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Irma, evacuation and the Katz family

RABBI JONATHAN KATZ
Guest Columnist
katz@lbknews.com

While you have surely heard many accounts of those who stayed in town, those who left have many of their own.  This is ours.

We had no intention of leaving when Irma (a name originating in the German meaning “War Goddess”) was destined to make landfall on Florida’s east coast.  But this changed when she shifted and took a path straight up the state’s Gulf Coast.

Though our home does not have hurricane shutters for its many windows, we still thought we would hunker down in a closet.  However, as Irma warnings became more dire we made a snap decision to jump in the car and drive to Atlanta where our nephew Brian and his wife Yang reside.  We considered going to a local shelter but didn’t want to be stuck there and were also concerned that it might lose power.

The normally eight hour trip took thirteen as a perpetual, slow moving wave of traffic swamped I-75 North.  Throughout the day and night convoys of ambulances, National Guard vehicles, tree company trucks and electric power trucks equipped with cherry pickers sped in the opposite direction heading directly into the storm.  We were concerned for the safety of these first responders and also grateful for their courage and determination to assist others.

Jonathan texted a friend that this was an Exodus noting that while the Israelites numbered 600,000 when they left Egypt we were one of 6.3 million trying to get out of harm’s way.  When my friend texted back “Dayenu” he kiddingly replied we’d left so fast we didn’t have time to squeeze our oranges for juice so we just took lots of them whole with us.

Speaking of what we took with us, Marty, being the planner she is, brought as much as she could think of.  All canned goods (and can opener!) that had been purchased for hunkering down at home, came with us.  As did every snack, a case of water bottles, several water jugs, three coolers stuffed with frozen food and more.  God forbid we should get stuck on the road without food and water!

At 9:30 p.m. we pulled into a rest area just south of Macon.  What a scene as it was packed with cars, many carrying extra gallons of gas on top of them.  But more than this, it was as if Noah’s Dog Ark had come to rest there.  Zillions of canines could be seen seeking to relieve themselves on any bush or open space around.  Our dear Oscar had a field day sniffing around the private parts of his animal kin, who all seemed quite welcoming.  We surmise that, like humans, dogs form a stronger sense of community in the face of a shared disaster experience as well.

An almost party-like experience characterized the scene with everyone recognizing they were all in the same boat.  A local Baptist church generously set up a buffet line offering a free meal of hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken nuggets, pizza, green beans and drinks. Church members also asked everyone getting out of their cars if they had a place to stay for the night.  Southern hospitality at its finest!

When we arrived at Brian and Yang’s house we quickly took to their comfortable basement bed.  How nice to be in a basement as they don’t exist in South Florida.  On Sunday morning Jonathan drove Emma to The Temple near downtown Atlanta so she could attend Confirmation Class there.  She was joined by a friend from Sarasota who belongs to our congregation and had also evacuated to Atlanta.  The class included other students who Emma knew from spending summers at Camp Coleman north of Atlanta. A reunion of refugees!

Brian is a Cleveland sports fanatic and so on Sunday afternoon, just as Irma began hitting close to home, we sat down on a comfortable couch to watch the Browns play the Steelers in front of a big screen tv.  And since Brian has the NFL package another smaller set showed the concurrent Bengals-Ravens game.  Although we tried to concentrate on the game, Marty went back and forth upstairs to the family room to watch the news. We were heartened to learn that Irma had taken a surprise jog to the east near Fort Myers and wouldn’t strike Sarasota head on.

Sarasota, in fact, has been remarkably fortunate when it comes to hurricanes.  There is a legend that long ago it had been designated as an especially sacred area by Native Americans who buried their dead in large numbers there as a way to bless the community and ward off danger.  Though archaeological investigation has shown that Sarasota was actually home to a fairly modest Native American population the legend lives on and now will only increase in mystique and power due to Irma’s last minute switch of direction.

