boat lifted out of the water

At 4 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 6, I found myself fleeing from the predicted 20-foot storm surge and 160 mph gusts of Irma, then a Category 5 hurricane. All the students in the resident hall I oversee at Florida Keys Community College had given me their evacuation plans and contact information. They were on their way to safety. It was now time for my evacuation plan.

With my husband and son staying, I had stocked up on all life’s necessities on our humble catamaran tied securely to the floating docks at our marina. The night before I filled up my gas tank and was ready for the unknown.

It surprised me how little my possessions

Naomi Walsh

Naomi Walsh

meant to me at this moment.

I packed as though I was going on vacation for a couple of weeks. It took two days of driving to get out of the chaos. Cars with panicking drivers caused accidents all along the way, which in turn caused us to halt in a gridlock of traffic and run out of fuel.

Once reaching mainland, I got a nail in a tire, which set me back two hours finding the correct replacement. They were boarding up the windows at the shop as they took my car off the lift.

Gas stations were out of every type of gas. Some were rationing it. Hotels were a zoo. Airports were canceling flights, and the further I went the evacuations continued throughout the state.

There were moments that it hit me.

I could lose everything – my husband, son, my beautiful home, and all my belongings. People don’t understand why many stay behind in an evacuation. They think it is so easy to jump in the car and leave.

Why stay?

Ask the significant number in Key West who stayed behind why they did it, and you will get a variety of reasons.

  • Some do not have transportation to travel a great distance or the money to live outside their domain.
  • Others have pets that are not welcome in shelters if they are not neutered or do not have documentation of vaccinations.
  • Many are “conch” – natives of the Keys – who have been through many hurricanes and tropical storms. Also, once you are evacuated, you are not allowed to return right away. Looting takes place. Long lines form returning to the Keys – people anxious to find out whether their home survived.

Listening to the news only worsened the anxiety of the masses fleeing.

However much I disliked the news, I was glued to it and the MyRadar app as Irma passed over Stock Island. While this was an emotional rollercoaster, it was also a time to get priorities straight.

This experience has given me a better understanding of conch life.

Spending energy on fear of the unknown and the uncontrollable outcome of the hurricane was a waste. It has been a pleasure spending this gift of time with my family and friends, which is so much more important than things. It was a huge relief getting the satellite phone message that my husband, son, and dog were OK, and it brought tears of joy to my eyes looking at the NOAA aerial imagery of our boat doing just fine in the marina.

Island life is the best, and I look forward to getting back and reconstructing Key West. It is my home now.

My life lessons.

Be kind to one another. Do not waste your energy on the unknown. Be present and be prepared. Irma was the best lesson in emergency preparedness I have ever had, but I can’t help but think the amazing training for emergencies that I received at FRCC had to have played a part in my success thus far.

There is still a long haul ahead of us. With prayer, I am confident we will make it. We have made it this far!

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