Tuesday, September 19, 2017

What to expect when you are expecting a hurricane

Well, this is a knitting blog and I’ll try to keep it mostly about knitting. And yes, I’ve been knitting lately and have some finished projects to share. But today I decided to talk about the last hurricane – Irma – because I keep getting messages, mails, calls, and posts on my Facebook wall with questions about it. I had to write this all down and get it out of my system and this is my blog, so I can do as I please. Plus, some people who are going through difficult times can relate to my experiences and feel less lonely or, maybe, use my “anxiety avoidance” techniques. After all, that is why I keep posting here. When I started writing and getting feedback it made me feel more normal or mainstream, more connected in the broad sense of the word. It turned out there are quite a few kindred spirits in different parts of this world who have same taste in knitting and same priorities in life.
One more disclaimer – there will be no pictures in this post. I don’t like blogs without pictures myself but, sorry, they don’t seem to be appropriate this time. So, if you get easily bored without pictures, stop reading now. Today my goal is not to entertain but to give as much information as possible.
So here is my story and some “life lessons” that I hope could be useful to anyone in an extremely stressful situation.
We went to the Florida Keys several days before we learned about Irma and were supposed to spend a week there putting some finishing touches to our new house. We had return plane tickets and a rented car with a full tank, so when the mandatory evacuation was announced (all residents got the message) we were ready. And it was announced 5 (!!!) days before the storm was supposed to hit. So we had plenty of time to get ready for a hurricane’s arrival as well as we could while waiting for the time of our departure. It was our first hurricane on Keys so we were a little amateurish. Next time we’ll be better prepared for sure.
How did we feel knowing that our new house that we spent 3 years building and surrounding area are going to be right in the eye of a hurricane? Well, you can imagine. If you cannot (and apparently a lot of people couldn't because they kept asking me) I’ll tell you.
1) I discovered that the expression “calm before a storm” is literally what happens before a storm. The weather was great, everything was beautiful, peaceful, and quiet. It was hard to believe that something of that magnitude was coming. 
2) I knew that soon we’ll have to leave and the amount of damage from the storm could prevent us from staying there, at least for a while, so I tried to enjoy and cherish every moment.
3) Didn’t work, because anxiety and fear have a paralyzing effect, at least on my brain. Somehow, anticipating something that hasn’t happened yet is more difficult than dealing with the aftermath of a disaster. For a while the only thing you are able to do is looking into a void or playing a solitaire.
4) Sleep becomes a luxury. It is not difficult to fall asleep but much more difficult to stay asleep.
But stress, almost like sex, gets better and easier with age. All my life anxiety and panic have been my faithful companions so I had to learn how to deal with them. No, I don’t know how to “keep calm”, I am all shaking and nervous inside, but I certainly can “carry on” as usual because this is the only thing that helps you to get through days (and nights).
I learned that the best thing to survive the anticipation is to keep as busy as possible and to go on through all the routine things that you normally do. It is hard, especially at the beginning, but this is the best remedy from panic and depression. Also, exercise. You’ve got to exercise as much as possible – the endorphins work their magic and life doesn’t look too bleak after a long walk or a good swim. And you sleep much better.
I was able to knit. To my own surprise I knit quite a lot while we were traveling home to Pennsylvania and waiting for the hurricane to finally happen. And afterwards. Knitting helps with focus. 
I don’t remember ever trying so many new, time consuming recipes. Somehow cooking took a lot of nervous energy from my body. And, since I had to taste my food all the time, it helped with eating because I kind of lost my appetite for a while.
To avoid: watching news on TV. That was the best thing that I could do to keep my cool. All necessary information about the upcoming event you can find on National Hurricane Center’s website, you don’t need a TV for it. This is where the news companies actually get their weather reports which they all embellish with colors, graphics, and sound and present as “breaking news”. The media made people scared. It is useful if you want them to leave the dangerous area but after a while it gets old and a little bit over the top. I was sitting in Miami International Airport with my back to a TV set. Every time somebody would sit across and start watching TV I could see how their faces changed. From calm and sober they became scared, fearful, and sad. I wish they would give some useful information, like where we could find gas, food, and water. Which airlines still have tickets and to what destination. Which hotels, motels, or b&b still had vacancies.
