Part 2 – The Wet Badge of Courage — What It’s Like in a Hurricane

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Part 2 – The Wet Badge of Courage — What It’s Like in a Hurricane

By Kelly Dean

Editor’s note: This is part 2 of 2: To read part 1, about the decision whether to evacuate a hurricane or whether to shelter in place – go here

Hurricane survival tips can be found here if you choose not to evacuate a storm.

The Hurricane decision

As a storm approaches, you question yourself over and over about whether your decision to stay is better than the decision to evacuate. Once you choose to stay, your evacuation options become more and more limited as time goes by. It’s a decision best made 48 hours in advance, at the latest. Blowing winds and rain from the outer bands start about 36 hours in advance, while the storm is still about 280 miles away from you. Travelling in this mess is unpleasant, to say the least. Then it moves at a mercurial, merciless 8 to 12 mph pace: good if you’re leaving; bad if you’re staying.

Although, Florida has the best building codes in the country, it doesn’t mean Mother Nature doesn’t have a trick or two, especially when she’s at her angriest. “Mad Mom” is a water-breathing dragon. She has all the weapons she needs for successful storms: warm 88-degree water, lots of wind and plenty of things to throw around.

Also a skilled juggler, she can toss a mean tornado too. Tornadoes can lift big things up, carry them around a few blocks and then drop them anywhere, instead of just pushing things over and smashing them into one another. She’s a versatile and destructive lady.

Hurricane Irma is Mad Mom and I get to meet her.

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The worst

A hurricane rumbles in a low tone like an alien ship in a sci-fi movie. At the same time, it splatters beating rain and wind against the shutters and doors in a deafening, clattering, hellish cacophony. One must sit and listen to it going on outside, even during the early hours, like the end-of-days are approaching. Meanwhile, the lights flicker on and off as Mother Nature winks and teases about what’s in store.

I search the house and garage for family valuables that might be too close to the floor in case of flooding. I lift and move things around, killing time while I mentally rehearse different potential flooding scenarios. Should I raise this another 6 inches? Is that box of books really important to me?

The clattering noise is never-ending, so I turn off my hearing aids. But I can still hear Mad Mom’s tantrum nonetheless.

It’s especially loud in the garage because the garage door is metal. Placing my hands on the door’s aluminium frame, I can feel Mad Mom breath, her lungs literally expanding inward and outward against the door like she’s leaning against my house. This dragon doesn’t breathe fire, she spits water and snaps her teeth while her armor creaks and bends in the wind. The door bows inward to the point of breaking, rumbling from her fat and unsatisfied belly. Mother Nature takes many forms, but Mad Mom the dragon is how she is when she’s angry. This time her name happens to be Irma.

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Being safe is also being blind. I’m sealed inside my house like a tomb. Except for occasional glimpses through shutter cracks and peepholes, vision is extremely limited. The unknown creates its own ominous fear, as I physically feel things hit the house and wonder what the hell it is – and what damage it’s doing. Eventually, the windows fog up, making the shutter cracks even harder to see through.

The storm’s eye-wall finally makes landfall. The “doughnut hole” is still 50 miles away and strengthens back into a category 4, according to my phone app. That’s bad news. It’s coming straight toward me. I’m not expecting a direct eye-wall hit.

At this point, I seriously question my decision to stay. I’m both anxious and angry. The odds that the eye wall will be doing a beeline directly toward me should be unfavorable, given the fact that I pray — every — single — day.

Yet, once I turn out to be wrong, I eventually accept the additional anxiety, take a breath and try to muster some gumption.

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Efforts to open the front door to check the flood water level fail for three reasons: I’m 200-pounds, yet I cannot simply open the door against 110 mph wind. And even if I do, the door can catch the wind and rip it off the hinges. It turns out to be irrelevant anyway.

Later in the storm, I learn that wind blows water into the door’s keyhole and cracks, washing the lubricants out of the locks and seizing it up. Wetness from pelting rain also swells the wooden door and frame, so my front door will neither open nor unlock by mid-storm. I can only peer through the door’s peephole. Fortunately, I have another escape route through a side door. I hope.

