Surviving Irma and the Emotional Trauma of Putting Life Back Together

Seeing scary images like this on your TV screen is not uncommon during hurricane season. This one was Irma’s path 2 days before she was expected to hit South Florida. Photo from Fox News.

Living in Florida since 1994, I’ve been through my share of Mother Nature at her worst. 1999 alone gave us Hurricane Floyd, Tropical Storm Harvey, and Hurricane Irene. 2004 brought Hurricane Charley and 2005 was the year of Hurricane Wilma – a hurricane that destroyed much of South Florida, knocking my power out for two weeks during sweltering temperatures and destroying my fence and trees, as well as cracking the front windshield of my car and damaging the roof of my house.

That said, you’d think I’d be better equipped to handle the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, the beast who came barreling into South Florida on September 10. Especially considering, unlike Wilma, Dan and I miraculously didn’t lose power like thousands of other people did, and while we did have property damage and our water main broke, it could have been far worse.

I think much of it’s due to Hurricane Fatigue. Prior to the arrival of a hurricane, you feel an overwhelming sense of dread of the unknown, eating away at your mind nearly 24/7 in anticipation of something horrific that potentially could change your life. It’s on the news for weeks prior, causing a heightened sense of anxiety and gnawing pit in your stomach. It’s all anyone talks about at work. It’s all your out-of-state family talks about with the constant checking in with phone calls and text messages of concern. It’s the overwhelming love and support of your friends on social media who are terrified for your safety. And it’s the surrealism around you – the forever din in the background of people putting up hurricane shutters, the empty shelves in the grocery stores, the blocks-long lines at the gas station. And those scary words uttered over and over, relentlessly, day and night, by every media outlet: potentially catastrophic.

This was a typical scene at the bread isle of any grocery store in South Florida in preparation for Irma.

Hysteria sets in, competing against time, beginning with the gathering of emergency supplies like flashlights, canned human and cat food, batteries, cat litter, and bottled water. Cars needed to be filled up with gas, portable devices charged, money withdrawn from the bank, important legal documents secured, cat carriers accessed and more. Your home then needs to be secured, because anything left outside can become a lethal weapon. For Dan and I, because we have a large piece of property, it took us days to bring yard ornaments, patio furniture, and plants into our garage, and because it was brutally hot out, and we’re not as young as we used to be, it was a daunting task.

Just a small smattering of some of the stuff piled up in our garage that we carried in from outside.

We also don’t have hurricane shutters, something we will be investing in, and it was a nail-biting, race to the finish to have plywood put on our windows by night’s end Friday, as Irma was scheduled to hit some time on Sunday and we needed to be in our safe place on Saturday. Dan had co-worker’s help and while we were eternally grateful for the assistance, it was a nerve wracking experience. One gentleman brought his wife – someone I had never met – and after some nervous small talk, we sat down to watch the news together in the living room. The windows were boarded up by this point and the room was dark except for an eerie glow emitting from the TV. Terrifying images of Hurricane Andrew from 1992 flashed on the screen. Hurricane Andrew was a Category 5 hurricane, the most destructive hurricane to ever hit Florida. The weatherman told us with complete certainty, that Irma would be far worse than this historically epic hurricane.

With our living room windows boarded up, the house had a dark, foreboding feeling to it.

As it was, I still had heartbreaking images in my head of the people suffering in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and that’s when reality sunk in. She and I both burst into tears and held one another. It was a very emotional day across the board – lots of love, tears, anger, shortness of words, temper flare-ups, hugs, and apologies wrapped up into one long, angst-ridden day. By this time, we were no longer boarding up the house with the intention of staying to ride out the storm, we were boarding up hoping to salvage what we could, fully expecting our home would be demolished.

The last minute change of plans was an enormous relief. Dan was told we could take the cats with us and hunker down at the building where he worked, as it was a concrete structure and would be much safer than our house. We were going to head over Saturday afternoon and that’s when I saw my life with complete clarity. Imagine this scenario – you’re given the time to pack one suitcase and a box. Besides your emergency hurricane kit of supplies and human and cat food, litter, and water, what do you bring?

