Waiting for Irma – from The Irish Times

I’ll just park this right here:

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

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)
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
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.



Waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for the Hurricane

file-1 (2)

Growing up in Ireland, my only exposure to hurricanes was Chris De Burgh’s song, Waiting for the Hurricane, which, actually, made the whole thing sound rather glamorous. Now that I’ve been living in Florida for 23 years, I can attest that the reality is anything but. Here’s what waiting for a hurricane is – it’s boring.

You heard right. It’s boring. If you’ve never experienced it, it’s hard to imagine. Unlike most catastrophes, which tend to be unexpected, or sudden, hurricanes announce their intention to visit well in advance of their arrival. Irma has left one of the longest calling cards in history. We’ve been watching her track towards us for more than a week, with vacillating dread and optimism. When it was confirmed, a few days ago, that we would likely feel an impact our lives went into hurricane preparation mode.

Being in hurricane preparation mode is something that is difficult to explain. It’s like having a massive heart attack written in your calendar for a weeks’ time, and everyone in a couple hundred miles radius of you is getting one too. And there’s absolutely no way of knowing if it’s really going to happen at all, nor if it does, how bad it’s going to be. Like, we all know death is coming for us eventually, but when a hurricane is tracking towards you it’s like Death is your Uber driver, winding ever closer to your house.

Now think about how that influences your interactions with the people in your daily life. After shutting up our school in advance of the hurricane, my co-workers hugged and said things like, “See you on the other side”! In Cork, where I’m from, it’s not unusual to end an interaction with a nod of the head and a generalized salutation of, “Good luck”. The same salutation is said in Florida when you’re in hurricane preparation mode, but with a bit more of depth of meaning. “Good luck – I hope your house doesn’t get blown away and that all the people in it don’t go flying off too”. “Good luck – I hope we see each other alive again at some time in the future”. “Good luck – may the odds be ever in your favor”. It’s surreal. I’ve taken to saying, “Have a lovely hurricane”, or the slightly less fluid, “May you be minimally impacted”.

There is a list of prescribed things to do when a hurricane is coming your way. You must fill up your gas tank, buy bottled water, canned food, bread, batteries, flashlights and, if you’re flush, a generator. Ironically, medical examiners confirm that, generators tend to kill more people than hurricanes – still, you’re in good shape if you have one. Depending on where you are, or your general level of attention to detail, you may need to board up windows or get sandbags. Everything I’ve just mentioned will become incredibly difficult to buy in the days before the hurricane hits. You’ll spend hours in line for petrol and sandbags, and feel like you’ve won the lottery if you happen to find yourself in a shop that has just had a delivery of bread or water. Bread and water – not normally symbols of good fortune are now the most coveted of commodities. You’ll measure your wealth in them. “Oh, we’ve got eight cases of water; we’ll be fine”, as though the hurricanes will sense the presence of the bottled water stock pile in your house and, acknowledging your superior preparation skills, pass over you.

Hurricane consumerism is a thing. People are financially impacted by a hurricane long before the first leaf flitters down from a tree in their garden. Even after we’ve checked all the boxes on the Must Haves list, we are compelled to wander around shops in the off chance that there’s something we forgot to get. I must have tuna. Canned soup calls to me. E batteries – I don’t even know what they’re for, but I need them. I think my very existence may depend on having baby wipes. I know I forgot something!

There’s also a rule that you must eat all the perishable foods in your house before the storm arrives. There will be no electricity and no garbage collection and you simply don’t want to deal with piles of rotting food in your house. It takes a lot of dedication to get this done, but it must be done.

Generally, we’ll have all the tuna and baby wipes in a full day or two before the storm actually impacts us. The patio furniture will have been secured and we’ll be as ready as we can be. And then what? We sit around watching the news telling us it’s likely we’re all about to die, and we start to get antsy. That’s when pre-hurricane snacking will start. Hurricane snacks are meant to distract us while tornadoes are whirling outside our windows. However, despite being stuffed from all the eggs and cheese we’ve had to eat while doing our due diligence, the waiting and waiting for the hurricane to come leads to snacks being devoured long before the first drop of rain falls.

Beer. They won’t show you that on CNN, but as well as the bread, water and canned goods aisles, the beer aisle will be decimated. I can personally attest to that, partially because a good one eighth of our grocery store’s stock is now stacked on our kitchen floor. Hurricanes are conducive to drinking. So much so, that a standard warning broadcast in Florida when a storm is approaching is not to get too drunk until after the storm. Like, we know you’ll be drunk, but try to hold it together a bit until the worst of the threat of death and destruction has passed.

To summarize, the storm is still a day away and I’m broke and I’m fat. To that injury, add this insult – the pubs will all be closed for the next two days. Last night, shopping and exterior prep all done, I went out with friends to Hurricane prep my liver a little. That’s when we found out that all our favorite local spots will be closed until Tuesday. This is devastating news, especially when it’s not unusual, in the hurricane preparation period, to feel the strong urge to sit in a pub with your friends to discuss how unconcerned you are about the hurricane.

Unconcerned, watching and waiting, but NOT hunkering down. Even though this is something that we are required to do in hurricanes, I think it involves some form of squatting, and I’m definitely not doing that. I am also not going to batten down any hatches.

Nope, none of this is glamorous at all, but Chris De Burgh was right about one thing; “[t]here ain’t no place to hide, waiting for the hurricane”. For now, so, I’ll just sit here, on my kitchen floor, with my beer and my canned soup (darn it – no can opener!), and hope for the best. See you on the other side.