The photographs, yes, of course, and my secret stash of cash, those are the items I would definitely take or guard in case of an emergency. But what else? What other precious possessions are especially imbued with both physical and personal value?
Likes millions of Floridians, these were the questions I asked myself as Hurricane Irma barreled toward us. There is nothing like the promise of destruction and the possibility of harm to focus our attention on what we value and to recognize how, too often, we surround ourselves with the superfluous. I learned that lesson — or thought I did — the hard and harrowing way, when Hurricane Andrew and accompanying tornadoes carved a swath of damage through my house, forcing us out for months while we re-roofed, replastered and replaced all that we had lost.
Now, 25 years later, I faced a similar dilemma. Choosing wasn’t any easier because, despite my once-sworn intentions, I had again surrounded myself with stuff and more stuff. They were things, mere things that had brought me joy, of course, but were now putting me in a familiar quandary.
Unlike some friends and relatives, we decided to stay. We did not have to choose what we would pack in the car along with clothes, gas tanks, and food-filled coolers, but we still had to decide what required particular protection in our walk-in closet. (Experience has taught us that there are certain spaces in a house — namely, inside rooms with no windows or other exposure to the outside world — that offer haven.)
Surprisingly, few items made the cut, an obvious sign that we had surrounded ourselves with the beautiful but the unessential. We needed space for the truly important: us.
Because when you hear the roar and whistle of the winds, when something cracks hard against your window shutters, and the roof groans as shingles peel away like mere fish scales, you think not of photos. You worry not about your big screen TV, or those framed art works you’ve covered with towels and tarp to protect, or that expensive leather sectional that you waited a quarter century to buy. You worry not about your husband’s beloved boat, strapped to the trailer and weighed down with water in the northwest corner of your pummeled yard. You worry not about your car, with three years of payments still left on it.
As devastation and mayhem swirl outside, this is what you think:
My children, are they OK? Are their impact-resistant windows working as promised? Are their roofs holding true?
My grandchildren, are they crying out in fear? Will they be haunted by nightmares for months, as their own parents were after Andrew?
My relatives — yes, even those I do well to avoid — have they escaped the worst of Irma’s wrath?
My friends, will they be forced to move elsewhere permanently?
You do not think about what you own but about what you love, what money can’t buy back.
Months and years after Hurricane Andrew, I often told people, including fellow Miamians who had lived through that storm with little damage, that there are two parts to surviving this kind of catastrophe: the horror of the hurricane itself and then the rebuilding that follows. Irma, like Andrew, raged for a few long, miserable hours. The putting back together of a life, however, will take months, perhaps years.
But we will do it, individually and as a community. Of that I have no doubt. In fact, I’ll make one more prediction. Piece by piece, item by item, we will once again collect the material possessions that decorate a home but don’t deserve a place under covers in a walk-in closet.
I hate to admit this, but lessons learned in times of fear aren’t always long-lasting.