Arrival into Fort Lauderdale on the Monday a week after Hurricane Irma slammed into Florida brings with it a sense that south Florida is pretty much getting back to normal — from the air, traffic is flowing, can’t see any downed structures or major damage, but then again Irma swung west and hit the Gulf Coast much harder than here. That said, the first hint that things are different is my rental car company is out of cars. Apparently everyone who could got one before the storm and headed north. Then the one I get has maintenance lights going off. So the silver lining at the start of my Hurricane Irma trip is I end up with a very nice new Camaro convertible. This turns out to be a nice perk as I can ride around with the top down, a help in seeing hurricane after-effects while cruising the streets.
So I head west, toward Naples and Bonita Springs, where my sister and brother-in-law have a house. They’ve just flown down on Saturday (the earliest they could get in) to check on their place, and they just so happen to be hosting a dinner party/birthday party for the one resident they know in Bonita Springs that “rode out the storm” and did not evacuate. Will get to that party in just a moment, but first, the further west I drive, the more I see Irma’s footprints. First, some leaning, downed or recently replace poles on I-75, then, driving into Naples, debris on the roads, billboards blown out with bare frames (seemingly the first to go in high winds). Electronic traffic signs saying tolls are suspended (to aid first responders and residents returning to their homes). Hurricane shutters still up on many homes. The irregular, somewhat random roof torn off, traffic sign blown down, window shattered, debris hauled out curbside. Some buildings make it, some don’t.
Then the “Boil Water” alerts on restaurant doors; the “closed” signs adorning storefronts in half-empty parking lots. The bare shelves at a Home Depot or in the produce section of a grocery store. Yes the area has been hit.
To the dinner party, then. Tales of residents who were allowed back in on the Wednesday after the weekend’s storm. Seven-hour lines to gas up vehicles. Most stores and shops not open. Fears of wind and water damage — either realized or not, when you first see your house again. Spoiled food left in refrigerators and freezers. Fears of mold and mildew, with no air conditioning to battle the heat and humidity.
But mostly, predominantly, talk of when they got power back — meaning electricity. For their simply is no doubt, when you travel to a recently storm-ravaged area, that electricity powers modern life, in ways both big and small. And thus, among the hardships and sometimes complaints about power restoration in a storm zone, there’s simply no underestimating how much people value the work utilities do to get the power back up. More on that as I travel through the Southern Gulf Coast region of Florida the rest of the week.