My hands caress the ash-blond wooden crib that I hoped would hold my newborn son. I’d spent weeks researching and shopping, prowling baby furniture stores like a watchful mama bear. We’d just assembled it when the announcement came.
“...Governor Jeb Bush has issued a state of emergency. Hurricane Charley is presently moving near Jamaica. A gradual turn toward the northwest is expected during the next 24 hours...”
Hurricane Season in Florida. Some storms shake angry fists at us as they circle the north Atlantic. Some are bold, striking us in the face or throwing high waves against our shores as they pass northward. Some grow feral: stalking through the Keys, roaring into the Gulf of Mexico, searching for a way out. Charley was headed for the Keys.
Forecasters warn of “The Big One”, the one that pushes a wall of water into Tampa Bay submerging low lying homes. The one that turns the Pinellas Peninsula into an island. With the bay at our back door, it’s this storm surge we fear.
We lift more boxes onto the bed, hoping the water won’t rise higher than that. We’re elevating as many of our possessions as possible as we decide what we’ll save and what we’ll sacrifice. In the past few hours we’ve realized that we should leave for the duration of the storm. We need to get to higher ground.
“...Emergency management has issued a mandatory evacuation. Residents living in low lying areas are advised to seek shelter...”
What do you pack when you evacuate: clothing, first aid supplies, flashlights, batteries, food, water, a utility bill to prove you lived there once. There’s precious little room for the things that make a home: photographs, mementoes, toys. I pack our photo albums and my pregnancy journal.
I walk around, touching my comfy chair, our bookshelves, my grandmother’s antique table, saying goodbye to our house.
“...The National Hurricane Center estimates that Hurricane Charley could hit the Tampa Bay area with 120 mph winds. The storm surge could reach 16 feet above sea level...”
The hardest part is saying goodbye to the crib.
I fold my hands in prayer. Please God, spare our house. Everything can be replaced, but I’m afraid of spending my final trimester cleaning up a flooded house. Or worse. Please God. I want this to be our baby’s first home.
The houses on our street mourn behind shuttered windows as their owners abandon them to the approaching storm. A neighbor drives by as we load the last box into our car. “Do you have a place to stay?”
“We’re going to my mom’s house. She’s away for the summer and her house is in a no evacuation zone. It’s close to the hospital. Just in case.”
“Surge might get to 16 feet. That’d take out our first floor.”
“That’ll cover our house. I hope there’s something to come back to.”
“We’ll see you after.”
“...The National Hurricane Center has extended Hurricane Warnings up the entire Florida West Coast. Residents are advised to stay indoors...”
I cannot sleep. I make tea as a television reporter gives the 5 AM update. 5, 8, 11, 2: the hours when the National Hurricane Center issues their forecasts with possible paths strewn like spaghetti across the state. Most of the spaghetti converges on Tampa Bay.
Grey clouds thicken a dawn bereft of birdsong. I sit on the sofa patting my swollen belly, trying to picture telling my son about the big bad storm that huffed and puffed and scared us away. My husband joins me and we putter around, unpacking canned goods, trying to read our books.
“...The National Hurricane Center reports that Charley is strengthening and expected to make landfall today...”
Gusting winds smack rain against the windows. I fix lunch, eyes still glued to the news. In a few hours we’ll know.
Home. It’s not the walls, the matching appliances, the tiled floors and carpets. Home. When we said goodbye, we redefined it. Home is where you are dry and safe, surrounded by those you love. As long as we’re in God’s hands, we’re home. We know that now.
I awake to the urgent voice of a man reading a fresh bulletin. I didn’t even know I was asleep.
“...We have an update. The center of Charley has turned and moved inland south of us, into Charlotte Harbor...”
I sit up. Exhale. We’ve been spared. Thank you Lord.
Then a cold realization grips me. Dear Lord. Protect those poor people.
Author’s note: On August 13, 2004, as millions of Floridians braced for impact around Tampa Bay, Hurricane Charley made a sudden turn eastward, slamming into Charlotte County with 145 mph winds before tearing a path of destruction through central Florida.
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