Hurricane IRMA was predicted to be a Category 5 monster and I watched The Weather Channel as it chronicled the hurricane’s approach to the Florida Keys. Every time I turned on the TV, it seemed the track of this storm had my home in Nokomis on its radar.
I was pretty sure it was coming for me when I evacuated on Thursday, September 7, 2017. The local Tampa news channels were reporting mandatory evacuations for the Florida Keys. My immediate thought was “Oh my God, thousands of people will be on the road soon!” As I was only aware of one major highway out of Florida, State Highway Route 75, I imagined myself in bumper-to-bumper traffic the entire time. Not good. I don’t do well with that kind of stress.
So I called my handyman to ask if he could board up the windows in my Florida home and thankfully, he came through. Then I grabbed a few important papers and valuables, gathered up my cat Caily with litter box, and food, made a hotel reservation and headed to Valdosta, Georgia. I was fortunate. The road was clear. I assumed that the evacuees from the Keys were behind me by several hours.
Caily Kitty settled in with me as if she understood the urgency of the situation. In the Subaru, Caily was comfortable in her little carrier, and I set up her litter box and food so she could get to them easily every time I stopped for a stretch or meal. From the back seat, Caily cried out to me about every two hours, so I let her be my guide as to when we took a break on our journey.
By that evening, we arrived at the Comfort Inn and Suites in Valdosta. The room was comfortable and it was obvious that the staff was all set to receive evacuees. The hotel offered free breakfast and a heart-warming free happy hour to welcome us. Bravo, Comfort Inn! They did not charge me extra for Caily. Wasn’t that generous?
We stayed in Valdosta two nights. By Friday, September 8th, the storm was tracking north to Georgia and Tennesee. I panicked once again. The monster storm was following me! Reports of the devastation the storm already caused in the Keys and elsewhere fed my panic. So I fired up my laptop and searched for the next place to shelter. I knew I had to go further north and west. I had friends and relatives in Georgia and Tennesee, but they were all located in the projected path of the storm — staying with them wasn’t an option. I considered driving all the way north to stay with family there, but I was concerned about having to get back to a ruined home to fix or board up or whatever was needed after the storm passed. I didn’t want to be too far from home. Funny how it turned out.
After a great deal of searching online, getting depressed over all the “sold out” messages, finally, I discovered a vacancy in a hotel in Alexandria Landing, Georgia, which was about 4 hours north. Saturday morning, I awoke and packed for the trip. I picked up my cell phone to enter into Google maps the address of the hotel in Alexandria, when I was shocked to realize that I had made the reservation in Alexandria, Louisiana, not Alexandria Landing, Georgia!! How did I make such a colossal mistake? Only God knows. It had taken me a very long time to find that booking, and I was sure that everything was sold out by now, so I shrugged and accepted my fate. I would travel many more miles than expected. So I took Caily with me to the Comfort Inn check out counter, and with a nervous laugh, I shared my mistake with the hotel clerk.
Here’s where the miracle begins to unfold. The clerk looked at me in earnest and for some reason beyond my understanding, she said: “There is a reason you are going to Louisiana.” Huh. I was stunned.
I shook off the “Twilight Zone” feeling and we hustled to the Subaru where I sat and typed into Google maps the address of the Holiday Inn, Alexandria, Louisiana. I intentionally ignored the projected duration of the trip to avoid that stress, and we were on our way. Google took me through beautiful and scenic back road country for the first hundred miles or so, then the traffic bogged down on Route 10 West. I witnessed traffic accidents, crawled through miles of construction and I passed a blazing wildfire as if it were some circus sideshow! Then I navigated Route 12, through the Florida panhandle, through Alabama, then Mississippi, past New Orleans and north on Route 49 for the last hundred mile segment into Alexandria, LA. The journey was long and I traveled about 700 miles that night in a total of 14 hours. What took so long? I stopped every two hours and there were hours of crawling at 30 miles per hour with hordes of people in cars exiting Florida. But what made this trip so extraordinary was not the miles or the hours, but the purpose, and the resulting epiphany.
A bit melodramatic? Read on if you will, then you can decide and judge.
During the trip, to avoid falling asleep by keeping my brain engaged, I turned on the radio to search for a talk radio station. Strangely enough, my car radio was already tuned to EWTN, a Catholic Radio station. At first, I thought this show would be boring, but then the announcer caught my attention: He was conducting an interview with an author who wrote about the proof of God’s existence. Although I didn’t write it down and I find myself searching Google for it today, I believe it was an interview with Dr. Edward Feser who wrote a new book: The Five Proofs of God.
I won’t try to summarize it here – it could be a topic for a future blog post, but suffice it to say, the interview was riveting and I became totally emersed in the dialogue. As a result, I no longer felt any effects of the hours of driving except for some stiffness in my neck and shoulders, probably from gripping the wheel to control the car in traffic. I wasn’t tired; I didn’t feel sleepy. I was alert and awake. I pulled over a few times to check my alertness and still did not feel any symptoms of the exhaustion that science would have dictated under the circumstances.
