Four hurricanes in a row and not so much as a scratch left us in a sunshine state of mind.

Tampa Bay’s positioning on the Gulf Coast has historically been safe haven.

What’s more, a century had passed since a major hurricane hit Tampa head-on. Our positioning on the coast makes us a tough target. The physics of a Gulf of Mexico hurricane create a spin pattern that’s unlikely to snap back our way. And by the time any Atlantic hurricane crosses the state, the time spent over land pretty much sucks the starch out of it.

We were a little bit cocky. Stormproof.

So as Irma swirled and grew and loomed ever more ominously over the Caribbean, we pleaded with family on the East Coast of Florida to pack up and head over. No dice.

As the storm continued to grow, we got a little more worried. By early last week, when Irma looked capable of blocking out the sun more completely than any solar eclipse, there was quiet concern here. People packed grocery and hardware stores and flocked to gas stations, but they did it in a remarkably orderly manner. No panic. No rushing. No hoarding.

As the storm pasted Cuba and bore down on the Keys, we got disturbing news: The odds were increasing that Tampa Bay would be Ground Zero for Irma’s assault.

By Thursday night, that seemed ever-more likely. We started calling the kids – five in all, with spouses, plus her parents – saying we should maybe think about bugging out to stay with family in metro Atlanta.

Good News Come Friday Morning

Then Friday morning we awoke to the good news that it did indeed appear Irma would zig rather than zag and miss us altogether. We could expect some heavy rain and high winds – party weather in the Bay.

Of course we were concerned about our family and friends to the east. We were heartbroken by the devastation to the south. Hell, we were still crying for Texas and Louisiana (and have you heard anybody mention Mexico and its colossal earthquake? Us neither). But – and any honest human being would tell you the same thing – we were downright delighted that we would once again be spared nature’s wrath.

Cocky.

I left about 1:30 that afternoon to pick my wife up at the nursing college where she teaches. She’s recovering from recent shoulder surgery and can’t yet use her arm, so I’ve been playing chauffeur.

I was as happy as I’ve been in ages – funny how relief can do that – and looking forward to a much needed weekend of rest and relaxation. I planned to spend a lot of time sitting out back looking at the lake, maybe strumming a guitar. Figured we could convince some of the kids to come stay with us. Have a big party.

The lake behind my house — Irma’s approach made it seem much less tranquil

Of course we knew we’d be dealing with devastation to our east and likely be called to pitch in. The State of Florida had already dialed my wife as a first responder for duty as an emergency shelter nurse, a job she wanted to perform but could not due to her arm. I knew I’d be reporting grim news from the field. No doubt we’d be involved in relief efforts – you can’t live in a place like Florida and not be ready for that (unless you’re a jackass).

But as we neared home, I was ebullient. Laughing, joking, cranking up the car stereo and singing along. We keep plenty of hurricane supplies on-hand year-round, but I reminded my wife we needed to stop off for more – you know, the good stuff, the fun stuff, the party supplies.

She begged off and asked me to drop her at the house and go myself. That’s code for “Buy all the good stuff we never keep in the house but will want this weekend and bring it home so it’s not my fault.”

Yeah! Ice cream, chips, M&Ms, wine, some nice steaks, maybe some cookies, wine, specialty cheeses, fried chicken, more wine… hey, you gotta be ready for these things.

As I shopped I felt the stress of the week drain away. I hummed along to crappy grocery store music. I chuckled when I saw the empty spots on shelves where bread, water, peanut butter and ice used to be – the work of amateurs and beginners.

By the time I got home, local emergency alerts were flashing on The Weather Channel. Fickle Irma couldn’t make up her mind. She might be eyeballing Tampa Bay again. Over the next hour or two it became clear she was. Our governor was on my television telling me – urging me – to take my family and flee.

‘If You Call 911, No One Will Answer’

I have never heard more chilling words than these from Gov. Rick Scott:

“If you stay, once the storm begins, we will not send first responders. If you call 911, no one will answer.”

Let that last one ring in your head a minute. It’s still ringing in mine. Every 3-year-old knows that if you need help, you dial 911 and get it.

“If you call 911, no one will answer.”

We started calling the kids again with a new urgency. This thing looks really serious. And really big. And really pointing right at us, or near enough to blow us and everything we hold dear far, far away, like Oz-away.

Very late we all agreed we’d sleep on it and evaluate in the morning.

It didn’t look any better. Then it got worse.

“If you call 911, no one will answer.”

Our oldest son and daughter-in-law decided it was go-time for them. Her parents were under mandatory evacuation from St. Pete and with them. We polled the rest of the family, spread around Tampa Bay, got assurances that they were all well-stocked and safe(ish) behind storm shutters and/or provisioned with generators. They’d ride it out.

We were going to Georgia, to Mom’s in Conyers, a half-hour east of Atlanta.

The next few hours were not a blur. They were slow-motion, almost agonizingly so. Adrenalin flowing, that ancient fight-or-flight instinct turned fully to flee but not being able to leave just yet. We weren’t panicked, but things were getting tight. The window was closing.

Decisions You Never Thought You’d Have To Make

Jaws set, we finished the packing we’d already half-started. Then the salvaging got serious. Decisions had to be made that you never thought you’d have to make. To have room for people and their necessary things, instant thumbs ups/thumbs downs get easier. No less painful.

What would you take if you had to flee? Decisions to make — Eric Clapton designed and signed this one

In a wholly First World Problem, with everything else we had to secure, I only had enough suitable space to provide high, protected ground – dry and hopefully collapse-proof(ish) – for two of my several guitars. They’re mostly old, pretty valuable, worth way more to me than that. A couple likely couldn’t be replaced at any cost.

