August 31, 2005
Current event
Just a few years ago I was living in Tallahassee, Florida. Hurricanes were routine. You only paid attention to them when their projected path spooked the administration into canceling classes or football games.

I had a long commute home that day. I was doing research at a hospital two and a half hours southeast of us. When I came off the highway, I saw an ugly storm cloud over town, and a striking, beautiful sunset to accompany it. NPR reported that a tropical storm was going to make its way ashore overnight. Child’s play. We made it through Category 3s without shutting our windows.

I settled in for the night, made a graduate student dinner in the microwave, and watched television. An unremarkable evening at best. Then the rain started. The trees swayed and the wind blew. And the rain came down harder. It crept up my front stoop and pooled in the back patio. Still no cause for worry. I’d seen this before.

But then the rain picked up, and it didn’t stop. It moved up the tires of my car until it was almost to the doors. Despite my father’s 10th-grade warnings about driving a vehicle in standing water, I moved it to higher ground. When I got back to the apartment, the downpour had thickened. The collected water was almost coming through the cracks in my sliding glass doors in the back. I checked the front of the apartment. Same.

It was then that an instinctive need to protect those things important to me became overwhelming. I was in constant motion. With each step, my shoeprints appeared on the beige carpet. Only my feet were not wet. The water was coming up through the floors.

My pictures and every last photo album made their way into the sink, the only place I could think to hide them. I piled books and clothes and electronics onto my tables. Everything I could manage to get off of the floor I did. Minutes passed. The wind howled and lightning flashed. The loud tornado warnings began sounding on the television. In my frenzy I opened my front door without thinking. A two-foot tall rush of water invaded the house, bringing with it a flurry of branches and debris. I don’t think one can understand the power it takes to shut a door against the might of water. I can still remember throwing my entire body – more than once - against the door with all my power.

I had to get out. The water in my apartment was rising – even higher outside its walls – and the electricity was still on. So I took with me one item, the only one that any self-respecting, neurotic graduate student would: my thesis draft. I slung it in a backpack over my shoulder and climbed out a window into the water. My parking lot was a sea of brown. Cars were submerged. And I was struggling. I made it to the upstairs apartment where I was offered consolation and towels. I watched the newly-formed river below, swirling in all its misery. I stood shocked and imagined that we might be swept away, just like trees below.

The rain eventually stopped. The flood receded. And when I opened my front door, feet of water, debris and my belongings flooded into the street.

Six tornados touched down that night. Sixteen inches of rain fell in three hours. An elderly woman was rescued from her car just as the rising flood waters climbed up her neck. An 18-year-old freshman out for a McDonald’s run was sucked into a storm drain and found miles away from where he started.

Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as PTSD, and its potential lives inside all of us.

I became unhinged. I protected what remained of my belongings in plastic containers. I attempted to sleep at night but only when the Weather Channel was on. I would get dressed and eat dinner to televised forecasts. I checked web sites obsessively to see what the projected rainfall was on any given day. And in the South in the summer, it rains. Everyday. I found myself at work, being calmed by a clinical psychologist – also my boss – who needed to convince me that I didn’t have to run home to protect my things and the people around me. It took months before I was able to walk away before a weather report was over, or before I could even sit still in the rain.

And I still can’t possibly imagine what people are going through in Katrina’s wake.


51 Comments:

Blogger Sizzle said...

Woah. That was one hellish experience (for lack of a better adjective). I can't imagine what they are going through either, though after reading this post, I feel like I have a glimpse.

PTSD is serious and life-altering.

I am glad you are ok. :)

Blogger Poppy Cede said...

I am starting to believe we are being punished by a higher power, possibly Mother Nature/Earth herself, for all the destruction we performed to her.

Blogger Robin said...

I remember when I was 11, during Hurricane Elena, my mother put me on the living room sofa, which she turned around on an interior wall, and piled blankets on top of me. My parents refused to evacuate. I have never been so scared in my life. The noises are unreal.

Glad you made it out of your storm.

Blogger Kristen said...

you try to explain it to people, but people just don't understand until they experience it themselves. I left my family behind in So. FL to go to Tallahassee when Andrew hit.

When you see it on the news, you get this feeling in your gut that doesn't go away.

