While the rest of the nation is battling ice storms, blizzards, and the blistering cold, I feel like a jerk sitting here in Central Florida complaining that my air conditioner doesn’t work properly. “Shut up and open a window,” you might say. But unless you’re from here, you may not realize just what humidity really is. Unless you’re from here, you may not realize that we have our own set of weather-related problems. You see, Florida is a swamp, and much of it is below sea level. It wasn’t originally as populated as it currently is, but when people wanted to escape the cold, here was where they migrated. As such, people filled in the bogs and pits with sand and built houses on top of them. (That’s why we have so many sinkholes that swallow entire neighborhoods.) But, I digress.
In keeping with the Throwback Thursday theme, I’m reaching back a decade or so. It was the late summer of 2004 when we in Central Florida were pelted with devastating hurricanes, though I promise this post will make you smile by the end. On August 13, Hurricane Charley was expected to hit land in the Gulf Coast near the Tampa area as a Category 2 storm and then peter out. But what really happened was it hit land, then picked up speed and went directly across the state as a Category 4 storm.
I lived in downtown Orlando at the time, and as soon as we saw what was coming toward us, we had little time to prepare. When a storm of that magnitude is headed straight for you, you can expect the worst. If your roof isn’t ripped off or your house doesn’t collapse, consider yourself lucky. You can expect to lose power for not only the duration of the storm, but for up to weeks afterward. You can expect everything in your home to get soaking wet. We prepared by sealing all our CDs and DVDs in Ziploc bags and covering the TVs, computers, and other appliances with plastic tarps.
After that, we had to tape our windows (to keep glass from shattering if they were knocked out), gather water, and find a “safe room” with no windows. We had to pack an emergency kit with food, clothing, batteries, and flashlights. And we even had to put things such as toilet paper in plastic bags to keep it from getting wet. Additionally, we had to unplug just about everything electrical because when the power surges back on, it can damage the appliance permanently.
When Charley hit the Orlando area, it brought several tornadoes with it, leaving a lot of devastation in its wake. There were huge trees that were just uprooted or snapped in half. Walking around the neighborhood the following day, it looked like a war zone. Major streets were blocked, and many people couldn’t even leave their neighborhood for days.
It rained for days, and my house was without power for what seemed like an eternity. We had to cook on a grill on the porch in the rain, and we had only board games and a battery powered radio for entertainment. (My kids and I were lucky in that my sister Michelle collects old-time radio stories on MP3 discs, and we played those in the dark living room every night to help pass the time.) A State of Emergency was called by the governor, and there was a curfew imposed where we weren’t allowed to be on the road.
Worse yet, most of our stores and restaurants were also closed due to loss of power, and furthermore, trucks that carried supplies couldn’t even get through because of all the trees that blocked the roads. Firehouses gave away ice and water, and one or two stores had emergency generators. So we could (and did) actually shop in the dark, though the shelves were picked bare and there was no refrigerated or frozen food available. Schools and businesses also had limited openings, so it was difficult to even escape the heat and yuckiness by going to work or school. Even worse, my home at the time didn’t have screens. I had an indoor cat, and the neighborhood was polluted with outdoor cats, so opening the windows wasn’t even an option as we baked inside.
I was shopping in a candlelit grocery store for canned food to heat on my grill when I met a little old lady who was shopping for crackers. She told me a tree had fallen on her shed and she couldn’t even get to her grill, so all she had to eat was dry food. She mentioned the neighborhood where she lived, so later that night, my kids and I walked around until we found the house with the tree on the shed, then we brought her home with us to get some hot food. Her name was Miss Eydie, and she was so sweet. Months later, she still remained friendly with us, and bought us dinner as a thank you for our hospitality. In light of all the destruction around us, it was truly nice to see strangers helping each other, often by assisting them in clearing trees off their house or debris from their road that blocked them in.
The people in the entire downtown area looked like zombies as we felt forgotten by the rest of the world with our phone lines down, our cars blocked in, and no food or other necessities being shipped to us. After a few days of living like that, the neighborhood then started to smell rotten, and we became infested with flies and other such vermin as garbage trucks couldn’t even get to us. Also, as for the postman going through rain or sleet or gloom of night… well, let’s just say that their motto doesn’t include “hurricane aftermath” for a reason.
And just when things didn’t seem like they could get any worse, they did. We were hit by Hurricane Frances on September 5, followed by the heavy rains from Hurricane Ivan and then the tornadoes of Hurricane Jeanne later in the month. We were lucky enough to have had visitors from out of town bring us groceries as soon as they were able to get through the blockades of downed trees.
During this month-plus with no electricity, no air conditioning, no phone, and limited supplies, showering in the cold water should have felt good, but the water came out tepid and only made us feel stickier. Of course, we couldn’t wash our clothes, and we were quite ripe in the 100 to 110 degrees, so we were smelly and gross. Photos in frames wrinkled and stuck to the glass. Photos in albums curled. CD and DVD liner notes curled and stuck to the jewel cases. Food in the refrigerator and freezer went bad. And people (as well as pets) got dehydrated as it was unsafe for us to even drink water without boiling it first. At first, it was a habit to flip a switch when we walked into a dark room, but after a couple of weeks, we grew accustomed to having no power.
Now, I promised you an ending that would make you smile (and not just because my rambling on for so long is drawing to a close), so here it comes. I bet you thought I would say something cheesy like, “As it turned out, living from mid-August to late September with no power changed us. Our family pulled together and remained closer than ever, and we made other friends like Miss Eydie and learned to appreciate the small things in life…” No, that’s not it. The laughable ending is this…
Living for six weeks with no power and limited other resources sucked. And being so hot and dehydrated, we were too weak to even complain about it very much. It was difficult to fall asleep, though there wasn’t much else to do either. One night in late September, I was trying desperately to fall asleep when this darned bright light from the streetlamp on the corner shined brightly in my window. I grumbled to myself because that was the third night in a row that the blasted light interrupted my already un-peaceful slumber. And then it occurred to me. I bolted up suddenly and called out to my sister and my kids. THE ELECTRICITY HAD BEEN ON FOR OVER TWO DAYS! Because we’d unplugged everything in preparation for Charley, we never bothered to test and see if it was working yet; we just assumed it wasn’t. We had long stopped the practice of flipping lights when we entered a room and we’d grown accustomed to seeing in the dark, listening to old-time radio, and playing board games by candlelight. We had mastered the art of indoor camping.