As Hurricane Irma bears down upon many helpless American citizens, this story is dedicated to those who were unable to evacuate in time — or who have family, homes, or businesses in harm’s way. I want to share that there is always hope, though not necessarily from the sources one might expect.
During the ravages of Hurricane Ivan in 2004, I lived with my husband and then-teenage son in North Carolina, in a small village of hardy mountain folk at the extreme southwestern part of the Smoky Mountains. Despite warnings to evacuate (there were no shelters in our area or anywhere near us), my husband refused, and ultimately our little family had no choice but to ride it out.
I’m not the sort of person to argue when it’s impossible to change anyone’s position, but this did not sit well with me. Growing up in a small New Jersey town during some terrible hurricanes years ago, I knew the risk of tornados was a dire matter.
I recalled one tornado when I was about six. The first sense of “oh no” came when every bird vanished. The eerie silence, along with the sky — a sickly yellow — was so odd. I can still recall how my dad, a successful independent insurance adjuster who specialized in hurricanes, knew what to do. He made sure Mom, me and my baby sister were all safely ensconced in a cellar that he had built under our home specifically for this purpose.
Yet when 2004’s Hurricane Ivan was on the way, my family situation was very different. Our North Carolina home had no cellar. Moreover, our 1930s-built house was terribly vulnerable. It was a wood-framed structure, and its wraparound front porch and tin roof provided little protection.
My son, who is deaf, was blessed that night by his condition. Although I had explained what tornadoes could do, his “So what?” expression said it all. He had never experienced anything like it. And all was quiet at that time — no wind, rain, or weird skies.
After dinner, my husband and son went to bed; they were both heavy sleepers. But I did the only thing I could think to do in my circumstances and as a faithful Roman Catholic: I stayed up for the long haul and got down on my knees.
As I began to recite the rosary, I recall shaking with terror, but as time passed my fear melted into a feeling that I wasn’t alone.
As other hurricane victims have described, the sound of a tornado of this enormity is as loud as a freight train.
At about 3 a.m., I heard the first sounds of a rip-roaring tornado headed our way. Our electricity cut out and the wailing winds banged against our windows. The tin roof sounded like it was being pulled off its hinges.
Then Ivan’s fury hit full tilt.
As many other hurricane victims know, the sound of a tornado of this enormity is as loud as, if not louder than, a freight train.
I just kept praying: “Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed art Thou …”
All I heard was a freight train of terror headed toward our front door.
This is my memory, of course, something I’ve carried with me since that frightening time; everyone’s experiences and circumstances will be different, and I’m no weather expert or scientist. Getting to safety and security is always the smartest thing to do, and I’m simply sharing what happened to me. I do know that time seemed to stop, and eventually, the vicious wind appeared to turn away from our home and the terrifying sound became more and more distant.
At that point, I ran to check on my family. My husband and son were still in dreamland, as if this were just an ordinary evening at home. I cried tears of joy and gratitude to God that we had remained safe, but I was also worried about others around us — our friends, our neighbors.
At dawn, I saw devastation in our neighborhood, including of a nearby favorite restaurant — gone. Our home, land and outbuildings had somehow made it through, though we were still out of electricity.
My son’s reactions were telling.
In addition to his deafness, he suffered from severe allergies, including asthma; he also had Asperger Syndrome. So when he awoke and came outside, he began signing in fury at the destruction he saw: “How could this happen to my neighbors and friends?”
Never underestimate your love of family — or God’s grace.
Then he grabbed his chest. He was having a full-blown asthma attack. I screamed for my husband’s help.
With my son’s medications at the ready and now dispensed, he sucked in a large swallow of air — and was OK. I kept checking him and ultimately got him settled down; he soon fell asleep again.
A that point, my husband set off with a group of friends to aid anyone else who needed help in the storm’s wake. At day’s end, not a soul in our area was lost.
If you or someone you know is staring into Hurricane Irma’s terrifying abyss — or is already enduring wind, rain and nature’s fury — never underestimate your love of family. Never underestimate the grace and mercy of God. Never give up, no matter what. This hurricane is 300 miles wide, the experts say, and the evacuations in Florida are believed to one of the state’s largest. It is extremely serious and will continue northward. Stay safe wherever you are, do all you can to protect yourself and your loved ones, be smart and practical — and hold onto faith.
The author, a retired attorney, is a published poet, writer, and columnist based in Arizona.