Last week, my friends and I bought seven tickets to the rerelease of Avatar 3D at a theater in Sarasota, Florida. The showing was for Thursday, Sept. 29, at 6:30 p.m.
That plan obviously seems ridiculous now. Everyone who was supposed to use the tickets—my roommate, our friend Bryn, our friend Nick, Nick’s kids, my Dad—lives within close proximity to one body of water or another, if not the coastline itself. At my house, as is the case for about 2.5 million other people, we do not have power. No hot water. No internet. Thursday morning, I can see from my window that what were once banana trees are now stumps.
I’m looking at those tickets and thinking simply, “what idiots.”
Of course, we didn’t know then what we know now. Hurricane Ian made landfall 60 miles south of us Wednesday just after 3 p.m. on an island near Fort Myers, with sustained winds of up to 150 mph. On Thursday morning, Gov. Ron DeSantis said that the storm “has changed the character of a significant part of our state,” that bridges have been destroyed and destabilized, and that rebuilding may take years. The sheriff of Lee County—where the bulk of the damage is concentrated—told Good Morning America that hundreds of people might have died in his jurisdiction, though he said he could not confirm a specific total. DeSantis cautioned against putting stake in any numbers that could not be backed up.
“I definitely know the fatalities are in the hundreds,” the sheriff told the nation. “There are thousands of people that are waiting to be rescued and, again, cannot give a true assessment until we’re actually on the scene, assessing each scene, and we can’t access people, that’s the problem.”
South of us, homes are crushed, buildings are submerged, roofs have been torn off, people are dead, and emergency crews cannot reach some of the places that were in the eyewall of the storm. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune called Ian “one of the worst storms to hit the area in modern times.” In Sarasota, the damage is not as bad as it is elsewhere, but it’s not completely safe to go look for ourselves. They say the most dangerous time is actually after the storm, when downed power lines and standing water, floating ant piles and snakes, are lying in wait.
A few days ago, the group chat was filled with jokes about James Cameron’s colorful choice to name a mineral in his blockbuster movie “unobtanium.” Those have now been replaced with facts about flooding, and with photos of how we heated food and entertained ourselves while barricaded in hallways and closets. I’m working on this piece with the help of an internet hotspot on my phone, which is in turn plugged into one of the many many mobile chargers my mom has given me over the years, just-in-case gifts that are finally having their moment in the sun.
I’d prepared for the storm by filling up the bathtub, buckets, bowls, measuring cups, and large vases with water. We carried patio furniture into the shed, and we stuffed towels in the gaps underneath the doors. I consolidated the wax at the bottom of various fancy gifted candles that said things like “life will see you now” and “it’s all happening!” into ceramic containers with longer wicks. At least I was doing something, providing myself with the illusion of control. My roommate and I prepared a makeshift bunker in the hallway, the safest part of my house, with blankets and chairs.
Of course we’d talked about evacuating. For us, every decision—to evacuate or to not, to drive north to Jacksonville and risk the traffic or to go to a generous friend’s house and hunker down in the company of two dogs and two cats and five people, which car to take if we did go somewhere, what to prepare if we didn’t—relied on updates about the trajectory of the storm. We’d hear another report that Ian was going to make landfall further south, and we’d feel relief. That would be immediately followed by guilt and concern, and then text messages, for the people we knew in those areas. Worried for their safety. Worried for their homes.
The brunt of Ian started on Wednesday with sheets of rain, at first vertical and then horizontal, an invisible pressure washer in the sky. By midmorning, the view of my backyard was already apocalyptic, with palm fronds and berries and branches flying sideways. In the sunroom, which we’d nearly emptied of books and tchotchkes, we watched Game of Thrones to distract ourselves. We paused every so often to ponder whether we should move into the hallway now? No, we had time. OK, what about now? Let’s recheck the map.
I felt like we were children in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, playing with toys and flipping through picture books while our parents had a serious conversation with the nurse. We watched the news on TV; we could see surge flooding in and around Fort Myers and Naples. The water submerged buildings and cars and trees all the way up to their tallest branches. In our yard, the shed door popped open with a crack and swung itself back-and-forth like a metronome counting down the seconds as the eye of the storm moved north, and possibly northwest toward us.
Though I was anxious, I was also used to this. Maybe even built for it. I’m from Houston, and though I wasn’t in my hometown during Tropical Storm Harvey, the most extreme rain event in U.S. history, some of my best childhood memories are of hiding in a closet with cousins during a bad storm. One day on the way to school during a storm, my mom drove our minivan into a high-water intersection. I’ve recounted the tale before: The van flooded with water. My 5’2” corporate attorney mother, dressed for work, grabbed me, age 6, and hoisted me up onto her waist. She held my older brother’s hand as we waded toward the sidewalk, our plaid uniforms soaked through to the skin. We watched that van become submerged, and we took shelter in a nearby office building. I didn’t know much about what was going on, but I knew I was allowed to eat vending-machine candy that day. I spent the afternoon playing on the floor in my mom’s office with toys, excited about what felt like an adventure. For kids in the swamp south, tropical storms are snow days.
Surviving 2001’s Tropical Storm Allison a few years later was a lot scarier; we were trapped in our home without power for much longer than a day, and I was old enough to have some sense of what was going on. In 2005, Hurricane Rita’s evacuation gridlock was itself deadly and terrifying when everyone ran out of gas on the highway without anywhere to go; we were saved simply because my dad pulled out of the stalled traffic after 11 hours and onto the sandy median and through construction, driving our dogs and all our belongings the twenty minutes back home. And in each of those cases, while we prepared for the unknown, we told stories of near-misses past—my grandfather’s, my dad’s.
And now with Ian, another near miss.
Just before noon on Wednesday, we did move into the hall, where we played scrabble and watched TV on the iPad by flickering light, and responded to texts from people in other parts of the country telling them that we were okay. My dog started shaking at the sound of the rain and the wind against our walls. We wrapped her in blankets and read books and we talked through friendships and relationships, just like we do when there’s no storm outside. We visited the dark kitchen to warm pasta on the stove, bristling at the sound of branches crunching outside. Once the worst of it passed, I went to sleep in my room, though the sound of wind on the panes still scared me.
As of Thursday afternoon, we’re checking in with the group chat (Nick’s kids are restless; Bryn has no water or power). Our yard is papered with piles of branches, but we’re grateful we’re safe. I can guess that the doors of the movie theater we planned to visit this evening are plastered with leaves and other debris, and that palm fronds have filled the parking lot, if it’s not also flooded. My laptop, from which I’m typing this, was at 77 percent when I started writing. Now it’s at 49 percent. Now 25 percent. After editing, 6 percent.
We are very, very lucky. All over the west coast of this strange and wild state, rescuers are struggling to reach stranded families in record-high floodwaters.
What hit land as a Category 4 hurricane is now a tropical storm barreling toward the east. The National Weather Service has said Ian is expected to build itself back into a hurricane before hitting land again, maybe in South Carolina, where people fill up their own tubs and put batteries in flashlights of their own.
I hope, for them too, it’s another near miss.