When I was 11 years old, a record-breaking ice storm swept through the Chicagoland area, including our Indiana city situated on Lake Michigan. Power lines went down, water lines burst and people went without heat, water or access to restock their shelves with food for days. According to a WGN article I found that includes details on the storm, temperatures dropped as low as negative 21 degrees Fahrenheit.
My parents have photos of my brothers and I, wearing several layers of clothing, stocking hats, scarves and mittens inside our not-so-insulated home during the dark days of that storm. I started sleeping under about five blankets during that storm, and still sleep completely up to my neck with extra blankets today. It was COLD and DARK for days. My family hunkered down though, my parents making due somehow as we sat trapped in our house without access to heat or a way to get more food. We talk about it somewhat fondly now, in a “remember that?” sort of way, but I remember it being scary as a kid. Now that I’m a parent, I’m guessing my mom and dad were scared back then too.
Last week marked the second year in a row that my husband, kids and I have been ordered to evacuate our Florida home on a barrier island on the east coast of the state because a hurricane was heading our way. We live in a storm surge area and when wind and storm conditions are bad enough, bridges to the mainland shut down. Both years, the mandatory evacuation notice explicitly warned that if we decided to stay at home during the storm, we may not have access to emergency help or care if needed.
Last year I wrote about our first evacuation during Hurricane Matthew and I must admit, I was much less freaked out this time around. I think a lot of our friends felt the same way this year. Don’t get me wrong – most Floridians take hurricane warnings and evacuation notices seriously (Irma saw six million Floridians fleeing homes for safer ground, the largest in state history). But I wasn’t as scared driving away from my house this time. I wasn’t as worried that we’d come home to nothing. If I’m being honest, I was most worried that we’d be inconvenienced without power (air conditioning) for a few days and that my new lemon tree may not make it through the storm.
We heeded the evacuation notice. We packed up our five kids in our two vehicles and headed inland, two days before the storm was supposed to hit. We holed up in our first hotel for two nights, then moved to another one for two nights (we rode out the storm there), and then when the wind subsided and we learned that we had no access to clean water or electricity at home, we moved to a third hotel and ended up staying there for five days. We came home when our neighbors confirmed that we once again had power at our house.
We had friends and neighbors living in the evacuation zone who, for various reasons, decided to fortify their homes and properties and wait out Irma inside them. They opted to “shelter in” instead of running away. Some friends left initially when the evacuation was ordered, but returned to their homes when the storm shifted west. A memory that many of us on this barrier island have from the Hurricane Matthew evacuation was our inability to get back home when the storm had passed. Numerous safety checks needed to take place, so even when the weather had cleared, we couldn’t get home. Some of our friends who stayed on the island during Hurricane Irma had pets to care for, or elderly parents to look after. Some just wanted the comfort of home in the midst of the massive storm, instead of the artificial comfort of a hotel or shelter. (All of our friends who sheltered in are safe and unharmed.)
Fellow blogger Karyn recently posted about how she opened up her home to family during Hurricane Irma. Her area was not under a mandatory evacuation though Irma-related weather did impact her and her visitors (who are all safe, and sound – even the pets!). She wrote about how she enjoyed her family time, even if the circumstances bringing them all together weren’t ideal. We know other friends and neighbors who did similar things. We had our own friends, and my in-laws two hours south of us, inviting us to their homes when our hurricane evacuation was ordered.
In the end, though, we decided to stick together and move inland from the storm as a small, seven-member family unit and stay in our own space at hotels. There were some important determining factors, like the fact that my husband was required to work in the newsroom of his employer in Orlando during the storm and the fact that my stepkids’ mom was preparing her home in Orlando for the storm and wanted them there with her. She’s a nurse who was pretty sure she wouldn’t get called into work – but depending on need, it was a possibility. All of the parents involved needed to be near each other. She invited us to stay with her, too, but she had several family members (and their pets) who were already planning to crash there. My oldest daughter’s biological family offered to shelter us too – but then the storm looked like it could hit harder there than in Orlando.
As we were packing up to evacuate, to go somewhere, my husband told me that his preference was for our three remaining children and I to go stay with his parents.