I leave the venetian blinds closed in case the windows break to deflect the glass if necessary. Despite my shutters being 1 half-inch of solid wood covering my sealed two-pane storm windows, the force from tufts of wind at 100 mph plus still manage to draft the blinds subtly. Trickles of water still creep around the window seams.

The noise goes on a couple more hours as the storm moves up the coastline, feeding on warm gulf water on one side and the humid Everglades on the other. The still-rising water concerns me at this point. Again, I go through my priority checklist to stay calm. I’m exhausted by then and can hardly stay awake, despite the clattering.

Just then, I hear a loud pop and a flash of light so bright that it lights the entire interior of the house — through only the tiny gaps in the shutters. I know it’s a lightning strike. I know it’s nearby. It takes the power and lights out for good.

I pause and contemplate the next move.

Peering through the front door peephole shows water creeping up my lawn and up the driveway toward my garage. The street is covered by 1 foot of water already, based upon my telltale mailbox. Still, the trees bend sideways in a virtual white-out or gray-out. The rain blows sideways. Dark junk flutters sideways. Everything, everything goes sideways.

I text my neighbor, Josef. “Checking on you folks, Are you still doing ok?”

Frighteningly, he texts back, “It’s bad right now, Keep you posted,” he replies. Yikes.

After what feels like the orchestra’s big crescendo and cymbal crash, a noticeable, gradual calming begins – it seems the “eye” is upon me. Harsh brass and kettle drums give way to woodwinds which give way to bowed strings, long — bowed — strings — then pizzicato plucks.

I wait — still – completely in the dark. I don’t trust this bitch.

Then there’s a deep, long breath. Mad Mom, the dragon, must rest.

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The eye

Clacking rain turns into pattering rain, like paint dripping on a canvas. It’s Jackson Pollock in a pensive mood. Roaring winds turn into Mad Mom’s more subtle, deep, rising breaths — in and out — softer, then louder, then softer again. I step outside and blink repeatedly and try to see.

It feels like intermission to a bad musical, but I don’t get to leave.

The eye isn’t the blue sky I’ve read about. I don’t see stars either. Being at the edge of nightfall, it’s more like Mad Mom is just yawning and taking a stretch, unwilling to change out of her dark funeral mood just yet.

I head for the backyard.

During the semi-calm pause, I check the boat, which is on a trailer in the backyard. The cover is now ripped and there’s a hole in the middle acting as a funnel for the rainwater. The vent, which is completely blown out of the cover, is lying several yards away.

I generally leave some water in the bilge for weight, but I don’t plan on additional rips and holes.

I decide to take the opportunity to open the drain plug and let some water out, then re-plug it when I finish because there’ll be even more rain coming after the eye. It seems rational. I think this surely won’t take long; how much water can there be in a mostly covered boat? Turns out, there can be a lot of water in a mostly covered boat in a storm.

Hurricanes turn counter-clockwise. So winds in the first half come from the north and east. Winds in the second half shift, coming from the south and west. The neighbor’s house to the northeast has been a good wind break for the big trees in the backyard up to this point, not to mention my boat, but there’s no house or wind break from the opposite side. To the south and west, there are only open fields meant for residential housing lots.

While bilge water pours out of the rear drain, the wind gradually switches directions and begins blowing toward the bow of the boat, instead of the rear. At first, it’s subtle, lifting the lighter-weight bow upward an inch or so. I hardly notice it at first.

The bilge water flows downward at first, adding to the already saturated earth and creating an instant puddle. I’m squatting in it, ankle deep. Soon the boat movement intensifies and the bilge water begins blowing onto me in an occasional horizontal direction. I tell it to hurry up and come on. I feel a change coming.

Evidently, the wind comes back as fast as it leaves — quite fast. It’s quickly a gale again. I’m not a meteorologist; I’m not ready. Sprinkles turn into rain, then a torrent — again.

As the gusts grow, the front of the boat starts bucking, and then flipping upward, like on an invisible ocean wave. With the bow in the air like a kite, even 6 inches, the trailer jack no longer contacts the ground to keep it from moving. The trailer and boat start rolling backward into me — knocking me over in the process — repeatedly.

I’m shuffling in a kneeling position, precariously wedged between the boat’s motor and the stern where the drain plug is located. The trailer’s wheels are on either side of the boat. I try to scoot backward, trying to keep pace with the shift while staying out-of-the-way of the wheels.

