Things I learned during Hurricane Matthew

Do bring a towel.

In case you missed it, last week Hurricane Matthew plowed through the Caribbean and up the Atlantic coast, hammering Haiti, the Bahamas, Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas.

Having spent a lot of time on the coast both as a child and an adult, I’m not someone who is easily spooked by bad weather. Most of the time, storms like this are predicted to hit Jacksonville and then they “nope” at the last second. I think most of us assumed it would be the same thing this time. According to a neighbor, the last bad hurricane Jax saw was Dora in 1964.

On Wednesday night, the storm was predicted to make landfall on Friday in the West Palm Beach area (almost 300 miles away) as a category 3. Devon and I decided that we didn’t feel it looked serious enough for us to evacuate. However, by Thursday morning, Matthew was still a category 4 with the predicted path showing landfall in the Daytona Beach area, about 90 miles south of us. The governor of Florida and mayor of Jacksonville started telling people to GTFO. The words “catastrophic” and “unprecedented” were being thrown around. You and everyone you love are going to die!

matthew

With a storm front preceding the hurricane, the weather was already beginning to turn nasty as early as Thursday morning. Torrential rains were due to arrive later that evening and continue until the storm had passed on Saturday. Our home is actually on an island, as the beaches are separated from mainland Jacksonville by the intracoastal waterway. I left work around noon, and when I got home, found out that the predicted wind intensity would have both the intracoastal and the ocean sending water into my neighborhood. We decided that it would be better to go inland and ride out the storm safely away from any potential flooding. It was already too late to leave Jacksonville, since I-10 westbound had become a parking lot filled with frantic people attempting to evacuate.

Luckily we had a few hours to prepare the house and get ourselves, our dog, and some belongings safely off the island. While Devon nailed plywood over the windows and sandbagged the doors, I scrambled to pack, having to make split second decisions about what I considered valuable enough to take. What I brought with me was not the most expensive stuff I own, but sentimental things I knew I would be devastated to lose. Working under a worst-case scenario of the downstairs flooding, I frantically removed all the art, books, electronics, etc. and put them upstairs. (I figured if we had water in our second floor then we’d have bigger things to worry about than some soaked paintings.)

Life Hack: Protect precious, fragile heirlooms by storing them in the washing machine.
Life Hack: Protect all your precious, fragile heirlooms by storing them in the washing machine.

We left the beach around 5pm on Thursday and went to “hunker down” with a friend who lives further inland. All we could do was wait it out.

I get it now.

In 2005 when Katrina hit, I was an armchair observer in another state, and I didn’t understand why those people wouldn’t “just leave,” why some of them insisted on riding the Titanic to the bottom of the ocean — why they voluntarily remained behind to die. After living in New Orleans, and reading some books / talking to people about their storm experiences, I became more sympathetic, but I still didn’t really get it.

Now I do. I get it. There is nothing, NOTHING, as indescribably bad as watching your town flooding on TV and not being able to do a damn thing about it. I wanted to be in my house because some primitive part of my brain insisted that I’d somehow be able to protect it (from water, wind, or looters) if I’d stayed. Of course I couldn’t, and that was the worst part. The rational part of my brain was glad we did leave the beach, but as the storm bared down on Jacksonville, all we could do was sit and wait. My home, the place in which I’ve invested every damn penny of my literal life savings, not to mention hours and hours of work with my own two hands — not knowing if it will even be habitable after the storm — that’s not something I would wish on anyone. We didn’t want to leave our house because it’s not just a brick and mortar building where we keep our replaceable, mass produced consumer goods. This house is truly our child, our baby. We created it. You know how this feels, if you’ve ever made something with your own blood, sweat, and tears.

We were lucky that the hurricane did not ever make landfall in Florida, and when it passed by Jax, had been downgraded back to a cat 3. However, the sand dunes were chewed up by storm surges, and Jacksonville’s beaches lost part of the pier and a few boardwalks. Some local businesses lost their awnings and parts of their roofs, but nothing irreparable. Devon and I were able to return to the island by Saturday afternoon when the bridges reopened, and our house was safe and sound. Our friends’ houses received no damage either, but others weren’t so fortunate. The ocean flooded homes and washed away parts of the road all down Highway A1A. Daytona Beach, St. Augustine, and the surrounding areas were hit particularly hard. One video I saw showed parts of a hotel building in Daytona just… peeling off and falling into the street.

(Not my photo) Storm surges in Flagler Beach washed out sections of A1A.
(Not my photo) Storm surges in Flagler Beach washed out sections of A1A.

Last summer we had to hurricane strap the whole house, as per city code — which ate up a lot of our renovation budget. I hated having to spend all that money on things I couldn’t even see, since the straps are all hidden in the rafters and behind drywall. However, as soon as the hurricane came this way, I was insanely grateful that the city had forced us to add the straps. Even though Matthew was not as destructive as originally predicted, and hurricanes that bad rarely do come to Jacksonville, I think we will soon be investing in some storm shutters for all the windows. (Plus it will give us a discount on our insurance, which is always nice.)

Close up of metal strapping on ceiling beams in the garage.
Close up of metal strapping on ceiling beams in the garage.

But speaking of insurance —

Storm surges are NOT covered by your homeowner’s insurance.

Seriously. As a first-time homeowner, I was under the impression that natural disasters were all covered under a regular insurance policy — and they mostly are, with the exception of flooding. Despite being at the beach, our house is actually not in a designated “flood plain” (meaning regular, predictable flooding) for insurance purposes. Even though we didn’t flood, I feel like it was mostly just through luck. If the storm had hit us with its originally predicted intensity, things would have been bad — and for many other A1A residents, it was that bad. This experience has only reinforced to me the value of additional flood coverage. (For you non-coastal residents, this also includes flash floods, such as those experienced by many people in the Carolinas as a result of Hurricane Matthew.)

One silver lining to this storm cloud is that during the worst hours of the hurricane, when many people didn’t have power or running water, friends were still able to check in and mark themselves as “safe” on Facebook. People who still had access to heavily affected areas were able to post videos on Twitter and Snapchat showing storm damage as it occurred in real time. I’ve never been quite as thankful for smartphones and our 24/7 “social media culture” as I was during this hurricane. It warms my cold, dead heart to see the internet being used for good instead of just for trolling.

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