The first thing I noticed is that the birds were gone. Normally, on a calm, bright, perfect beach day like this, on the barrier island where I live in Fort Lauderdale, the tropical fruit trees in my yard would be filled with singing and chattering of mockingbirds, blue jays, and cardinals. But today was silent, except for the near-constant chiming of notifications on my phone: Texts, voicemails, missed calls, news alerts all telling me — begging me — to “just get out” of South Florida. But as the record-breaking, Category 5 Hurricane Irma throttles the Caribbean on a collision course with South Florida, the home I dearly love, I am staying put.
I am the least reckless person you’ll ever meet. I don’t take risks, and I make carefully measured decisions. So why am I, the mother of a 6-year-old, defying the orders to leave the state and facing a catastrophic storm head on? Because I have no other choice. And neither do millions of others who find themselves unfortunately trapped in the path of natural disasters.
Friends and family members have been calling me all day. Acquaintances, some I’ve never met, have offered to put us up in distant cities.
“Just leave!” they all plead. “Come stay with us in Seattle!” … “Catch the next flight out.” … “Get in the car and start driving.”
If only evacuating was that simple.
Trust me, if I could have, I would be comfy and cozy with relatives in California or Delaware. The sad truth that many don’t understand is that leaving is a special kind of privilege. Only the wealthiest people I know are the ones who got out. I watched helplessly as a woman I know posted Instagram photos as she boarded a private jet, adorably sedated Pomeranian in hand, to spend the weekend in New York. Another mother, currently vacationing in Europe, lamented on Facebook about purchasing a new return ticket to the Midwest instead of Miami. Others are holed up in luxury hotels well out of harm’s way, driving rental cars, not worrying about the cost of travel, food, or entertaining their kids.
It must be nice, and I have to admit that I am more than a little jealous. The rest of us, though — the ones without so many options at their fingertips — are stuck, and we have to make the best of it. So now is not the time to judge.
I’m not rebelliously refusing to evacuate out of some misguided, delusional sense of optimism. I know all too well that this storm is very likely to change my family’s life forever. The reasons why people like me stay are complicated.
A good friend of mine, the mother of two preschoolers with a third child on the way, posted a status update explaining that the well-meaning demands of friends to leave, as well as offers of far off places to stay, aren’t helpful. Another friend commented that she “can’t deal with family living far away and thinking that we have options. The pressure is just more stress.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Evacuation costs a lot. On Tuesday, we tried to book flights that were $250 one way (already more than we can afford), but by the time we made it through the reservation process on the website, the cost had already rocketed to over a thousand dollars. Airline price gouging during natural disasters is real and needs to stop. Don’t tell me about the JetBlue $99 flights — those sold out long before anyone had a chance to share those articles on social media. The people I knew who could afford thousands of dollars in last-second airfare are the ones who left. I don’t have that kind of disposable income. I just drained my savings on an emergency root canal last month.
Driving isn’t much easier, either. After all, there’s no gas. I know friends who drove out only to find themselves stranded for hours desperately waiting for fuel trucks to arrive at gas stations where the waiting lines snaked a half a mile down the road. Highways became parking lots. The danger of predators, thieves, and con artists in these situations is a true threat that must be considered, too. I’ve heard horror stories. Another thing to remember is that not everyone has reliable transportation, or transportation at all, or a vehicle that can fit all of their family members at once.
And then there are those of us who are forced to stay behind because of work. Only a lucky percentage has jobs that allow them the flexibility to leave for an extended period of time, or to work remotely. A terrible reality for so many, especially those in the service industry, is that if we don’t show up the moment our jobs reopen, we get fired. People living paycheck to paycheck can’t take that risk. As an adjunct instructor, I need to be ready the day classes are back in session.
When you find yourself facing a situation like this, making what could be a life or death situation is agonizing. I’ve lost five pounds this week alone, just from the anxiety of second guessing myself. With so many variables to consider, and so much at stake — most important being the well-being of my only child — it’s hard to know the right actions to take. Storm prediction is frustratingly uncertain, and we can’t know well enough in advance where it will go and when.
Based on Wednesday’s track, I have friends who fled to the west coast and Central Florida, only to wake up this morning and find that Irma’s path has now shifted to cross over the exact areas where they’ve evacuated. Others are in Atlanta, which, as of Friday afternoon, has also been forecast to take a direct hit. A slight wobble could take the hurricane’s eye back over my city.
A resident of Pompano Beach that I chatted with online explains that those of us who must stay behind “need to feel good about our choice and not get harassed and freaked out by everyone telling us to leave.” Right now, judgment is the last thing we need. Those of us who couldn’t evacuate the state are trying to get through this so that we can begin the inevitable rebuilding process as soon as possible.
On Thursday, knowing that our home was in imminent danger of storm surge, we left and went to the nearby home of a friend who lives on higher ground. “Run from the water,” is what I’ve always heard, because the No. 1 cause of death during hurricanes is drowning. Is it ideal? Probably not, but it’s the best we’ve got right now, and we’ll be close to home, so the instant we get the word that it’s safe to venture back onto our island, we’ll be able to get to our house, assess the damage, and plan the next step.
I’ve never been religious, but the best I can do right now is pray.
Car packed with irreplaceable old photos, my daughter’s most beloved toys, and our pet fish, we drove a short seven miles to our friend’s house to hunker down. The sun beat down on our little car, and again I noted the silence of everything except my phone. As I said goodbye to my home, perhaps for good, a friend texted me, begging me to drive to Orlando, catch a flight to Boston to stay with her. I never replied.
If you want to help those of us affected by a natural disaster who aren’t able or can’t afford to get out, send us money, buy us those plane tickets, ship us water, food, or clothing. Help us replace our lost possessions, and comfort our children. Come down here and get us in your safe vehicles.
But please, reserve your judgment and show us compassion with actions, rather than panicked calls and texts that add to our anxiety. We are doing the best we can with what we’ve got.