In one long wind gust, the 2500-pound boat finally rolls over me, pushing me flat on the ground in one long, gliding motion, settling in place atop me like a coffin lid. Lying on my back, looking up at the trailer axle and boat hull in the lightning flashes, my IQ suddenly jumps ten points. I decide to abandon this stupid, harebrained, asinine task and forget the plug all together. Crawling out from under it, I manage to tie the trailer tongue down to the base of a nearby clothesline pole with a dock line. I reposition the wheel chocks to the alternate sides. To hell with it, I think, that’s all I can do.

I head back toward the house, leaning into the wind and rain, staggering in the gusts.

Looking around as the lightning flashes, there are palm fronds, broken lumber, shingles, shutters, trash, leaves, and especially oak and pine limbs scattered all around. Thankfully, those shutters aren’t mine, I think. Although the second act isn’t fully upon me, I can barely stand in the wind.

I see a neighbor’s flashlight beam dancing around in their pool cage behind their house. Without stopping, I shout at him, “Are you guys OK?” But he doesn’t hear me over the howling wind. I keep moving. I have no intention of stopping until I’m back inside.

It’s hard to see anything until the lightning flickers. I only have a flashlight to survey my particular property along the way. I mentally note: The recyclables fence is gone. Some shrubs are gone. About three dozen shingles litter the lawn. Two decorative lanterns are broken. Some tree limbs are down. My water softener cover is missing — and it’s two blocks away, I later find.

Not bad, I think, really.

 

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After the eye

Failing to get a reply from my neighbor, Josef, I text him instead to see if he and his wife are “OK.” Ominously, he texts back “Yes, little damage on house and yard, but can be fixed! How are you!”

I’m concerned for them.

Once I close the door, the second act begins. Mad Mom is awake, has stretched her wings and has taken flight.

As mentioned, the wind and rain are already blowing from the other direction, and they pound the opposite side of the house this time. It’s no more creative, however. The noise is just as annoying; the dark is just as dark. Although, in my gut, it seems somehow less violent this time, or maybe I’m just getting used to it.

“No, it’s weaker on this side,” I say aloud to myself after a while, reassuring myself. I find out later that the storm has recently weakened to a category 2. That’s good because the new wind direction blows from the ocean, which creates the worst storm surge potential. Yet, it’s also bad because it’s not really that much of an improvement. I sit and wait in the dark.

But later, I am thankful.

For days, weather-casters have been warning of three to six feet of storm surge in my area. I pay attention.

Yet after a while, regardless of my personal strength, I simply give out. I have moved everything in my house to a higher level in the past few days. I have installed storm shutters in the heat with help from a wonderful neighbor, Mike, and his volunteer helper, Lex. I have stressed-out looking for gas, food, water and ice, not to mention plywood. I’ve located camping gear, coolers, gas stoves, lanterns and fuel.

But I am worn — and wasted. At this point, I eventually give out.

I wake about three hours later, immediately panicking about the flood water. I’ve fallen asleep with a life jacket in bed with me. I leap up and grab a flashlight and run to the lone-functioning side door to look out at the street water.

Forcing the door open a crack in what seems to be a more manageable wind, I’m relieved to find that water is actually receding, not rising. It’s noticeably different now. I try to reassess, but I can’t.

I’m spent and happy.

I fall back into bed. I’m asleep before my head hits the pillow and remain there, out until morning.

The dragon flies north

Once it’s over, I’m genuinely shell-shocked – dazed and groggy. I think the hard part has surely passed. But that’s debatable. I still have no electricity. Now, I’ve gone from being the Ancient Mariner in the lightning to being a cave man in the dark.

I’ve already bought water, food, gas and ice. I’ve already dug out some camping gear. I’ve already done what I am supposed to do. The hardship shouldn’t last long, or so I think.

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Life without power

After a storm, it’s a monotonous cycle of heat, stink, darkness and boredom.

Like a row of tangled cattails, in some places the streets are littered with downed power lines, leaning poles and damaged trees. My phone, when it works, says there’s a curfew so emergency vehicles and utility linemen can get around easier. So I decide to sit for the day.

