Hurricane Brain. Post-Catastrophe Stress Disorder? Post-Natural-Disaster Stress Disorder? Whatever you want to call what happens in the aftermath of it all, it’s real. And for those of us in the Florida Keys, it’s a daily battle with it, even as life tries to right itself and the tourists return.
It’s been 52 days since Hurricane Irma swept through Florida, reminding everyone that Mother Nature can be ferocious and leaving many of us in the hardest-hit areas like the Florida Keys with what I’ve been calling “hurricane brain.” To understand the after, you have to understand the before. Bear with me a minute?
Everyone in Florida was watching Irma by Labor Day. In the Florida Keys, where July and August were dry, hot and lazy, we had been watching Irma since it was a wee little thunderstorm off the coast of Africa. We saw what Harvey did to Houston, and we thought perhaps we’d escaped “the big one” for 2017, but we were keeping a wary eye on the National Hurricane Center just the same.
“It’s going to be Irma. She’s going to wipe us out.” – text from meteorologist friend at NWC-KW on August 22.
Heeding the warnings of coworkers about hurricanes and evacuations, I had filled the car with gas on Friday, just to be safe, and we mostly stayed home over the weekend. We watched a documentary on The Weather Channel about the Great Hurricane of 1935 that was both interesting and disturbing given the ticker running across the bottom of the screen about Irma’s projected path. My forgetful purchasing of water every time we went to Publix had left us with 4 cases in the car. We still had batteries and lanterns left from our winter storm kit back in Pennsylvania. Murph had his hurricane survival supplies from Healthcare Camp over the summer. But it’s a lot like buying bread and milk before it snows; in the end, but for the gas, they were the least of our concerns.
Tuesday, September 6 was a beautiful day in Key West, but Irma was on my mind as I dropped Murph off at St. Mary’s at 7:30. Before I headed to work, I went to the tax collector’s office and got my resident re-entry stickers “just in case,” I topped the tank off with gas, and I withdrew $300 (the ATM’s limit) from my bank account. Luckily, it was payday, and there was cash to be withdrawn. By the end of the day, those would prove to be the smartest things I could have done.
Overnight, things had changed drastically, and everyone was mobilizing. At work, there were swift decisions and directions. We were closing. Evacuations were going to start the next day. I called friends in West Palm, hoping we’d have a place to go, and they said come now, we’ll figure it all from here. The sense of relief that I felt that they were in town almost brought me to my knees. I knew we’d have a place to stay when I called; it was more than I hoped that wouldn’t be alone when we got there. And guys, I was lucky; friends at work were trying to book rooms in Orlando and places further north without much success. I gave my second re-entry sticker to a woman in the office who didn’t have one; they were giving out two per person that morning. By 3PM, they were out and there were none to be had. My boss told me to photograph every single thing in the house before I left; another friend told me to get my FEMA number the minute they opened when the storm passed.
There’s a process for evacuations, but they let you know in advance that they’re coming. It’s supposed to be orderly. First, the tourists are told to scoot on back home, then the residents and made to shoo. But the message was clear that Tuesday: batten down the hatches and get the hell off the islands sooner rather than later. Schools closed, businesses closed, people got busy. On my way to pick up Murph that afternoon, there were long lines at the ATMs and longer ones at the gas stations. It was unnerving. This was real.
At home, we tried to do what we could to secure the house. It didn’t have hurricane shutters, so that wasn’t a concern. But keeping the house safe and dry was, so we did as much as we could. Then we packed our things and the critter crew. My plan was to leave Wednesday morning, at dawn. That changed when our Navy neighbors who were bugging out at the same time told us to leave right away and to plan for nothing to be left when we returned. Murph was shaken; I was in disbelief. We left Key West for West Palm Beach at 7PM, and as much as I hated the drive northwest in the dark, the relief I felt when we crossed out of Monroe County and onto the mainland is not something I’ll forget anytime soon.
The days leading up to the storm were a blur of stress and worry. We were watching “the cone of uncertainty” with awe and dread. Irma was a monster storm. No matter where it made landfall, it was clear that it was going to engulf the entire state at some point. Rick Scott, the Florida governor who doesn’t believe in climate change, became a familiar and surprisingly reassuring face on television as he opened shelters, talked about what to expect and explained what would happen after the storm passed. If guiding the state through Irma is the defining moment of his tenure as the governor, he did a pretty good job of keeping people calm, getting things set up and communicating clear directions.
