Surviving Hurricane Irma: Six Days of Fear, Family, and Farting


Sunday, September 9, 1:05 am: I'm sequestered in an elementary school classroom, trying to fall asleep on a twin-sized air mattress, but the middle-aged man who is sprawled out on an inflatable pool raft across from me keeps passing an unusual amount of gas, and his thunderous snoring suggests that he suffers from sleep apnea. If this Human Fart Machine isn't keeping me awake, there's the gaunt 97-year-old Ukrainian man in the corner who occasionally (and loudly) mumbles in a foreign tongue to his equally ancient wife who keeps shushing him. He hasn't moved from his sleeping pad all day, and I wonder if he needs to use the restroom, or perhaps he had already used his sleeping pad as a restroom. (Luckily, I don't smell anything.) I also wonder if we will wake up in the morning to find his corpse wrapped up in sheets underneath a rainbow-colored display of the alphabet and first grader fingerpaintings...

My travel luck at the beginning of September may have helped me narrowly miss the raging fires near Portland, Oregon, but it stopped shortly thereafter, because days later, I found myself heading towards one of the largest storms ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean.

The original purpose for my visit to Florida (40 miles south of Tampa, in the towns of Ellenton and Parrish) was to pay my respects to my aunt who had lost her husband of 50+ years (my uncle and godfather, beloved by everyone). He lost his battle with cancer several weeks prior, and a memorial service was scheduled for September 10. I booked a non-refundable flight to attend the event and to spend time with my parents who had left New York and recently closed on a new house in a pleasant, retiree-friendly community called Veranda Springs, a five-minute drive from my aunt. The interiors were given a fresh coat of paint, the floors were renovated, and my mother was excited to show off their new digs. (“It not only has a TV room, it also has a spacious lanai overlooking a pond with fake swans!”) We call it a "lanai" because, hello, The Golden Girls.

However, Hurricane Irma was brewing in the Caribbean and poised to move up to Florida after devastating several resort islands. Words like "Category 5," "life-threatening," and "billions in property damage" were being tossed around the news much like the palm trees and debris in the storm itself. The timing for this natural disaster was, for lack of a better word, shitty.

And yet, despite coworkers and friends calling me "crazy," I still went. And I'm glad I did.

A post shared by Hiko Mitsuzuka (@thefirstecho) on
The funny thing about the 48 hours leading up to an impending natural disaster (if you want to call it "funny"): Those hours are filled with a strange combination of excitement and nauseating anxiety. You don’t want to be that dumbass who says he’ll “ride it out” and see the storm firsthand and up-close, only to end up getting flattened by a projectile pickup truck, just like one of those disposable, obnoxious characters in any given disaster movie. (And yes, tornado warnings were also in effect.) You want to be as safe as possible, especially since this is your first natural disaster experience -- my parents already survived Superstorm Sandy in New York five years ago -- and you’ve watched plenty of those movies as a kid to conjure up every worst case scenario in your over-imaginative mind.

The preparation was exhausting. A trip to Publix, the local supermarket chain, led to empty shelves; no bottled water in sight. Gas stations ran out of fuel due to the hundreds of thousands of cars that jammed all northbound routes. Shutters needed to be set in place. Valuables needed to be secured. Non-perishable food needed to be packed. And me being me, I couldn't help but flashback to those panicked scenes in 1998's Deep Impact.


However, the fear of losing not only my parents' current home but their new one was even more emotionally and physically draining. No insurance policies had been put in place for the new house. Had they purchased a plan two weeks ago, it still wouldn't have gone into effect because those take a full 30 days to kick in. Therefore, STRESS.

The original plan was to hunker down in the new, unfurnished house at Veranda Springs simply based on the fact that it was away from the storm surge zones and was larger (maybe sturdier) than their current home in Colony Cove, another community for the 55+ set.

But then the forecasts came rolling in every three hours on every channel we tuned in to: CNN, The Weather Channel, the local NBC affiliate, and Bay News 9, a local station on which a tireless anchor named Veronica Cintron remained cool, calm, and collected during every hourly update. (Someone get that woman a spa package.) Now that Irma was shifting her path up the Gulf Coast, local authorities strongly advised residents of Manatee County to seek shelter, and that's when we realized Veranda Springs wouldn't cut it. We had to abandon ship.

