7 Things I Learned From Riding Out Hurricane Matthew

Would you believe I spent the majority of my life living in Florida and have never really experienced a full-blown hurricane? Tropical storms and depressions, sure, those have come and gone, but never an actual hurricane. How can that be?

While the National Hurricane Center estimates that 40 percent of all hurricanes that arrive in the United States hit Florida, Jacksonville’s geography tends to deflect storms from our coast. The only direct hit in living memory was Hurricane Dora in 1964, and to hear folks talk, she was a doozy. With hurricane force winds for 15 hours, Dora wiped out the Ferris wheel and boardwalk at Jacksonville Beach, flooded Downtown and washed homes out to sea. People did not forget Dora’s devastation.

“If a direct landfall occurs, this will be unlike any hurricane in modern era,” a spokesman at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said.

When NOAA and our local meteorologists began to suspect that Hurricane Matthew, a growing monster tearing through the Caribbean and heading our way, could be worse than Dora, Jaxons perked up. When the experts started reaching further into the past, pointing to a storm in 1898 as the last one that could compare to Matthew’s Category 4 winds and epic storm surge, the bread, water, batteries and canned goods flew off the shelves. We boarded up, many evacuated and we waited…

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Of course as I hunkered down in my house during the height of the storm, I thought, as I always do in scary situations, “If I live through this, it’ll make a great blog about lessons learned!”

1. I will never ride out a hurricane again.

I actually know better than to stick around for a major hurricane. Even though I haven’t lived through a storm myself, I did disaster relief for Hurricane Hugo and Hurricane Andrew as a wee little volunteer. I’ve seen the worst of the worst when it comes to damage – yachts on top of houses, signs, power poles and trees shot into windows like spears, power out for months, entire neighborhoods obliterated. Experiencing that devastation at a young age made an impression on me.

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But then I got married. My husband is a tree surgeon on contract with the power company, so he goes into the storm instead of away from it. And I wasn’t about to leave town not knowing when I’d be able to get back to Bae if the forecast was as bad as we thought it might be.

I figured as long as Hurricane Matthew wasn’t a direct hit, I’d probably be alright nine miles inland. But had the storm not wobbled 20 miles to the east and weakened at the last minute, the devastation would have been unimaginable.

What was I thinking staying here for that?

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In the end, we are ok. Our house is fine, too.

Once the power went out and Rick had to leave for work at the height of the storm, I pulled the air mattress into the kitchen in the center of the house, lit some candles and prayed, promising I’d never stick around for a storm again.

2. There’s no such thing as a minor hurricane.

People say, “Oh, it’s only a Category 2.” That is some crazy, backwards, get-yourself-killed hooey. Even though Matthew didn’t turn out to be as devastating as he could’ve been for most of Jacksonville (he absolutely was in Haiti, Vilano Beach & St. Augustine, S. Georgia, South Carolina & North Carolina), we still got walloped worse than I’ve ever seen in these parts.

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To put this in perspective, at my place about 9 miles from the coast, our strongest recorded gusts were 70 mph. THAT’S NOT EVEN HURRICANE FORCE, y’all. We could’ve had 130 mph sustained winds inland had Matthew come ashore. Can you imagine what this place would look like if that had happened?

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With “only a Category 2, and not even a direct hit,” I watched an oak tree smash into my neighbor’s house, breaching the roof and hitting them with branches inside where they were hunkered down. Docks in my aunt’s neighborhood along the St. Johns River are destroyed. Another oak tree at my grandparents’ house landed on their neighbor’s roof, doing thousands of dollars in damage. The nearest street light to my house smashed into the intersection.

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Signs are down all over town. On my street alone, there are dozens of fallen trees and at least 10 on top of homes within a couple of blocks. Reports say the city has had to remove more than 600 trees that were blocking roads. And every street & neighborhood I’ve seen is the same, from Neptune Beach to Southside to Fort Caroline to Mandarin to Middleburg.

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I watched live as the ocean breached the dunes and flowed into the beach communities, washed away parts of A1A and trapped people who didn’t evacuate in St. Augustine. More than 350 feet of the Jacksonville Beach Pier is lost to the ocean, as are many of the beach access walkways.

Sure, it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been, but this was not minor.

It wasn’t exactly a dodged bullet in Jacksonville; it was just a bb instead of a bazooka.