“Their house is new. They have hurricane shutters. Their power lines are underground. They will have food and water. They can be extra hands to help with the kids,” he reasoned.
I was worried I couldn’t get to my stepkids easily if I needed to, though, and I also wanted to be as close to my husband as possible for when he was cleared to leave work. So I declined all of those lovely things, despite his objections.
We hadn’t planned to stay in hotels for over a week, of course. The original plan was to simply stay through the storm and head home once we were allowed to do so (we figured that would be around Tuesday). While the hurricane itself shifted west of our living area, tornadoes ripped through parts of our community and outlying storm conditions worsened the damage.
As the days passed, and our electricity was still out and a boil water notice was issued for our area, the idea of leaving the comforts of our reasonably-priced, kid-friendly hotel for a hot, water-less home was unappealing. We had a few people offer generators for us to borrow but neither of us felt comfortable operating one, especially with the kids around (at least 8 people have died following Irma due to carbon monoxide poisoning from generators).
We had other reasons for wanting to stay put at the hotel. My husband and I both rely on the internet to do the majority of our work and in my case, I have colleagues all over the country – most of which were not impacted by Irma at all. I had taken Monday and Tuesday off work but didn’t want to take even more time off. We had all the kids back together by Tuesday so my husband and I took turns taking them to the resort pool, mini golf course and arcade when the other was working on the hotel’s 5G WiFi. A few of the afternoons when the kids were tired from swimming, we all just laid in beds and on couches in the hotel suite, watching TV and eating our leftover hurricane snacks. In the evenings, we’d go back to the pool for awhile then come take showers and get ready for bed.
One night, we pulled out the packs of Uno, Old Maid, Go Fish and Crazy 8s that we’d packed and we played several rounds. My two year old, after being told a few times that she couldn’t play a particular game, grabbed a different deck and started throwing cards at everyone. A pretty massive card fight ensued, with me laughing too hard to worry about eyes getting scratched or faces sustaining paper cuts. As we were putting ALL the cards away, my oldest daughter pulled a hidden Uno card out from her armpit area and admitted she’d been hiding it there all night. It made no sense. We all laughed again, as I looked for the disinfecting wipes.
We ventured out from the hotel a few times to find food. We walked around Disney Springs one afternoon (it’s free to park, peruse, and play with all the Legos at the Lego Store, by the way) and met my stepkids’ mom who was leaving work nearby. My husband and son drove back to our house to assess the damage one afternoon, and I took the four girls to Madame Tussaud’s Orlando wax museum and for ice cream.
Throughout the week, I’d see friends and neighbors posting on Instagram and Facebook about getting by without electricity (no a/c!) and I’d feel like a wimp. My neighbors regularly updated me on our power situation via text (update: still no power) and told me how they were surviving with carefully placed box fans and wine. They knew we were at a hotel – and I didn’t elaborate from my air conditioned perch.
I’d see people from the Keys or the west coast of Florida who sustained damage to their homes posting photos and I’d feel guilty watching my kids splash happily in a giant pool. I knew staying in a hotel with power, and a pool, and 5G internet was the stuff of privilege. There were people who needed that space more than us who couldn’t afford it. Numerous times I felt the paradox of thankfulness and annoyance with myself engulf me.
I scoured Facebook for donation pages or any insight into how to best help victims (real victims, not like us) of the storm and I made contributions from our family. I reminded myself that there would be places to help out once we returned home and that if we were there now, I’d be spending all my time trying to keep my brood of cranky, hot kids from killing each other. We were safe. We were happy. We’d been given a little bit of extra time off to spend together as a family, and though the reason behind it was negative, we were moving forward with positivity.
Maybe one of these years, we’ll hunker down behind our hurricane shutters and experience a storm as a family, in the hot dark. Maybe when my kids are grown, they’ll look back on that time, shake their heads and say “Remember that?” Maybe I’ll take our kind friends or family members up on their generosity when they open their homes to us. Maybe my kids will one day tire of hotel pools and Uno and spending time all together like we did these past 10 days. I know those anti-family days are on the horizon. But today, I’m thankful for the unexpected time we got to spend together and for the gift of a home still standing upon our return.
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Tags: family time