A post shared by Hiko Mitsuzuka (@thefirstecho) on
While my aunt sought shelter with her grown grandchildren at a large compound of a house twenty miles away, we checked into the nearby Annie Lucy Williams Elementary at 5pm on Saturday. I had registered my parents earlier in the afternoon to guarantee us a spot in one of the classrooms. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner would be served in the school cafeteria. Dinner on the first night was a chicken sandwich with cups of baked beans, salad, diced pineapple, and chocolate pudding. It was just like being on a cruise ship but without any luxurious amenities -- and eventually electricity.

The following 40 hours were spent surrounded by evacuees, reading a hundred pages of my paperback novel, listening to the wind howl outside, and observing the eclectic characters who sat in beach chairs, curled up in sleeping bags, and attempted to follow the news on their devices while we still had wi-fi. More than half of the 1,200 or so people were elderly folks. The rest were families with kids, some placed in the gymnasium. Latecomers were shuffled into the hallways and told to set up camp on the linoleum floor. (This is where I give myself a pat on the back for checking us in earlier to secure our cozy classroom with 16 other bodies, even though one of them was the Human Fart Machine.) Even the cafeteria started to ration off meals due to the influx of people who showed up on Sunday, the day Irma made her way to the Tampa Bay area.

By Sunday night, the central air system in the school turned off. I lay on my air mattress and tried to remain still and cool, using my iPhone (98% charged) to listen to one of my Spotify playlists, hoping the cheery, uplifting sounds of Carly Rae Jepsen would whisk me away to a magical place where no fat, farting Floridians existed.

Then, the power finally went out. Our classroom turned into a stifling pit of darkness, illuminated by a singular emergency floodlight that eventually faded out in the wee hours of the morning. By that time, I woke up and couldn't go back to sleep. The air was thick. I could hear coughing in one corner, probably from the redneck who was spooning what could only be his mail-order bride. (If you saw them together, you'd surmise the same.) Finally, one of the Marines who had been stationed outside entered the room and told us we could open the windows; the winds had died down, the storm had weakened. That wasn't enough for me. I got up, walked out of the room, and headed to the front entrance of the school where another Marine propped open the door so that I could breathe in some fresh, damp air.

By Monday morning, on September 11, a date which will now have another significant meaning, the sky had cleared. We were allowed to go home. But would we have a home to go back to?



The answer was yes. Both of my parents' home (and my aunt's) survived Irma unscathed. Cue the collective sighs of relief!

Colony Cove was one of the few places to have electricity. Cable and internet was out for a bit. Veranda Springs took a few hours to come back on the grid. Some of my parents' neighbors (pictured above) weren't so lucky, but fortunately Irma had weakened overnight and wasn't as destructive as it was in the Caribbean.

The well wishes and messages I received via Facebook, Instagram, and old-fashioned texts were greatly appreciated. A big thanks goes out to the well-organized staff, authorities, and Marines at Williams Elementary in Parrish that took us in. A special shout-out to Vice Principal Nicole who was particularly helpful getting us settled after a slight room switcheroo. It was an experience I'll never forget.

Now, if you'll indulge me for a bit and take a look at this meme...


As someone who has now lived through the above experience, I have gained a new perspective. No one ever asks to be pummeled by Mother Nature year after year. No one ever asks to have their home wiped out by swelling oceans. But there are those who ask their leaders to pay attention to what's happening on this planet of ours. People who ask their leaders to face scientific facts and wake up to the reality that this little thing called global warming isn't a little thing. And it's certainly no myth.

Right now, with the way our current administration is functioning, these pleas are falling on deaf, ignorant ears. The fact that two other hurricanes, Katya and Jose, were active during Irma's destruction -- three megastorms lined up within the same period of time -- should have been enough proof to make people sit up and draft up some serious legislation confronting these issues. But no. What we get is another round of prayers, another influx of social media commentary, and another televised event during which Justin Bieber and Julia Roberts ask you to donate whatever you can to the victims of the umpteenth tragedy.

As Amy Davidson Sorkin's insightful New Yorker piece discusses, our country remains unprepared for future devastation because, when you get down to it, there are powerful men and women who don't believe in spending the time and money on the well-being and safety of their fellow American citizens and their homes.

And that's the worst disaster of all.

@TheFirstEcho

HARVESTED: The 2017 Fall Playlist


With temps cooling and swimsuits drying, it's time to ease up on the summer jams (sorry, "Despacito") and settle in with some tracks that should complement the upcoming season...along with those darn Pumpkin Spice Lattes you'll be chugging in no time.

Listen up:

@TheFirstEcho

"Look What You Made Me Do," Taylor: Comment On Your New Single


When a new Taylor Swift single drops, the world pretty much stops (whether you love it or hate it). And it's a rare for a pop star nowadays to possess such power. I'll give Tay-Tay that.

