“Are you leaving?” my next-door neighbor Sarah asked me.
It was Tuesday morning. I was sitting on the front porch of my home just north of Daytona Beach, Florida, admiring the 3-foot-tall flowers on the aloe vera plants.
I had no idea what Sarah was talking about. I had been following the news out of Haiti of how Hurricane Matthew was destroying everything in its path, but hadn’t thought much of its ability to affect us. When my partner and I signed the lease on the house back in January, we were told repeatedly that this part of Florida was hurricane-proof.
Nevertheless, Sarah was agitated, one hand cupping her cigarette while the other gestured up the road toward the beach.
“The mail lady said that if she were us, she would get the hell out. We booked a hotel inland. We’re leaving tomorrow morning,” she said. “They’re saying we could get 40-foot surges.”
Inwardly, I rolled my eyes. My brother fishes in the Bering Sea. He knows 40-foot waves. No way would we get them. There wasn’t enough wave even for surfing on our little beach.
We talked some more, but I felt as if I were humoring her.
I went in and talked to Rob, my partner.
“She’s hysterical,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere.”
The next morning, when I woke up, the first thing Rob said to me was, “I think we’re going to have to leave.”
I have a history of not taking Mother Nature seriously
The first time I remember Mother Nature trying to kill me was when I was 11 years old. My family was car camping in northern California. After dinner, we went for a walk and ended up down by the edge of the Eel River. I had never been close to rapids before. The blue-green glacier water tantalized me. It looked wild, and I wanted to be part of it.
As my parents and two brothers stood on the bank, I wandered away from them and dared myself to dip my foot in the water. I could see my foot through to the bottom, and when I stepped in, the cold water only came up to my ankles. The opposite bank was only 10 yards or so, and I thought I could cross the river while no one was watching. The fast water moving across my ankles, tugging at me, exhilarated me. I wanted to prove to my dad that I wasn’t scared, and I was imagining that my family must all be watching me by this point, so I didn’t turn around. I wanted them to see how brave I was.
The next step was disastrous: The bottom of the river fell away, and I slipped into the rapids. This wasn’t a game anymore. The current had a hold on me, and I was being washed downstream. I saw my parents on the bank and realized no one could help me. For a split second, I wondered what it would be like to drown.
But I also began to think. I knew I couldn’t swim against the current. The water was moving me in the direction of some overhanging trees, and in those seconds that lasted a lifetime, I grabbed one of the tree limbs and pulled myself out.
Years later, river rapids still fill me with dread.
The second time I didn’t take nature seriously was as an adult in New York state. During a blizzard, I attempted to drive my car. Worse, I had my toddler daughter in the back. When I did the inevitable – put the car into a snowbank – I feared that we would suffocate if we stayed in the car.
So, I attempted to hike back to my house in minus 17 degree temperatures, during an hour when 7 inches of snow fell, while carrying her. At one point, alone on our country road, I was so cold and so tired, I started thinking about what I had learned in books I had read as a kid, like Little House on the Prairie and The Call of the Wild. All I could remember was that I could not stop. We were rescued by someone driving. I remember that I cried for an hour when I got home, furious with myself for nearly killing my child.
Our part of Florida was supposed to be hurricane-proof
Rob and I weren’t unreasonable for rolling our eyes at Sarah. It is almost unheard of for hurricanes to hit the Daytona area: They tend to bounce off the southern tip of Florida and then churn out to sea, only to hit the Carolinas as they move up the Eastern Seaboard.
But by Wednesday, it was clear that Matthew was on a different path. The tracking for the storm showed that the eye was expected to pass a few miles south of us. Authorities were predicting that when Hurricane Matthew hit Daytona Beach, sustained winds could be 140 miles per hour, with 7- to 9-foot beach surge.
The turning point: when we realized that if we didn’t leave, we would be trapped
The turning point for us came when authorities announced that they would be closing all beachside bridges on Thursday night. That thought made me cold. It meant that if you were still on the island on Thursday afternoon, there would be no way to leave. An echo of panic made my fingers shake — just for a second.
I looked at our 8-foot ceiling on our single-story bungalow.
