Irma is closing in on my home state, Florida. That quirky peninsula that’s home to alligators, swamp ass, and cockroaches that fly. I lived in Florida from the day I was born until just a few months ago when we moved to North Carolina.
I ended up in the sunshine state because my parents, my father specifically, was looking for greener pastures and warmer winters. He followed his sister and her husband down from New England and my parents built a life that included raising 6 hellions. I am the youngest hellion.
I didn’t really have any strong feelings about Florida life. It was where I lived, the only home I knew. Frankly, I was always envious of you folks living in states that had a change of seasons. I could have done with less traffic and sweating and mosquitoes, but Florida was where my friends and family were, so it wasn’t ever all that bad.
In 44 years I was lucky to experience many different parts of the state. I spent most of those years in south Florida, but I was married on the west coast. We eloped and were wed on the beach at sunset, saying our vows while unsuspecting tourists did the Sanibel stoop. I’ve been to Disney World more times than I can count. My daughter goes to college in the panhandle, at her father’s alma mater. I’ve even been to Key West and the southernmost point in the U.S.
As I’m watching my friends and family post tales and photos of their preparations for Irma I’m weighed down by an abundance of emotions. Were we still there, we would be alongside them preparing our own home and helping them as they would certainly be helping us. Now, I can only watch the news and pray, offer the occasional joke or words of support. I feel a little helpless.
The feed of my friends’ worries and concerns that I’m scrolling through is also peppered with the occasional disapproving voices. Why would anyone live in Florida? What do they expect? They should have evacuated! They expect to be rescued even though they took the risk to live there.
First of all, if your initial reaction to a monster hurricane is to wag a finger at the people in the line of fire, you are an asshole and you might want to find a hobby or a therapist. Secondly, as to why anyone would want to live there, that’s easy. It’s fucking beautiful.
But it’s more than just the beauty. People stay in the sunshine state because they have jobs and families and friends and the lives they’ve built here. Floridians are often an odd lot, but they plant roots and want to watch their tree grow just like everybody else.
Floridians know the price they pay for these roots. You don’t have to tell them how costly that beauty is. They know how lucky they are to wear flip flops 365 days a year. The dangers that lurk in the waters that surround them do not go unnoticed. Floridians are more than aware of their peninsular vulnerability and they are more prepared for what may come than you could ever imagine.
I’ve been through probably at least a dozen hurricanes, Andrew being the worst. I was about 60 miles from where Andrew made landfall, hunkered down under my dining room table listening to trees in my backyard snap like twigs in the howling, ferocious wind. We lost power for a week after that storm.
The most recent one I went through was Matthew, an Irma-like monster that was at one time predicted to make landfall in the town we were living in. Fortunately, it made a turn at the last minute and skirted the coast rather than hitting it directly. We just happened to get lucky on that one.
We didn’t leave during Matthew because leaving is not that simple. At the time I was still on an oral chemo regimen and pretty weak. I couldn’t really help with preparations and that meant my husband was working up until almost the last minute. That left us with little time to get out of the state. The risk of being stuck in the horde of other evacuees was too great, as was the risk of running out of gas while doing so. Gas shortages are common during hurricanes. To leave without a certainty of being able to fill up would be irresponsible and foolish.
We never expected anyone to babysit us during the storm. We wouldn’t have gone hungry or died of thirst. Not only were we prepared with flashlights and non-perishable food and bottles upon bottles of clean water, so were our neighbors. Had any one of us needed anything, we were just a few steps from someone who was more than happy to help.
The use of a ladder is paid for with an hour or so with the the right drill bit for screwing in wing nuts. You put up his shutters and he’ll make you dinner. I’ll clear off your patio furniture if you help me move my grill. That’s how it goes with Floridians during a hurricane.
When all the preparations are done, everything is safely packed inside the shuttered house, the car is in the garage and there’s nothing left to do but wait it out, that’s when you’ll pour each other a stiff drink and laugh about the absurdity of it all. That’s when bonds are strengthened, where gratitude grows.
If you think that a Floridian deserves what’s coming from Irma simply because they chose to live there then you must expect that Californians deserve to burn in a wildfire or be crushed by debris from a killer quake. You ought to think residents of tornado alley are owed the misfortune of having their homes blown away. Are you also thinking someone should freeze to death in a blizzard, perish in a mudslide, scorch in the desert?
Everyone, everywhere is at risk some way, somehow. The very act of being alive is a risky proposition. So, instead of judging Floridians for living where they do, you should wish you were as bold, as generous, as wonderfully strange. And, if you ever find yourself in times of strife, you should hope you’re lucky enough to be with a Floridian when it happens. Odds are they’ll not only be able to help you get through it, but they’ll also have a great cocktail to hand you and an even better story to tell you when all the work is done.