by Emay Tea
My experiences leading up to, during and after the worst storm in these parts in 57 years.
Amazingly, sometimes in the midst of a natural disaster, things become chaotic: relief organizations are in disarray, the volunteers un- or misinformed and confused, supplies and donations are scant or nonexistent, how situations are going to be handled changes by the day… sometimes by the hour, sometimes the minute. My stay in Miami at the behest of a mandatory evacuation of the Keys for the coming of Irma is a case in point.
It started out well- at least by my standards. How or where I got the information is beyond me, but even in my drunken state, I knew I was supposed to be on the sidewalk in front of the elementary school on Kennedy around noon Thursday and a Key West city bus would come by and pick up the evacuees- all one of us- leaving for Miami. But even more important was REMEMBERING and ACTING on the info. Something I’m generally not good at when I’ve been drinking the way I had recently.
It had started out some weeks ago, and I’m hard put to remember if there were any dry days in that time. Much happened, good and bad, to make for many stories, but towards the end I was so blotto that I thought I was finally wet-brained. I had given away or lost everything, ‘til I was down to a pair of sandals, shorts, a shirt, and my wallet. My backpack was stolen when I set it down in a parking lot to take a picture of/for a Japanese family. In the time it took to get their camera, take the photo, return the camera, receive their thanks, and turn around, it was gone. This was typical of how things would go for me in the coming weeks.
Much of what I had I gave away because I had become suicidal, and I figured if I’m going to kill myself, I better find a good home for everything first. Then, when I had a change of heart about ending my life, was distraught about all I had lost. Then I fell back on my Buddhist readings, and remembered that grasping is the root of all suffering. I tried to practice non-grasping. Tried.
Beyond what I gave away, while sleeping in the Aqueduct Authority entryway, I had a bag of clean clothes, with loose cigarettes on top that was given to me; a found baseball cap, a swanky pair of sunglasses I found, stolen on successive nights. I found a new toothbrush and lost that. I found a new poncho and lost that. I lost my wallet, and when it was returned to me a couple of days later, everything was in it except my EBT card. And on and on...
So when I decided to catch the bus, realizing through the observation of SO many people scurrying about, buying water galore and other supplies, packing up- plus there was a mandatory evacuation in place- this is SERIOUS, I had clothes on and a wallet, and that was it. I had a little cash, because during the morning before the bus ride, I was begging, and a guy by Kmart loading mulch bags into his car, gave me $10 to help him. Couple more beers, then off to the races.
I was the only one on the bus for awhile, and the driver and I chatted, she occasionally exclaiming, “Where is everyone?” Slowly, though, she began to pick up other riders. The bus filled by the time we left the Keys, I think, but the trip is a blur, I was drunk.
It was a long, tedious trip, except for the occasional distraction supplied by one drunken douche. His behavior, at first amusing, soon became annoying. He was seated across and down to my left, and the guy to my right and I would make snarky comments about his foolishness. After pestering J_____ across her boyfriend J_____, who sat next to him, he turned his asinine attention to the Hispanic women across from him, on my left.
The younger one was dark skinned and had a very Mayan look about her, which I found very attractive. She was wearing jeans and a dark green, subtly camouflaged jacket, which I never saw her take off even during the hottest days. But the drunken leering asshole across the aisle would lean forward and try to strike up a conversation now and again. Then he took to saying -¿Como se dice ___?- whatever word or phrase, but the woman had taken to ignoring. Which led him to try even harder, switching now between pestering J___ and the Hispanic women? I didn’t pay attention to everything he said, but at one point he must have crossed a line, because he started asking -¿Como se dice, “I’m sorry?”, en español?- over and over ‘til some guy towards the front yelled –Lo siento.- over and over ‘til some guy towards the front yelled –Lo siento-.