I thought about bodies floating in houses in New Orleans. I imagined floating inside the living room, fighting for the last bit of air near the ceiling.
“Where do we go?” I said.
I went on the state’s disaster preparedness website, looking for information. While evacuation shelters were listed, there was no simple geographical information. Nowhere did it say, “Go to Mobile, Alabama” or anything like that. The advice was simply to “get out of the path of the storm.” But the tracking models showed several different paths. What to do?
Further complicating things was that Rob and I would not be evacuating alone — we’d have my mother (who lives a half-mile from us) with us, plus four dogs and a cat. While the shelters announced that pets would be accepted, I couldn’t see my painfully shy mother being comfortable for a few days while trying to control the animals as we bedded down among strangers. I knew that one motel chain — Red Roof Inns — was pet-friendly, and rather than try to find two motel rooms on my own, I called their central reservation number and explained our dilemma to the reservation rep, asking him to look for something on the northwest coast of Florida.
But midway through the conversation, Rob interrupted me to say that my mother had suggested we call my aunt and uncle. They’re on vacation in Canada, but they live in Orlando and their large house was empty. “Of course you can stay there,” they said.
While Orlando was only about 100 miles to the west and was still in the path of the hurricane, it was inland, and we would eliminate the ocean surge danger. Plus, finding someplace to accommodate animals was taken care of.
How do you decide what to take with you when you have just two hours to pack?
We gave ourselves two hours to pack. We needed supplies to last three days, when, we assumed, we would be able to return home — if there was a home to return to. I thought about that as I gathered my things. Toiletries and clothes were easy. We also took passports and birth certificates out of our safe.
I grabbed a few books and a journal, but as I went through the house, I kept lifting boxes of research and work off the floor and piled it on top of my desk, trusting that if water came through, it wouldn’t be higher than 3 feet.
When I’ve watched people react to natural disasters on television, I’ve always been surprised by their emotions over losing their houses. Houses are just things, I’ve always thought. As long as you and your loved ones are alive, isn’t that all that matters? I didn’t want to be one of those people who was going to get upset at the thought of losing stuff.
I stood in front of my jewelry box, which mostly holds costume jewelry I inherited from my great-grandmother. I couldn’t decide if taking all of it was a sign that I had surrendered all hope of returning home or if I was putting too much value on trinkets. And then I kicked myself for overthinking it.
Finally, I grabbed the two sixpences I had worn in my shoes on my wedding day, and the military brass badge from my Lancashire great-grandfather’s World War I service and decided they were the only truly irreplaceable things that I owned.
Across the street, the single mom with two children had packed up and left while we were packing. Our next-door neighbors said they would be leaving soon after we did. The neighbors on our other side are “snowbirds” and had not yet arrived for the winter. My mum was worried: So far, two of the friends from her street, both longtime residents and people in their 70s, had told her they were going to hunker down and wait out the storm.
She had tried to convince them to leave, but they had told her that in all the years they had lived on the island, the water had never crossed it. There was no point in trying to explain to them that the authorities said this strength of storm had never hit this part of Florida before. They could not be moved.
I thought people would be friendly — but they were mainly looking out for themselves
We began our journey westward. Overhead, the sky was cerulean and the wisps of white in the sky looked more like something you would decorate a Christmas tree with, rather than something that could potentially kill us. I-4, the freeway that takes one west to Orlando, was filled with the traffic of an ordinary business day. My mom drove. She cursed the other drivers, a sure sign that she was upset. I knew she didn’t want to talk about what we were leaving behind.
When I lived in Ithaca, New York, prior to a blizzard, residents knew to fill up the car with gas and stock the house with groceries in case the roads didn’t get plowed for a few days. For a hurricane, authorities advised filling the car up with gas, loading up on batteries and flashlights for the inevitable power outages, and also loading up on water because of the dangers of water contamination from the floods that come with hurricane rains. The sight of empty water shelves in the grocery stores shocked me.