On Day One, the breeze still blows and some rain still appears, but thankfully, it’s the coolest day. I’m absolutely beat, so I rest at the house for a while. Later, I check on a few close neighbors on foot. They all say the same thing, “We’ll get through this.”

I go into the house and get a chair off the kitchen stove and put it on the porch. I sit on the porch and gaze dazedly at the street, which is surrounded by puddles, mud and tree limbs.

Just before a storm, neighbors notice strangers driving around the neighborhood — driving slowly. They don’t live here and they don’t appear to be visiting anyone either. We are familiar with our neighbors and we know when someone is local or not. Sometimes they just park and watch the houses. They leave suddenly when a cop or someone approaches them. Some might be enjoying a smoke. That’s true. But it’s unusual how that nicotine desire becomes so much stronger before a serious storm; plus it seizes them well-away from where they actually live. That’s some smoke.

There are those who prey on people during the worst of times. Many victims are elderly. If one leaves some in-demand gas cans, plywood, metal shutters or a generator unattended, it can be gone: an opportune acquisition for a criminal seeking a quick sale.

Two days before the storm, I leave gas cans out on the driveway and forget to lock them in the garage. Someone knocks on the door late at night but doesn’t reply to my answers. My porch is vacant as I peer through the peephole. This happens … one … two … three … separate … times.

I call the cops and have them look around. They fnd nothing.

I ask my neighbor the next day if he is the one knocking. He says “no.”

Thank you for the reminder, bad guys. But stuff is just stuff.

Following a storm, with no air conditioning and no electric fans, I’m sleeping at night with my windows and sometimes, doors wide open. If the windows are open, it can be unnerving knowing I’m so vulnerable to bad people while I sleep. If I close the windows, I suffocate — or worse, bad people assume it’s a snow bird’s house with no electricity for pesky burglar alarms and motion lights.

Everyone gets on edge.

Day Two, there’s almost no wind but plenty of heat and sunshine. I get restless and wonder about what’s going on in the aftermath. How bad is it elsewhere? What are people doing? When do I get power? I grab my chain saw and drive around to see if anyone needs some help with trees and limbs. Most say no, because they’re waiting on the insurance folks or a landlord to show up first.

I’m willing to volunteer my boat to the fire department for animal rescue, but this doesn’t work out. My boat’s electrical circuits are shorted-out from the rainwater and flooding isn’t their “biggest issue” in this area, they say.

So instead, I offer my chain saw talents to the fire department. They say, “No, but thanks anyway,” and dismiss me with a wave.

Later, I run into four utility guys and give them some bottled water. I ask when the power might be on, but they have no answer. I tell them about the lighting strike and point in the general direction from where I saw it hit. They nod and say, “Yeah. Thanks, for the water.”

Volunteerism is not working out for me, it seems.

Day Three, I wonder if that smell is actually me and why I feel sticky rather than wet. I try to wash, but I still get sticky. I can’t go to the beach to swim and I don’t have a pool for a dip, so cooling off is impossible. My bathtub is functioning as my 40-gallon fresh water basin. The septic tank is full of rainwater and starting to gurgle. So I sit in my porch chair and drink some bourbon and sweat .. and sweat.

I get grumpy too. I resent anyone and everyone who isn’t here going through this. Under my breath, I cuss those who are not doing their jobs fast enough.

As long as my shutters stay up, it’s also very, very dark in the house, which doesn’t help my mood. I ask myself, “Shouldn’t I leave my shutters up for the next storm? I know there’s more storms coming, Jose and Maria are right behind, right? I don’t have anybody to help. I’d be stupid to take them down.”

So I take two bottom shutters off and open two windows for air. It gives little light and even less circulation. I regret this as the afternoon heat reaches 92 degrees on Day Three.

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Day Four, still without power, tolerating 90-degree heat and ungodly humidity, I begin nagging about the sky being too blue and the sun being too yellow. I shout to myself, “For the love of Pete, what happened to the freaking breeze? I know utility trucks are skipping my neighborhood, and they’re doing it on purpose! I know it! Why did I give my generator gas away? What was I thinking? I could be happy right now!”