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3. Hurricanes are loud.

The wind in the big scary oak tree behind my house roared so loudly, my skin tingled every time a gust came through. This went on for hours and hours. I just knew the tree was going to come down and smash us to bits. Pinecones flew into the side of the house like missiles. There are still branches sticking out of the ground in the backyard that look like they were shot out of a cannon.

Listening to debris flying into my house while sitting alone in the pitch dark was one of the scariest things I’ve ever experienced.

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4. Evacuate if you’re told to, and maybe even if you’re not.

We were not in an evacuation zone and I was scared to death during the storm, so I can’t imagine how much worse it would’ve been during Hurricane Matthew if I lived out at the beach or on one of the barrier islands where the winds were so much stronger and the ocean destroyed the dunes and flowed into the beach communities.

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Due to the expected storm surge of 5’-8’, Mayor Curry ordered an evacuation for the beaches, all those who live in low-lying areas and folks in mobile homes. Some listened and some selfishly didn’t.

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I say selfishly because those who don’t evacuate in a storm are the ones who cause first responders to risk their lives to save them when conditions deteriorate. I was so proud of the preparation and communication from our city officials and news teams, especially considering we have an enormous metro area that rarely gets hit by hurricanes.

It’s clear that lessons have been learned from the likes of Andrew, Katrina and Sandy.

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It’s also clear there are yahoos out there who know weather so much better than experts. There were plenty of free shelters with food that were equipped for special needs and pets. There were buses to transport people away from the coast. And yet, still people complained, “I can’t afford to evacuate,” or “I guarantee this will pass us by like every other storm,” or “The media is blowing this out of proportion.”

I was so fired up about residents who didn’t take the evacuation order seriously.

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The truth is, many people have died because of Hurricane Matthew — but it’s likely many more survived because of the evacuation orders up and down the coast.

In North Carolina, thousands of people had to be rescued from flooding. Thousands. Do I even have to mention the tragedy in Haiti? This wasn’t a false alarm by any stretch of the imagination, and there are still people who gloat they were right not to evacuate because their house happens to be safe from damage.

It’s so disrespectful to people who weren’t as fortunate.

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I still see folks whining on Facebook that they didn’t get enough destruction to warrant evacuations and the media response. Those aren’t the folks out helping their neighbors or dealing with the fact that their homes are unsafe to even go in.

Some folks just aren’t smart enough to be grateful.

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5. Trees are fickle shysters.

We have a pine, a magnolia and an oak tree that tower around each corner of our house, and as the wind picked up throughout the day, I just knew one was going to fall on us. And none did. Yet my neighbor has a tree through the roof, another house a few blocks up is uninhabitable due to a tree through the front porch. That’s just the damage I can see from my own house.

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So, so, so many people have trees on – or through – their homes. Can you even imagine if the storm was a Category 4? We wouldn’t have any trees left and we would likely have fewer residents in Jacksonville.

6. Disaster brings out a community’s true colors.

Since the storm, I have been filled with a lot of emotions – relief, gratefulness and joy that my family and friends all survived, deep concern and empathy for those who didn’t fare as well, and some unbridled rage toward the snarky jerks who seem disappointed things didn’t turn out worse.

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Before Hurricane Matthew

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After Hurricane Matthew

I’m choosing to focus on the positive though. (If I don’t, there’s a good chance I’m going to get in a brawl with some know-it-all who says it wasn’t a BFD because there’s not a tree on his house.)

I am so proud of how we’ve come together as a community. My church cancelled Sunday services so we could help folks who had damage, so my brother and I met up with a group of folks and did some hefty tree removals. I saw on the news that several other churches did the same.

Rick said people all around town have been waving and saying thank you to the crews working to restore power.

Our news teams did a phenomenal job keeping everyone calm, informed and updated. They slept very little and sacrificed time with their families, while they were just as scared they were losing their homes as anyone else.

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We don’t always get the chance to come together for a common purpose (I mean, other than weekly heartbreak via the Jaguars), but there have been some moments this week that made me see a silver lining to Hurricane Matthew’s clouds.

7. Twenty miles made all the difference.

Twenty miles doesn’t leave much margin for error. Had Hurricane Matthew wobbled 20 miles to the west, it would’ve meant vast destruction, many more homes lost and certainly more deaths and injuries. I’m not sure why we were mostly spared this time, but I’ll never take 20 miles for granted again.