Those poor people. Ugh.

Anonymous Sanora said...

This was compelling, reminds me of the year I left North Dakota after a winter where it got to 126 below zero with the windchill - that wind that elevated the blizzard to a complete white out. A man, his son and two friends died in a car half a mile from home because they fell asleep with the car running. The thing they warn you everyday about....When I describe my "winter car kit" to Californians, they look at me like I'm nuts.

Blogger Brian said...

I live in the mountains, and a tornado is about as likely as winning the lottery, but over the years I have developed a striking fear of them. My friend Kathleen and I both have recurring nightmares about them. I could never live in a tornado/hurricane prone area!!

The image that really got to me during all of this was the guy they kept showing on CNN. He apparently had lost his wife in the flood waters. Like she literally slipped out of his hands. He kept saying to the reporter, "That's all I had...that's all I had" while he was crying and holding the hand of one of his kids. Pretty disturbing.

Blogger oregano said...

I heard on NPR this morning a woman saying all she had to her name was $80 and a few clothes she brought with her in the evacuation. It was right then I began to realize the seriousness of the situation. I hope she has family that can help her.

Blogger The Zombieslayer said...

I had another nightmare about all kinds of people getting killed by a wave. It's been a recurring nightmare for years. And the hurricanes I went through weren't even as bad as the one you described, so I could imagine some PTSD out of that.

Blogger Spinning Girl said...

Good Lord!

Blogger Shawn said...

Dale - I saw that same guy. It was pretty disturbing to watch him and see that he was clearly in shock.

I also never really understood the detached reporting thing...I don't know how you can point a camera at someone who clearly needs help, or at least comfort, and not be moved enough to put the camera down and help them.

And this is just the start of the pain for many people...

Kris - That's one scary story. It's amazing how fast things can change from a great adventure into a nightmare.

Blogger missbhavens said...

You had such a scary experience. Reading responses, I'm glad I'm not the only one who is far removed from natural disaster but still deathly afraid of it. Hurricanes give me the heebiejeebies. Bad dreams abound, these last few days. Like most, I saw the clip of the man whose wife had literally slipped out of his hands, too. But re: the detached reporter thing mentioned above, I normally totally agree. But what was cut out from that clip was the newscaster's whole interview with him--it was longer than what was shown on the loop and they later chose to edit out her reaction. She was weeping openly and genuinely.

Blogger mrsmogul said...

Growing up in NY I never experienced things like that..I Hope I nEver have to either.

Blogger Mel said...

You are right. PTSD is very real. It's amazing the things that you hear or see that can throw you back to that time and place, and the feelings come rushing back to you like it had just happened.

I remember when Hurricane Isabel hit in 2003. I had just moved out on my own with Hubby. And the tree outside our third floor apartment kept hitting the building... we thought it was going to come through the wall. We moved into the interior of the apartment and prayed... so surreal.

I can't even begin to imagine what you went through. I can't fathom what is going on right now in the south. It just doesn't seem real.

Blogger kitkat said...

Kris, I figured you'd say I'd "get" this post because the only thing you grabbed was your thesis. I would have done the same thing.

I've lived in a place where we had earthquake drills, another where we had tornado drills, and now I encounter hurricane evacuation signs daily. I'm sad for all the people who lost their lives, family members, and homes. It's devasting. At the same time, we battle nature every single day. We think we've conquered it because we can build skyscrapers and turn the air brown, and we stay in our homes when a hurricane comes. I'm not surprised, but it is sad, nonetheless.

Blogger Sub Girl said...

wow. that is amazing. i've never experienced anything like that, living in maryland, i have no idea what i'd do.

Anonymous Jorge said...

It only takes one time to turn everything we take for granted upside down.

I don't really know what I would trade for those people in New Orleans to have their homes and lives back. I'm afraid I don't have enough of anything that fate would accept.
:(

J

PS: I'm glad that nothing happened to you. :) I feel compelled to say that you make me just a little bit richer every day. And I am referring to something much more important than money....

...and chocolate...

Blogger Slade said...