We debated going to Tampa while we watched as I95 and the Florida Turnpike became parking lots heading north. We were unable to get gas. It was gone the minute the tankers pulled into stations. So, we did little driving. We made sure we had food that we wouldn’t need to cook because we knew the power would go out. The hurricane shutters were closed. We put the bottled water in ice chests and filled the tubs. We were trapped, an enormous hurricane was bearing down on us, and all we could do was prepare, hope and try to keep the kids from worrying while we tried to wrap our heads around what was about to happen.
I’ve come to think hurricane parties are a myth. Yeah, I had some wine on hand. But we were busy, and we were worried. Being sober in an emergency is kind of necessary. There were no parties. There was no fun. There was no blowing a fan outside and blaring music and dancing. There was battening hatches and hoping the news was way off track.
The state was running on adrenaline alone by Saturday morning. The wind picked up in West Palm Beach as Irma battered Cuba. By mid-afternoon, we’d all retreated to our bunkers for the duration, unable to stop watching the local news but wanting to turn it all off. “Where in the world is Jim Cantore?” became our joking way of trying to figure out who was going to get the worst of Irma.
Hurricanes are loud, I discovered. There are lots of tornados with them, too. The sirens of the blaring tornado warnings seemed constant and endless. I remembered when I was about Murph’s age, and my family stayed at the beach in NJ for a hurricane. My mother made my younger brother and me sleep in life jackets on the top bunk of our bunk beds because the flood waters had reached our front porch. I didn’t remember the noise, though.
It was curious, I thought, as friends from the north texted. The local news was keeping us up to date on where the storm was and where it was heading. The national news was turning it into an inaccurate media circus while we worried that a storm surge was going to wash us all away.
Murph and I slept on the sofas. Downstairs is better in a tornado, I heard from friends who were veteran hurricane survivors. The hurricane had reached the Florida Keys by late Saturday; live feeds went down when the power went out there. The storm raged for another 24 hours. Around 7PM on Sunday night came the news that Irma had veered again and was going to cut across the middle of the state; there was a new track. Then the power went out. At about 2:30AM on Monday morning, there was one awful gust that I thought was going to pull the shutters off the windows and peel back the roof. Then there was complete silence. I finally slept.
The day after did not dawn bright and clear. The air felt electric, and the winds were still gusting. There were downed trees and palm fronds, and there was no power. But, it was over. The storm, that is. The rest? It was just beginning. It’s not the storm, really, I’ve figured out. It’s the aftermath.
I was able to get gas on Thursday. Sheer luck had me pulling into a station when a tanker was filling it. But driving was a challenge because the lights at most intersections weren’t working. There was nowhere to go, either. Businesses opened slowly, after assessing storm damage and getting power back. It was like watching a very sleepy world wake up after hibernating.
And that’s the thing. That’s hurricane brain. It’s what happens to you in the aftermath, and its duration and intensity last by varying degree depending on where you live and what’s left there.
In the days immediately after the storm, as Florida tried to find some equilibrium and get back to normal, people wandered like zombies, the same exhausted, blank stares on everyone’s face. It seemed like the population of the state had adrenal fatigue, and it was clear that it was going to take a while for people to start to feel normal. But that was in the part of the state that could recover relatively easily. That was most of the mainland. That was not the case for our new “home.”
The Florida Keys remained closed while first responders worked to get power back and set up cell service. As West Palm Beach had electric restored, and mail and packages began to be delivered and golf courses and pools re-opened, trucks were clearing the roads and testing the structural integrity of the bridges that connect the archipelago to the south. There was little news and what there was conflicted and frightening. Initial reports said bridges had been washed out and roads had been badly damaged; in fact, there were a few roads with issues that were repaired in the days after the storm. But listening for every tidbit and unwillingly riding the rollercoaster of hope and dread was draining.
Drone images showed massive destruction in the middle and lower keys. The water was not potable. Cell towers had been destroyed. Power was being restored slowly. None of the hospitals were open.
