Lessons Learned from Irma

by Kassandra Lamb

A week ago, the southeastern U.S. was hit by one of the worst storms ever, Hurricane Irma. It broke all kinds of records and affected multiple states as well as devastating islands in the Caribbean.

And my husband and I were in its path in Florida, as were many of our friends and colleagues. Each of us had to make a series of decisions—ones that would affect our property and/or our safety. Many lessons were learned, some of which can be applied to life in general.

Here are some of those lessons:

1) Hope for the best; prepare for the worst.
Nothing worse than a tropical storm has hit our city in north central Florida since the 1960s. So our residents tend to take it for granted that a true hurricane will never reach us. Everyone took in their lawn furniture and stocked up on bottled water, batteries and canned goods (standard tropical storm prep), but we were initially the only ones in our neighborhood who boarded up our windows. Better safe than sorry is our motto (and we have crappy single-pane windows), but we noticed a certain amount of denial among our neighbors.

Telling yourself that it won’t be that bad is an okay strategy from a mental health standpoint; it will help keep you calm. But from a safety standpoint, it can become dangerous.
pile of necessities

I told myself we would be fine, but I still packed a bag of clothes and toiletries and made a pile of other necessities in one corner of the family room, just in case we needed to evacuate. And I called around and made a reservation for a motel room near Atlanta, back when the storm was slated to go up the east coast.

2) Stay calm and stay informed.
The good thing about hurricanes is that they move relatively slowly. Modern weather prediction techniques can keep us informed of their progress days before they make landfall. The bad thing about hurricanes is that they are fickle. They change course, pick up speed, slow down, strengthen, weaken, and sometimes even go around in circles (as Jose recently did out in the Atlantic).

Like many other important decisions (like who to vote for), the decision about how to respond to a hurricane is not one to be made based solely on emotion, nor is it one that can be made and then forgotten. We need to stay alert for new information that might affect that decision.

This goes against human nature to some extent. Once we’ve made up our minds about something, we tend to defend that position against new input. I’ve talked about this confirmation bias before. It can lead to all kinds of problems, but in the case of an impending hurricane, it can get you killed.

3) We are not in control.
We humans hate feeling out of control. We’ll do just about anything to maintain the illusion of control. But the reality is that Mother Nature is bigger and stronger than mere mortals.

And when she decides to hit us with the mother of all storms, we need to get it that we are not in charge.

Some people opted to stay, even in the most vulnerable sections of the state, out of concern for their property. They wanted to be there in case something happened to their homes, so they could somehow protect their belongings.

I get that feeling.  If I stay, I can somehow control things is the underlying belief.

I almost succumbed to it. What if the roof came off of our 1970s-era house (built before current building codes)?  Water would get in and ruin everything.

Then it dawned on me that my being there would not stop the roof from coming off, and my being there would not stop the rain from coming in. My being there would just get me injured or killed if the roof came off!

4) Belongings aren’t as important as we think they are.
Thinking I might pack up the most valued objects to take with us, I walked around my house and looked at my grandmother’s antique furniture in the living room and my mother’s Japanese tea set in the china cabinet and the jewelry armoire in my bedroom that contains a lifetime of accumulated baubles, many of which hold sentimental as well as monetary value. I didn’t have room for more than a box or two of things, once our suitcases, ourselves and the dog were loaded in our small SUV. Should I forget about all those other things and just grab the photos?

I opted not to try to take anything. I realized none of those things were as important as our lives.

5) Stay flexible.
We’re back to that confirmation bias. We can’t let pride get in the way of changing our minds when facts change. Two days before the storm was to hit, the predicted path was changed from the east coast to the middle of the state (and moving on to Atlanta from there). Although this meant the storm would come right over us, it also meant it would have been on land long enough to have weakened significantly.

We breathed a tentative sigh and decided we could stay. Irma would be nothing worse than a tropical storm when she reached us, and we were more than prepared for that. We canceled the motel room (which was now in the direct path of the storm). But something told me we shouldn’t unpack our bags just yet.

