Sunday, August 17, 2008

Key West Should Be Represented on Maps As a Big Red and White Bulls-Eye Target

I apologize in advance for this post. It may not be my best, since I haven't had that long to think about it. I'm going with a more timely topic: hurricanes. I had been thinking all day about a good topic and was convinced that I had one. I go online to read my email and post to my blog. Someone left a comment on one of my posts about how I must be so glad that I don't live in Key West anymore since a hurricane was getting ready to hit. To be honest, I haven't been following it. I don't subscribe to a newspaper, nor do I watch the news on a regular basis. That's a post for another day. If you knew me in person, the fact that I wasn't following this and worrying about it is HUGE. Let me take you back......

I was born and raised in Key West, Florida. For those of you who aren't gifted in geography, Key West is an island at the tip of the Florida Keys. Key West is about 100 mines from the southern tip of Florida and a mere 90 miles from Havana, Cuba. It takes about 3 hours to reach the mainland if there is no traffic. This is due to the fact that the road in and out of the Florida Keys is mostly a two lane highway over many bridges that connect the islands together. Key West doesn't have its own fresh water source, so they send water down a large pipe from the mainland. Also, most of the electricity is also shipped in as well. The power lines are always getting messed up and it's not unusual to lose electrical power several times a week (mostly in the summer) for several hours at a time. This is the reason that I started sleeping with both an electric alarm clock and a battery-powered one. I still do that now that I'm in Mississippi, even though I can count the number of times I've lost power in the last 5 years on the fingers of one hand and have fingers left over.

Key West is a small island. It's about 3 by 5 miles and it takes about 20 minutes to get anywhere on the island. This is due to the fact that there are about 30,000 people that live on this small island year round. The population surges during the winter, when people "fly south" for the winter. Overall, it was a nice place to live, but I'm glad for many reasons that I'm not there now. Right now my favorite reason to not be there is hurricane season.

As a native to Key West, I can say that I've weathered more than my share of hurricanes. None of them are fun. Even the small storms. You can't even take joy in school being closed because you have to make those days up. And living without electricity in 90+ degree weather is not fun. Key West is particularly vulnerable because of several things: 1) It's location makes it difficult for residents to evacuate. The highway out is clogged and you have to really go north in order to be out of the way of the storm since Florida is a peninsula. 2) Key West's highest point is 13 feet above sea level. Hurricanes or storms cause the island to flood. 3) The true die hard locals have developed an attitude that they, and the island itself, are immune from tragedy.

Now I know that I've already said that I've experienced many hurricanes. Keep in mind that until the late 90's, Key West had not be directly hit by a storm in more than 30 years. If you also take into account that I was a kid and didn't worry about much except where I had lost my favorite toy, hurricanes didn't seem like a big threat. Then I grew up and started to stress. I worry about everything. I worry that I'll break down on the highway, I worry that I'm going to miss a deadline at work, I worry about my health and the health of my family. So, it's no surprise that as an adult, I added hurricanes to my list of things to fret about.

The bad part of being a worrier and hurricanes is that you have such a long period of time to start worrying. These storms can be detected and followed pretty far away. Technology has now made it possible for the weather folks to accurately predict where they will go. This is a nightmare for a professional fretter like myself. Because Key West is at the southern tip of Florida, you have to evacuate several days in advance so you can get out. By then, the storm may have turned and now you've left town, packed your valuables, and spent more money than should for what turned out to be a very mini vay-cay in a trashy motel.

During the the last bit of time I spent in Key West, we were hit by Hurricane Georges. It was a level 2 hurricane. Since then, Hurricane Wilma hit Key West dead on and wiped out most of the transportation on the island because cars and mopeds weren't built to be amphibious. When Hurricane Georges was predicted to hit us, David and I were living about 25 miles north of Key West on an island named Summerland Key. We lived in a cute house on stilts on a canal. We didn't have a boat at this time, but I think that David enjoyed being close to the water and away from all the people. But I digress.