We watched in shock. Facebook groups for Evacuees and the Florida Keys residents opened and served as a place for people to share news and photos. Some wanted to return immediately. Worried about their property and the increasing costs of the evacuation, those folks wanted to go back as soon as possible. Others, myself included, were less anxious to return. Non-potable water, no communications, spotty power, and limited cell service sounded a lot like a survival experiment I was sure that I’d fail. When they did open US1, they said to pack for at least one month of full-on camping. I didn’t know what that looked like. They didn’t post a list. And then there was Murph, who managed to fall and slice open his leg on Legos during the evacuation.
We did go back, though, albeit a little later than others. What we saw driving over US1 was indescribable. It was too much for us and our human brains to process all at once. And that’s the thing. That’s why while the rest of the state was resuming business as usual, the folks in Monroe County were, and are, stuck in the hurricane brain zone.
Even if our homes were only damaged and not destroyed, we all know someone who lost everything. We all know someone who lost a loved one. There was, and is, this pressure to “move forward” and “get back on your feet” and be #keysstrong. The reality, though, was that focusing on things was hard. Getting stuff done was hard. Making decisions from a hotel room while you’re spending your days cleaning muck off what’s left of what you own requires a degree of superhuman internal strength that comes in waves, and it comes at a cost. I don’t even know where that pressure originated; maybe it was our own very human desire to find some kind of normal in the mess.
Sure, we could go wait in an hours-long line to speak to someone from FEMA, and while there we could trade stories with our neighbors and watch each other’s kids. Then, we’d be told to go online or call or bring this paper back or take that one somewhere else. FEMA’s decisions have seemed arbitrary and impossible to understand or predict. One starving, unemployed family who lost everything would be deemed ineligible for anything while another single person would be given $6500 in two days. Insurance adjusters were no better. This would be covered; that would not be. Call FEMA. Call the Red Cross. It was crazy-making.
The hotels that were left undamaged quickly filled with FEMA evacuees who returned to find their homes damaged or destroyed. We’d recognize them in elevators or hallways. Families were living in them with everything that they could salvage from the wreckage that was home less than a month ago.
Murph said you recognize the locals because they were the people with the dark purple circles under their eyes. I started to look for that. He was right.
Fighting through the fog, we’d go to donation centers to get water and cleaning supplies. Not because we didn’t have money, but because the cost of evacuating and then being kept away from home was an unexpected and awful financial burden for most people. Cleaning supplies are expensive, and we couldn’t play around with things. Temperatures were in the 90s, and the humidity stayed high. It was still full-on summer in the Keys. Mold and bacteria growth needed to be quelled. The trips to get the supplies would zap the energy and hope right out of you, and you’d sit for a day looking at them and the mess before you could gather the energy and wherewithal to clean anything.
I’ve compared Hurricane Brain with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’m familiar with PTSD; I’ve had it. I’m the first person to tell anyone that EMDR saved my life. It explains the overwhelming sense of dread at the sight of reports from the National Hurricane Center. It’s probably why I jump out of my skin every time I hear a clap of thunder. I can’t look at the pictures of Puerto Rico; my heart breaks because I know what they are trying to manage, but I can’t look. PTSD may be the end result of this for a lot of us, but you don’t usually have it in the immediate aftermath. That takes time.
For me, Hurricane Brain feels more like the post-concussion syndrome I had when Murph bonked me on the head while we were both asleep when he was 5, causing a massive concussion and slight skull fracture. After the blinding headache subsided, the really bad symptoms started and lasted for months.
It’s this weird feeling of being outside of time. Like the world is moving along at one pace, and you’re moving along, too, but much slower. You can’t seem to catch up. You see the world carrying on like everything is normal, and you wonder what’s wrong that you can’t. You’re out of sync with things. You feel like a spectator of your own life.
It’s sitting down and writing a list of things to do for the day, and then looking at the clock and noticing 2 hours have passed. You don’t remember thinking about anything, but you’re still sitting there, and you don’t know why. Worse still? You can’t seem to get up and do whatever you need to do. And you think about that, and you still can’t move.
And then the next day, you keep yourself so busy and active that you don’t take a moment to think. You’re running errands and cleaning and helping your neighbors and kids. The flurry of activity feels good until you stop suddenly, having completely lost your train of thought and plan for what to do next. And you know you just had that, and it is still in your brain, but you cannot find it. It’s happened to me in mid-sentence. The chalkboard in my mind goes blank. And then I feel wobbly and panicky. In my head, I’m screaming, “something’s wrong!!!” but nobody else seems to notice that it’s all wrong. All of this feels wrong some days.
