I knew it was going to be bad. As soon as the forecast path moved from the East coast of Florida to the West, I could tell we’d be getting hit hard. A hurricane’s most intense winds always reside in the Northeastern quadrant of the storm, and it was this area that would be brushing by Athens on Monday, September 11, 2017.
The day began as any other would. I woke up and got ready for work, as I always do. As I drove down U.S. 129, the rain was intermittent and light, but the wind had already began to pick up. I arrived at work to find that quite a few people had decided to stay home; not that I blamed them. Practically every school in the state was closed.
Three days prior we’d made our normal Friday trip to Kroger, procuring more non-perishable items (tuna, soup, granola bars) than usual “just in case.” As we navigated the aisles, it was apparent that we weren’t the only ones preparing for the storm. The place was ransacked, looking more like a rural general store a week after the zombie apocalypse than a city supermarket. Entire sections were empty, including, unsurprisingly, the bread and milk.
I’ve never understood the fixation on bread and milk. In Georgia, and undoubtedly the rest of the Southeastern U.S., every time a rumor of snow or ice circulates, everyone runs to the store and buys massive quantities of these two items. Why? What are you going to do, eat milk sandwiches three meals a day? And just how long do these people think they could be snowed in? After all, this isn’t Minnesota!
Personally, I go for more practical items. Like toilet paper, for instance. Which item would you rather be stuck at home without: milk or TP? Damn right!
Now that our supplies had been replenished, I spent the weekend following the storm’s progress, in between watching football and writing. In one of their biggest road wins in years, my beloved Georgia Bulldogs knocked off Notre Dame 20-19 on Saturday. It was a game many UGA fans had been looking forward to since it was announced a few years ago, and thousands of people made the trip to South Bend, Indiana. In fact, there were so many Georgia fans there that, watching on television, it looked more like a home game to me than a road game. If you doubt this assessment, watch this video. It will amaze you!
On Sunday, my Atlanta Falcons faced the Chicago Bears. I tuned in to watch the Falcons pull out a 23-17 thanks to a tremendous goal line stand late in the game. The game was exciting, though I found myself unable to find as much joy in it as I usually would. Irma had made landfall in Florida, pelting the Southern part of the state with high winds and torrential rains. As the afternoon progressed, the storm’s approach began to weigh on my mind.
Now Irma was right on top of us, and Athens was expected to experience 5-10 inches of rain, sustained winds of 35-45 mph, and gusts up to 65 mph. The rain didn’t really worry me much. It was the wind that gave me a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Our house is surrounded by trees, many of which are extremely old and very tall. We’ve had issues with falling branches and toppling trees before, most notably in 2014, when a freak wind event turned our backyard into a saw mill. Though I hoped to avoid a repeat occurrence, in my heart I knew that we wouldn’t escape unscathed.
I left work early, looking to beat the worst of it home. Wind buffeted my car, and it took an effort to stay between the lines. The closer I got, the stronger the wind. The radio was reporting that hundreds of thousands of people in Florida and South Georgia were without electricity. I arrived home at around 1pm. So far everything looked okay, though it was still early. Trees were beginning to sway back and forth. I walked inside just as the power went out.
I got back in the car and headed to a nearby convenience store to buy ice. Inside the store had power, though the card reader was down. I had enough cash to buy three bags of ice, and I hurried home, leaning into the wind to close the front door. We cleaned out the refrigerator, putting everything we could into a cooler and topping it with ice. The rest we put in the washing machine.
You read that correctly. We’d heard that the washing machine was a good place to ice down food. We put the remaining items inside and poured the rest of the ice over them. Then we retreated to the living room and sat in the dark listening to the sound of the increasing wind.
Dena had noticed that the tree near our front porch was swaying earlier in the day. We’d watched it through the window, moving back in forth. Since quite a few trees in the vicinity were doing the same thing, I didn’t think much of it. We were in the kitchen when the watery ripping began.
I knew immediately what it was. The tree was uprooting! The rip was followed by what could only be splintering wood. Before we had time to do anything, the tree crashed through the front porch and smashed into the roof with a tremendous crash. The entire house shuddered with the impact.
We ran to the living room and stared in disbelief. The porch roof no longer, technically, existed. There was a crack in the wall where it met the roof. Fortunately, no water was leaking in. We went outside to assess the damage. The siding below the edge of the roof was cracked, and we could see rafters through the shingles.
We went back inside and called our landlord, who promised to send someone out as soon as the storm had passed. Then we went looking for our cats, Pip and Squeaky. We found them cowering behind a chair, frightened by what had happened. Eventually we managed to coax them out. I almost wanted to crawl in and take their place.
Outside conditions continued to deteriorate. The wind, which had previously waxed and waned, was now a sustained roar. All over our yard and neighboring yards small branches rained down. Water rolled along the street in a black river. The worst of the storm was expected to last until sunset. It was now 3:00pm.
The rest of the afternoon and evening is a blur, as I lost all concept of time. The wind filled everything, was everything. Every time it gusted, I expected to hear that ripping sound again. At some point before it got too dark to see, I found myself standing at a window, staring at the back yard.
Our yard slopes down to a creek, which is lined on both sides by tall, thin trees. It was from this area that trees had previously toppled. I watched them sway, bending to alarming angles before swinging back the other way. I was still watching when one of them fell.
It happened quickly. One second the tree was standing and the next it wasn’t. It swayed way over to one side and then, instead of moving back, it just kept going. It fell along the other side of the creek, crashing into the brush. As it came to rest, a disembodied voice rang out from that side: “Holy shit!”
When things didn’t improve by nightfall, we briefly contemplated leaving for a motel or friend’s house, but didn’t want to risk driving. The danger involved due to falling trees and flooded streets was too high. So, we hunkered down and rode out the storm, holding strong against the grim night. Eventually, we slept.
My dreams were haunted by visions of even worse damage. In one nightmare, the entire back half of the roof was smashed in by a falling tree. I awoke at some unknown hour, staring into the blackness and listening. The wind had finally abated, and I could hear cicadas and crickets singing. I got up and went to the restroom, glancing outside to verify no further calamities had occurred before climbing back into bed.
I called out of work, as a night of fitful sleep had taken its toll. We got up at around 7am, reveling in the blissful silence of the still day. The power was still out, and would remain that way for the next two days. We took a walk through the neighborhood and saw that at least three trees had fallen across the street.
Our landlord made good on her word, and an arborist arrived at around 10:30am to begin removing the tree. Eventually things would be back to normal. But the fact remains that Irma was the first time Atlanta and Northeast Georgia had been under a tropical storm warning, though we’d experienced the remains of a hurricane before.
I’ll leave the science of why such powerful storms form and follow the path they choose to the climatologists. Most of us have no in-depth understanding of hurricanes and their causes. But sometimes a monster rears its head. Before sweeping through the Caribbean, Irma registered winds as high as 185 mph, and was the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean.
That’s all for now. As always, thanks for reading. I certainly appreciate it. For more about Irma’s devastation, check New York Times coverage at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/11/us/hurricane-irma-florida.html?mcubz=0.