So now the jerk would intersperse –Lo siento- in with his dorky remarks and questions, and for some strange reason, after we reached Miami, went to the front and asked the driver to let him off. Given how long it was between his departure and when we got to the shelter, he was way far away. We can only hope he wandered around aimlessly ‘til Sunday, got caught in the storm, and slammed into a wall by the winds, wherein his jaw was broken. That would shut him up.
Finally we got to our destination- sort of. Our driver dropped us off at a pet friendly shelter. We didn’t know ‘til we got inside, and the volunteers there said we couldn’t stay, and they we have to get another bus to take us to the right shelter.
In this time, I was grumbling about not having a blanket or anything to sleep on, having just heard we may stay there one night, and there were no cots. A kindly volunteer fetched her own, new in the package from her car for me. By that time they had changed their minds, and we were indeed going to another shelter. I’m sure the volunteer had no idea she would probably never see me again; how I’ll ever pay her, I do not know. But, I’m going to try.
I and another guy wandered outside, and a kindly woman with her daughter said, “I know the way to the other shelter. Do you guys want a ride?” Hell, yeah! So we piled in, him with his pack, and I with my comforter. She drove us there, having only once to stop and ask us for directions, and dropped us off at the door. Then she took off. I think we both thought she and her daughter were goi9ng to the same shelter. No, just a kindly ride. Even with some confusion as to where we were for a spell, the ride took under 20 minutes. The poor souls who had to wait for a bus took over 2 hours to get there.
My partner and I entered the shelter, a gym at FIU, and when we started to register, they started to register us, we were informed that Monroe Co. residents were being sheltered elsewhere. But, we could stay the night. Without any beer to get me through, I wasn’t gonna sleep much, but I was road weary, and wanted to lay down.
The laying down part was easy, but listening to the kids screech and cry and scream fatigued my spirit, as I am prone to stress from noise pollution. As I griped about it, my partner said, “I’ll taske this any day over a room full of yapping, barking, shitting on the floor dogs. Would you rather be back there?” Well, no, but I’d rather not be here either. So, as we didn’t have any choice, we lie on the concrete floor, me on my comforter, he, I don’t remember.
For the next 5 or so days, everywhere I went, a total of 4 shelters, I saw people sleeping right on the concrete, on air mattresses, or regular mattresses, in tents, and everything in between- on blankets, cardboard, pool floats, cots, comforters (me), the carpeted spaces in one hallway… everything imaginable.
The next couple of days are a blur, I don’t know where the money came from, but I stayed in beer and smokes. The fact that others were drinking and willing to share helped a bit. Still, I must have come up with more than $10, but everything before the bus ride is so fuzzy, I don’t know what I had in cash.
From our current shelter, the gym, we were shipped to another part of FIU around SW 113th Av. As I was only there one day before being moved to ANOTHER shelter across the street, The Oceana Bank Convocation Center, I don’t remember that one much.
There were 4 constants in all these shelters: all, and I mean ALL of the information given out, whether from evacuees, volunteers, deputies or cops, etc, was wrong. Most meant well, but they were speculating, or indulging in wishful thinking, but much of it was based on info. from others, or higher ups, or phone calls from those who stayed behind and got it wrong. The amount of damage to certain locales, where we were staying that night, when FEMA was gonna show up, where my damned shelter was the time I got lost… nobody had reliable information.
A good example is the 12th, I believe, we were to eat breakfast at 10am. At noon, there was still no food forthcoming. I don’t know how I met him, but a blind man offered to buy me a sandwich if I guided him to Subway or Wendy’s, whatever came first.
His right hand on my left shoulder, his black and yellow striped walking stick in his left hand, we started out through the campus. I had to signal every change of landscape that wasn’t a straight, flat, level run. “Curb, about a foot high, two steps away.” He would use his stick to tap the side, then drag it up to gauge the height. “We’re coming up to some grass, but it’s smooth and worn.” The only time we had any problem was when we came to two steps and I said, “We’re coming up to a step, 3 feet away.” He used his stick to measure it, and stepped up. And almost tripped over the second step. Oops, sorry about that.