Good thing because during the day on Saturday, the path shifted again to the possibility of the storm coming up the west coast and the prediction for our area was upgraded from tropical storm to Category 1 (still tolerable), and then later to Cat 1 with stronger gusts equivalent to a Cat 2 to 3.

predicted path of Irma

There was no guarantee our roof could withstand that. (See the “M” next to “2 AM Mon.” We are slightly northeast from that M, which stands for Major Hurricane. Ack!!)

At 8:15 p.m. Saturday, we made the decision to leave. All the local shelters were full by then, but we had over thirty-six hours to get far enough north to be out of the worst of it. And if we drove at night, that was doable. (The worst thing one can do in a hurricane is leave at the last minute. If the storm catches you in your car on the road, you may very well be swept away and drowned.)

Because we had already packed, the car was loaded and we were pulling out of our driveway by 9:35. As we had hoped, traffic was light and we made good time. I was surprised that it wasn’t that hard to stay awake. Adrenaline is far superior to caffeine as a stimulant!!

6) Cherish your friends.
From the road, I called my friend in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (that had originally been in the direct path of the storm, but now was not). “Hi. We’re coming to you. Be there for breakfast.”

“Well, okay then,” she said, sounding just a little startled. “I’ll make up the bed in the guest room.”

Afterwards, I realized what a blessing it is to have a friend like that, someone I knew would open her home to us and I didn’t even have to ask. It was okay to just assume we were welcome to come.

Later she told me that her first thought when she hung up the phone was, “Thank God they’re getting out of harm’s way.”

Nurture those kind of friendships. They are far more precious than any antique table or pearl necklace.

7) Don’t waste time on regrets.
When we announced on Facebook the next day that we’d opted to get out, one of my husband’s friends suggested we would feel like fools if it turned out to not be that bad. Hubs’s reaction was, “No, we will feel relieved.”

And we were, because it wasn’t that bad. The storm was a weak Cat 1 by the time it got to our town and the damage was less than was suffered in 2004 in Frances, which was a tropical storm (but a big, slow-moving one that dumped a ton of rain) by the time it got to us.

We had no regrets about leaving, however. We knew it was the best decision we could make with the info we had at the time. And we managed to miss the whole power failure thing. Our electricity was off from Sunday p.m. until Wednesday a.m. We came back Wednesday afternoon. 🙂

Others had perhaps more powerful reasons to feel regret, like the young man who couldn’t convince his mother to leave her trailer home in the Keys. She and the trailer are now gone.

When he was interviewed on TV, he was crying, saying, “Why didn’t I try harder to convince her?” But when the interviewer asked if there was anything he could have said that would have made her leave, he admitted there wasn’t. I hope and pray that he can take that to heart. If there was nothing he could’ve said, trying harder wouldn’t have worked.

Which brings me to the most powerful lesson of all…

8) Sometimes we should do what we might not think is necessary, just to ease the worries of those who love us.
So many of our friends expressed relief when we said we’d evacuated! And we had people we cared about in vulnerable parts of Florida who didn’t evacuate. Thank the good Lord they are okay, but we worried throughout the whole storm.

It isn’t always just about us. Unless we are totally positive that their worries are unfounded, maybe we should listen—and at least consider how they will feel, the regrets they will struggle with, if something bad happens to us.

Because, as I said above, better safe than sorry!

Do any of these lessons resonate for you? Were you or those you love affected by Irma?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

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14 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Irma

  1. Barb Taub

    This is so powerful! And yes–I’m one of those who could only watch the horrifying news stories from afar and worry about you. It was SO good to hear you were safe.

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      Aww, I am so blessed to have friends like you who worry, Barb. And I’m glad I was able to relieve those worries. I don’t think we will be quite so resistant to leaving next time (oh my God, let there not be a next time!)

      People here who did stay said it was so scary with the wind howling and pounding against their houses. My brother said it sounded like all the NFL linebackers at once plowing into the side of his house.

