People bed down in the hallways of Largo High School in Largo, Fla., as they await Hurricane Irma Sept. 10. Photo by Mickey Conlon

IN THE EYE OF THE STORM

By  Mickey Conlon, The Catholic Register
  • September 9, 2017

Catholic Register  reporter Mickey Conlon is among many thousands Florida residents and visitors who have been evacuated and are riding out Hurricane Irma in shelters across the state. Read his first-hand accounts throughout the weekend.


MickeyIrmaLeave

MONDAY, SEPT. 11

LARGO, Fla. - Sirens are blaring around us, but not nearly as many as I would have expected. The streets are bustling to a degree, I assume, as the majority of people have left the shelter despite being told that once they leave they can’t get back in.

I have to stay as my place is near the beach and the storm surge warning is lasting into the afternoon. That means there’s no chance I can check out the damage. So I don’t know what damage Irma has brought to us. I can’t even find out locally as the power is out almost everywhere. Generators have kept the power going here, but who knows how long that will last. Attempts to log on to web sites like Pinellas County have proven futile.

So I’m stuck in a vacuum. All I know is what is within the walls of Largo High School. It’s frustrating, but the good news is that me and the thousands sheltered here remained safe through the worst of the storm. More good news is everyone is optimistic that we have been spared the worst that had been predicted for days. Someone is looking over us.

--

LARGO, Fla. - Well, it looked like it was over. The rain, the winds suddenly stopped at 4:30 a.m. That’s all some people needed to pack up and start making their way home, judging by the streams of people that just up and left the shelter. 

Probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Within a half hour the heavy rain and strong winds were back. Many people hadn’t even made their vehicles and they were stuck in it.

All police and security personnel could do was roll their eyes and watch the stream of people grow. After all, it’s not a prison, you can come and go at your own pleasure.

I wouldn’t think it’s a wise decision. Who knows what the streets look like right now. Chances are pretty good that there are power lines down, not to mention trees. And the traffic lights no doubt are not working. 

A fellow has just shown me the weather radar, and it’s definitely not over. As I’ve learned over the past few days, there’s a back end to a hurricane as it circles around.

It had been a pretty good night. It seemed the storm was on time, 1 or 2 a.m. when the worst hit us, but who knows? I was fast asleep. I was only woken for a couple minutes at a time, not by the storm but the people gathered around the doors yapping about it.

So it’s best to hunker down in place right now, and wait it out a little longer, await the word of people who know more than me. I’m pretty sure it’s not over yet.


Mickey Irma Watching

SUNDAY, SEPT. 10
LARGO, FLA. - Well it was bound to happen. 

After 24 hours of mostly good behaviour, it's just after 5 p.m. and the shelter-in-place order came down. In other words, people have been told to stay indoors. That just won't do for some.

Gathered around the door are mostly smokers wanting to get out, despite having been given a chance for one last smoke, all of them agitated or starting to agitate. In fairness, it's only a few, but it's enough to get the attention of the security staff. Just the tension we need.

Still, it remains for the most part a good crowd, good humoured, waiting for the inevitable and keeping tabs on things as the eye of the storm is 100-110 km. away. Projections call for it to still be a few hours for the worst to hit us, so all of us newly-minted hurricane gurus are left to talk about what is bound to happen. It's mostly an optimistic crowd, and news that the once Category 5 is now a Category 2 has raised spirits. 

We can only pray we're right. 

--

LARGO, FLA. - It's amazing how people come together in a crisis. Stuck with several thousand people in an emergency shelter, while not ideal, has been quite an experience to date.

Upon arrival, you have to stake out your spot, never knowing who you will be surrounded by. I've been real lucky after finding my spot in a tight corner of a hallway, about eight feet from a washroom which is right across the hall from the exit doors. In a non-ideal situation, you would think this would be a problem. But no. We've formed a pretty good little circle of people who all understand the situation and have adapted well to it.

We've shared jokes, a little bit of info about where we're from and what we do, and me having my laptop, sharing our favourite team's football scores (weird, but no one down here seems to have heard of a team called the Saskatchewan Roughriders, though a fellow from Toledo, Ohio, did know the Argos).

When I pulled out a power bar, the circle grew as everyone is looking to keep their cellphones fully charged.

There was of course one bad apple -- isn't there always? Negativity is his middle name I believe. But he was quickly told, in a very nice way, that the doom and gloom wasn't needed. He got the hint and packed up to find other lodgings.

Which brings me to the organizers around here. You would think they run one of these shelters every weekend. Like clockwork, the masses are served meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Not gourmet fare but enough to get you by. And with all that food comes the accompanying garbage, but once a bin is full it's almost immediately emptied.

Then there's the police, fire department and other emergency services. A medical aid centre has been set up, and it's been needed, what with the number of elderly and special needs people among our numbers. The police are constantly on patrol, mostly with a smile and encouragement to the evacuees.

All in all, not too bad for a lousy situation. So far.

We're still a few hours from the brunt of the storm hitting.