The radio interview did not last the entire 14 hours, however. Following Dr. Feser, the EWTN radio host introduced yet another author whose name I can’t find now, but the talk was delivered by a woman who spoke about “Why God wants us to be happy.” She explored the four levels of happiness similar to the definition you’ll find on the Catholic Education Resource Center’s website (I interpret): 1. Happiness in THINGS like food. 2. The happiness of comparative advantage, for example, happiness derived from winning a spelling bee.3. Seeing the good in others and doing good for others, and 4. A fulfillment or fullness that transcends all other forms of happiness.
In the past year, I have been struggling with my grief after my husband’s passing, and so I was “all ears,” hoping to hear some good news, some hope that I can truly be joyful again. This interview delivered. I was amazed.
The last 100 miles were physically taxing as my energy reserves dwindled, but I made it to the hotel without accident or incident. I checked us into the Holiday Inn, Alexandria, Louisiana. Caily-Kitty was happy there as she was everywhere we went. As long as she had a pillow for her head and a toy for play, and her “Mommie,” it was all okay by her. Such an angel. I was blessed to have her with me through it all.
I was determined to enjoy the stay as best I could, so the next day I explored the area and I was pleased to find the Cathedral of St. Francis Xavier, right across the street from the hotel. I visited the beautiful and very old Cathedral to light a candle and say a prayer and on Sunday, I attended Mass. The pastor said prayers for the hurricane victims and the basket was passed for donations. It was heart-warming and I felt safe.
There was a zoo in Alexandria. I spent the next day exploring the Alexandria Zoological Park where I met a cougar, pink flamingos, alligators, a crocodile, bear, and many species of birds.
It was a beautiful, clear and cool day. Gone was the heat and humidity of Florida. I rode the little train that took me on a tour of the park. I felt young again.
So here I am. Running from a hurricane. Enjoying God’s creatures at the zoo, looking for a life beyond grief.
During all legs of my trip, I did not feel alone. Friends and relatives kept in touch. They sent me encouraging texts and emails, called me regularly to check on my progress, cared about where I ended up and whether I was safe. Thank you to all those who kept me going.
After spending four nights in Louisiana, hurricane Irma tracked out of Florida, it’s power diminishing as it passed to the northeast, leaving the entire state of Florida in various levels of destruction. I dreaded the thought of driving the distance home in one day, so I made reservations at the Ashton Inn, Pensacola, Florida, which was about halfway. News media reported widespread gas shortages and road closures due to debris and flooding. As I traveled east, I was appalled at the stupidity of some who transformed their vehicles into explosive hazards by strapping a number of filled gas cans to the roofs of their cars or lined them up on a trailer behind. With all of the traffic, it’s a miracle that a fender-bender didn’t ignite one of these car bombs. I guessed law enforcement was engaged elsewhere and didn’t have the resources to address this hazard. It scared the heck out of me! I navigated around these people with care. People do dumb things while running from a hurricane.
The morning I awoke in Pensacola, I ventured out of the hotel in search of a healthy breakfast. At one point I veered off the main road and found myself a bit lost. I have become accustomed to relying on Google maps for directions, so I pulled the car over into a parking lot to check the map. Momentarily, I looked to my right. Here is what I saw. I laughed and thought, “he’s with me on this trip!” HA!
Pensacola is a military town. The presence of the Navy is prominent on road signs and buildings such as the Naval Air Station and Naval hospital. Their city website advertises that they are the “Cradle of Naval Aviation,” home to the renowned Blue Angels, officially known as the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron. There is also about 50 miles of Gulf coastline so there were lots to see and do. I spent my day at the Naval Air Museum, wandering around hangers filled with Naval aircraft and memorabilia. I had lunch at the theme restaurant, the Cubi Bar Cafe, decorated to re-create the bar area of the famous Navy and Marine Corps Squadron’s Cubi Point Officers’ Club. I worked up the nerve to try the Blue Angels’ flight simulator and I enjoyed an ear-shattering IMAX film about Aircraft Carriers. I could have spent a week there!
A text from a neighbor reassured me that my home in Nokomis was safe. The outside lights were on, so I had power. My neighbor sent pictures which reassured me further that the damage was minimal. I lost a tree out front, but otherwise, my home was spared. For others in my neighborhood and in my state, that was not the case. For weeks afterward, I became aware of the suffering in my state and the herculean effort to rebuild homes and reconnect all those who lost their homes or who had to deal with damage or wait for power to be restored. Everyone pitched in to help each other.
The final trek home brought me to the last lap down Route 75 and a breath-taking rainbow filled the Gulf Coast sky. I arrived at my front door late Thursday, September 14th. Caily was absolutely gleeful and I walked around the house, counting my blessings.
When I finally collapsed into my usual place in my den, the miracle of my trip, which was all about the 14 hours of driving West to outrun hurricane Irma, listening to The Proof of God and the talk on “Why God wants me to be happy,” engulfed my mind and heart in a way that I can’t encapsulate in any words.
I recall the wise observation of the hotel clerk in Valdosta: “There is a reason you are going to Lousiana,” and she was right. What was the reason? I think Forrest Gump said it best in the movie after he had run “for 3 years, two months, fourteen days and sixteen hours”: “My mom always said: You gotta put the past behind you before you can move on….”
That day, I put the past behind me. Time to start a new life, thank God for the opportunity.