It was far simpler than I imagined as I walked through each room of the house taking mental inventory. I packed the ashes of my angels Jazz, Harley, Bandit and Bailey, along with the picture of my angel, Kit. Photo albums of my two boys when they were babies, a family tree photo album my mom put together for me of relatives from days gone by, a backup hard drive of everything on my computer, some clothes, an heirloom ring from my great-grandmother, toiletries, and some personal files. And true to myself, I also grabbed a pair of my trademark cat ears and a signed copy of a book I had from Julie Newmar, the original Cat Woman. That’s what my life amounted to with the luxury of being given the time to choose.

This is where we keep all our memorial items – everything was grabbed and packed up.

We woke up on Saturday to check the path of Irma and saw the slightest glimmer of hope – she appeared to be jogging slightly west. We decided to wait for the 11:00 a.m. advisory before we rounded up our feline gang to head out, possibly saying goodbye to our home for the last time. At 11:00 a.m. Irma was still moving westward, so we decided to wait for the 2:00 p.m. advisory. By 4:00 p.m., with minute-by-minute updates from our trusted weatherman who indicated Irma was lessening in intensity, we made the decision to create a safe room in our bedroom and stay home. It’s not that we glibly assumed we would feel no effects from Irma, or that we felt our home would not incur damage, it’s that we felt for the long-term duration, we would rather be holed up with the cats in our house, as opposed to an unfamiliar place where we might be stuck for days before we could get back home.

Uprooting seven cats, loading them into a car, keeping them in carriers in a strange setting – for hours and days on end would have caused them enormous, long-lasting stress and trauma. We had the windows boarded up on the outside of the safe room. We put cushions on the windows on the inside and reinforced them with sturdy furniture. We had a closet in the room with all the carriers and emergency supplies, and we created a cozy and functional cocoon to spend the night.

It was a long night, but for the most part, we fared okay. We had several cat beds on the floor of the bedroom and dragged in their favorite rug so they would feel a sense of familiarly. I fed them dinner in the room and they seemed to take it in stride we’d be spending the night that way. Zoey, however, had a significant moment of panic. Being a purebred Bengal with a wild bloodline, she didn’t take too well to being closed in (despite that theoretically, she sleeps next to me all night long, the only difference, the door is kept open). She howled over and over in extreme distress, in an ear-piercing yelp of a meow that she wanted OUT. I tried sleeping with her on the floor, but nothing calmed her. Dan eventually let her out to stay with her in the living room and she gratefully slept with him on the couch the remainder of the night.

There was no adequate lighting for this picture, but you can see the cats eating dinner on the floor and bed of the safe room we created in our bedroom.

We let the rest of the cats out in the morning after checking the weather report, with the understanding if we felt threatened; we would bring them back into the bedroom. We were glued to the TV, watching non-stop, live coverage of where Irma was at all times. It was hard to focus on much of anything else. Technically we could have been playing board games, or I could have got caught up on blogging, or a hundred other things, but it was impossible to focus on anything except the news coverage.

It was a long, exhausting day. The wind howled with no breaks in-between. It rained on and off and the sky was an intimidating pea-green/grey color. The surrealism was interrupted by ear-piercing, jarring notifications of tornadoes in the area (16 in total) and when we finally got the official word at 5:09 p.m. that the worst of Irma had past us, Dan and I wearily celebrated with a champagne toast and much of the rest of the night was spent texting loved ones back and forth that we were okay.

I will never forget the moment when we were finally told the worst of Irma was over for us. At this point we had lost cable and were watching the news on Dan’s computer. Now I was a wreck worrying about friends and family on the west coast.

When we woke up Monday, we still had power, but our cable was still out and we had no Internet. By this point, I was in a fog. After being glued to the news for weeks, we had lost communication. We had friends and family on the west coast of Florida. How were they faring? Were people worrying about us? When would we have to go back to work? Did the Hemingway cats in Key West survive? It was a very unsettling feeling, being that disconnected.

