Editor’s Note: Sarasota mom Jamee Thumm has written a detailed 3-part series about her experience before, during and after Hurricane Irma. This is Part 1. Please stay tuned for the rest of the series.
As Hurricane Irma inched closer, our frantic preparations came to a halt with a single crack. The concrete drill bit — the one we’d spent days searching for at multiple stores wasting time and gasoline (both of which we had precious little of) — broke. My husband and I stared at each other over the first of the polycarbonate sheets we’d spent almost $700 on. The only remaining material to cover our windows that we’d found. And we needed that drill bit to put them up.
Bags under our eyes, exhaustion screaming from our limbs, we let the sheet fall to the grass.
“Push anything we’ve got against the windows.” I shrugged. “It might not save much, but it’s better than doing nothing.”
Irma was predicted to hit Sarasota as a Category 4 at that point, with winds at 150 mph.
Our house, a concrete base with a wood add-on, was surrounded by trees. One in particular weaved back and forth like a frat boy during pledge week.
Obsessed with Irma’s progress, I whipped out my cell, checking my Facebook feed. The muscles along my neck tightened as post after post was edged with panic as Irma strengthened.
“Brookside’s closed. It’s at capacity.” Brookside Middle was our closest shelter, within walking distance. It was our last-resort backup plan.
“Grab the bags.”
We ran inside and shoved everything we could against the windows: closet doors, mattresses, couches. Anything big enough to slow down the wind and rain if the windows were blown in.
Within an hour, my husband, our three children, my mother and I were squeezed inside our minivan with our bags. Too much to fit in the tiny remaining space. But not enough.
Not nearly enough.
I tore my gaze from our house as we left, wondering if we’d have anything to go back to.
Typing a quick plea on Facebook for shelter opinions, we headed to the next one on our list: Riverview High. We were a block away when a friend suggested Phillippi Elementary. Riverview was filling up and it was pure chaos according to those already inside. As we pulled up to the long white elementary school, a National Guardsman stood out front and flagged us down. “It’s filling up fast. You’ll have to park across the street.”
“How many spaces left?” My husband yelled as he struggled to speak over the rising wind.
Our eyes met. Questions pinged around in my head. Would we be separated? The likelihood of fitting six people into one spot didn’t seem possible.
My phone vibrated in my hand. A notification for Facebook flashed on my screen. “Gulfgate Elementary just opened.”
We’d never driven the three miles faster.
A trickle of traffic was just arriving at the other elementary school. We easily found a close parking space and grabbed our bags, a backpack for each of us, our pillows stuffed behind the straps, suitcases and a cooler of food.
We had no idea what to expect.
Nightmares of sleeping on hard gym floors in rows with thousands of other people filled our heads.
We’d seen the pictures, trying to prepare the kids the best we could without scaring them. We’d succeeded in scaring ourselves.
Smiles greeted us the moment we walked through the thick glass doors and into the concrete building.
“Welcome.” A volunteer brandishing a clipboard gestured us into the large foyer. She pointed to a grouping of chairs where others sat, filling out information on a clipboard. “Just one for your whole family.”
Check-in was painless. While my husband completed the brief paperwork, I texted friends and family and took pictures of the kids goofing off.
The kids laughed, their eyes lit with excitement at the new adventure.
Their questions flew at me as a couple of dogs barked down a hallway that was already filling. I fielded them the best I could considering I knew next to nothing.
“Families are upstairs.” My husband lead us where the volunteers had pointed, up the stairs and down hall after hall, each filled with families and kids, blankets laid out to claim space to sleep. It was three o’clock.
A baby wailed. “Let me take her for you.” The crying baby stopped, soothed by a neighbor as the mother’s tired eyes misted. We stepped around two kids playing a board game. Their laughter followed us as we weaved in and out of the bodies and possessions the other evacuees managed to drag with them.
We settled in at the end of a hallway, near a locked exit. The floor was carpeted, easing one of my worries. If we squinted and stood on our tiptoes, we could just see the rain beading on the windows.
We claimed our space, enough for all six of us, with blankets, just wide enough for us to sleep.
A familiar face peeked from behind a book on the air mattress next to us. A family from my husband’s work. The older kids immediately bonded over Twilight and Jenga and talked a mile a minute. I pulled my youngest close, her soft hair tickling my neck.
“I get to sleep with you tonight?” Her brown eyes, wide and eager, met mine.
She smiled and tension rolled off my shoulders. Surrounded by laughter, my nerves settled.
We didn’t know what we’d go back to, but we were together and safe.
And that was what truly mattered. The rest we’d deal with as it happened.