If you looked up at the sky now, it's hard to imagine a devastating hurricane just passed through the area not more than a few days ago. Puffy white clouds dot the deep blue expanse, floating happily overhead. The ground, though, tells a much different story.
After an agonizing week of watching and waiting, Hurricane Irma finally made landfall on the continental US on Sunday morning. She blazed through Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and countless other Caribbean islands on the way. She was downgraded to a Category 4 when she hit the Florida Keys, and downgraded again to a Category 3 when she struck again in the Naples/Ft. Meyers region. As she slowly traversed up the west coast of the state, she lost some power and was downgraded again to a Category 2 storm.
She came in the night, Hurricane Irma, creeping steadily northward. Glued to both screens and skies, my family and I closely monitored the storm updates all day on Sunday, waiting for her impending arrival. As native Floridians, my family and I have had years of experience in dealing with Florida storms - it's part of our way of life. But even we were wary of what this storm would bring, and what it would mean for our homes, our friends and families, and our lives. Reports from South Florida came rolling in via the news and social media. Storm surges and heavy flooding were wreaking havoc on the other end of the state. We watched as the winds howled and the rain pounded down with increasing intensity outside our own home. The lights began to flicker late in the evening, and we knew the storm was closing in. Around 9 PM we lost the electricity, which was expected. Out came the flashlights and the candles.
And then there was nothing more to do than listen in the semi-darkness. We listened to the storm rage on around us, praying that our friends and families were safe and that the damage wouldn't be as catastrophic as predicted. I must have finally fallen asleep in the recliner in the living room for a few hours, but I do remember waking up in the darkness, after the candles had been extinguished. It had become eerily quiet, a pregnant silence that contained the promise of more to come. I assumed the eye was sweeping by overhead, and settled in again to wait it out.
The next morning, we woke with the sunrise, instead of to beeping alarms. The creepy silence of the previous night was replaced by the world stirring back to life, as the sounds of birds and insects were interspersed with the rumble and dull roar of generators around the neighborhood. Neighbors checked in on us, and we inquired about them. We were supremely lucky. Our mobile home had sustained literally no damage, with only a few large limbs down and scattered branches and debris strewn about. Some of our neighbors were not so lucky. Our neighbor to the right lost a lot of their skirting that covers the underpinning of their mobile home. A few of our neighbors lost fence panels, had torn screens, or had whole trees down.
Driving out on Monday afternoon was easier than I initially thought it would be. No trees obscured the roads in our neighborhoods, but you could see that many limbs had been downed by the wind. Continued gusts of winds throughout the day helped shake loose even more debris, as evidenced by a tree that went down at the end of our road in the few short hours that we were gone.
Although many businesses were still closed due to the mandatory evacuation order of everything west of US-19, there were more open than I had anticipated, including Cody's Roadhouse and Rural King. Some signage had taken some damage, but our major landmarks - like the Weeki Wachee Springs signs and the pink dinosaur - stood strong.
Perusing the photos on social media, the aftermath of the hurricane was definitely felt by many residents and businesses in the area. Flooded roads, tree limbs, and downed power lines prevented many from returning home right away, especially those in coastal areas. Vehicles were flooded or smashed by trees and debris; several businesses suffered wind damage to their buildings. A broken water main in the eastern part of the county caused a boil-water notice to go into effect for certain areas. As of this writing, there are still hundreds without power.
However, all in all, Hernando seemed to fare surprisingly well as a whole under the storm that brought catastrophic losses to the southern end of our beloved Florida. Thousands of homes here lost power (an estimated 2.6 million statewide), cable, and even water; however, there were some residences that had no interruption of service at all. According to the Hernando County Government's Facebook page, only ten homes in our county have reported major storm damage to their homes. Those numbers are expected to climb some as power is restored and more folks can report in, but a hurricane of this magnitude could have done a lot more damage. Our neighbors to the south in Pasco County are experiencing severe flooding thanks to the storm surge and the flooding of the Anclote River. Thousands more in South Florida have lost homes or businesses due to wind and water damage. FEMA's early estimates report that 25% of all the buildings in the Keys have been destroyed, with another 65% suffering heavy damages.
Over 5,200 of our county's residents, and over 700 pets, were able to evacuate and take cover in our shelters; many more were able to make the long journey northwards and shelter with friends and family, or in hotels. I don't believe a single casualty has been reported in our county, which is incredible for a storm that has caused, at latest count, 61 deaths in total (23 of which occurred here in the US). There have also been few reports of injuries in our county. This is in large part thanks to the local government, which has been coordinating with Emergency Management and the Hernando County Sheriff's Department. Their calm and careful planning set the tone for our recovery as we begin to drag tree limbs and lawn debris to the road for pickup. A special thank you to all the first responders, nurses and medical personnel, dispatchers, and volunteers who have spent long shifts and countless hours ensuring the safety of our residents in their homes and in the shelters!
One of the most heartening things I've witnessed so far is our community coming together in this time of assessment and rebuilding. People are opening up their homes and offering supplies to those still without power. Neighbors are pitching in and sharing tools and equipment to help clean up each other's yards. Citizens in other states offer funds to those who have been displaced by mandatory evacuations. While in line to get ice on Monday (we were still out of power), I watched strangers exchange pleasantries as they waited patiently for the machine to work as it made more ice that day than it probably had in the last two months. We helped each other read the difficult-to-discern screen, and offered to exchange crumpled dollars for fresh ones when the machine spat them back. A young man and his mother offered an extra bag to an elderly woman who teetered on a cane near the back of the line so that she wouldn't have to wait the 30 minutes or more in line. Moms are baking goodies and fixing lunches to take up to fire stations, police stations, and the linemen out working furiously to ensure our safety and restore our power. It is absolutely heartening to watch people pick each other up and say, "I got you. How can I help?"
If your home in the Hernando County area has sustained damage due to Hurricane Irma, Emergency Management is encouraging folks to call and report it at 352-754-4083, in order to request assistance from local, state, and federal sources. While relief efforts are still being organized as damage reports come in, The American Red Cross is accepting donations to help with Irma relief efforts on its website and by phone at 1- 800-RED CROSS. People can also text the word "IRMA" to 90999 to make a $10 donation.
It's been many years since we've seen a storm of this magnitude here in Hernando. Even though we made it out relatively unscathed, I hope it's many years before we see another. Life is slowly beginning to get back to normal for many; but the transition from a week's worth of prep and the intensity of the storm itself, to sorting out the aftermath will take time. Remember to be patient and kind with each other, as well as the folks who are working diligently to restore power, cable, and in some areas, running water. We at The Hardy Team are incredibly thankful for our good fortune, as things could have been so much worse. We wish for the continued safety of our friends, families, co-workers and neighbors as we focus on restoring the destruction left in Irma's wake.
*All photos courtesy of the Hernando County Government Facebook page*