We lived (in Florida) through Hurricane Irma- the largest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. The power outage led to the one of the greatest recovery efforts due to a natural disaster in history.
So many people lost so much, and I cannot imagine what they are going through right now. My family was fortunate enough to have only minor damage to our home—but we still went through an ordeal.
It has been one week since the storm hit, and it that time I’ve learned a lot. Here are the 10 lessons I learned during the storm and our subsequent escape to Disney World: the good, bad, and the ugly.
Do not underestimate how scared you can be during a storm, in the dark. I live in Orlando. On Sunday night, when the storm started coming and the power went out (for us around 9 p.m.) we had been told the eye of the storm was going to go up the west coast of Florida. Due to the size of the storm, we would definitely be affected no matter where it went. People from south Florida and Tampa came to our city for safety. Hurricanes are terribly unpredictable—and at the last minute the storm came north (rather than west.) We were in the dark, literally and figuratively. We had no idea what was going on. All we could hear, while all three of my kids slept on the floor of our room, was howling winds like I’d never heard before. It was pitch black outside and in the house. Tornado warnings kept going off on our phones. I didn’t sleep for one minute. It was absolutely terrifying. I’ve lived through several hurricanes—this wasn’t like any of those.
When the power goes out with kids, it really sucks. When everyone woke up in the morning, we waited for the storm to end, and we went outside and met our neighbors to assess the damage. We had roof damage and a leaky roof, the balcony had fallen from the second floor, and debris was everywhere, but the house was fine. Trees were down everywhere, and the street to enter our neighborhood was flooded. Once the kids finished exploring, we fed them granola bars and muffins and things we had bought in preparation for the power outage. Then the house started to get hot—really, really hot—like September in Florida hot— and I wanted to leave. We picked up my parents, found one of a few open restaurants, and when we returned home and tried to get ready for bed, we realized there was no way we could sleep without air conditioning. Thankfully my aunt had gotten her power back already, so we packed a bag and took the kids there for the night.
Having a kid with special needs during a hurricane makes life exponentially more challenging. My son, who has high-functioning autism and general anxiety disorder, was not handling all of this very well. School was cancelled, the house had no power, and his routine was disrupted. No matter how many times we talked about it beforehand, I don’t think he understood the scope of what we were preparing for. He really just wanted to be left alone in his hot room until the power was back on. We had no idea when that was going to happen, which is another challenge for a kid who needs as much information as possible. We had to do something to distract him, and fast.
Cancelled school for a week means things are bad, and aren’t getting better. During the day on Tuesday, while I was enjoying the sweet air conditioning and company of a friend who invited us for an impromptu play date, I got an automated call that our schools would be closed for the rest of the week. At that point I got the feeling that the school board knew something we didn’t: Power wasn’t coming back for a while and we needed a new plan.
Disney World is in fact the happiest place on Earth. After searching high and low nearby, there were no hotels available. I did a Hail Mary and called Disney and was able to book a hotel for that night— so I did. We ran home and packed two days’ worth of clothes in duffel bags in the dark with flashlights (picture what it would feel like to loot your own home.) We checked into our hotel with many other hurricane evacuees, and while waiting on the LONG line (at 9:30 at night) I saw the famous Disney buttons that they give you if you are celebrating a birthday or a special occasion. I joked with the woman next to me in line that they should give us buttons that said we were celebrating surviving Hurricane Irma and enjoying hot showers and air conditioning. When I got to the desk, the employee had heard me, and had buttons made up for me. He had obviously been working insanely hard for God knows how many hours, and still managed to work that Disney charm to make me smile.
When my daughter told Cinderella that the lights at our house were out, Cinderella told us to “stay in the castle as long as you’d like.”
No matter how old you are, asking your Dad to bring you tampons is awkward. After two days of our stay at Disney, we still didn’t have power at home, and we needed to extend our stay. Our supplies were running low, so my parents (who had evacuated to my aunt’s house) offered to pack us a suitcase and send it with a friend who was also jumping on the “no power-come-to-Disney” bandwagon.
My Dad entered my hot, dark house and FaceTimed me while I told him what to put into a suitcase. After he packed my kids’ things, I directed him to our bedroom. I knew what was coming, and I just had to power through. I said, “In the closet please grab a few T-shirts for me and John, a baseball cap from the shelf, and please grab the box of tampons near the toilet and throw them in the suitcase.” I thought maybe bunching it in with a few other things would be less awkward. Bless his sweet heart, he did as he was told and showed me the box of tampons up on my screen to confirm that was what I needed. “Yep, that’s them” I replied. But it was going to get worse: “Dad, please grab a few pairs of socks and underwear for John and then grab a few pairs of underwear in my drawer—whatever you grab is fine and throw them in the suitcase.” He then proceeded to show me my own underwear over FaceTime, accidentally grabbing a bra along the way: “It’s fine Dad—just throw them in there,” I said. “Honestly, whatever you grab is fine.” No matter how many times he tried to confirm that what he was packing was correct, I just kept saying: “That’s fine, just put them in there.” I just wanted it to be over.
Distraction is the best medicine sometimes. We visited the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, the pool at our hotel, the arcade, and Disney Springs: anything we could do to keep the kids occupied. My super anxious kid, who had been ready to lock himself in his room, started to forget that his world was upside down. He welcomed the distraction. He still asked several times a day if the power was on yet. He also wished everything could go back to normal. But…he held it together.
You can be grateful for what you have, and really ticked off at the same time. Somewhere around Day 3 of our new gypsy life, I started to get cranky. So many of my friends had posted on Facebook how happy they were to have power back. I knew how many thousands of lives were devastated (especially in the Caribbean) and I realized how lucky we were that our major issue was losing electricity, but I just wanted normal life back. I recognized how lucky I was that we were able to be at Disney World, but I didn’t want to be there. You can have all of these feelings at the same time. It doesn’t make you a bad person.
You can prepare for a hurricane without freaking out. In Florida, hurricanes are a fact of life. When I was pregnant with my first son we saw three hurricanes rip through central Florida in a matter of a few weeks. Each time people panicked, there was no food or water to be found, and gasoline was impossible to find. As Irma approached, it became clear that due to her size, we were going to be impacted. I bought water and dry goods, I filled up my car with gas, and urged my husband to start to panic a little bit with me. He wouldn’t. He was born in Florida, and he knows that there’s no predicting a hurricane, and he knew that he could do all of the prep he needed the day before the storm. While the rest of Florida collectively freaked out, he calmly filled our propane tanks, cleared the yard, and secured our patio furniture. As much as it pains me to say it, he was right. Absolutely nothing would have changed if he had freaked out.
Never underestimate the kindness of strangers. I’ve never seen such an outpouring of kindness and generosity—neighbors helping each other, residents bringing power linemen food and drinks after days and days of hard work, businesses opening their doors offering relief from the heat, food, and water. My social media feed, which had recently been filled with constant hurricane updates, was now filled with story after story of people helping each other.
Four days after the power went out, we got the call from our neighbors that the lights were back on. Our kids were thrilled to come home. We packed our hotel room up as quickly as possible and headed home at 9 p.m., just so that we could sleep in our own beds.
The next morning, my son curled up on the couch with his favorite blanket to watch a movie. He turned to me and said, “I’m so happy.” Me too kid, me too.