We finally made it to Wendy’s, and he ordered 2 meals. I ordered 2 sandwiches, no meal. I had no idea my new friend was going to give me one of the fries and drinks that came with his meals. My, my, this was WAY more food than I eat in one sitting. I ended up bringing 1 ½ sandwiches back. It was a hot day and I couldn’t eat much. No more worrying about going hungry.
During this time, the 3rd shelter I had stayed at and the 4th I had visited, on the 2nd night I found a spot that was relatively dark and quiet. I was suffering sleep deprivation because of the constantly squalling children and the lights, which in most places were never turned off, or at best, dimmed by turning of half the lights. I spied this out one night from the balcony/hallway, and saw there was a man-sized opening in that dark corner by the front windows. The next morning, Sunday, the day of Irma, I moved down and became the 6th member of a tribe. When G__ came down, we were 7. We've stuck together since, and are here together at the Red Cross shelter.
Sunday morning saw the last of my money, $3, go towards 2 beers. I had started detoxing Saturday night, and the shakes drove me to the store early. I bought 2 beers and drank them quickly, watchful for cops as I walked down the street. When I got to the shelter, where my new camp was by the windows, a front row view of Irma, I padded down to watch the fun. It had just started drizzling when I got in, and continued to get steadily worse.
Winds at the inner ring were up to 180 mph, while in the outer ring, where we were, they were a mere 80 mph. We watched as bands of rain came through, coming down first like a wall of water, only to die down to a trickle, only to pick up again. Gusts of rain would come shooting by, sometimes at a 45° angle, sometimes almost sideways, parallel to the ground.
With the increase in winds, first palm fronds came down. Then more. Some palms were almost stripped bare. Then tree branches started coming down. Then, small trees toppled over. Then larger trees. We were in a corner that spread out into a larger room to our right as we faced the windows, so there was a wall of glass perpendicular to us as we looked outside, and that was the direction the wind was coming from. From our right, something would suddenly come flying into view. Palm fronds, sheets of rain, tree branches, a round table being pushed across the concrete as if it were a sail.
That is how the day was spent; watching the storm, with occasional forays into the entry room to watch TV, and see other cities being battered: Ft. Lauderdale, Sarasota, some of the Keys, but little mention of Key West, and no video.
Gusts of wind, bands of rain fiercely throughout the afternoon. Fronds and branches flying past, phone calls to friends in Key Largo, Marathon, Big Pine, Key West, and continual and often conflicting updates. During the coming week, they had 10 dead, now it's 20 floaters, now it's 50, no, that's bullshit, it's only 2. The single most consistent factor in the whole experience was the lack of reliable information; misinformation, hyperbole, speculation and confusion reigned supreme. After a time, I decided to not believe anything anybody said, and just focus on staying clean, eating well, and planning, to the extent that I could, my future after the shelters. Which basically boiled down to just getting geared up as much as supplies allowed.
As the afternoon wore on, whenever it would begin to lessen, I hoped it was ready to die down completely. The TV radar showed it inching up the Gulf Coast, and Miami was slowly sliding out from under the wide swath that was it's Eastern outer ring. But it would lessen almost to a stillness, then suddenly come back with a fury. This happened time and again. I think it was actually dying down by the time I went to bed, and in the morning it was gone, as I knew it would be. The wind was gone and the sun came out, and it was eerie to see all that destruction on such a pleasant day.
9/17 4:20 am
Since my money was gone and a storm was coming anyway, I had decided on the 10th to quit drinking. For as long as it lasted, anyway, this go-round. Come somewheres between 8 and 10 this morn', I'll be starting on day 8.
The 11th was a warm and sunny and calm. Someone offered to buy me a pack of smokes if I made the run and bought him some, and C______ offered to drive me and a woman to the store in his van. We piled in, and he pulled out onto an East/West road that flanked the campus, parallel to SW 24th St. Cora, Way on the other side.