      Reply
  2. Nolan White

    You made me think seriously about the implications of “confirmation bias.” Yes, we do use reports, facts, and reasoning to confirm our preconceived notions, oftentimes to our detriment. Great article. Timely too.

    Reply
  3. Shannon Esposito

    I did the same thing, had a hotel room booked in Atlanta that would take our big dogs. But then when they kept saying it was going up the east coast I canceled it, since we’re on the west coast. Then Friday when it started looking like a direct hit around our area as a cat 4-5, we got in the car at 11 at night and just drove (luckily my hubby’s coworker offered to put us up, dogs and all)… yes, adrenalin is an amazing thing! So many lessons learned from this monster. The number one thing is don’t be complacent… and take the forecast with a heavy dose of be-prepared-anyway.

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      Amen!

      I was so glad you had done that, Shannon, not only because it got you and yours out of danger, but because it gave us the idea to drive at night. Not sure we would have thought of that option otherwise.

      Reply
  4. K.B. Owen

    These are great take-away lessons, Kass, and I’m so glad you guys were safe! (I was another of those relieved folks when I learned you and Shannon were evacuating).

    Pride is a difficult thing. You announce one decision and justify it to everyone, and when you have to revisit that decision, sometimes people get all judge-y or critical. “But I thought you said…” sort of thing. And there are also folks who get their egos wrapped up in a “ride it out” tough-guy mentality as if they are taming the wild frontier or something. Leave the well-deserved tough-guy accolades to the utility workers, first responders, and medical personnel who had to stay and do their jobs, despite the danger.

    Oh, and evacuating made it way easier on all those folks, too.

    Hope you all don’t have to deal with anything like that again for a good, long time.

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      Good point about saving the “tough-guy” (or gal) accolades for those who HAVE to ride it out and then clean up the mess, human and property-wise afterward. Many of them are still working double shifts!

      The extra issue with this storm re: deciding to evacuate or not was the size of it. So many people were affected. There wasn’t enough room on the highway, enough gas for everyone’s cars, enough motel rooms in neighboring states. We had plenty of people from South Florida who evacuated TO our town.

      And we met one poor woman during a rest stop who had evacuated three times, first from her home in Miami to a motel on the west coast, then the motel said to leave so they came further north, then that motel evacuated. She was a bundle of nerves!

      Reply
      1. K.B. Owen

        Yikes! I remember at the time that a big worry was the possibility of being trapped on the highway in the middle of the storm (either because of the traffic backup or because of running out of gas). State officials need to have a better plan in place, such as making a highway one-way, and bringing in gas more proactively. Although I know the gas problem was aggravated by Hurricane Harvey the week before! Ugh, what a mess.

        Reply
        1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

          All things considered, the evacuation wasn’t bad. The reports made it sound worse than it was. Traffic was backed up but moving, even if slowly, so people got to their destinations eventually (often taking twice the normal time!)

          We’ve never had the problem with gas before. Some of it was no doubt due to Harvey closing down some refineries. But I think the sheer volume of people on the roads was the bigger issue. Half the population of Florida evacuated and we are the third biggest state population-wise, I think.

          Leaving at night was definitely the key. The roads were practically deserted and we were able to find gas midway. Of course, next big storm, everyone will be traveling at night. :/

          Reply
  5. Victoria

    I totally agree with this. We opted to stay knowing that evacuating would entail not only taking our kids but also our two big dogs and a pair of “on loan” foster kittens. We reasoned we were out of flooding danger and hedged our bets though not without having bags packed. My biggest takeaway was that other than some photos that could not be replaced everything else really was just “stuff!” Quite a liberating discovery really. We turned out to be safer where we were than anywhere else!

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      So glad you were okay, Victoria. I agree that it was a liberating discovery about the “stuff.” I felt much lighter after that dawned on me. Even the photos…I realized that many of them we now have saved digitally, and truthfully how often do we look at those old photos. And we still have the memories those photos represent.

      Reply

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