Man, it sure is hard to publish things on this website when there’s all this dust and so many cobwebs back here.
That’s right! I’ve broken my six-month writing hiatus to bring you long-suffering subscribers a dispatch from THE BATTERED RUINS OF SOUTH FLORIDA.
Alright, it’s not that bad. But we did get some kinda gnarly weather, and I ended up being contacted by both my former employers in Australia and Maine to give some on-the-ground perspective on how Hurricane Matthew went down.
The five on-air interviews I gave to ABC Local Radio in Brisbane, Perth and Canberra are surely lost to the ravages of time, but here’s the column I wrote for the Kennebec Journal.
Former central Mainer in south Florida: A brush with hurricane havoc
Over the past year, Facebook has rolled out a feature that lets you “mark yourself as safe” in the event of a natural or man-made disaster, to let your social network know you’re in one piece.
I saw “I’m okay” updates from a friend in Orlando during the Pulse nightclub shooting last June, and another who was in Italy during August’s earthquake. But I never expected that a couple of months later, I’d be using the feature myself.
After spending my first two years as a U.S. resident in central Maine, I moved to South Florida in the fall of 2015 to take a job at The Palm Beach Post. On my first day on the job, my bosses took relish in telling me that “every major news story” has roots in Palm Beach County.
Some of the 9/11 hijackers lived and trained down here. The 2000 presidential election recount was, in part, necessitated because of voting irregularities in Palm Beach County. The shooter in the aforementioned Orlando nightclub massacre worked in our county, and lived and worshiped in neighboring Martin County.
And now, once again, the eyes of the nation have been firmly fixed on South Florida as Hurricane Matthew, fresh off its deadly and destructive course through Haiti, Cuba and the Bahamas, set its sights on the Sunshine State.
While it meant a few stressful days and an all-hands-on-deck policy, working in the media certainly has its upsides when a storm like this is coming. Given that it was my Mainer girlfriend and my first hurricane, we wanted to make sure were prepared well in advance. We got in just ahead of the rush and acquired a good supply of drinking water, food and snacks suitable for being eaten unheated, candles, batteries and pet food.
That was Monday. By Tuesday, the shelves of our local grocery stores were already being stripped of water, and Wednesday saw gas stations running low on fuel as people prepared to hit Interstate 95 for safer ground on the west coast of the peninsula, or bunker down with the expectation that the county would lose power – and with it, the ability to pump gas – in the coming days. Hardware stores sold out of plywood, and it’s at that point that I started to get nervous.
Of course it had occurred to me that, living in a ground-floor rental apartment with a reasonably large window overlooking a small man-made lake, there was every possibility that our abode could get wet, or worse. But knowing that there was now no easily accessible way to fortify the place and protect my family, particularly since I really didn’t know what to expect, made me realize just how serious this thing could be.
One of the senior editors at the paper could obviously see the fear written all over my face, or at least in my tweets, and offered some advice that actually did calm me down a bit.
Given the nature of the news business, we were all required to work various shifts to keep the community updated on the storm’s path, availability of supplies, evacuation procedures and more. Due to the obvious dangers of driving to and from work in the thick of a hurricane, dozens of employees were set to spend the night in the building between shifts.
This was originally the case for me, but I was sprung at the 11th hour (almost literally: the heavy winds were scheduled to begin around noon Thursday, and I left at 12:15 p.m.) and spent the night at home with my girlfriend and pets, which was a relief for all involved. Out of sheer journalistic curiosity, I took a drive through downtown West Palm Beach on my ride home, and what I saw was incredible: it was, for the most part, a total ghost town. Businesses had their windows boarded up, I passed less than two dozen cars on the road in the five-mile drive home, and wind was whipping rain through the empty streets.
We spent most of the evening fielding messages from loved ones around the country and the world asking after our safety as we waited for what we thought was the inevitable power outage. Florida Power and Light had predicted 2.5 million homes were to lose their lights, potentially for days, so we figured we’d savor our TV and internet access while we still could.
But while the wind gusts outside certainly picked up as midnight came and went, the life-threatening conditions of my worst imagination failed to materialize. I mean, I wouldn’t have run out to grab something from the car, and the dog had to wait to go out until morning, but I’ve seen afternoon rainstorms here cause more localized flooding.
I was worried about my drive back to the office, but aside from a handful of palm fronds on the street and a couple of flashing traffic lights at the I-95 off-ramp, even that was clear. By noon, the grocery stores were starting to re-open and area restaurants were emailing the news desk to inform us (and, more to the point, have us inform everyone else) that they were back on deck for a late, post-Hurricane lunch. The wheels of capitalism barely even stopped turning.
But even though we didn’t experience the havoc of Mother Nature than we were bracing for, other parts of Florida have been hit hard. The images of that alone are enough to make sure that we’ll know just what to prepare for the next time a hurricane comes around.