Frankenstorm, Revisited

After Hurricane Irma

One year after writing about how a monster storm might affect Sarasota, Robert Bowden feared his story would come true.

By Robert Bowden October 30, 2017 Published in the November 2017 issue of Sarasota Magazine

"Sarasota would be unrecognizable after Hurricane Irma. Many would die. I could die, and a wise choice would be to join the hundreds of thousands fleeing in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-75 or I-95."

That sums up the message we all heard from weather authorities and our governor as powerful Category 5 Hurricane Irma moved through the Florida Straits before an expected turn would bring it into Florida. A huge storm surge would inundate both coasts. The models agreed. We were doomed to death and destruction.

Irma could be much like the Frankenstorm I wrote about in the October 2016 issue of Sarasota Magazine. That story imagined what a “Gray Swan” storm, a mega-monster with winds of more than 200 mph, which some scientists believe rising sea temperatures could help create, would do to our city. A catastrophe almost beyond belief. Frankly, I was frightened.

I’ve experienced many hurricanes, and I decided to face the storm here in my house, which is built to modern standards and near I-75, outside of any flood zone. I’d try to cope as needs arose. I’d protect my family and dog.

What I didn’t anticipate is others deciding to shelter in my house: my son, his wife, their three children (one an infant), their two dogs, a mother-in-law and her 96-year-old mother, who uses oxygen; my wife’s older sister and her husband, who has limited mobility now and depends on a sleep apnea device to sleep.

Twelve people and three dogs crowded into my house as winds picked up.

We had carefully bought the recommended three-day supply of food and water. For two. For one dog.

On the Sunday of landfall, we gathered around the large-screen TV in the living room as Irma first threatened the Florida east coast, then the middle of the state, and, finally, our west coast. Irma seemed to be following the track of Hurricane Donna in 1960, a Category 4 hurricane that came ashore just south of Fort Myers, where I lived at the time. Same date: Sept. 10.

But Irma was so large that no part of Florida would be spared. So large that damage would continue well into Georgia. So large that fleeing refugees from South Florida would find themselves zigging and zagging from place to place in an attempt to avoid Irma’s impacts.

An app on my smartphone displayed Irma’s eye Sunday as seen by radar. I watched it progress across the Straits and over the Keys with its destructive winds. Our worst winds, the app told me, would occur in darkness, between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.

Early risers went to bed. I’m not one of those. I listened as gusting winds created a whistle outside the window where my laptop computer is located. Stronger and stronger the winds blew. Darkness blinded me to what Irma was doing. I could only hear the hiss and howl of winds near hurricane strength.

But I did not hear sounds of destruction, as I had during Hurricane Charley in 2004. I did not hear debris striking my house. No sounds of trees snapping. Sounds I most assuredly did not want to hear.

At 12:28 a.m., sounds inside my house stopped. Power went out.

The breathing mask that pressurizes air for sleep apnea victims shut off. The oxygen unit pumping needed oxygen for the 96-year-old asleep in my living room stopped.

The two spent the remainder of the dark hours sitting up.

When power goes out, it can be temporary. Or lengthy. Hurricane Charley left my Port Charlotte home without electricity for 14 days—14 stressful, sweltering August days. How long would my Sarasota home be down? I had no way of knowing.

We opened windows, but the air was humid and hot. Nights to come were spent without covers. Sleep was fitful. And the medically needy sat in living room chairs, breathing through open mouths.

The day after landfall, I pulled out a generator last used after Charley. Miraculously, it cranked. I poured in gasoline I found in cans that came with the house when we bought it this year. The generator could keep a freezer and refrigerator running. That’s all. In days to come, I would fill can after can to keep it running.

Some of our neighbors had generators, too. One was beside a swimming pool less than 30 feet from my open bedroom window. The noise was intolerable, and with no air conditioning, windows could not be shut. I remembered the foam ear plugs in my bedside drawer, squeezed them into my ears and the outside world went silent. Ah, sleep.

Our supplies were insufficient for this full shelter. We had water, but lacked enough nutritious food. Bless Publix. It was first to open. And Der Dutchman opened two days after Irma shut off our power. The whole gang dined there. In fact, numerous restaurants within a mile of my house opened. We ate at a different place each night.

The interior of the house registered 91 degrees each afternoon. The heat took a toll on my personality. I became irritable, grumpy, sullen. I didn’t want to talk and preferred to sit alone, away from the others.

That’s not like me. I’m usually a gregarious talker.

Sweaty clothes began piling up. Paper plates and cups littered the kitchen counters as people sought to reuse them. (“Throw them away; that’s why we got them!” I grumbled.). Garbage cans overflowed.

No one had power back on the Monday and Tuesday following Irma’s passing. My daughter’s house in Centergate was first to come back online. She was sheltering her three daughters plus two college-age boys, and a very old dog. But she had a swimming pool. So the kids in my house paid a visit to the pool house.

My son and his family pulled out the third day and returned to their hot, powerless house. The 96-year-old fell in their bathroom and had to cry out to my son to get back up. Her mobile home had taken a battering in a park where severe damage occurred. Arrangements were made to place her in an assisted living facility. A new forever home. It was done. She had bingo to play each night with new friends. And that place had power back, so air conditioning mitigated some of the stress she had been suffering.

My wife’s sister and her husband live in North Fort Myers, in an area that was underwater from flooding. Roads to their place were impassable. So they stayed five days, until word came that the flooding waters had receded. Our power had just been restored, but their place was still without electricity.

As they left, my wife’s other sister, her son and his wife came to stay with us. None of their Fort Myers’ homes had power—and we now did. Cool air—and I was civil again. Conversation was pleasant and they helped with cleanup, too.

My own sister in Fort Myers was hit the hardest. She cares for 22 dogs in her home, and was without electricity for more than a week. The dogs were miserable. And that made her miserable. She and I had grown up in Fort Myers at a time before widespread residential air conditioning became common. We know hot nights. But we’re old now. And heat is both irritating and dangerous to us.

The news told us eight elderly residents had died in a facility without air conditioning near Miami. Days later, a ninth victim died.

We learned how fragile our electrical grid is. My subdivision has power lines underground. But power failed with a line serving the subdivision. We are not independent here—and we paid the uncomfortable price for that dependence.

Now I have power for my laptop, my smartphone, my tablet. I can write this article. And I check the tropics many times each day. When I went through Hurricane Donna in Fort Myers, I was a kid.

“Someday, Robert, you’ll own a home and a hurricane won’t be fun,” my father said.

Fifty-seven years after Donna, I understand that my dad was right. A hurricane is no fun. Not with lives and property on the line.

The very thought of repeating our Irma experience makes me frantic. Enough. Frankenstorm, this wasn’t. Irmageddon, this wasn’t. This was barely a Category 1 hurricane when it passed east of Sarasota, sparing us extensive damage.

But look what it did. It shut us down. Broke trees. Closed businesses. Made four-way stops at intersections usually controlled by traffic signals. Inconvenienced thousands for days. A piddly hurricane did all this.

Imagine if a Cat 5 hurricane really did make landfall in Sarasota.

People would die. Sarasota would never be the same.

I shudder to think of that Frankenstorm. 

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