So, upon giving her new single, "Look What You Made Me Do," several listens (you know, to be fair), I had several knee-jerk reactions.

But first, I feel I like need to provide some context with my assessment: I am not a diehard. With 1989, her epically successful previous album, I was actually a fan of tracks like "Style," "Out of the Woods," and "New Romantics," singles that, unfortunately, weren't as ubiquitous (read: overplayed) like the unrelenting "Shake It Off" and "Bad Blood." I appreciate some of her songwriting. She could deliver a good chorus. I could understand the passionate fandom.

However, we're entering a new era: the snake-filled social media teasers and black-and-white key art covered in newspaper headlines is positioning Taylor Swift as a newly born bad bitch who isn't afraid to address her "reputation" and come back with poisonous lyrics aimed directly at people who did her wrong. And according to her, she's "got a list of names." (David Mueller probably at the top.) How very Stripped, how very Revival, and how very I'm Not Dead of her, don't you think?

In other words, she's on the defensive, and that's...great?

I'm all for pop stars channeling their emotions into a song, but when you're on Taylor Swift's level, you run the risk of coming off as self-aggrandizing with your new material. And that's where "Look What You Made Me Do" is currently standing. She's fanning the flames of fan frenzy with this apparent clapback at her enemies, haters, whatever you wanna call them. And we've heard this all before, haven't we?

The repetitive title of the song is also very telling, echoing the growing sentiment of a generation that struggles with how to feel and react to negative forces and situations in their lives. "Look what you made me do?" No, girl. You are responsible for how you react, feel, and handle things. No one made you write this song. It's pointless to shift the blame on others for how shitty you feel. Also, "Look what you made me do" is a common phrase said by abusers after they release their rage. Just saying. The POV of this chorus makes me wonder...

Defending yourself is one thing, but being on the defensive is another. One involves protecting your dignity and standing for what's right, while the other involves a presumptuous attempt at lashing out at anyone or anything that threatens what you think is important. Maybe I'd enjoy this song more if it weren't so manufactured to manipulate millions into taking her side in her celebrity feud du jour (or broken heart). Maybe I'd enjoy this song more if it contained one iota of genuinely uplifting content rather than "dark" lyrics that border on promoting Mean Girlisms. (That said, thank God for Pink's new single.)

Plus, the reductive beat behind this semi-decent production (and the random, obscure "I'm Too Sexy" melody sample) does nothing but reveal how weak of a vocalist she clearly is. (I can say the same for other Top 40 artists, male and female.) And that music video sneak peek? Beyonce called. She wants her "Formation" pose back.

However, the ever-brilliant Louis Virtel does put a few things in perspective:


And while her army of fans will defend said single until their last breath (as any diehards would; I'm guilty of doing the same for one Miss Christina Aguilera, who hasn't met a defensive lyric she hasn't sung), I'm curious to see how long this mania plays out and how the rest of Reputation will sound like. I'm guessing there will be "collaborations" with other "hitmakers" and a catchy ode to all the fans who stood by her side through such "tough times."

Insert eye roll emoji.

Now, let's get back to more important matters.
@TheFirstEcho

#TBT: The Nun Who Ruined My Spelling Bee Career


Back in the sixth grade, I was an enormous bookworm.

This is not news for the few of you who witnessed my reading habits firsthand during my junior high years at Blessed Sacrament Elementary (and still do to this day). My voracious appetite for horror novels, as well as an occasional bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, was obvious.

Being a rabid reader arguably correlated with my sterling spelling skills in school. There was no spelling test on which I scored below 100%, and if you need proof, I'm sure I have some old papers buried in boxes labeled "Hiko's Old Spelling Tests On Which He Never Scored Below 100%."

Before I turned 12, Blessed Sacrament Elementary held a spelling bee for Grades 6 through 8. Each class conducted its own preliminary round, and from there, entered its top ten spellers into a schoolwide competition, which took place on the stage of our auditorium.

Up until this moment, this was the most nervous I had ever been in my Catholic school education. I sat in the back row, watching the 29 of the best spellers in the school go up to the microphone and carefully pronounce the letters of words. Sometimes I thought to myself, I could totally spell those. I made it through words like "subtle," "conflagration," and "abstract." Every time a student misspelled a word, one of the faculty members rang a bell, and said student would walk off the stage and take his or her seat in Reject Row.

