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

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