During the game we fielded texts from people who had remained in their homes, sought safety in shelters or evacuated elsewhere.  One in a shelter wrote, “The human spirit is amazing.  We are in here with people from every socio economic group. There are mentally ill, homeless, wealthy, different nationalities. This is America.  Time to join together and treat each other with kindness and love.”

Another shared:  “There are 23 people and 3 dogs in one elementary schoolroom…very diverse, multiple cultures, multiple languages.  We’ve had discussions with many of our roommates over backgrounds, children, how long they’ve been here, what they’re fearful of (for most of us losing our home).  We share 2 bathrooms.  I guess the best way to describe it would be  a barnyard, various burping, farting, groaning, lights on, lights off, to the bathroom, back from the bathroom, whispering, and laughing  Humanity on display all while waiting for IRMA to see what our housing fate will be.”

An acquaintance of Marty texted she’d settled down in a shelter next to a woman who, after they’d gotten to know each other a bit, informed (i.e. warned) her that she has Tourette’s.  She also related that she’d never make it in jail and wasn’t even sure about a kibbutz.

We saw photos of people who had signs that said:  “Should have brought more beer” and “Need more wine.”  One shelter featured a harpist and a woman who led a meditation circle.

The woman who cleans our home texted she and her boyfriend had taken shelter at someone’s house that had several cats in residence.  Since the boyfriend is allergic to them she complained that all his coughing and sneezing were much louder than when Irma came through.

We did not do much in Atlanta except sleep, eat, and read texts from others who either stayed behind or left like us.  Jonathan also put a big hurt on Brian’s formerly full bottle of Bailey’s.  He drank it straight up and also put it in his coffee. We made a mean batch of chocolate chip cookies (thank you Brian & Yang for having every ingredient and then some!). And on Sunday night we sat around the kitchen table and played Texas Hold ‘em along with some Fireball Whiskey while listening to the Alexa-retrieved soundtrack from La La Land.  Emma played so well that we wouldn’t be surprised a trip to Las Vegas is in the cards in the not too distant future.

We were going to leave very early Tuesday morning but when we heard there was no gas we held off on going until just before noon.  I-75 was packed even worse than our trip up so we decided to get off and take parallel side roads.  This proved to be wise as we found gas and also enjoyed great scenery along the way.  However, as soon as we crossed the line into Florida the gas dried up.  We still had plenty but we wanted to top off so we could it make it all the way to Sarasota without requiring more.  Luckily, we found a tiny, mom-and-pop station in Madison, Florida that was open.  Since Jonathan attempted to get as much gas into the tank as possible, it kept spilling over a bit.  At one point Marty came over just as he was about done.  Some gas splashed on her shoes and she really smelled of gas.  Marty was not a happy camper!

Told that traffic had cleared near Gainesville we headed back to I-75.  Mistake.  It was still mobbed, with long lines at gas stations at the interchanges.  Nevertheless, we got back on and arrived home many hours later at 3:15 a.m. – a 16 hour drive!

Remarkably, while we had some limbs come down our house was spared.  In fact, even though the house lost power for twenty-four hours, there was little refrigerator spoilage and everything was saved in the freezer.  We dodged a bullet.

The stress of it all, even in our good circumstance, takes a toll. Every friend has a story. Some are still without power.  A few roofs are damaged.  Everyone has physical work cleaning up tree debris. And no one is sleeping well. But as our parents would say, “this too shall pass.”

This was an experience we will never forget. Nor will we forget the lessons that came out of it.  A reminder of what is important in life. In the flurry of packing to leave, Marty threw in her suitcase a beloved framed needlepoint of her mother’s from 50 years ago, that says “Home Is Where the Heart Is.” She discovered it unpacking at Brian’s after the long, stressful drive and yes, burst into tears.  When she told her friend Kenn who had also evacuated about the needlepoint, he responded, “well guess what I have in my car?  My parents!”  He had their ashes with him!  Yes, home is where your heart is…and the rest is just stuff!

The other lesson is the love of family and friends.  It was so heartwarming how many folks reached out with love and concern.  We felt surrounded by all of you.  Our many thanks for being with us on our Hurricane Irma journey!

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