The first power failures came in Key West at 4:14 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. About 900 customers in the blocks around Bertha Street between Flagler and the Atlantic went dark.They’ll be joined, likely well before midnight, by the rest of Key West.
Not far behind will be the loss of cell and data service and with that those of us watching off-island will work hard not to lose our minds for days, perhaps weeks, to follow.
Because our tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic is staring down the hurricane we have dreaded for a century and talked about incessantly over happy hours. At this point on Saturday evening, it doesn’t matter whether one evacuated or stayed on-island. We are losing the mythological paradise that is our home.
We know that come Monday, we’re facing a reset that will make Hurricane Wilma’s storm surge in 2005 look like a thunderstorm. Y’all can conjure the nightmares of washed out roads and bridges to the mainland, of entire communities gone and moments of heroism and pure nastiness. We can climb a very high horse and point political fingers at governors and legislators who deny climate change and sea level rise and fail to protect this fragile state. God forbid that the tens of thousands on the roads this weekend don’t make it to safety.
Y’all do that. I might do it months from now.
Tonight, though, I am swatting my errant, apprehensive imagination. Because what’s in my brain has kept me sleepless for three days and its relentless stranglehold drives me to write. One of my bosses used to call me the “Ice Queen” because not even the worst in front of me brought tears. This is no Henny-Penny. I can stay focused and on task in chaos. I pay a price for that stoicism, but it is who I am and almost seven decades in, God isn’t going to bother to make sweeping changes.
If I were on-island, I’d be less antsy. That’s a price all of us who left are paying. We know we have no control and the waiting is crushing. So we exchange texts and pictures. We check in on each other — and we drive our stay-on-island friends and family nuts with way too many calls, texts and exhortations of “be safe.”
On Wednesday, Sept. 6, Ed and I made our final choices. He’d stay in Key West to do what he could for our neighbors and friends. He brings the compassion and skills that make him right for what comes “after.” I decided to remain with my mother in the Shenandoah Valley. I cancelled my Delta flight home, returned the rental car and tightened down my brain so those pesky emotions didn’t make me cry.
All over Key West families made similar choices. Each story is as anguished, as stomach-churning as ours. We make no presumption our story is more than one among many.
Those were harsh choices, but they weren’t hard. We didn’t agonize; we certainly didn’t drag in drama. We just did the right thing. Ed and I knew they were our best choices; we still do. That doesn’t mean I can sleep at night, nor does it mean we can FaceTime without wondering. Well, you know what we wonder. Enough said. (See? That’s how I do that Ice Queen thing.)
And the Cat 5s. Sarah, Molly, Jersey, Livvy — and our newest, Michael, whom we’ve had since he was a bottle-fed three or four days old. We never thought we’d be cat people. Right now, the five have the run of our home on Olivia Street in the Meadows of Key West. He had to leave them behind. They’re as safe as Ed could make them, and we’re betting our hearts they’ll make it through until Sunday night or Monday. Neither Ed or I can even think about, much less talk about the alternative. Another of those Hobson’s Choices.
None of us should judge another’s choice this week.
Writing this blog and creating the Facebook Page, Key West Hurricane Irma, gave me something complicated to focus my attention. It works so well that when I’m writing posts, answering comments, helping a page visitor to find something, I almost forget that I have a stake in this little venture.
I spent 40 years directing news coverage of countless breaking news tragedies. Not once was I uncertain that Ed would be there when I came home. It’s different this time and I’m on a fast, albeit steep, learning curve. I’m doing what I always do. I’m working, withdrawn and focused. And, begging my beautiful mother to understand why I’m not her upbeat daughter happily helping her move into her new home. I’ll get there, but not today.
I am going to take a few deep breaths, check my texts, social media and phone messages one last time and go cook dinner. Because in the midst of chaos, there’s comfort in the ordinary.
And, that’s enough pity party, folks. Key West doesn’t need sympathy, shaking heads, second guessing or psychoanalyzing. (Well, maybe we need the psychoanalyzing, but still…..) We will need your cash eventually,
Out of this disaster, out of this storm whose path of destruction will become Key West legend, will come the Key West that has an opportunity — not to rebuild — but to create. To create the infrastructure, the policies and practices, the sane, sensible development models that fluently integrate our tourist economy with a working town of permanent residents who can afford to live here.
That’s why, in part, Ed stayed. It’s why others stayed. Because they believe Key West is capable of doing the work to bring the island to life.
Time to fix supper. And not think about the Cat 5s.
Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor of KeyWestWatch Media, is in Virginia with her mother on a previously scheduled family visit. Her scheduled return to the island on Sept. 6 was cancelled. She wishes she were on-island with Ed and the five cattens.