Rain battered the metal garage door like a machine gun as I struggled with arthritic hands to tighten the clamp on the side rail, hoping to keep the door in place. Overhead, the roof shrieked like someone was rocking on a cat’s tail. The failing flashlight beam barely penetrated the tomb-like darkness. Seven hours hunkered down during Hurricane Ian, living the dream on the Suncoast of Florida.
I’ve survived several major hurricanes in New England and two tornadoes in the Midwest. But nothing compares to riding out a Category 5 in Florida with mobility issues compounding every obstacle. Unofficial estimates claim a sustained wind of 176 mph and the highest gust of 208 mph. It was a beaut.
I had a safe place to stay through the storm and for several days after at my sister’s vacant home only twelve miles away, but light years distant in terms of neighborhood destruction. My companion was a disabled neighbor from our hapless community. Because the storm shutters were in place, we sat in constant darkness, slightly illuminated only by the tiny light on my multi-function hand-crank emergency radio. We chatted, occasionally argued, and frequently laughed as we joked about our condition, drank wine, and ate peanut butter and crackers. We wondered if we would have homes left on return to our community.
Four days later, we cautiously drove through the littered streets, dodging nails and screws, past mounds of twisted aluminum that had once been our homes. Hers was damaged but habitable. Mine, only a hundred feet away, was completely destroyed.
Life is tough enough at 86 with orthopedic issues that bark with every move. So trying to salvage what I could from the wreckage and piece my Humpty-dumpty life back together again was a challenge I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
This is where I need to make choices. What really matters, and what is fluff from a previous life. Much of the wall art was still hanging, a little battered, but still colorful amid the collapsed ceiling and deep insulation that coated everything like a giant dust bunny. I looked at the upright bookcase, decided on a few items that meant something to my departed wife and placed them in a black plastic bag. Fortunately, she didn’t live to see this utter destruction of her memories. Degrees, awards, professional certificates, baby pictures of children now nearing middle age and a 1969 university yearbook all went in the trash pile. They don’t mean anything now. That life is over; I plan to travel light.
I had immense help from my healthy, marathon running, lap swimming, and yoga-doing brother-in-law, Johan, who saw this as another challenge. He tore into the debris like another hurricane, throwing furniture through a hole in the front wall and piling it curbside for pickup. He shoveled and raked the mass of sodden insulation and crumpled ceiling into piles clearing a path so we could retrieve my “office” and set me up again at his house. At one point, the exertion may have triggered a mini heart attack, and I sat in my car with the AC blasting, head back, gasping, and feeling intense pressure in my chest. With my critical stage Aortic Stenosis, I wondered, “Is this it?”
Not quite. I recovered and shoveled, lifted and carried, stacked aluminum sheets in a neighbor’s truck and helped offload at the salvage yard after a three-hour wait in the truck queue. The discarded piles of aluminum debris soared like Magic Mountain at Disneyworld. I was cut and bruised but happy that I could work through the pain and contribute. Two weeks after the storm, I’m living on minimal sleep, junk food, Gatorade and Ativan. My hips are burning, and my legs are weak as I continue the cleanup and prepare for the building demolition and sale of the empty lot. But I’m meeting this head-on. I’m pleased with what I’ve done with a weakened body still responding when crisis calls.
This disaster, too, will pass and fade into a bleached memory. I knew the risks when I moved here, gambled and lost. I plan to stay the winter and then return north to southern New England. My true home. Florida, for me, was just a series of houses, adventures, and misadventures.
The future is uncertain, but I’m still writing and getting published. I channeled my inner Ernie Hemingway to celebrate Ian and savor this six-word memory.
About the Author
Ed N. White attended Brown University, graduated from the University of Iowa, and earned an M.A. at the University of Rhode Island. His short stories and flash fiction have appeared in many national and international journals. He is a co-host of the popular local radio show Writers on the Air, and the creator of the Miss Demeanor series of middle-grade mysteries pseudonymously authored by Celia J., published by Histria Books. Unfortunately, his former home along the Myakka River in southwest Florida is resting quietly in the landfill.