She was born off the coast of Guiné-Bissau on Africa’s west coast and traveled 4,400 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to sabotage the comfortably routined lifestyles of Florida’s central heartland, the Disney region, the I-4 corridor. On her way to us, she destroyed the civilization of Barbuda then grew to twice the size of Florida’s last monstrous storm, Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
With a distinctly clear, 30-mile-wide eye, according to the New York Times, the outer eye-wall of Irma skirted Davenport, which is about 35 miles – as the crow flies – from Plant City, where the eye of Irma crossed I-4. Davenport got a beating from the worst side of Irma.
A fellow resident said he measured her speed. She was going 118 miles per hour in our neighborhood, a Category 1 hurricane. Irma was a multi-million-gallon demon of wind wailing her sonorous ass through our neighborhood over a period of 15 hours, mostly under cover of darkness.
I had spent the week before her arrival variously getting ready. I had been through Hurricane Charley in 2004 and nearly lost my garage door. It was a harrowing experience, my 140-pound body fighting with a Category 2 hurricane that was trying to take my door right out of my hands.
I had fortunately parked my truck inside the garage for safety from the storm. Weirdly enough, I saw some thick rope on the ground by the back tire. I grabbed it and with all my force, successfully tied the door to the back bumper of my truck.
I remembered that experience for Irma and decided to sand-bag the bottom of the garage door and secure it from the inside to keep it from moving even a fraction. I crossed my fingers that that’d be enough to save a 35-year-old, rickety metal door.
With my husband, we boarded our windows; tarped the top of our septic system tank to prevent saturation of the ground around it; filled sand bags; bought food, batteries, flash lights, you name it; we were ready. We heard of the mandatory evacuation for those in trailer homes, but for us, there was no notice in sight, so we stayed.
As Irma hurricaned its way up Florida’s west coast, it came into focus, my thought, which was, “I sure am lucky to live at the top of the ridge on our vulnerable peninsula.” I thought that until Sunday, September 17, when Irma hit. After a touch through Naples via Marco Island, eye-deranged Irma was heading straight for our little Mayberry.
She started with drizzles and storm squalls during the afternoon, each drizzle becoming more snow-like with each passing, as though each rain drop had been shattered into millions of smaller drops, each squall becoming more intense than the last one. I captured the sight of a rainbow over Davenport. Goodnight and godspeed it was saying.
Unlike tornadoes, hurricanes are slow-moving disasters. I prefer the Spanish word for hurricane, huracán; pronounced phonetically and which sounds massively more intimidating and which intimidation is exactly what it is like to suffer through a hurricane.
Just before sunset, something exploded. It sounded like it was near the old school. I heard no sirens, no one calling on the cause of the explosion. Others came out to look but then we all went back inside.
As nightfall bowed its forbidding head into my home, the lights began flickering. Through a storm window we hadn’t boarded, all I could see outside was the street light on the corner of Suwannee and Lemon, and the occasional officer beaming their spot lights into people’s homes and the alleys, I’m sure, to check on those needing help and to apprise stupid folk of the weather conditions.
At just after 9 PM, I heard another blast out in the distance, north-east of me. Power was going down. I could hear it: power going down all around me. More than 80% of Polk descended into darkness; all of Davenport lost power.
With the power outage, out went our Internet. Flashlights on, my husband and I and our three-year-old, Dylan Dog, climbed into bed for the night.
We slept well, occasionally waking up when a tree in the distance could be heard snapping and falling, or when large branches could be heard pummeling into something big, or when I heard the complete silence of the eye when it came closest to us.
Somewhere Between Monday and Friday
Following a hurricane, one gets an odd feeling of having just consumed too much of a large bowl of cold oatmeal. You want to go outside and get some fresh air and examine damages, and you eventually do.
And, when you do, you get this belly-too-full realization that this is going to take days or weeks to recover. For some, I could tell, there’d be no chance of recovery.
I put on my sneakers realizing that I didn’t know exactly what day it was. That’s how it is after a hurricane.
I went outside, where it was remarkably cool, but, note, coolness after a hurricane doesn’t last more than a day. This was the best time to get some work done.
One nice thing about Davenport that’s not true of many areas in central Florida: no fire ants. Really! You really don’t want to be picking up debris after a hurricane if you’ve got fire ants in your yard.
Knowing that, I contently crunched through the debris all over my yard and the only ants around greeted me with friendly eyes.
The yard was an arboreal wasteland. It looked like Virginia in autumn, except without the color and softness. There’d definitely be lots of raking and mowing needed here.
The Live Oak trees, which we had just trimmed of its lower canopy months ago, survived minus their curtains of Spanish moss. That carpeted the ground I was crunching on. Yep, I thought, that moss off the trees and on the ground was a good thing.
Four small trees had gone down: two pencil stick trees, a Poinciana, and an old pomelo some called the original Florida orange. Mmm, that last one may be a tad difficult to replace.
The garage door? There and in peak condition.
Metal and tile roofs around me survived; asphalt ones, not quite so much. An old tree split down the street. A Rubbermaid shed had apparently blown up all over my next door neighbor’s yard, and I noticed that the majority of neighbors had not boarded their homes.
I meandered out of my yard towards The Mart, a mini-shopping plaza built in 1950, which housed an antique store, a real estate agency, a hobby-like hardware store, and a highly successful computer repair shop, named NuLife. The whole plaza was devastated.
Located at 119 W Market Street and owned by Anne Martin, a very, very long-time resident of Davenport, The Mart many say will be no more. The flat roof was completely blown off, black asphalt shingles scattered all over Bay Street and SR-17/92. (When was the last time you heard of a flat roof covered with shingles?) At least one of the merchants claimed a total loss of store goods.
I stopped by the only bodega open, across the street from The Mart, and bought the biggest cup full of something I really missed this week. I didn’t mind dousing my coffee with some the questionable-looking Half & Half. I did, however, not care for the week-old Donettes.
I returned home, drank my coffee, and listened intently to 96.5 AM WDBO, the best disaster radio station ever! They reported several times that Mayor Bradley had called them and they told us what she was saying. In fact I was completely dependent on that station, even after I got my power back.
I heard from our elected leaders, such as Barbara Pierson, who’d been conference calling with Governor Rick Scott, getting information every day on Irma’s threat to our state. GasBuddy.com was one of those pieces of data that the governor’s had been pushing hard, an especially useful website for those looking for gas stations with gas! The City of Davenport was placed on the FEMA disaster list.
Behind the police station, water and food was distributed for days. According to Polk County Emergency Management, these MRE’s were supposed to be “water-activated self-contained complete meals.” They weren’t. What they were in fact were care boxes with potted meat, fruit, and snacks.
As Irma left, squalls and snow-rain dissipating rapidly throughout that first cool day, she in essence initiated the largest electrical restoration effort of power in the U.S.A., right here in the Sunshine State. Davenport had to wait until Wednesday, September 13, but when we got our electric back, it was a sight to behold.
Duke Electric trucks arrived in a spectacular show, a 20-truck convoy converging on the Old School parking lot, then, 20 minutes later, all dispersing at once to their assigned locations. We received electric power about 10 AM on Thursday, about one day after Duke entered town. It was just in the nick of time too, as temperatures and humidity had been rising like crazy again.
Irma Dies on Friday
Without its source of energy, warm water, Irma died up around Buffalo, New York, frazzled and weakened on her arrival there. While the majority of her impact got resolved in Florida on this Day Five of Recovery, Irma’s devastation and final recovery are weeks, months, and – in some places, like The Mart – years (if ever) away.
For now, the final assessment was that Davenport was stronger than Irma. RIP, Irma.