A framed jacket Bruce Springsteen signed while it was on my back at the Fox Theater in Atlanta on my 18th birthday. A shadowbox starring autographed comics and a Spider-Man t-shirt from a magical dinner my then 9-year-old son and I had with Marvel Comics great Stan Lee in San Francisco 20 years ago.

Pictures. Thousands and thousands of pictures that we keep meaning to get around to scanning. No way to put them all above water’s reach.

Look around. Think about what you’d take if you had to take it all in two cars filled with six people, everything they’d need to survive awhile, and one large dog. Now decide and pack it in an hour.

By the way, you also have to do all the last-minute storm prep details you’d have another day to do if you weren’t leaving. Lotta moving parts.

‘Take Anything You Need If It All Goes To Hell’

Years later we were done. Arrangements made with neighbors who were staying – “Watch our place and take anything you need if it all goes to hell.”

I was taking the last load to the car when Rick Scott came on the TV and said, “If you haven’t left yet, don’t.”

We did.

I’ve always felt it disingenuous to pray for favors at the expense of others, whether that’s a promotion or a football win or salvation from disaster. As we strapped in the car, I made an exception. My wife and I held hands and I asked God to protect the people and places we love.

To be fair, I asked Him to protect everyone and everything else, too. I didn’t see how those prayers could be answered. Irma just seemed too big, too strong, too monstrous. Maybe – not to be apocalyptic, but — too meant to be.

The ride to Mom’s was long, tense. For the first time, I really saw the “Evacuation Route” signs along I-75. It dawned on me that I was a real-live refugee. You’ve seen ‘em on TV a million times but…

Ahead on the horizon, above the endless line of traffic, I noticed some interesting cloud movement. Tall thunderheads loomed in the distance, but a much lower ribbon of fat black was flowing quickly to the Southwest, as if a fan was drawing them that way.

Then I realized that’s what Irma was doing. She was that big. Still a day away from Florida and the furthest bands were already above us in the middle of the state. It really does look like what you see on weather maps. It just takes a minute to realize you’re looking up at something you’re used to seeing from a top-down perspective.

That Spot At The Center Of The Screen? Literally My House

We got to Mom’s late. Georgia all the way to metro Atlanta was not in for an easy few days to come, but much better off than Florida. We were up early getting things squared away in a town that had never been under a Tropical Storm Warning in recorded history.

We stayed in constant contact with home. At midnight Sunday we saw something unsettling. That big picture of Irma they had up on the television? The one with the little black dot at the center that was the actual eye of it all, just east of Tampa? Literally my house, my lake. Nothing we could do but wait.

The next morning we had good news out of Florida – our people were safe – and hunkered down to take what Irma had left for Georgia. We’ve been through much worse. We lost power a couple of hours in. It stayed out for the better part of two days. We didn’t care. There was much laughter, much love. Much relief. Still plenty to worry about.

A historic home in Conyers, GA, less than a mile from where we rode it out.

The de-evacuation to Tampa Wednesday took even longer than the escape. By then I felt like a refugee. Too much work, too little sleep, too much stress – I looked like a refugee, too, I could see it in my eyes in the rearview mirror.

Here’s something I learned this week: When you return home after a horrific event and find everyone and everything you love and care about safe and sound and 100% intact while there is devastation all around, you feel guilty.

And grateful. In the end, that one wins out. But the guilt lingers like a wisp of smoke, even as we prepare to jump in and start doing what we can to help those in need. And there are many. If you want to help, too, shoot me an email at chip@southeastproduceweekly.com. There is need enough to go around.

Hurricane Casualties, Present And Past

Incredibly, everything we own was right where we left it. More importantly, the lake out back was right where we left it.

There was one casualty. We have a little bush at the corner of our walkway that my wife has been thinking about getting rid of. It’s pretty, but it’s a bit gangly. That little bush was bent half over, looking for all the world like Irma was still blowing. That thing fought so hard, stood so strong against such an overwhelming force, we decided we pretty much have to keep it. We named it Irma. That’s her in the picture above, the morning after we got home.

Irma The Plant. My wife would murder me if I did not tell you that all the pretty little potted plants and flowers and the solar walkway lanterns and the like were removed ahead of the storm. They’ll be back in short order. We’ll get some stakes or a trellis for Irma.

Over the years, countless people have asked me how I can live in Florida with the constant threat of hurricanes. I have some easy answers. It’s beautiful. It’s wild. It feels free, like you’re always getting away with something – beaches and rivers and lakes and wildlife and barbecuing while others are shoveling snow.

In the 1920s my grandmother and grandfather, Lilybel and Clyde Baxter Carter, left Gainesville, GA and moved to Miami Beach with my great-grandfather, J. Fletcher Carter. They loved everything about it – the weather, the lifestyle, the beaches. In particular, as she told me often in later years, my Granny Carter loved to go out dancing in the Miami Beach hotspots of the Roaring ‘20s. Decades later, she still kept her little flapper purse and hat.

In 1926, the Great Miami Hurricane blew through with such force it literally carved Miami Beach in two.

Clyde and Lilybel were unfazed, even with a baby daughter. Fletcher, not so much. He demanded they return home to Georgia. After much protest, they reluctantly agreed and back to Gainesville they went.

Clyde opened a hardware store on the town square. That’s where they found what was left of him after the center beam collapsed on his head and a fire raged through downtown in the 1936 tornado that took 243 souls at 8:30 on the morning of April 6. Four months later my father was born.

I think I’ll stay right here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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