By: Aimee Tafreshi
What would you take with you if your house faced destruction and you had limited time and space? Clearly your children—well, most of us would. Dogs, definitely. We faced this conundrum last week. The week started normally enough with viola lessons, soccer practice and STEM night at my daughter’s school. In the background, a hurricane churned in the Atlantic and barreled its way through the Caribbean. The weekend before, I advised my husband to fill up with gas, as you never know. He thought I was paranoid, I’m sure.
On Tuesday, he was supposed to fly out to Virginia for a work trip. By this point, the hurricane “spaghetti” models showed Hurricane Matthew working its way up the East Coast, in some form or fashion. One lone bright pink line diverged from the others and showed a possible path right along the coastline, right near our coastline. It’s just one model, he reasoned with me. Come Tuesday morning, his trip was almost called off, but co-workers had already boarded flights. The outing was now back on. I imagined evacuating the house, kids and dogs by myself. I knew his particular airline would mercilessly cancel all flights mid-week. I am a hurricane virgin. I have never lived through a hurricane nor evacuated because of one. I can do this, I told myself with false confidence.
Lo and behold, divine intervention, fate, common sense, what have you, stepped in and canceled his work trip minutes before he was to board the plane. I was jubilant when he told me the news. This hurricane was coming; I could feel it. Wednesday arrived, and the rain and wind started picking up. We both worked all day, work obligations and deadlines, as I daydreamed about boarding up the house. We didn’t have storm shutters; hurricanes weren’t supposed to come this way. Finally, the mandatory evacuation order came. It was go time.
My husband got home from work, and it was time to pack and prep the house. Our preparations did not include boarding up the house or putting up storm shutters. That ship had sailed. There simply wasn’t time. Instead, I thought about what would probably happen. The front room windows would likely shatter, and water and debris would soak everything in its sight. Unfortunately, the front room is a dining room turned home office, which means it is a staging area for kids’ artwork waiting to be filed, toothy school portraits waiting to be shared and other sentimental papers and musty greeting cards.
I didn’t really care about our beat up furniture—we have two sons—or things like the TV. All of that stuff can be replaced. What I did care about were drawings forged by small hands, endless sheets of imperfectly written preschool letters and scattered photographs.
I remembered that during a devastating fire at my parents’ house, my mother had remarked that the items she had stored in plastic bins had not been touched by the ash and soot that had ruined much of the other stuff. Ah ha! I smartly packed all of the sentimental crafts and papers in a large plastic bin and stored it upstairs, in case of storm surge. Other random things I moved included the kids’ art portfolios from their past school years, three painted glass bottles they had created on a Saturday at the downtown art co-op, and a glass Longhorn Bevo, an homage to my beloved Texas team.
I also pushed my grandmother’s antique chair away from the window, as I knew she would not be pleased if I let her heirloom get ruined by broken glass or an errant tree limb.
The things I couldn’t stand to lose the most were the things that could never be replaced. I later cursed myself for not taking down my daughter’s bulletin boards, covered with her best kindergarten paintings, and mentally pictured the papers disintegrating as the rain blasted through blown out windows.
Now it was time to pack. As the evening wore on, I thought less about packing for a short-term trip and more about packing for months. I initially packed one extra set of disposable contact lenses and then realized I should take the entire pack. My husband reminded me to take any valuable jewelry. I don’t have a ton of fancy baubles, other than a few things I wear everyday, but I decided on an antique watch my dad had gifted me, because it makes me think of him. I also grabbed a roadrunner pin that had belonged to my grandmother—she obsessively collected roadrunners—and a vintage Texas Longhorns brooch my mother had given me.
I told my other half to grab my daughter’s baby book; her younger siblings’ books weren’t quite finished, so what was the point with theirs? We also took the wedding album and some important papers to show proof of our existence.
The next morning we arose at 4:00 a.m., and as usual, I wanted to hit the “snooze” button repeatedly and stay in bed. But then my instincts kicked in, as a monster storm was heading our way, and I had better wake the heck up. We were out the door by 5:15 a.m., three kids, two large dogs, and two tired parents crammed into an SUV. My poor son woke up in the middle of the night, afraid we had evacuated without him. He raced downstairs at 5:00 in the morning, exclaiming that he was “just in time” to leave. Boy was he right.
I was expecting to sit on the interstate for 12 hours and pee in plastic bottles, after seeing many nightmare traffic jams on the news over the years, but the one thing you can count on with an island is that people don’t like to wake up early. We made it to Tallahassee in record time. Our hotel room wasn’t ready until more than six hours later, so we bided our time walking a verdant nature trail, stuffing ourselves at a local diner and playing at an expansive park with fellow “evacuees.”
The next day, the storm track looked ominous. The models showed it shifting west with the eye wall going directly over our small historic town as a Category 4 or worse. At that point, I wanted to cry, not just for us but also for the entire town. I was worried for those who decided to stay and ride out the storm, worried for everyone’s homes and worried that our quaint historical island would be wiped off the map. I fell asleep not knowing what would face us on The Weather Channel the next day.
Promising news beamed in with the sun on Friday. The storm had shifted east, and our town would be spared the eye wall. I’m no meteorologist, but this meant less wind speed and less chance of total devastation. That evening, while the hurricane whipped through Northeast Florida, we attended a friend’s hurricane party, held at her in-laws’ sprawling property. Her mother-in-law had gone all out with homemade salads, a variety of chips and dip, pizza and drinks galore.
As we chatted with new friends, improbably brought together by an unlikely storm, our children played exuberantly on an oversized, outdoor hammock, erupting in laughter each time they tumbled off together onto the soft ground. The kids danced around each other, blowing bubbles and playing hide and seek among the protective trees. The end of the evening was capped off by glow in the dark bands the little ones wore on their necks and limbs as they twirled in the dark. I didn’t know what was happening to our house, but I knew I was happy, and that we had everything we needed. Most of all, I felt grateful and content.
We traveled home Saturday and were amazed that our house was largely unscathed by the storm. Others around us weren’t so lucky, and those in places like Haiti face yet another devastating recovery. I’m not sure why our small town was spared, but through this experience, I realized that we have very little control over nature or even our own lives, at times. I learned that if I had to walk away from my house and give it all up, I think that I could. And also, I plan on investing in some good storm shutters for next hurricane season.
Aimee Tafreshi is a freelance writer and attorney who also contributes to Nameberry.com and her own blog once in a blue moon, aimeetafreshi.com. She is also a mother and professional chauffeur to three spirited, young children.