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No Safe Place in a Storm

Tonight my heart is heavy.

This has been such a traumatic week. Last Thursday, my husband, two dogs, and I packed up and left our home in Naples, FL. We didn’t plan to go. We planned to hunker down and ride out the category 5 storm that Irma was at the time. For days we watched Irma’s progress. On Wednesday night, after talking with my daughter, who was so worried about her mother’s safety, we threw as much as we could into our car and headed north to Atlanta.

The trip was horrendous. We spent 20-hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic trying to get somewhere that usually takes 8. Others took much longer. Cars broke down along the side of the road, without fuel. Evacuees lined up around the block, waiting for gas stations to open once they received gas. Sadly, these stations had to turn people away who had waited for hours, after they again ran out of fuel.

My older cousin, whose husband was in the hospital following a stroke, was told to leave his side and find shelter. She started the long trip through Florida trying to find a non-existent hotel to stay for the night. I was on the phone frantically trying to help her find a room, a gas station with fuel, or even a shelter that allowed pets.

Many of our friends, who were veterans at dealing with hurricanes, stayed in their homes. Despite their prior experience, they were frightened for their lives. We were frightened for their lives too. And these friends and family, who had remained in their homes or who were still on the road desperately trying to get out of harms way, were solidly on our minds and in our hearts as we watched Irma close in.

Underlying all of this was the frightening realization that we could lose everything.

The evacuees that we encountered in gas stations and in the hotel were so supportive. For a few days, we forgot about the division and dysfunction in our government and the anger in our country. We connected with each other on a personal level because of the immediate threat and our common fears. Thankfully, the people that we met in Atlanta could not have been kinder as they welcomed us with open arms and offered us shelter and food.

We were struck by the irony that while we were running from something so frightening and other states opened their hearts to us, there are many people fleeing counties where wars are raging, and we are turning them away. They and their families are losing everything they have, but must also risk losing their lives by being forced to stay in a dangerous country. Young people who were brought here as children, and have lived in this country for most of their lives, are afraid they will be forcefully sent to live somewhere else that is not their home.

I cannot imagine how I would’ve felt had we reached the Florida/Georgia line and been told we were not welcome. That we had to turn back to the storm. I realize that this traumatic, yet relatively short-lived, experience is something others endure for years, and my heart breaks for them.

Thankfully for us, Hurricane Irma spared southwest Florida the complete devastation promised by a Category 5 hurricane, and was downgraded. With a slight change in her path, Irma spared us of the life threatening storm surge we were told to expect. That doesn’t mean that we weren’t affected, displaced from our homes due to damage and loss of power and out of work. Many people in smaller communities of SW Florida will not be able to return to their homes for some time and don’t have a comfortable place to stay while they wait. We are going through a lot of pain and suffering right now. But in comparison to what could have been, we were lucky this time. This is tragically something that many people in Puerto Rico, Cuba, St. Maartin, smaller islands in the Caribbean, and Houston (completely devastated by Hurricane Harvey weeks before) cannot say.

I don’t know what is in our future. I know that right now we are okay, and that we are alive, and I am forever grateful for that. We have a relatively comfortable place to stay while we are displaced from our home. This was not Florida’s first rodeo, and although it will take time, we will rebuild our homes and our lives.

But tonight, I lay awake thinking about how life can change in the blink of an eye; how a comfortable life can suddenly be upended and, through no fault of our own, we can lose everything. I think about how this is happening on a greater scale to many families in our country that were hit harder by the storms and to many people throughout our world whose lives are impacted by storm, war, famine, and disease. And maybe even more humbling, I think about how many people don’t have a safe place to turn in their storm.

Tonight, my heart is heavy, and I will allow myself to sit with this heaviness. I know that this is the uncomfortable part of healing. Tomorrow, I will find the energy to do something constructive about it.