Finding Sweetness in the Eye of the Storm
Just like Lionel Barrymore as James Temple in “Key Largo“ and Gary Sinise as Lt. Dan Taylor in “Forrest Gump,” I survived a hurricane wheelchair-bound. Unlike the original works that those two movies are derived from, my hurricane had a name.
I had only heard the name Irma twice before. The first time was in a movie titled “Irma La Douce,” which translates to “Irma the Sweet.” The second was offered on a recurring basis by an occasional golfing partner of mine. After leaving a putt short of the hole but otherwise on target, he’d invariably exclaim, “Hit it, Irma!” The 2017 hurricane of the same name was the antithesis of sweet, and it didn’t hesitate in striking forcefully.
We moved to southwest Florida early in the hurricane season of 2013. The topic of the first ALS support group I attended in my new state was hurricane preparedness. Every year thereafter, I received similar information from multiple sources. So much so that the content morphed into something resembling the preflight safety information dispensed to a preoccupied, seasoned flyer. Anyone crying wolf?
With that context, Irma somewhat snuck up on us. It didn’t help that her forecasted path kept changing, and it was uncertain until the veritable 11th hour. By the time we realized that sheltering at home wasn’t a prudent alternative, we had but one option left.
Even if we had a plethora of choices, our default one turned out likely to be the best. Thankfully, despite turning a deaf ear to much of the proactive hurricane advice, I had registered as a special needs evacuee. That meant paratransit bus transportation to a special care shelter upon request. We literally boarded our version of The Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville,” and arrived at our home for two nights: the Ray V. Pottorf Elementary School.
As we were the last to enter, our rightful spot was the caboose in a long registration queue, affording plenty of people-watching time. Most of our soon-to-be-fellow inhabitants were far better equipped than us. Our Spartan belongings amounted to four pillows, two dog bowls, and one bag of dog food.
While grudgingly admiring the comparative readiness of slumber party mates, a transformation took place. A space ordinarily tripling as a cafeteria, gymnasium, and performance hall was converted. Through the magic of duct tape, an open expanse was divided into more than 200 temporary dwellings, each measuring 3 feet x 8 feet. Observing the rectangles, I wondered where our assigned floor parcels would be.
That train of thought was wondrously interrupted. By virtue of my “special needs” status, our designation was a classroom. The full extent of our good fortune was immediately evident upon entering the third grade enclave. Instead of crowded, taped-off floor spots, there were 18 cots, with ample room in between. We had been upgraded from economy to first class. I chuckled to myself with an ironic, fictional advertising pitch. ALS … membership has its — exceedingly rare — privilege.
Following the bestowal of our bonanza, we settled in for our 45-hour sleepover. We fell under the supervision of a draconian volunteer homeroom monitor, who combined the least endearing qualities of Frau Blucher of “Young Frankenstein” fame and Nurse Ratched from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” “Frurse Bluched” asserted her authority often, no more so than when strongly chastising the class for being too near the windows during peak Irma fury.
Disasters, like politics, make strange bedfellows. The close-quarter proximity provided eavesdropping intimacy. One family unit was unnecessarily transparent, in a never-muted fashion. In particular, the patriarch was obnoxiously forthcoming. The more he spouted off, the more disagreeable, and even offensive, I found him. In short, I judged him to be the sort of person I’d take great pains to avoid under any circumstance not involving an act of God.
Eventually Irma passed, and we were cleared to return home. Our house had been spared any structural and water damage, with the only storm souvenir being some uprooted trees. A day and a half later, our power returned.
In Irma’s aftermath, I curiously prayed for the loud family, and its head. I prayed they were safe, their dwelling intact, and their electricity restored.
Irma had a sweet side. She reinforced that prayer may be universal. Everyone, irrespective of differences or conflict, is a worthy candidate. When thinking about someone, I now routinely pray that their hardship in this life be minimized, and that we be neighbors in heaven.
I envision a possible apt reunion, where I am greeted by a vaguely familiar figure. He’ll say, “Wow. You’re that foul dude I was forced to endure while sheltering through Irma. I had my doubts you’d make it to heaven. Thank God you did!”
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