Friday, January 29, 2010

Straining and Draining...Seriously?

Watching the footage of the Haiti earthquake disaster, I'm reminded of our adventures with natural disasters while living in Florida. Hardly a good comparison as our experience was much, much less devastating than what Haiti is experiencing.

Adam and I purchased our first house in the spring of 2004 when we were 25. We were new homeowners, new to Florida and definitely new to hurricanes. We had no idea what the next year would hold for us. With no children and teaching 7th grade at a middle school just around the corner from our house, we had tons of time to work on the little house we purchased. Evenings, weekends and long school breaks were spent eating Hungry Howie's pizza and wings, listening to Damien Rice, Howie Day, Indigo Girls and Guster CD's while we refinished wood floors, gutted a bathroom, built a deck and painted.

Our first house (after all the renovations) - Tampa, FL

Four months after we purchased this cute little Tampa starter 3 bedroom house, we entered into hurricane season. Charley was the first to threaten us. Although it looked to be a very dangerous hurricane, we decided not to evacuate. Instead, we prepared to hunker down and ride out the storm.

Five or six days from landfall, the local stations and disaster relief organizations began warning people to make preparations. Did we listen? NO! We chose to wait until the day before the storm hit to get non-perishable food, buy plywood to board up the windows and fill sandbags. We waited in line for hours and hours at Home Depot for plywood and cut it later that night in the dark. I went to the grocery store while Adam and our friend Rey waited in line at Home Depot with a flask of bourbon. We didn't make it to the sandbag filling station until the outer bands of the hurricane hit land. In the pouring down rain, we filled enough sandbags to keep water out of our garage.

And then we waited...At this point, a pending hurricane was fun, exciting and an opportunity to have a hurricane party with friends. Lucky for us, Charley took a last minute turn just south of Tampa and hit the Punta Gorda area quite hard but we were virtually untouched with nothing more than heavy rain and considerable winds. We unboarded the windows, stacked the sandbags for another day and went along with our normal lives.

Only two weeks later, Hurricane Frances made her way toward Florida. Once again, we boarded up the windows, placed sandbags in vulnerable areas, bought non-perishable food and waited. This time we wanted to see a hurricane.

Against my better judgement, Adam and I along with a few friends headed out to the causeway to watch the storm come in. It was unbelievably intimidating. 50-60 MPH sustained winds would hold you up when leaning forward, tears just ran down your face from the saltwater blowing in your eyes. Most significantly was the sea level. The Gulf of Mexico had been completely pulled away from the coast. The water was several hundred yards from the beach. You could actually walk far out on the ocean floor but not be in the water. I found it terrifying. I was sure at any minute the force holding that water would break loose and we would be swept away in a tsunami. Adam and our friends were completely entertained by the effect and my fear of it. They walked around on the ocean floor while we all played in the strong winds.

Adam playing at the causeway as Frances was making landfall

We headed home after an hour or so when we were drenched and feared traffic would become complete gridlock with everyone trying to evacuate. Rey was nice enough to weather the storm with us at our house. Frances was a huge storm - the size of the state of Texas. Strong winds and days and days of rain pounded the entire state. The strongest wind and rain came through Tampa during the first night. The power was out before the sun went down that night. We waited in the darkness for hours listening to the most unbelievable noises coming from the wind trying to tear off the roof. Transformers were blowing all over the neighborhood displaying a burst of sparks that resembled a small fireworks display.

Without power, we had no idea what the storm was doing. Our family and friends called our cell phones frequently with updates. They called us begging us to evacuate once the storm hit land. They were so afraid for us. We should have been afraid too!

Daybreak finally came but the rain and wind did not stop. A pool of water several inches deep filled our front and back yard. Rey and Adam decided to go for a short drive to determine the amount of damage in the neighborhood. While they were on their joy ride, the storm gulley that ran along the front of everyone's front yards began to fill. The storm sewer was blocked with debris from the winds. The water was quickly creeping toward our front door. 30 more minutes and the rain would have been at our front door. I put on sandals and walked out to this raging river. It was so stupid. The storm drain wasn't really covered. If I had been carried away by the current, I would have been swept right into the storm drain. Luckily that didn't happen. I unclogged the drain and ran the other direction just in time for the current in the storm gulley to REALLY pick up and rush down the drain. Disaster averted.

Another 24 hours of wind and rain pounded us before it was all said and done. Our crawl space flooded and the garage took on some water, but overall we fared very well. With the power still out and no running water because of the threat of sewage backup, we decided to clean up the debris in the yard. We filled 40 contractor bags with debris and piled larger debris into a mound larger than our SUV. It was unbelievable the amount of cleanup that had to be done, and we didn't have any damage to our house.

The large debris pile in the center

Adam moving sandbags around as the peaceful eye of the hurricane came over. You can see the amount of standing water in our backyard if you look behind him.

After hours of working in the yard, the Tampa Tribune drove by and saw us working in the yard. They spoke with us for a few minutes and told us we would be quoted in the paper the next day. They took a few staged pictures of us throwing debris in a garbage bag and went on their way. You should remember that we haven't showered in two days and the house in pitch black inside so we haven't even looked in the mirror. In additional, do you know how hot it is in Florida in August. Hot, it's very, very hot.

The next day we ran to get a paper to read our quote in the Tampa Tribune and maybe even see a picture. We approached the newspaper dispenser and there it on the front cover asleep in a camping chair in our driveway with a straw hat over my face and a headline that read "Straining and Draining." Oh my god, how embarrassing. They made it sound like I was pooping. Our story took up 1 1/2 pages and even included pictures of Adam in the yard without his shirt on. Adam's parents ordered multiple copies of the paper. Our students came back to school the next day after the hurricane forced all schools to close. I was hoping no one would notice me on the newspaper. Everyone noticed. My students came running in the classroom with the newspaper and pointed and joked with me. Adam didn't get a break either. His students did the same thing to him and teased him about his tattoos. The principle laminated the story and displayed it in the main office for everyone to see. It was a funny end to a fairly stressful time.

Front page of the Tampa Tribune. I wish I had the inside story too but I can't find it. I'll find the original and scan it in.

Our power was finally turned on after 4 days. We removed the plywood from the windows for hopefully the last time. A week later ANOTHER hurricane Ivan rolled through the gulf, missing us but pounding the south. We didn't even bother to board up this time. We were exhausted and annoyed. Hurricane parties were no longer fun and the prospect of losing power was unbearable to think about. The next year brought Hurricane Katrina. This hurricane all but missed us but did bring down a very old oak tree in our yard landing on our neighbors car just days before we sold our house. You could say that we left Florida in a whirlwind...

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