MickeyDay3

SATURDAY, SEPT. 9

LARGO, FLA. - Call it bravado, call it what you will, but I often told friends it would be pretty cool to experience a hurricane. Be careful what you wish for.

Hurricane Irma is still 24 hours away from hitting the Tampa Bay area, and the experience so far has been anything but cool.

It's 6:30 p.m. on Saturday evening and Irma has only for a few hours been blowing tropical storm force winds through the Florida Keys and southern parts of the state. Should it follow its predicted track, it will be upon us in about 24 hours in Largo, where I have sought shelter after leaving the barrier islands on the Gulf coast. As it is, the winds have picked up, and there is a little debris floating around the streets, mostly dead palm branches.

It's been a day of preparation -- preparing the house for a hit by laying sandbags, getting rid of all the perishable foods, cleaning up as best you can, all the while keeping your eyes and ears open for the latest forecast before shutting off the water and electricity, as the whole time you know you have to be over the causeway and inland by dusk as per the mandatory evacuation order.

Things are hectic, but you do what you can, and hope you can make a little time for prayer. So I search for a church nearest my chosen evacuation centre -- the incredibly huge Largo High School -- and find St. Patrick's with its 4:30 p.m. vigil.

Running a little late, I still make it to a packed St. Patrick's, judging by its packed parking lot, just slightly late, only to realize I have forgotten my wallet and ID back in Indian Rocks Beach. Without these, I won't be able to get back over the causeway once Irma has passed.

So it's back over the causeway and no chance of Mass in a church. But I'm heartened by scenes from Texas, where impromptu services sprung up in the shelters. I'll have at least 48 hours to find one.


AirportLineups

FRIDAY, SEPT. 8

Preparing for the storm

There are so many things we know and experience as we grow older. But when you're a Canadian, very few of whom have ever experienced a hurricane, it can be a quick learning curve.

It was about Tuesday when we started to really get an idea that something big was coming. Constant television coverage of Irma was on every local newscast: it even knocked Trump out of the headlines!

But the wall-to-wall coverage would only grow as the first reports came in: Barbuda was devastated, St. Martin, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico were hit, the Turks and Caicos.

So our instincts kick in and my wife Dianne starts working the lines to get our flight home to Toronto changed. Easier said than done. We get changed from Sunday to Saturday, all's good. Then we are notified our Saturday flight is cancelled. Complicating matters, my octogenarian mother-in-law is with us. Dianne scrambles more and after jumping through hoops, calling in a travel agent, finding a flight for three, which when we try to book is gone in 90 seconds, and we're back to square one.

Meanwhile, we are told sandbags are available. So Wednesday afternoon, it's off to City Hall, shovel in hand, for our allotment of 20 sandbags. But what do you do with sandbags? It's on the bike for a quick tour to see what our neighbours are doing. For the most part (at this point), nothing. Only one neighbour has laid their bags out, but we get the idea of what we have to do. So that means spreading the sandbags around entry points into the house -- doors and garage doors.

It's Friday and there's no way we can stay, we have to leave -- we're under a mandatory evacuation order. So Dianne books a hotel room in Tampa to ride out the storm. But around noon, the call comes in. The hotel is in an evacuation zone, so we can forget that plan.

We're starting to realize a shelter on higher ground is in our future, though our instincts are still fixed on getting out. Dianne scrambles some more and with luck, finds flights out -- for two. And the flight is at 6 p.m. (luckily it has been delayed by two hours). It's 2:30 and we have to check in by three. Done, but that means no luggage, only carry on. So we pack Dianne and my mother-in-law up with their essentials and rush them to the airport. Thankfully, they get on the flight and are now safely in Toronto.

So that still means an emergency shelter for one -- me. As I write this, the final preparations are almost done to prepare the house for the storm, then it's off to Largo on the other side of the bridge for shelter.

And if I can, a Saturday evening Mass and some much needed prayer.

--

MickeyIrmaDay1

INDIAN ROCKS, FLA - I'm in Indian Rocks Beach, on the barrier islands on the west coast of Florida near Tampa Bay.

It's a normally bustling area, with beaches packed on the weekend as people from near and far enjoy what seems like a never-ending summer.

But for the past couple days, it's been eerily quiet in the days and hours before Hurricane Irma gets set to strike Florida.

Even the iconic Crabby Bill's, the restaurant in the heart of town that is a non-stop party from sun up and well into the night, has shuttered its doors and lined its vulnerable areas with sandbags.

I suppose the main reason for this is everyone has been inside, eyes glued to their TV screens hanging on the words of meteorologists tracking the deadly storm that has already ravaged a number of small Caribbean islands and as I write this is striking Cuba. Many have left the area, which is under a mandatory evacuation order. Everyone has to be off the islands by early Sunday.

In Indian Rocks, it has remained calm. There were reports from other locations of fights breaking out in lineups for sandbags, but here, everything moved in an orderly fashion. Could it be the famous Florida "chill”? Some of our neighbours were even talking about how beautiful the water is and how glorious it was to be on the deserted beach, or could it be that the people are accustomed to such weather emergencies?

Either way, it has truly been the calm before the storm.

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