This morning my wife, Debby, and I walked around our neighborhood—99 homes out of a total subdivision of about 2,400 homes—in southwest Broward County, FL, surveying the surprisingly light damage Hurricane Irma left. A few trees were down, one directly across the street, another, around the corner, on a car.
Many tree branches and palm fronds were down, a handful of shutter panels twisted off from the windows, but that was about it. Amazing! What a relief!
Suddenly we heard a woman screaming, “Help me! Help me!” We broke into a run, down the street, past our house, through our neighbors’ back yard, through another neighbor’s yard, and up the next street two houses.
Among the first five or six to arrive, I found a woman on her cell phone to 911 giving her address and saying her mother had been trying to move a fallen tree branch and had suddenly cried out, “My back snapped!” and fallen to the ground, nauseated and unable to move. In less than a minute, close to a dozen others had arrived, including a retired physician, and already we could hear the siren of the ambulance responding to the call. The injured woman was breathing but in great pain.
With the physician there and others to help, I realized I could give no added help, so I left. As others filtered away, we talked among ourselves. Our best guess for now is that the woman suffered a severe back spasm, perhaps a ruptured disk. I’ve been there and know the pain can be excruciating and completely debilitating. I’m praying for her.
In our neighborhood, on a Monday morning, there’s normally no one outside, so no one would have heard the screams. But many were out doing what we were that morning: surveying the damage, starting to clean up our yards. Thank God.
This wasn’t what we anticipated in the middle of last week. At that time, forecasts called for Irma to make landfall right around Miami at Category 4 or possibly even Cat-5 intensity. Although my home was built to post-Hurricane Andrew codes and therefore is supposed to withstand a Cat-4 without catastrophic damage, a Cat-5 could do much worse. I had anticipated the possible loss of everything—my wife Debby’s beautiful paintings, our roughly 9,000-volume library, the two thick notebooks of precious letters we’d saved from our engagement, all our furniture, and of course the house itself.
Even up until late Friday night there had remained the possibility that Irma would take just a few degrees’ wobble eastward and still hit us hard.
Instead, after crossing the keys between Key West and Big Pine Key, she stayed on course for Florida’s western (Gulf) coast and made landfall at Marco Island, just south of Naples.
A nightmare scenario would have had her stay just offshore, her strength being fed by the Gulf’s warm water. But instead she stayed well inland. Wouldn’t that be worse, since people live on land, not out in the Gulf?
No, for a Northern Hemisphere hurricane’s strongest winds are in the northeast quadrant. Had Irma stayed offshore, that quadrant would have lashed the heavily populated cities of Naples, Ft. Myers, Sarasota, Bradenton, St. Petersburg, Tampa, and Clearwater before reaching the state capital of Tallahassee.
But because Irma’s eye stayed inland, she rapidly lost strength, declining to tropical storm force about halfway from Tampa to the Georgia state line.
None of this should lead anyone to believe Irma was anything but devastating for millions of Florida residents. Thousands of homes have been flooded, mostly by storm surge right along the coast but many also by as much as 15 inches of rain in some locations. Over 3.3 million people lost power. Many lost municipal water supply.
My own son, his wife, and their three little boys, whose home is in one of the most vulnerable parts of Tampa, may have lost everything—we won’t know until they return from staying with friends in Tennessee, since they wisely evacuated last Thursday, making the normally 8-hour drive in 15 hours because of the immense traffic of other evacuees.
But all of us can and should be tremendously grateful that things didn’t go much, much worse. They easily could have. Hurricane Wilma in October 2005—until Harvey a few weeks ago in Texas and now Irma in Florida, the last major (Cat-3 or higher) hurricane to make landfall in the United States—destroyed hundreds and severely damaged thousands of homes all over south Florida. Our own home fared better than many, only losing about 50 roof tiles yet not suffering a leak. Tens of thousands of homes lost entire roofs—or worse.
Had Irma stayed just off the coast, her intensity and rainfall potential fed continuously by the Gulf’s warm waters, her impacts almost surely would have been far greater than they were.
So, the Beisner household in Pembroke Pines suffered a week of anxiety, two nights of poor sleep because of the noise of wind and torrential rain, the loss of a few small branches from trees and fronds from palms and the leaning of one palm that might mean it’ll have to be removed.
But we also enjoyed a wonderful weekend of fellowship with the two families that sheltered with us—and both of them have now visited their homes and found them largely undamaged, though without power. We, too, lost power, but for just a few hours on Monday, presumably intentional on the part of Florida Power & Light while it repaired other parts of the grid. We’ve also lost water, as has most of our city, because three pumps were damaged, and it’s unclear when that will be restored.
We celebrated our Sunday midday dinner as if it were thanksgiving, since by then the worst had passed, and we were all still fine.
One little note of introspection: I’m surprised by how disoriented I feel now that Irma’s gone. Though we didn’t lose as much as in Wilma twelve years ago, I feel numb this time in a way I didn’t then. It’s difficult even to think that the rest of the world has gone on and that my routines must, and will, resume.
Now recovery begins. For many Floridians, it will be long and hard and very expensive. We pray for them and are prepared to begin giving, as we did after Harvey, to disaster relief ministries. (Click here for some guidance on how.) Our two sheltering families might remain with us for a few days to a few weeks, depending on how long it takes for power to be restored at their homes. Meanwhile, we thank God for sparing us—and we thank the many Cornwall Alliance supporters who prayed for us through the weekend.