Both of my sons and my mom live in South Florida and I was worried about them, too. They all had decided to stay at my oldest son’s house and thankfully they were okay. They lost power and had significant tree damage, but they were safe. We were under mandatory curfew for the morning and once it was okay to go outside we assessed the damage – nothing too serious – but it still would equate to massive amounts of physical labor in brutally hot temperatures, cleaning up the debris. To put it into perspective, I typically walk about 11,000 steps a day on my Fitbit. On Monday, I walked 21,000. My youngest son ended up coming to stay with us (along with his cat) on Tuesday, until his power came back late Friday night and he was a Godsend for Dan and me, helping with the cleanup.

This tree was from my oldest son’s yard – it was completely uprooted and destroyed his fence.

By all rights, I should be okay. The cats weathered the storm like champs. Truthfully, I think they thrived during the hurricane. Having Dan and I with them for days on end is not a luxury they typically see and they thoroughly enjoyed our company. Our damage was minimal, relatively speaking, and all of my friends and family survived. I was only without the internet and cable for a few days, and anything I lost outside can grow back again.

This was Zee, Zoey, Mia, Peanut, and Rolz a few days after the hurricane. As you can see, clearly they are not stressed out.

It’s the after affects that have gotten me. I believe I’m experiencing PTSD and I’m having extreme difficulty getting back into the swing of life. I nearly forgot Zee’s 12th birthday on September 7th, and 9/11, a day I always pay my respects to, came and went without any ceremony, as I was doing yard work. I’ve lost my creative center. I have trouble remembering what day it is. I have trouble connecting thoughts. I’m excessively tired. I wander through each room of the house, a reminder of what could have happened, as I see belongings of mine wrapped in plastic or sealed in Ziploc bags to preserve the contents.

I feel withdrawn and tired. It hits me so much in life is just stuff. I’ve become obsessed with cleaning the clutter from my life – I’ve got clothes in my closet I will never, ever wear again. Why do I keep them? And drawers filled with odds and ends – some items are over twenty years’ old, bizarre things I doubt I would ever need in any lifetime. All of them are collected and an instant decision is made – the once “must keep” item is either rashly tossed to the trash or put to the side for Goodwill.

Massive piles of brown, deadened debris line our streets, withering away, waiting to be picked up by waste management. Grocery shelves remain intermittently stocked. Our house was dark and claustrophobic until recently, as we didn’t want to take down the plywood on our windows, in fear of what could come and there are hints of broken everywhere you look.

Piles of debris like ours line streets everywhere. What once had hits of green have become brown and withered.

The world continues to frighten me with alarming frequency, too. Images from the aftermath of Irma in the Keys. The continuing suffering of Hurricane Harvey victims. The tragedy of the earthquake in Mexico. Hurricane Maria devastation in Puerto Rico. Missiles in North Korea. And then I see it on Facebook – so many people and pets have passed away in the past couple of weeks. All of it breaks my heart and weighs me down. I suppose back when Wilma and the other hurricanes hit, it was a different world then. Social media didn’t give you a minute-by-minute play of life around the world, so maybe that’s contributing to my anxieties, too. I just know too much. And back then life was more physical. Interactions with people were primarily face-to-face, with a friendly comradery, but now most everything is online. But despite the gloom, I also know I will be okay. Just writing about it has been therapeutic. I just need to be patient with myself. And in seeing my words, I do realize how very lucky and blessed I am…

Thank you to all of you who have shown me and my family such extraordinary love and concern. Your kindness means the world and truly puts into perspective just what’s important in life. My thoughts and prayers go out to all who have been affected by recent events and I am grateful for the generosity of those who have opened up their hearts, homes, wallets, and more to help out.

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  1. Ingrid King says:

    I can’t even imagine going through what you went through. Just because you never lost power, or didn’t have any significant damage doesn’t meant that you didn’t live through a major trauma. Be gentle with yourself as you let yourself recover, and please don’t rule out getting professional help. You are absolutely dealing with PTSD, and there are some very effective and short term therapies that can help you release the trauma in healthy ways. My heart goes out to you!