My neighbor takes to stalking the neighborhood in his pickup looking for utility trucks. Once he sees one, he stops them and gives them the riot act about the pole circuit-breakers. He’s only about 5 foot, 2 inches tall but when you’re covered in sweat and spitting anger when you talk, that can be intimidating. Surprisingly, his nagging ultimately works.

I determine later. This man is my bro-hero.

Meanwhile, I’m threadbare. I run out of icy cold perishables on Day Four. My ice is now drinking water and I’m on to my imperishable canned food, which all tastes like chicken or tuna — because it’s all freaking chicken and tuna. This is not like camping. When you camp, you enjoy skinny dipping in the water, riding in a boat, reading on the beach, drinking beer and curling up in a sleeping bag on a chilly night.

But this is summertime in the tropics.

With only about two hours of battery-zapping-cellphone-data-juice available each day, staying up on the news and weather is a bit difficult – and that only works intermittently. I charge my cellphone in the car overnight because it’ll fry in the daytime. People you meet have no more information than you do.

We’re all living out of a similar cave, wandering around outside like zombies with an old worn-out shingle and a dead palm frond in our hand.

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Day Five, the local grocery store gets generator power, yet no air or refrigeration for produce, dairy or meats.

Next to the grocery is a liquor store; I stop and buy beer so I have an excuse to stand in their cooler for 30 minutes. I consider taking my clothes off but I refrain. I don’t know why they have refrigeration and the grocery store doesn’t. I assume it’s because folks value booze more than pork chops at this point. I actually find that perfectly logical. A pork chop still sounds good, though. But there’s still no ice or gas.

Day Six, I stink; I know it; and I’m self-conscious about it. I avoid others and only talk to a homeless guy, named Pat, who rebukes my help.

Bummed, I drink the beer.

A little man fights the dragon

Day Seven, I buy more beer. On the way back, I run into my aforementioned utility-truck-stalking neighbor again. His little red pickup is backed into an area just off the street on a curve. I pull up and ask him how it’s going. Of course, he’s been driving the neighborhood for days looking for utility truck cherry-pickers and noting any damage, hoping to help and encourage them to get the power back on. Today, he’s finally spotted his prey.

Excited and still shirtless, he says he’s seen a truck, and he should be along any minute. “All they have to do is throw that breaker right there. It’s a surge protector.” He says.

OK, I think. He’s been at this for days now. He didn’t mention whether he has technically set up an actual rendezvous with the utility truck driver at that location or not. On a blind corner, it’s possible he plans to simply pull out and block him off when he comes by. I don’t know because I don’t ask.

We discuss a couple of breakers on utility poles in the neighborhood. I encourage and thank him, half-earnestly, not exactly knowing whether someone is going to be arrested that day or not. I then head home with my pitiful beer.

In about 10 minutes, the lights suddenly come on — just like that.

Let’s pause.

Fast forward about two hours later: after I first enjoy my wonderful electricity, I drive a few blocks to this guys house to thank him. He welcomes me inside. It is there that I first see his elderly wife, who’s obviously very ill and barely able to walk across the room without a walker. She’s obviously been in a state of extreme stress for several days, due to the 90 degree heat.

At that moment, I am ashamed for being glib about this smallish man who turns out to be someone of great stature, solely because he isn’t. As I talk to him, he’s so humble, kind and self-effacing — so very tired and so very sweet. He’s been a road warrior for several days running around, driving the neighborhood and ultimately helping hundreds of other people, all out of love for his wife and concern for his neighbors. Most will never know.

He is my hero in all this mess. I choke up thinking about this guy even now. That’s the God-honest truth. So I celebrate alone with the six-pack of beer, only because my neighbor, Rob is his name, is too proud to accept it as a gift of thanks from me.

Meanwhile, the media and the big utility companies are pushing the public relations engine hard, trying to position their well-paid linemen as quasi-first responders and heroes, equivalent to EMTs and cops. EMTs and cops make half as much as linemen, not even considering the overtime, but OK, they’re working hard. That’s great.

Rob is just a bit more “heroic” in my view, and in his neighbors’ view, on this day  — than the lineman.

 

The power is finally restored

And thus it goes for a week without power, or is it longer? I lose track.