K, I used to live in Wilmington, NC in my undergrad years...during this time, I saw several hurricanes. Wilmington was a magnet for this stuff when I lived there (Hugo and Fran) were the worst for us. Sometimes it was fun--hence the term "hurrikeg" but overall, it was devestating to our city and property. I too, can't imagine not being able to afford to leave an area that has a monster like Katrina coming right at you!!! I guess what I took for granted before was that we could always leave and find a safer city inland...but those poor people in the South were not as fortunate.

i've never lived through an experience such as yours. now i felt like i have. great post.

Blogger JJ said...

A powerful story.

Blogger Kiki said...

I'm sorry that you had to go through that. I'm glad that you are still here though.

Very powerful story.

Blogger TinaPoPo said...

Jeez. I can't imagine what any of that is like, and I feel thankful for that. I'm glad you made it through that storm.

Blogger Dave said...

I'd like to think I'd be a hero, or at the very least smart in that kind of situation. But I think I'd just lose it, end up being dead weight for someone else.

Thanks for the story

Blogger babyjewels said...

I have no words. Wow. Glad you made it through that.

Anonymous Neil said...

Thanks for that great post. It helps put what is going on in a new perspective.

Blogger Queenie said...

I've lived in Florida for 5 years now and last year was my first experience with hurricanes, lucky I guess. The first hurricane called for an evacuation and my little Colorado ass hauled itself right up to Atlanta. But it was a false alarm so when the next one came I stayed....Hurricane Francis hit on my birthday, September 5th, at noon and took out our power. As the day progressed conditions worsened, trees started falling all around and on our house and cars. We were trapped in our house without power. I was facinated by the weather and even ran out in it to take video - my family in Denver would never believe what was happening! I was alright until it got dark. You could hear distant sirens and the loud popping of transforms blowing. The sky would light up like fireworks when they would blow. Coming from Colorado I have been through hundreds of tornado warnings, no sweat right? Wrong, we don't have tornado sirens down here so how the hell are you supposed to know when they are coming. I remember staying awake all night laying in our Florida room with the windows open just listening to the wind and rain and the battery operated boom box telling me where tornadoes were touching down. Thoughts were rushing through my head: how fast could I wake everyone up and get them into the walk in closet or bath tub? Could I catch the girls (my beloved cats who are like my children) in time and get them in there with us? Would 6 people, 2 cats and 2 dogs fit in the closet? How long will my cell phone battery last and will I be able to call my parents and tell them what was happening and that I love them?

Although we got through the night with minimal damage, I will never forget those feelings and the fear that shook my soul. We went 5 days without power and we managed to 4 wheel drive out of our driveway 2 days after the storm.

My heart and prayers go out to all those hit by Katrina.

Blogger Patsy Darling said...

Well it may suck here in Jersey but at least we don't get hurricanes. I still can't even begin to come to grips with what has happened in Nawlins.

Blogger Brookelina said...

We Jersey girls need to stay out of Florida already.

Blogger NARDAC said...

I hope I never have to experience that kind of hopeless fear against the forces. Glad things are better on your side.

I think that whatever the storm has done to New Orleans is nothing compared to what their own people are doing to themselves now. Sickening.

Blogger Tao said...

That was quite a story and thank you for sharing it. I can't wrap my mind around what has happened either.

Thanks for posting your concern about my whereabouts on Mel's blog!! :) I was out of town for awhile and then my computer was acting the fool when I got home. I'm back now :)

Blogger Jackie said...

Yeah, water ruins stuff like nothing else can. You poor thing. I love how you grabbed the thesis draft. I was laughing out loud.

Blogger sassyassy said...

Wow! Sounds like an intense, scary situation. Glad you made it through even if it was with some battle scars. Thanks for sharing this personal experience--I cannot imagine.

Blogger Cheryl said...

wow! I can't imagine going through that, let alone what they went through with Katrina.

Blogger Washington Cube said...

Excellent entry. I think we are all having a hard time grasping the enormity of it all.

Blogger Amanda said...

holy, quite the experience. great writing. i was wholy captivated. interesting about the psychology of having gone through something like that.

Blogger Jason said...

Great writing!

Blogger Bridget Jones said...

I can't imagine either. Those poor people. have been through hurricanes and tornadoes but nothing like the total loss,devastation and descent into anarchy. Hope they hold together...

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