  2. Pam says:

    We are so happy that you survived with relatively minimal damage from that massive storm…..having lived in Clearwater for five years back in the 70s, I am only NOW realizing how weather patterns have changed – we didn’t have a hurricane experience and were most fortunate not to. Everyone just kind of stopped breathing when Irma began her “rant” – we worried about EVERYONE in her path. While we know there were many who lost everything, most people made it through better than they expected to. I’m sure there is a lot of PTSD effect after this kind of event…..just take it easy…one day/hour at a time….hopefully things will be cleaned/cleared up and life will get back into the routine. I am happy to be in Virginia now though I must admit – I’m afraid at my age I wouldn’t handle prepping for a possible disaster as well as I would have back when I lived in Clearwater. The other side of that is how amazing it is that humankind CAN prepare if it has to and CAN survive and go on. It’s a GIFT from our maker………..

    Love and Hugs, Pam and Teddy

  3. Carol Roe says:

    Thank you for the insight into living through a hurricane. I didn’t realize how traumatic it could be.

  4. Deenie says:

    Happy Birthday Deb have a wonderful one. your reaction to Irma is very much like mine good to know your not alone in post storm confusion. Again happy Birthday nice sharing my birthday with someone as nice as you love Deenie (your Moms Pal)

  5. Brian frum says:

    We are sure glad you are okay and have been thinking of you all, lots. We too have a hard time imagining what everyone has been going through.

  6. Charles Huss says:

    I am glad you fared okay during the storm. You made the right choice to keep the cats home but it was sure a tough choice. We live in Clearwater and every time we checked the updates the projected path moved farther west. I did not have enough carriers for all four of my cats and no store had them four days before the storm. I ordered one from Amazon with guaranteed Friday delivery. It didn’t come.

    We were in a mandatory evacuation zone and ended up renting a house through Airbnb in St. Petersburg We packed up the cats Saturday morning, one without a carrier, and drove to the house. That was a nightmare trying to keep the loose cat, Chris, from interfering with my driving. By Sunday Morning the storm track moved west into the Gulf and was predicted to make landfall near St. Petersburg. That, and all the doom and gloom comments from relatives that live out of state, prompted my wife to want to leave and drive to her sister’s house in Port Richey (where more cats than I want to mention live).

    The whole thing was a huge hassle considering our home suffered no damage except for some broken planters.

  7. Birthdays always make one take stock. Hold onto your feelings of gratefulness that you and yours made it through the storm, and project that to others who you know are suffering. Love is what is important, and self-love is the kernel of it all. Have a Happy Birthday, and then allow yourself to grieve your past, and look with bright-eyes onto the future.

  8. Dianna says:

    This is so well-written, Deb. I have a nephew in Plant City and a niece in Texas between Galveston and Houston. Thankfully, they both came through fairly unscathed. And my niece said she is going through what she thinks is “survivor guilt”. So many of her friends had damage, and she didn’t.

    Hopefully, time will help everything settle back to normal. It’s a disturbing time for our country with so many protests, etc.

    Thinking of you!

  9. Like my brother and his wife, and my other sister-in-law and her husband, you are sooo lucky! My brother has been living in Miami since before Andrew (he moved there in the 80s), and during Andrew his inlaws home was literally destroyed. Like your son, my brother lost some trees and fences (I think Irma liked fences lol)………..and my other sister-in-law just lost trees. You are all so lucky that Irma took the path that she took instead of the original projection of heading straight through Miami. I can’t imagine the sound and the nerves before, during and after. Unreal. Thank God you are all safe. Now my heart goes out to those in Puerto Rico who are living a nightmare, and for those in Key West, Texas and other parts of Florida. (((hugs)))

  10. oh and most importantly, how did I forget to wish you a HAPPY HAPPY BIRTHDAY!! Love you!

  11. This is such a powerful piece, Deb. I have a knot in my stomach just reading it. I can’t even imagine living in a place where each year there’s a chance such a massive hurricane can hit. Good grief, I start to get anxious when hurricane remnants are forecast to effect the northeast! I’m so happy everything ended up okay for you, and please take time to rest and heal. You’ve been through hell regardless and it will stay with you for a long time.

  12. da tabbies o trout towne says:

    In a million, I can’t even begin to imagine what hell this was for everyone Deb. I am very happy
    everyone is safe; that’s the most important part of it all.