Prior to this hurricane, I had never evacuated. We just didn't. I guess to some degree we had the native mentality that nothing bad would happen. David and I didn't want to take any chances so we packed up picture albums and clothes and headed north. My parents chose to stay behind in Key West. We ended up going to Orlando, since it was one place that was in the middle of the state. Traffic wasn't bad since they opened both lanes of traffic to travel north to help alleviate traffic congestion. We left in the afternoon and made it to Orlando by late evening. We figured that it was inland enough to not get the brunt of the storm, regardless of where it hit. We checked into the first hotel we came to and tuned into the ongoing coverage of the storm on TV.

Back then, Rick Sanchez was the anchor for the local news on the Fox Channel. He should have gotten an Oscar for his dramatic reporting on the storm. I was convinced that our house and everyone that we knew would be wiped out and washed out to sea. To distract us, we decided to go to Disney World. It truly is the happiest place on Earth. It was strange walking around the park on a school day and even more strange to be bumping into my students while there. Apparently, others thought Orlando was a great place to evacuate to as well. The thing that's good and bad about Disney is that there is no information from the outside that comes in. We could have been bombed as a country and the park guests would have no idea of what had happened. After a day or two and the purchase of a new car, we went back home to assess the damage. We didn't make it very far down the Keys because a gas truck had gotten into an accident on the two lane highway and the clean up took several hours. We basically hung out at Publix and read magazines while we waited.

We found that our downstairs enclosure (small apartment downstairs) had been flooded. Thankfully, we were renting and none of our stuff was in there. The floor was covered in sand, the cabinets were swollen from being submerged in water, and everything stank. Clean up was not fun. We went without electricity for about a week. That wasn't fun either. Not my best hair day, I assure you.

Since that time we have moved to Mississippi. Yes, Mississippi did get slammed by Hurricane Katrina and whole towns were wiped off the map. I don't live near the ocean so the impact of that storm on us was more like a bad rain shower. We did lose one day of school and didn't have to make it up. :-) It is very liberating to be living in a place where I can breathe easy during hurricane season (June 1 through December 1.) I know that Mississippi has its share of bad weather, tornadoes being one of them. The beauty of the tornado is that you don't have time to worry and fret for days before it gets to you. By the time you find out that you should be worried, the storm cell has passed. There is some majestic beauty in that knowledge. It's wonderful to know that I can let go of that subject of worry. That frees me up to worry more about Bigfoot living in the woods behind my house.

My prayers are with my friends and the residents of the Florida Keys as Tropical Storm Fay threatens their shores. I see that school has been cancelled for the next two days. I hope they don't have any more hurricane days or else they will be making those up. I hope that the residents heed the evacuation orders. Even if nothing hits, it's so much better to be safe than sorry. I'm so glad that I'm not there anymore and can worry just a little bit from afar.


Crystal said...

I really enjoyed reading this and learning more about Key West. From what I've heard, it seems like a cool place to live, other than the hurricane issue. I would love to read more about what it was like to live there and what kinds of things you did when you were growing up, newly married, etc. I hope you have a good week at school.

Vicki said...

The whirling wind ain't got you bothered, huh?
All that coming from a former English teacher. It's so liberating to speak/type exactly what I want to say and HOW I want to say it.
I like your new profile pic of you and Raelynn. I that you removed your last name. Don't want any freaks looking you up.
I went to a blog from your site -- maybe Jessica's. Anyhoo, I took her advice and went and bought some Dove replenishing spray that she likes a lot. I even saw it advertised at the theater on the screen before a movie -- on the same day. I took it as a sign.
I luv ya and am thinking of you. Cannot wait to get the big girls (us) and little girls (Raelynn and Meilynn -- Twinkies, R&M...we'll have to come up w/a good title for them) together for a playdate. I'm ready for my iced Dr. Pepper in hand, too. I feel a trip to S'patch coming on!!
I luv ya. Vicki

Anonymous said...

I remember Rick Sanchez. He was the co-host along with Sally Fitz - but we all used a more derogatory term in place of her last name if you recall. SM

Anonymous said...

I remember that when I finally got cable back after Andrew, the first person I saw on TV was Rick Sanchez and he was crying like a big old baby man. Sally Fitz, now she was a true journalist--no tears there!