Sunday, September 17, 2017

Hurricane force

If everything goes as planned — if there are no more hurricanes, if they don't take a spur-of-the-moment side trip to Disney World, if traffic is simply normal — my friend Debra Brinkman Clarin and her husband, Paul, will go home tomorrow.

On the surface, that sounds benign enough. Except that for the Clarins, home is Cudjoe Key, Florida.

You know, Ground Zero when Hurricane Irma made its first landfall in the continental United States last Sunday. The island, with a population of around 1,600 people, was clobbered by Category 4 winds and a damaging tidal surge deeper than most basketball players are tall.

Debra and Paul Clarin
 The Clarins sought refuge from the storm by evacuating to Milton, Fla., on the Florida Panhandle about 50 miles from Mobile, Ala., where Debra's brother has a fraternity brother who offered them his hospitality.

"We wanted to get as far away as possible," said Debra, noting in a cell phone conversation on Wednesday that they hit the road on Friday. "We were actually thinking about riding out the hurricane, maybe go to Key West. But when it got to be Category 4, we thought, 'Hmmm. Maybe Key West isn't far enough away.'"

Years ago, Debra was our Human Resources guru when we worked at The Dispatch together. She was the person I always annoyed when I had a question about my health insurance or my pension. I always trusted her judgment, so it's no surprise they made the right call to get out of town when the getting was good.

It still wasn't much fun. A 12-hour drive took more than 17 hours to make, and finding an open gas station that still had fuel was like rolling the dice in a rigged craps game. Even if you found one, the lines to get gas were long.

"We drove the entire 17 hours," said Debra. "It was tough."

Making the trip with them were a dog, Mika, and a cat, Dixie. Mika enjoyed the ride and the lower temperatures of northern Florida. Dixie, well, remained a cat. "I think she's still mad," said Deb.

Hurricane damage to the Clarin house could have been worse.
 But they were safe. When the storm came, they experienced nothing more than 20 mile per-hour winds and a light rain.

After the hurricane hit and early damage reports came in, the Clarins wondered if their house survived. Cudjoe Key, after all, is just four feet above sea level at its highest point. Even today, estimates have it that at least 25 percent of the homes in the Lower Keys have been destroyed.

"Paul has a friend who is a sheriff's detective," said Deb. "He drove by and took some pictures of our house and sent them to us. And from what I can see, there's not much damage. Our house was built in the 1970s. It has a flat roof and it's made of concrete block construction. And, it sits lower than most houses. It's built like a fortress."

The real concern is water damage, but even with that, Clarin is optimistic.

"The water doesn't appear to be too bad," said Debra. "If that's true, we're hoping everything is OK."

Debra left North Carolina in 2001. She currently works for Historic Tours of America as, well, as one of their Human Resources people. Paul is the publisher of The Key West Citizen.

"It's been a challenge to get out a newspaper without power," said Debra. "We have a sister paper in Greenville (NC) and they've been a big help getting the online paper up and running."

Living in the Keys is generally said to be an idyllic lifestyle. Just ask Jimmy Buffet. Hurricanes, actually, aren't that big of a concern.

"The last hurricane we had here was Wilma in 2005," said Debra. "And there were several before that one that we stayed through. When you get hurricane warnings, you have time to prepare. The big adventure wasn't evacuating. It was getting the house ready, putting up shutters and things like that. We were preparing for a 10- to 15-foot surge.

"People here don't like to evacuate because of black mold, which can grow fast in the Keys," said Deb. "They want to stay and take care of their homes.

"But this time, it was a little different."

If everything goes as planned, recovery still will take time. Certainly months, maybe years. Time is what is needed.

And yet, out there in the Atlantic, right this minute, Maria and Lee are taking shape. Some early models have Maria following in Irma's wake. Hurricane season is not over.

Neither are our prayers.

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