As I watched the group shrink as the minutes went by, I felt my confidence grow. You got this, Mitsuzuka. Before I knew it, we were down to ten survivors. We changed seats, the remaining spellers shifting up to the front row. And then there were six...then three...

My competition was a pair of eighth graders. We'll call them Luke and Abby. Luke was a jock, the older brother of someone from my grade. Abby was a tall nerdgirl who seemed nice; I just knew her as That Tall Girl. We took turns at the mic, spelling out words we would never use in our everyday conversations. Apparently -- and I just found this out the day of the competition -- the two remaining spellers would advance to a citywide spelling bee. This only added to my nerves.

And then, just like that, Abby was out, incorrectly spelling a word that I would have gotten wrong myself. (Whew!) The crowd applauded. I shook hands with Luke. We were the Blessed Sacrament champions.

Next up: The City Spelling Bee!

Blessed Sacrament hosted this competition, so it helped that I got to compete on the same stage in a familiar setting. But it only helped so much. I knew I would have to go up against kids from other schools (public schools?), faces and names I didn't know. I wouldn't be familiar with their strengths and weaknesses. I would be going into this with even more uncertainty. During the days leading up to it, I had to study a book of words, all listed in alphabetical order. I absorbed as much as I could.


Luke and I hardly had any interaction the days before the city spelling bee. After all, he was two years older than me, and in elementary school, that's like a decade in age. We did exchange a few words of encouragement here and there. I wondered if he was preparing as much as I was, but something told me that he didn't take the whole thing seriously. He probably had basketball tournaments to worry about, girls to flirt with.

The night of the city spelling bee arrived. It felt weird to be back in school at night. Everything looked different. Dark classrooms took on an ominous feel. (I also loved horror movies.)

The whole competition went by in a blur. I kept to myself before we started. I didn't want to look at who I was up against. A new group of us all took the stage, and we quickly started dropping like flies. Luke only made it halfway through. He misspelled a word I remembered from my study guides. I felt bad for him.

Long story short (too late, I know), I won the city spelling bee. Next up: Districts!

And here's where the devastation comes into play...

Districts -- it sounded so official and grown-up to me -- took place at Stepinac High School in White Plains, a 25-minute drive from New Rochelle. My mom drove me on a blustery late afternoon. We checked in; I was given a numbered badge that I wore on my chest like a marathon runner. This is legit, I thought to myself.

The auditorium was also legit, with real theater seats and a balcony. The judges table stood front and center, just below the stage. Sitting there was a man in a tweed jacket, a middle-aged woman who looked like she shopped at Ann Taylor, and an elderly nun. Let's call this nun Sister Dementia.

The competition started off well. I breezed through my first two words. However, my third word was where things went awkwardly wrong.

I walked up to the mic and looked down at Sister Dementia who was to give me my word. She consulted a sheet of paper with a bony finger, looked up at me, and said into her mic, "Pursue." Her voice was a little shaky, probably tired from teaching all day at the all-boys high school we were currently congregating in.

"Pursue?" I repeated.

"Pursue," she confirmed.

Easy enough, I thought to myself. I knew what the word meant. I didn't need to ask for a definition or for its origins. Pursue: as in, "to chase or go after something." No one had to use it in a sentence for me. I got this.

"Pursue," I began. "P-U-R-S-U-E. Pursue."

Sister Dementia looked at her judging colleagues. A dramatic pause followed. And then, a bell rang. The bell. The sound that killed all spelling bee championship dreams.

I let out an audible, surprised "oh" and looked out into the crowd. There were a few murmurs. I could hear my mother in the audience let out a "tsk" of disappointment, but she wasn't disappointed in me, because she, along with the entire auditorium, knew that I spelled the word correctly.

I started to walk off the stage. Someone in the crowd said, "He spelled the word correctly!" I immediately felt a tension in the large room. Before I could take a seat next to my mom, who was clearly frustrated, the judge in the tweed jacket spoke into his mic to offer some clarification: "We had to let Competitor Number 35 go because he spelled the wrong word. The word was pursuit. P-U-R-S-U-I-T."

11-year-old Hiko didn't know what to say. But today's Hiko would've said, "Are you fucking kidding me?"

I felt numb. The fact that I was taken out of the competition for spelling the wrong word correctly was later infuriating, especially for my mom. I was let go because an elderly woman, who clearly missed her Metamucil shot earlier that day, didn't clearly pronounce my word. "If she can't speak up and annunciate," my mother later said to another parent in the hallway, "then she needs to retire." In other words: Nun, bye.

