When family, friends and coworkers north of Florida ask about Hurricane Irma, I say I’m nervous. I don’t want them to be scared too, but at the pace they are texting, messaging and calling, they are.
A life-altering freak of nature, Hurricane Irma blasted winds of 185 mph for days, making it the strongest storm recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. As I’m writing this on Saturday from an evacuation center in St. Petersburg, the state of Florida, a peninsula 447 miles long and 361 miles wide, will disappear from radar as Irma drives up the state’s West Coast from Naples to St. Petersburg with wind bands extending 185 miles in all directions from the 40-mile-wide eye.
Duke Energy was preparing for more than 1 million outages in its Florida territory, and is mobilizing more than 8,000 personnel to restore outages. Florida Power and Light projected 3.4 million outages in its territory.
For nearly 30 years, I’ve worked as a newspaper reporter or a communicator for an energy company. That means I’ve had to stay put or even head toward every storm from Tropical Storm Keith in 1988 to Hurricane Hermine in 2016. The public and our customers rely on reporters and communicators to stay informed.
With Hurricane Irma, I feel my duty, but there’s something else. I’ve not run into anyone taking this storm lightly, the usual response by Floridians.
Maybe, it’s because there was no bottled water in the Tampa area more than a week before the beast was expected to hit 152 miles to my south. Not a single gallon jug. Not one six-pack or the 32-bottle case my son and I prefer. That’s never happened in my 30 years.
Maybe, it’s a reaction to seeing cars, trucks, SUVs and RVs stretching northbound on Interstate 75 – one of two north-south highways in Florida – from Sarasota County south of St. Petersburg to Hernando, two counties to the north. This has been every day.
And one by one, gasoline stations are covering the pump nozzles with yellow, orange and gray plastic bags that read, “Sorry, Out of Service.”
I live just down the road from Old Tampa Bay and Tampa Bay, a flood-prone area under mandatory evacuation. Saturday morning, a St. Petersburg police officer drove through the deserted parking lot in my apartment complex. On his bullhorn, he ordered everyone out. Eerie!
At 9:23 a.m., my phone rang. It was a recorded message from Duke Energy, urging customers to be prepared and passing along information about possible outages.
I have my go bag with clothes, medicine, cans of food, flashlights, my toothbrush, important papers and cash. I’ve packed bottles of water we had from earlier shopping and flavored water and Gatorade.
My family is ready – whatever that means to Mother Nature. My 21-year-old son drove to Palm Harbor to be with his maternal grandparents. My sister, who lives at the bottom of this peninsula on a peninsula that is St. Petersburg, has boarded up and hunkered down at home. I’m at John Sexton Elementary School in the 1900 block of 54th Avenue N. Room 4-001, the men’s room. Let your imagination run, and you’re right.
Hurricane Irma is on her way.