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Rick is about to leave for his 6th 17-hour shift in a row. There are still tens of thousands without power, so he’ll be doing that until everyone is back up and running.

Needless to say, life isn’t completely back to normal in North Florida, but at least in our house, we’re grateful to be here.

COME AWAY WITH ME!
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  • October 12, 2016
    Kristen

    I’m far up north in Massachusetts, but am so grateful to your husband and all those you mentioned who are doing everything they can to help others.

    When I was a child, my family and I lived in Miami when Hurricane Andrew hit and it was every bit as devastating as you can imagine and have mentioned – we personally were lucky with minimal house damage, but we lost water for a week, power for a month, and my mother ended up taking my sister and I to her parents up north while we waited for power to return. Unfortunately, my father’s role in the US Coast Guard and an on-the-ground responder meant he had to stay in Miami – and he had to sleep with a shotgun in case of looters.

    I always say I’d rather live on the East Coast since generally you can see the weather coming (I’m scared to death of earthquakes and tornados) but even anticipated destruction is terrifying. So glad things are generally okay for you and yours.

  • October 12, 2016

    So glad y’all are safe – and bless your husband’s heart for all his hard work. I live in the middle of South Carolina and Matthew wasn’t a direct hit for us – though it devastated Beaufort, and parts of Myrtle Beach. (For me the 1000 year floods of last October were way, way worse) Everyone I know that was in an evacuation zone, did. And I was more than impressed with our governor’s and state’s readiness to get folks out of harm’s way. I’ll take better safe than sorry anyday.And I grew up in South Florida where I evacuated for Andrew – one time was all it took for me!

  • October 12, 2016
    Amber

    The human spirit can be amazing in times of crisis! Thank you for focusing on the positives. I live in SW Georgia and my aunt evacuated from Fernindina (where I was happily riding my bike at Ft.Clinch and eating at the Salty Pelican watching the Jaguars last Sunday). Her home was spared with minor damage but part of the pier at Ft.Clinch is now missing. What a difference a week makes.

    Glad you and yours are safe.

  • October 12, 2016

    Oh my goodness! Glad you’re ok. I was watching it unfold on the news – can’t believe you were right in the middle of it.

    I definitely know what you mean about looking on the bright side and focusing on the community spirit though. I’m from Cumbria (in the UK) and in December loads of people there were flooded out of their homes from Storm Desmond. It was devastating the damage it caused, but the sense of community coming together was really something to be proud of.

    So glad you’re safe, and I hope things start to get back on track for all your neighbours soon. 😊
    Katie @ the tea break project recently posted..Waking Up in Vegas: my top 5 things to do in Sin CityMy Profile

  • October 13, 2016

    I’m glad you were able to come out of this unharmed as well as your home and loved ones! It was interesting following your story on Snapchat since I’ve never seen that type of weather. Hopefully everyone is able to get their lives back to normal sooner rather than later! I sure bet your husband’s work is being well appreciated 🙂
    Amber Primdahl recently posted..What I Learned from Moving AbroadMy Profile

  • October 13, 2016

    Yikes!

    So glad you made it out without major damage. And thank you for helping your neighbors.

    It’s rare for me to experience hurricane winds (I’m in central MS – about 3 miles inland) but we have to deal with tornados fairly regularly. Guess who checks to see if the clouds turn green when under a tornado watch?

    I can only imagine how awful it is to wait hours for darkness to pass. Next time, come up to Jackson and we’ll have a deep south foodie adventure!

  • October 16, 2016

    I am SO glad it wasn’t worse and that your house escaped relatively unscathed. It didn’t even touch Curacao, yet the resulting waves knocked down several piers and absolutely wrecked the beaches nevertheless. it was crazy the damage done considering it grazed by them and they never got any of the weather; can’t imagine what it could have done had it hit the ABCs like it did Haiti. =(
    Kristin @ Camels & Chocolate recently posted..Rural Romania: On the Hunt for DraculaMy Profile

  • November 15, 2016

    wow, those photos of the destruction are just, wow, right? I lived in Florida many years ago and was always quick to leave if there was even a whisper of a hurricane. Of course, people always thought I was crazy for it, but when you see photos like this it just reinforces why it is better to be safe than sorry.
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