Apparently there was nothing we could do afterwards. I didn't use my life lines and ask for the word to be used in a sentence to make sure the word I heard was the word being said. For the next several days, I was haunted by the word "pursue" as well as the "what ifs" that eventually followed. What if I had asked for it in a sentence? What if I had spelled it correctly? Could I have won that spelling bee? Could I have advanced to County? To State? To Nationals? Could I have been invited to the White House? I'll never know. It's a minor regret that still lingers throughout my adult life. Lesson learned, I guess: If you're not sure about something, always ask for help.

Whatever. I hope that Sister Dementia later realized the gravity of her poor speaking skills that day. I hope she went back to her convent, cried into her pillow, and asked God to forgive her "for misleading that adorable, chubby Asian boy."

But then again, that was so long ago. She's probably dead now.

@TheFirstEcho

VICE News in Charlottesville: The Horrifying Coverage


This is the scariest piece of television I've seen in a while -- absolutely horrifying, disgusting, infuriating, and soul-crushing.

That said, I usually try to use the right words during sensitive situations like these, but if it wasn't clear before, here it is: I hate our president.

I hate that I have to even use that word because it breeds nothing good, but it is what I'm feeling right now.

I hate that this cruelty has been exercised in his name.

I hate that his reaction to this evil is a mediocre, cowardly, and selfish attempt at being neutral.

I hate that, in less than a year, the escalation of evil in this country -- and in some parts of the world -- is undoubtedly a direct correlation to his rise in power. (It all trickles down from The Top.)

I hate that my friends in other cities will have to brace themselves for similar acts of evil planned for this weekend.

But I don't want this hate I'm feeling to inform what I do next. And at least I can take comfort in knowing that the hate I'm feeling will never manifest into what was displayed in these horrific 22 minutes of footage on HBO's Vice. It may very well turn into hopelessness, because right now, I can't see any light at the end of this long and dark tunnel.

Sorry, "Despacito," THIS is My Summer Jam


The music video for Jax Jones's "Instruction" (featuring Demi Lovato and Stefflon Don) dropped a week ago, and finally, I have some visual evidence to support my argument for the Summer Song of 2017.

The 30-year-old English DJ enlisted the "Sorry Not Sorry" singer for this reggaeton-infused, cardio-friendly single, which is sadly only burning up the UK and being delayed to officially make a splash on our American summer charts. Get with it, people.

@TheFirstEcho

This is Charlottesville, VA in 2017 -- Not 1957


Today in WTF is Going on in America?: This story right here. And here.

And in response, @JuliusGoat had some words to say on Twitter this morning:

“Imagine if these people ever faced actual oppression.
Nobody is trying to legislate away their right to marry. Nobody is trying to make them buy insurance to pay for 'male health care.'
Nobody enslaved their great-grandparents. Robbed their grandparents. Imprisoned their parents. Shot them when unarmed. There is no massive effort at the state and local level to disenfranchise them of the vote. There is no history of centuries of bad science devoted to 'proving' their intellectual inferiority.
There is no travel ban on them because of their religion. There is no danger for them when they carry dangerous weaponry publicly.
Their churches were never burned. Their lawns never decorated with burning crosses. Their ancestors never hung from trees.
Their mothers aren't being torn away by ICE troopers and sent away forever. They won't be forced to leave the only country they ever knew.
The president has not set up a hotline to report crime committed at their hands.
They are chanting 'we will not be replaced.' Replaced as ... what? I'll tell you.
Replaced as the only voice in public discussions. Replaced as the only bodies in the public arena. Replaced as the only life that matters.
THIS is 'white people' oppression: We used to be the only voice. Now we hold the only microphone.
THIS is 'white man' oppression: We face criticism now. We were free from it, because others feared the consequences.
THIS is 'oppression' of white Christians in this country: Christmas used to be the only holiday acknowledged, now it's not.
I would so love to see these people get all the oppression they insist they receive, just for a year. Just to see.
Give them a world where you ACTUALLY can't say Christmas. A world where the name "Geoff" on a resume puts it in the trash.
Give them a world where they suddenly get a 20% pay cut, and then 70 women every day tell them to smile more.
Give them a world where their polo shirt makes people nervous, so they're kicked off the flight from Pittsburgh to Indianapolis.
Give them a world where they inherited nothing but a very real understanding of what oppression really fucking is.
Give them a world where if they pulled up on a campus with torches lit and started throwing hands, the cops would punch their eyes out.
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Put THAT in your Tiki torches and light it, you sorry Nazi bitches. Good morning, by the way, how is everybody?"