If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you live? Although I would love to live in Spain, when I think about the practical fact that I have a good job, I like the mild winters, and there’s a lot of stunning natural beauty here, I feel content to live in Florida. Except during hurricanes. They seem to roll around with increasingly regular frequency, and they can be enormously stressful and anxiety provoking.
The two most memorable hurricanes I’ve lived through were Hugo, which slammed into South Carolina when I was growing up and did huge amounts of damage, and Charley, which was my welcome-to-Florida hurricane in 2004. Charley tore through the state and delivered a tree through the roof of the house we had just bought; I had also barely started at my first real job. It was followed by two other hurricanes in the same season that closed schools and workplaces, but the other two weren’t nearly as damaging.
Now hurricanes seem to be coming more frequently, and they are completely unpredictable. Although Dorian ended up being not so serious for us, it was devastating for the Bahamas, and I am constantly thinking about the images that have been coming out of there. Every year come September, I find myself questioning whether I can stay in Florida forever. Our university was shut down, with classes canceled, from last Friday until today. The public schools were closed Monday through Wednesday. A one-week Labor Day vacation, except it really isn’t a vacation when you have no idea if a storm is coming or not. A lot of people I know posted pictures on Facebook of themselves going to the theme parks, which were deserted as the storm came. We did one day at a theme park ourselves, enjoying no lines but with that cloud of uncertainty hanging over our heads the entire time, would everyone be okay?
And then there are the preparations. As with other big life events like childbirth, you can never really prepare because you never know how bad it’s going to be. You check for charcoal for the grill, matches, and candles. I woke up at 5 am to gas up my car, using the Gas Buddy app to find out which stations hadn’t run out yet. I went to the grocery store at 10 pm looking for bottled water. The grocery store was crowded with people, even at night, all running around grabbing stuff they thought they might need, as well as all the junk food we find ourselves taking comfort in when we start to stress eat. We took stock of the contents of our freezer and speculated over whether we could eat everything before the power went out. We sent away my visiting parents several days early, and I thought about how much more stressful a hurricane is for people who are older, or sick, or who have other conditions that make worst case scenarios so much more dire for them.
As Hurricane Dorian pounded the Bahamas and refused to budge, the forecasts started to indicate that it probably would stay off the coast. My eleven-year-old and I had a bake-off contest: s’mores cookies vs. cowboy cookies (vegan), and we delivered the results to our friends to cast their votes. The day that had originally been planned for everyone to take shelter was now mostly sunny with occasional minor rain squalls, but otherwise the streets were eerily deserted, the air heavy and hot, almost the way it feels when there’s a big fire nearby. Everything was closed, just in case, even the gym, which was the one place I was really missing as we stayed in our house for days. I went for a bike ride, and the one-mile bike path around the lake near our house was almost deserted, except for 4 or 5 cyclists and walkers. At one intersection, a few joggers were gathered together looking at an accident where a city bus had collided with a car, the front half of the car crushed almost as if it had buried itself into the bus. Ambulances and fire trucks surrounded it, but I couldn’t bring myself to wait and see if the person they pulled out was okay.
I had some deadlines for work that were pressing but meaningless in the face of all this worry, yet I still got up every morning at 5:30 or 6, just so I could get work done before the kids woke up and started agitating to be entertained. You’re supposed to explain hurricanes to them on a level they’ll understand without letting them know your own anxiety level. And mostly I’m just fatalistic about hurricanes at this point, since this happens regularly and we have to develop coping mechanisms. Fatalistic until the storm approaches (usually in the middle of the night) and you have to crowd into the middle of the house on your air mattresses, away from windows, listening to the news tell you where the storm is going to go next. At moments like those, I wonder why I live here.
We breathed a sigh of relief as we realized we dodged a bullet, and felt terrible for all the devastation in the Bahamas, along with concern for those in the places the hurricane still has yet to hit. Hurricanes bring up a lot of emotions for me about climate change, and how our impact on the planet is definitely making more of these monsters that might make places like Florida unlivable in the near future. (I am starting to question the fact that we have rental properties here!) The first climate refugees will be the poor, and weather events like hurricanes, as we saw with Katrina, tend to hit hardest the people who can’t leave, who have nowhere to go.
While one aspect of my personal financial independence journey is to live a frugal life, I also think about the impact my consumer choices have on the environment, and I have a lot of guilt about the ways I’m contributing to all of this. It’s hard not to feel inadequate, but I’m trying in small ways to make a difference (such as by purchasing secondhand clothes, or by not purchasing at all). However, shifting all the blame and responsibility onto individuals isn’t a large scale, sustainable solution. So I have to hope (as I sit comfortably in my air conditioned house while it’s 94 degrees outside) that people with good ideas are going to come along and change things on a grand scale. I would certainly support them. For now, conscious of my privilege, I will start to think of my own backup plan, one that doesn’t involve Florida.