We got to that street and 107th Av, and a Shell there was boarded up with corrugated steel panels. So I guess it wasn't boarded up, it was steel paneled up. C______ griped, but I was sure the Shell I was used to going to was right down 107th, but I didn't know street names yet, being used to navigating by landmarks. So I said, “I think there's another Shell down this street, and if it's not, it's one block up.”
“You THINK? I don't go on think, or maybe. I don't go on 'I think.' I don't go on that. And much of the trip was like that, the crotchety old fool bitching about how others drove, this, that, and the other, 'til it was obvious that the only person in the world who did anything right was him.
So we drove down the street we started on, based on the woman's search for Shells in the area, and after a long drive, came to another steeled up Shell. So we drove back down to 107th and went down a couple of blocks, and lo and behold, there was the Shell “I think” was there. We coulda been there 15 minutes ago. That's the problem a lack of Spirit of Adventure will cause.
This Shell was steeled up too, but 3 of our shelter-mates were hanging out and informed us a Mobil down the street was open. They asked for a ride, and C______ grudgingly relented, so they boarded. The Mobil was open, but without power, so they just used an open register, and set prices mostly by memory, I guess. We bought our stuff in the unlit store and skedaddled. They had no coffee, so C______ was as grouchy as ever, but we got back unscathed.
So went the next few days, making runs occasionally for others, waiting in line for our 2 meals a day- sometimes one slice of ham in tinfoil for breakfast, and if you were near enough to the front of the line, perhaps some plastic wrapped cheese. Thank God there were enough people with food-stamps or money who were willing to share, so no one really went hungry.
Once, as I walked through the campus- an amazing place, quite large and with outdoor sculpture all over; abstract, representational, Surreal, etc, I decided I would take Coral Way back from the Mobil. I walked down the street looking for landmarks that might guide me in, and when I saw something I thought looked familiar, I cut across.
Just down the road there was a field with a security guard standing by, because, you know, our empty fields need to be protected. I asked her if she knew where the Monroe Co. shelter was. She said no, but pointed to a car across the street, and said that guy there was from the area and might be able to help. So I wandered across the street and over to the driver's window.
He was sitting in the car eating chicken and rice out of a Styrofoam container, a woman passenger doing the same. He looked up at me through the closed window, then went on eating, ignoring me. I didn't know what to do, I'm seldom treated this way, and it always throws me for a loop when it does happen.
I strolled over to a police cruiser parked nearby, and asked the officer driving if he knew where the Monroe Co. shelter was. He pointed over to a nearby building. I said, “That's not where I've been staying.” “It's the only one around here.”, he growled. Dumb-ass. I've already stayed at 3 on the FIU campus. Seems being well informed, or or even compassionate to disaster victims is just not some cops forte.
Over to the shelter that wasn't the right one, just to see if they could direct me. I had little confidence I'd get good information. I wasn't disappointed. The guy at the resrvation table wasn't sure where my shelter was, but we both knew it was close. He consulted his 'smart phone' and then pointed in the direction I should go. He pointed NE. I actually should have gone NW. He was about 90° off, and walking through portions of the campus I had never been before, I found myself back at the Shell down the street from the Mobil. More or less my starting point.
9/19 9 pm
Got sidetracked there for a moment. Went to the library the other day and got a Dean Koontz book: Forever Odd. Also got on the computer, but their computers are either malfunctioning or the service is spotty at best. So I'm jumping from station to station trying to find the one that performs the best. Just to get on Bing, I have to search for it on google, then click the link. Which really irks me, because I think google is evil. Not that I believe in a Good and an Evil as warring supernatural forces that vie for our souls, either to guide or enslave us. But if Evil did slink across the landscape, google would certainly be a part of it.
2 meals a day, cots only for the special needs folks, very few blankets and no pillows being passed out, no showers... resources were mighty thin, and the poor Red Cross volunteers had to make do with what the County was willing to kick down. Key West is one of the richest cities per capita in the U.S. And they can't even take care of their residents after a mandatory evacuation.