It’s being exhausted — emotionally, physically, financially and all the other ways – and not being able to rest or get my act together as fast as other people seem to be doing it. And then I think maybe they’re just having one of those busy, active days. Or maybe it is just me. I spend time reassuring my kiddo that it’s all good even though his life has been upended, and I act like it’s all good. But he knows I’m acting. I feel like if I stop to admit that it’s not all okay, or even let that illusion slide a bit, it will all come crashing apart. Whatever our normal is, it still feels really fragile; our walls aren’t made out of impact glass these days, they’re made out of crystal.
It’s keeping it together, so you can deal with FEMA and insurance adjusters and contractors and the Red Cross and the red tape and then losing your last marble at T-Mobile over an unexplained $5 charge on your phone bill or sobbing in an aquarium shop because you need a fish bubbler to keep your kid’s clownfish, Indomitus Rex, alive. And never knowing when all the stuff you’re keeping under control is going to spill out at a nail salon because you don’t like the color on your toes or in Publix when they don’t have the only cereal your picky eater will eat.
I got my very long hair cut right after the storm. It needed to be done. But as she snipped, I started to cry, and before long, I was sobbing. She felt so bad, and I felt so bad. It was too short. It was all wrong. My hair, I mean. And it was too different.
Who even was I?
But really? It was that everything was too wrong and too different, and in that quiet place where I had to be still, it all caught up with me.
It’s feeling like you’re not #keysstrong if you need to move. Or feeling guilty that you didn’t lose as much as a neighbor, or that you shouldn’t be feeling so bad about things because others have it worse. It’s feeling like you shouldn’t laugh at a community gathering, and then joking about building a fire out of driftwood, finding an old pot in the road and filling it with the tears of the homeless so you could boil some water to wash your face. It’s feeling like it’s all wrong, all the time. There’s guilt about going out to have fun, and there’s feeling like there’s something wrong with you if you don’t. As if there’s a competition or we all have the same amount of coping juice in our systems. We don’t. But it seems like we shouldn’t be feeling so off for so long. I mean, the news has moved on. What’s wrong with us that we can’t?
Nothing. There’s nothing wrong with us. We went through a sudden, horrible, life-changing thing. For most of us, we’ll talk about “before Irma” for a long time. Whether you stayed for the storm or evacuated, whether you went back, stayed in the Florida Keys or decided to move to mainland or Montana, it’s an experience that bonded everyone who shared it. And it’s not nothing. We live a world with a 24-hour news cycle that caters to people with limited attention spans. Just because they aren’t reporting things doesn’t mean they don’t matter or that people don’t care. My friends up north are not nearly as tired of listening to me as I am of talking, but I like to say that “they don’t want to hear about it anymore.”
The Facebook groups are interesting, and they’re a good gauge for where we are collectively as “one human family.” It’s clearly a process through the stages of grief for Monroe County residents. We’re alternately supportive and kind and argumentative and fight-y and mean and done and over it. But God help the stranger that jumps in because we’ll defend one another to the death against an outsider with an opinion. No one sees that the guy who called you a stupid moron duck-billed asshole yesterday on some thread about nothing very meaningful just dropped off a $100 Publix gift card, so you could feed your kids. There’s a lot of “let me help you but please don’t tell anyone” going on, and that’s okay. We may disagree about the tourists and the hotels and all the things amongst ourselves, but the community is strong and vibrant and closer-knit than ever, especially in the face of others. Come at one of us, and you’ve come at all of us. And we’re a dirty, tired, anxious, bonded-in-the-trenches, fed-up crew that you don’t want to anger.
If you think of our lives as a collection of snow-globes sitting on a tropical archipelago, it’s easy to imagine someone coming along out of the blue and sweeping them all over. Some got destroyed completely. Some were chipped or broken, and the stuff inside got wrecked. Others were shaken badly and damaged, but the glass didn’t break. Everyone felt something shift on the tectonic plates that are the foundation of where we live when Irma blew through Florida. The process of creating new lives and homes and repairing the old ones takes time. Human brains and hearts don’t heal overnight or at the same pace. The world may move on more quickly, but we don’t necessarily. And that’s okay because we will figure it out. And in the meantime, we all recognize the symptoms of Hurricane Brain in one another.
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