It’s September 2004, and I’m a newly minted freshman in high school. It’s hurricane season, and like many other teenagers, I’m hoping one hits on a school day. As soon as I get home from school, I eagerly turn on the TV in search of “Escambia County, Florida” (as opposed to neighboring Escambia County, Alabama) on the scrolling school closures list at the bottom of the screen.
When we were little, a hurricane meant our aunts over in New Orleans would treat us to a night at a hotel somewhere away from the storm and in a safe reprieve from our mobile home. We would bounce on the big beds and revel in the luxury of lying down and watching TV in a cool room with central AC. Now we live in a modest concrete block house, and my dad sees no reason for us to evacuate. We live more inland, away from those mandatory evacuation zones that are home to fancy beach houses on stilts. Still, some time off school, even if it meant a few days with no AC, seems appealing to us.
As Hurricane Ivan makes its way up the Gulf, it becomes clear that Pensacola is in the cone of uncertainty. My friends and I say our goodbyes as we leave school, thinking we will be away for two, maybe three days if we’re lucky.
I get home and ask my dad warily, “Should we, um, maybe get some water? Duct tape the windows?”
I knew the answer before I asked. My dad scoffs at the “news media” even before it becomes cool in the Trump era. The weathermen are all hype, trying to get us all to panic and buy stuff, he explains. Anyone who has witnessed water bottle hysteria at a Publix in the days leading up to a storm has to admit the sliver of truth in his statement.
I’m not convinced, either, but our teachers at school seemed to make a big deal of it. We had been through storms, sure, but nothing that had traumatized us enough into really preparing. Hurricane season was as normal as love bug or pollen season. We fill a bathtub with some water, get a couple of canned goods and hunker down.
That night my aunt phones from New Orleans to make sure we are prepared. We aren’t.
“Don’t worry, Ann,” my dad tells her while holding the phone with the long curly cord to his ear. “It’s just going to be Tropical Storm Ivan. Maybe some trees down, nothing to worry about.”
My sister and I are sitting on the couch listening to my dad’s conversation, and just as he mutters those words, our ceiling fan plummets to the ground and makes a loud crash. We all scream in surprise. A large thunder cracks and the phone line goes out, along with the power.
The storm is here, and it’s so dark outside.
Veins start to form in our ceiling, leaking rainwater as pieces fall to the ground, allowing more water to rush in. The living room caves first, then the kitchen. The five of us move from room to room seeking safety. My little brother’s room is the last one that holds up, and we all huddle on top of his futon shaking scared. My dad puts a mattress on top of us to protect us from any debris. A foot of water lingers in every part of our house, and our belongings are all soaked. None of us sleep a wink that night, we just pray that we will make it out alive.
The storm calms as the sun rises and we slowly make our way outside to see the damage. Our neighbor’s roof is in one piece in her front yard. The large live oak branches lay in the streets making them unnavigable. Some houses are gutted, like ours; some are unscathed. We figure small tornadoes are the culprit.
For a couple of days, we survive the humidity by living in our bathing suits and grilling the leftover frozen chicken tenders in the fridge. But, as the mold begins to grow, we find other temporary living arrangements with family. My dad stays behind to help with cleanup. But, I think he really just wants an excuse to camp in the backyard.