A sad part of this is, though Monroe Co. funded these, Red Cross volunteers tended them, and took the brunt of the bitching and moaning. They were doing their best with what they had to work with and were the epitome of patience, tolerance and compassion. One camera crew, with what station or organization I don't know, recorded a woman complaining about the lack of food, then got in the face of a poor volunteer on camera, then started crying and stomped off. I found out later she had over $100 in food-stamps.
One guy I know from KW came back from a foray to show me his take, $23. Besides what he had obviously drank that day. “Get your game on, man. Go out there and hustle.”, he said. “Naw, I'm gonna look for work.”, I said. “Fine, then be broke.” He went into the shelter and asked about dinner. There was none, he was late. He started kicking up a fuss, without considering he had the money to eat, before coming back. Course, he needed that money to smoke and drink.
The last night we stayed at that shelter, Wendy's donated chicken nuggets and fries for all. Probably the best meal we had there. That night, they were dropping like flies. A young couple went to jail. A man with a parrot got kicked out. Actually, the parrot got kicked out and the man went with him. An obviously drunk guy was led outside, and told he was being taken to another shelter. He ranted and raved, berated and taunted the cops, and challenged them to arrest him. They wouldn't, and his rants included the lack of food. “What did you guys eat tonight, a scoop of ice cream?”, he spouted to we who were outside observing the spectacle. Put down the bottle and come back for dinner, and you may get some Wendy's, dipshit.
Throughout my stay, close to 2 weeks, there were cops, staties, deputies and National Guardsmen (for 2 days) wandering around; cruisers and trucks and hummers all over the place. As if we were a gathering of criminals instead of a bunch of folks hanging around waiting for the power to come back, and the water to return to potability. Or finding another place to go because the abode was damaged, or completely wrecked.
9/21 1:30 am
After Irma, there was a curfew in effect. I was unaware of it, and was wandering for quite some time around the campus admiring the landscaping, sculptures, fountains, ponds filled with turtles before returning to the shelter. There a cop stopped me and asked, “Are you planning on going out again tonight?” “No”, I said. “OK, if you leave again, you're outta here.” “Yes, sir. Can we still go to the store in the morning?” “Sure. But you can't go out at night.”
The next morning, knowing that there was a 2 mile radius of power outage around FIU, I approached a group of deputies and asked if they knew if there was any power locally. One of the deputies responded, in a not so nice tone, “If you leave here, you can't come back.” “I was told by a cop yesterday we could go to the store today.”, I said. A female deputy said something in a kindlier tone, I don't remember what, then the first deputy, his tone softer now, said, “Look, go talk to a Red Cross worker and see what their policy is.”
I knew FIU was antsy to get their building back, so I asked a Red Cross worker on either the 12th or 13th, “When are we being shipped out?” “!0 o'clock tomorrow.”, cam his assured response. An hour later, a volunteer wandered through announcing at intervals, “Pack up, everyone. There are buses coming, and we're going to the Red Cross shelter at the Fairgrounds.”
My tribe agreed we should stick together. We all got along, and nobody, I think, wanted to be stuck among strangers. Getting along with 400 other people is one thing, sleeping next to them is something else.
At the E. Darwin Fuchs Pavilion, we stood in line waiting to register, and when that whole process was done, we stood in line and waited for cots. I spied the Grille that would supply us food throughout our stay, and wandered over to grab a tray that contained breakfast. A bagel with cream cheese, cereal and milk, and a banana. Real food, and plenty of it, for breakfast. Finally we were being treated like victims of a natural disaster who did what they were supposed to and obeyed a mandatory evacuation order and not like rif-raf who didn't deserve any better. The Red Cross can certainly teach Monroe Co. how to treat humans humanely. But, at least KW, the filthy lucre comes mostly from tourism and downtown businesses, which are treated like royalty, while all the rest are treated like cannon fodder. Never mind that I spent $40,000+ over the last 3 years there; if they see a tourist walking down the street with a cup or a beer, they'll let it ride. If they see me walking down the street with a beer, I'm going to jail.