    Zee; dood, we wood like ta say happee bee lated 12 two ewe buddy N heerz ta 12 mor….we
    hope later on…maybe on octoburzz 7th ewe can haza perch pizza pie donuts all ewe can eat
    ham samich kinda day N sell a brate then ~~~~~~~ we send ewe best fishez, mice creem dishez
    N heerz ta a yeer a head filled with happeez N healtheez ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

  13. Rosemary Lewis says:

    I live in Orlando with 4 inside and 4 outside cats. I identified with every word you wrote. My experience was very similar, and I too am having trouble getting back to normal. Thanks for sharing this.

  14. I’m glad you and Dan did all right through the storm. It’s one of those things I think we each process differently, and it sounds like you’re not done working through it yet. Be kind to yourself as you do.

    We further up in the state had the storm later in the day than you do, and my husband actually went to bed and slept through the howoling worst of the storm. I have always said that man could sleep through a hurricane, and now I have proof! That’s how I process things, by making light of them instead of working through the emotions of the experience.

    It really is OK to not be on top of your game for a while. I’m sending a big, virtual hug. You aren’t alone.

  15. jmuhj says:

    What a moving post! Almost every word resonates with me so much, as I suffer from PTSD as well, and have been having so many similar thoughts. I have friends and family in both the Harvey and Irma zones, and have not heard from all of them — poor communication, not necessarily caused by the events — so my concern continues. And we out here had the La Tuna fire to endure — the mayor of L.A. said it was L.A.’s worst fire in terms of area, and it was a lot closer to us than we were comfortable with, breathing in the choking smoke and praying it would be knocked down in 114-degree heat — as well as all of what you stated.

    As with all of the other things we’ve come through in the past, we are now on the other side of them, having endured in spite of PTSD and ongoing concerns for those we are not in touch with. I guess the lesson is that truly, what doesn’t kill us DOES make us stronger, and that we are a lot tougher than we think we are. Friends of mine had to evacuate from their Florida home, leaving an ill, elderly cat at his vet’s while they and their other cats took refuge in a hotel. All of them, too, are back home, with fixable damage to their home and emotional turmoil that, as with all of us, is very uncomfortable but which will in time lessen as we pursue our daily lives.

    May you have a wonderful birthday, and may you be able to congratulate yourself on yet another job well done, another crisis weathered.

  16. Wonderful blog entry. Very moving. So happy to know you and your feline family –and your other family and friends–are doing ok! Very lucky that we rarely get hurricanes in Canada!

  17. Thank you for your incredibly moving and insightful post Deb – I’m so glad that you, the cats, and Dan are safe, but I’m sorry that you are experiencing the traumatic after-effects of the hurricane. I’m sure that you’re not the only one going through this and your post will be both helpful and relatable to so many people.

    Look forward to hearing of your journey through this.

    Please enjoy your special day!

    xoxo from all of us at Create With Joy! 🙂

  18. I can’t even imagine having to go through this. I’m glad that you came through it relatively okay…but understandably shaken and traumatized by the whole experience. Oh to be like your cats…coming through it like champs…unaffected.

  19. Annabelle says:

    I understand Deb. I too remember 2004 very well, our area had 5 storms track over our area. Frances is one I recall with total clarity. It occurred on my birthday that year, and during the night, The weather radio went off all night long with tornado warnings and scared me to death. I watched Irma develop as a wave off Africa, and knew it was going to be a catastrophic event for Florida. I too, watched in horror as the meteorologists talked incessantly about the horrible events that Irma was going to deliver to our state. It did deliver a very severe blow, but not a knockout punch. I am still, and will be continuing for sometime to come, cleaning up after this hurricane. I too feel the effects of age, and am alone, and can only do so much. But I am grateful, that the main damage Was only to The vegetation in the yard. Across the street from where I live, the houses were flooded nearly up to the roofline. I watch now, in total humility, as the people clean up what is left of their homes, and I am filled with gratitude that I still have my home.

  20. I’m typing my response through tears. This is such a raw, emotional piece that took courage to write and share with the world. Irma was horrible on so many levels and devastated too many. I am so happy you, Dan, and your family are safe, and I’m sending healing thoughts your way to ease your anxiety.