Once the power comes on, I now have air conditioning – glorious, wonderful air conditioning – and strange, glowing, magical orbs under which I jump around like an excited, primordial ape-man.

With the air conditioning, there’s now so much humidity in the house that it creates a moist feeling that actually stings the skin. Bed linens are damp and cold — like being folded into a slab of cold porterhouse steak. But I’ll take it. My chair and carpet now smell like a wet pony’s saddle blanket.

I now have a working well pump, water heater and flushable toilets. Giddy, I poop just to try it out.

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The house stands

Fortunately, I lease a concrete home with nice elevation and good drainage, plus I’m a few miles’ distance from the beach. I have a strapped roof, some self-installed plywood storm shutters and sandbags around most doors. These are good defenses against Mad Mom and her storm surge. A second floor would be downright sublime for peace of mind, but I nitpick, being 5 miles inland.

Yet if the dragon does a slight side loop, briefly fueling her rage along the gulf shoreline a bit, that second floor would have been absolutely necessary at a category 4 — even 5 miles inland. That’s what hurricane Charlie does in 2004. At that point, both saltwater and freshwater are just as dangerous.

I have friends in the lower mid-Keys. They have it much worse. Many mid-Keys folks take a direct eye-wall hit at a category 4, on a tiny island, affecting their actual structures, which may or may not be standing or may or may not be full of water, trees and sand. Not all buildings in the keys are newly built to recent code. Some are little more than old historic shacks built with lumber.

By the time Irma gets to me, I’ve received a direct eye-wall hit as a category 3 storm — changing to a category 2. I have endured her outer bands as a category 4 plus as well, of course, but again, I’m also 5 miles inland.

Even the local beaches and islands near me take a severe beating from Irma’s wind and water: Marco Island, Naples Beach, Bonita Beach, Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel Island, Captiva Island and Pine Island.

Some shallow canals in Cape Coral and bays near Sanibel are blown empty of water when Irma rolls in — only to refill on the other side of the eye wall — a feat that hasn’t happened since Hurricane Donna in 1960.

Inland towns like Immokalee, Golden Gate, Lehigh Acres and North Fort Myers are severely damaged by winds and downed power lines. These are the folks who go a month without power.

So the old saying, “location, location, location,” is quite appropriate, even in a pejorative sense. The devil lives in Florida. He likes the climate.

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Conclusions

Pre-planning and threat assessment has worked for me in every storm I’ve faced thus far. And I know I’ve been lucky — and a bit cocky too. I’ve seen her defeat good planning on a bad day.

In third-world countries, they don’t cherish all the stuff we tend to whine about. But in the days following a hurricane, it’s all third-world stuff: clearing debris, going half-naked, cooking over a flame, sweltering in the heat, brushing in the dark, bathing with a cup of water, and peeing behind a good, sturdy southern oak in the backyard.

So once you make the decision to stay, know that a storm’s track and ferocity can change. You are always second-guessing your decision. Once the storm starts, you can’t go anywhere anyway. Oddly, you simply become content with the prospect of wading in 3 feet of flood water among your belongings — hopefully you’re safe — and that’s as good as it gets.

“Your belongings will be glad you stayed for them,” a relative chides me.

Northern friends and relatives treat you like a drama queen for staying; tacitly implying that you’re just seeking attention through bravado. Actually, it’s more about the “stuff” – and how much that stuff means to you in the “great balance of things.”

The more family you have, the less stuff means to you. The less family you have, the more stuff means to you. I’m sadly in that latter stuff category. Without my stuff, I have almost nothing at all.

Yet those who evacuate feel just as guilty for leaving. I assure you. They come back days later and set up social media accounts to collect supplies for the needy, like they’d been here the whole time. And they don’t bring the subject up in casual conversation.

So if you prepare, and God smiles on you, maybe there’s no despair. Maybe your floors are dry and your home is intact. If the storm weakens or veers off in another direction, maybe you just get some heavy wind and rain.

You pray for this — a lot.

And even if it’s quite a bit worse, hopefully your belongings are the only things floating around in your house — and not you. That’s what it’s like hanging around for a hurricane. Yes, I would do it again, if I really, really had to. I hope I don’t have to do it again.

It’s the Wet Badge of Courage. Pardon the pun.

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