Evacuees were split between 2 adjacent buildings, the Pavilion and the Mary E. Reilly Coliseum. There was upwards of a !,000 of us at our largest number. The lines for meals were very long, even before the metal roll-up to the Grille was rolled up. But the meals were catered, cooked out back and in the kitchen, and quite a few trays were prepared in advance so when the window was opened, trays were continually handed out and the line moved quickly. A very smooth operation.
Donations started rolling in: water, clothes, Dunkin Donuts coffee, Salty donuts and Gelato food trucks, Chinese food out of the back of a van, AT&T giving away free phones and service for a month, $35 a month for life after that- unfortunately, many of the sites I try to get on with this 'smart' phone I need a google account to access, and you know how I feel about google- Sprint came a couple of days later and gave out swag bags- food, coffee, a cot, blanket and pillow, plenty of stalls and paper, hot showers... how the Red Cross got it so right, while Monroe Co, situated in the path of so many hurricanes over the decades couldn't figure it out, is beyond me. Thank you, Red Cross. I had been regularly in the shopping plazas at the edge of the campus, and the first day I went out I made about $13 in about 10 minutes from 5 people. That was plenty. I bought a couple packs of smokes and some sundry. Throughout the next week, I geared up with sunglasses, 175 reading glasses to replace the 275s that would eventually ruin my vision, fish oil, B complex, bananas, green tea, horseradish sauce, jalapeño pepper slices, lotion, sunblock... all things I deemed essential to good health.
10:05 am on the 71S
On the bus to the 35, to the bus that goes to Marathon. I'm getting off at Islamorada, to help my former/future boss fix his parent's roof. During the next 8 or 9 days, I would eat, beg, do pushups and crunches, read, shower and sleep. I found out where the local library was, and started making the half hour trip there for the last 4 days I was sheltered. The library considered me a resident because of circumstances, instead of charging me $100, which they which they wouldn't have gotten anyway. I got 2 hours computer time and could take out 2 books, so I got 'Forever Odd' by Dean Koontz and a How To book titled 'Mexican Spanish', Voy aprender hablar español.
While on the computer the 2nd day, I put a Wanted post on Freecycle.org, Miami group. I asked for a bicycle. My feet were shot out, what with the sandals I was wearing, then the tennis shoes I found. Even after I stopped wearing the sandals, the skin between my toes was so thick, it felt like the strap was still there. A phantom strap. Then the shoes I found, which fit well, but I didn't have socks. The crease in the left one created a mean sore in my big toe. So I started walking barefoot. And got a splinter in each foot. Poor feet can't win for losing.
A nice young lady responded to the post, and after I explained where I was sheltered, she said she'd see what she could do. The next day she called and asked when she could drop off the bike. In between the time she called and dropped off the bike, we were informed the shelter was being closed at 11 am on Friday. This was Wednesday, we had less than 2 days to figure things out.
I got the bike, a green Next from the lovely young woman, and I was so grateful. And I'm fortunate the 2 buses I've taken so far had empty racks. It's coming home with me. The brakes and shifters or cables need fixing, and I'd like a longer seat post, but these are minor repairs and well worth it.
After receiving the bike, I called my old boss on my new AT&T phone with the number for his company I pulled off the 'Net. I lost his no. when I lost my old phone, fortunately, he was listed. We talked about Irma and the damage to the Keys, and he related how he was in Islamorada, and his parents guest house there had half the roof blown off. He couldn't find good help, and he had a lot to do. I offered to come down and he said, “C'mon, get down here.” The next day, today, I packed, donated what I didn't need, including the comforter, and now I'm writing this on the 301 Express, the last lag of the journey.