The trip to the grocery store reenforced that, as the local weatherman had kept repeating, “This is not a dry run, folks. This is happening.” The lines to check out were backed up into the grocery aisles. Parents wandered the aisles with their children. “What do you want?” I heard them ask, and I found myself grateful that I would not be responsible for keeping young children safe and entertained during the coming hours. I teared up as I stopped my cart to avoid running into an elderly man who was shopping with his wife. He looked disoriented, shell-shocked that he was having to prepare for what authorities kept referring to as a disaster.
I had hoped that people would be friendly, but instead, all I sensed was tension. No one yielded to my car in the parking lot, and I narrowly avoided running into other bodies who streamed from the grocery store exit, intent on getting home and getting safe.
After we evacuated, I became furious at the people who stayed behind
When we arrived in Orlando, we turned on the news. The constant refrain from the news anchors, Gov. Rick Scott, the meteorologists, and safety experts was that not evacuating was a death sentence.
A reporter interviewed a middle-aged woman who lived near the beach. She was in her car, and behind her you could see two children who looked to be about 10 years old. The boy’s face was filled with fear — his eyes pleaded with the camera, Save me, as his grandma declared, “We’re going to hunker down. I’ve lived in my house for 58 years, and I’ve lived through many hurricanes. I’ve got nine people in my house, and we’re going to ride out the storm.”
The camera cut back to the anchors in the newsroom, both of whom could be seen shaking their heads in disapproval.
“We want to emphasize that staying along the coast is a life-threatening decision,” they said. “This type of hurricane has never been seen in these parts. Old-time Floridians may think they’ve seen this before, but they haven’t.”
For an hour, the news was one person after another, pleading with those who had still not evacuated to “get out now.” There was still room in shelters. There was still a narrow window of time. They could still save themselves.
I found myself enraged. I turned to my mom. “You know, I don’t care if you’re stupid enough to kill yourself,” I said to her, “But if you put children’s lives at risk, you should be prosecuted after this is over — if you survive.”
I worry that when the storm has passed, first responders will find the bodies of children whose parents thought they knew better than the government about this storm. This is Florida, after all, the state that hates to pay taxes and where Trump signs litter my neighborhood’s lawns.
And I worry that the state will have no way to cope with the mental health costs that are sure to arise, not only in first responders having to deal with death and destruction, but also in children like that little boy on the news. Who was going to comfort him in the night as Matthew raged outside? Surely that woman who claimed herself tougher than the storm didn’t seem the type who would take a scared little boy onto her knee. As I went to bed Thursday night, his eyes followed me into the darkness.
Moving to Florida was supposed to be our escape from bad weather. Then Matthew happened.
Rob and I never thought we would move to Florida. The New York-to-Florida move is such a cliché. But after my father died, moving close to my widowed mother felt like an obligation I couldn’t walk away from. While my neighbors’ red-state politics and overt racism is the cause of arguments and hard feelings, we took advice from a black friend: “Why should only bigots get to enjoy the beach and the sunshine?”
The beach has been my retreat. Three hundred yards from my front door, “our” beach is home to sea turtles, shore birds, and ghost crabs. After years of stressful living in the Northeast, our retreat to Florida involves the hustle of working for ourselves, but also hours spent on the beach, reading and writing. All my life, water has been cold. At the beach, ocean water temperatures in the 80s means that I’ve learned to float in the salt water, one of the few therapies I have found effective for the chronic migraines that have followed me down from my former life.
I don’t know where “being forced to evacuate” ranks on those lists of most stressful live events, but I would have to imagine that it is near the top. Right now, I hope that my house will still be standing when the sun rises on Saturday. If it is, I will be one of the lucky ones. I won’t be a resident of Aleppo or Kinshasa, forced to flee civil war and unable to go home again. For me, evacuation has reminded me, again, of my true size in the universe. The ocean that soothed my aching head on Monday would be indifferent about drowning me in my own home today. My hope is that my neighbors are not learning that lesson firsthand because they thought they were bigger than Mother Nature.
Lorraine Berry's work appears at such outlets as the Guardian, Raw Story, LitHub, and Talking Writing, where she is a contributing editor. She and her partner run amberSands Creative. Find her on Twitter @BerryFLW.