Normally I am not a big fan of Facebook but during the crisis time it became totally unbearable. Yet, at some point, my husband found there a group of Keys residents and it was an enormous help. We got all the information from there: regular posts from local government officials, many survival tips, video and photo reports immediately after the disaster, rules and regulations of how to get back, everything. I cannot thank enough people who posted there.
Unfortunately, people who don’t live in the affected area kept watching the dramatic news coverage and we started receiving messages like “Get out of there!”. “What are you still doing there!”, “Are you crazy!” in droves. Some of them – at 2 or 3 AM. Because we have friends in Europe and Russia, and they were so worried about our safety that the idea of time difference and the fact that we might be asleep didn’t cross their minds. Some people were so terrified and emotional (not our relative, btw), that it took a while and several messages back and forth to calm them down.
I am infinitely thankful to all the people who reached to us before and after the hurricane: there were so many, I was genuinely surprised. And at some point my husband even said: “I am suddenly glad that we don’t have that many friends because I am not sure how many more times I can repeat the same things”. Yes, that’s us – mean and sarcastic as usual!
We were perfectly safe all the time. Our house and all houses built with accordance to the last Florida building code withstood the 100 m/h wind, rain, and surge without significant damage. To all my “snow birds” friends who read this blog – all Keys residents, knitting club members, that I know, still have their houses.
There was a trailer park right next to our property that was hit the most. And that was the place where all the correspondents parked and took the pictures that were constantly reproduced on TV. I immediately recognized the place and was appalled at how wrong and non-informative this “information” was. It didn’t help anyone, it was false by omission (most houses are standing), it was depressing and negative. 
A couple of days after Irma hit the Keys I felt almost sick when in doctor’s waiting room I heard two ladies discussing who was hit most – Huston or Florida Keys (like there was a competition) – and deciding that it was definitely Huston. Ladies, no one besides the first responders, was allowed to go to the most destroyed and damaged places on Florida Keys, definitely not  TV people, so you have no idea about the real damage and cannot even talk about it (these were my thoughts but of course I didn’t say it aloud). I do find it a very bad taste to make a humanitarian crisis a topic of small talk. But then I’ve been always exceptionally bad at small talk.
When I saw the pleas from newspapers correspondents to eye witnesses from Florida to call or to write to them because they needed information for their articles (again, it was on Facebook, of course), I got just angry. If you want to write about something, go there and eye witness it yourself. Otherwise, it is very easy to retranslate something that is not exactly true, or only partially true.
I understand that disasters get particularly good ratings so they will always be a major part of news circle. And schadenfreude is still inherent to human nature even though during Middle Ages it was considered to be a sin. If you absolutely have to watch this type of “news” and become emotional seeing other people’s suffering, here is the best solution – send money to the charities in the affected area. Money can really help and you’ll be able to sleep better.
As to the conversations like “Who were the idiots that stayed on Keys through the hurricane?” and “Why would you want to live in a place like that?, I shudder inside when I hear them.
You don’t know the situation and other people’s reasons; you cannot possibly imagine the risks and rewards of staying there, so it is not for you to judge.
And people live everywhere. In Georgia where sometimes it is unbearably hot, and Alaska or Canada where sometimes it is unbearably cold. In Pennsylvania even, where every winter there are snow storms, and no electricity, schools and roads are closed, and you cannot leave your house. And in Florida Keys where sometimes there are hurricanes.
Florida Keys will be rebuilt and people will be always living there because it is an incredibly beautiful place and because all locals are incredibly resilient people.  Now, I promised no pictures this time but I have one – sunflowers for my friends from the Keys.
We are alive and it means we’ll be fine. Eventually. Right?
And I will write about knitting soon. It's a promise.