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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Hurricane Irma

On Tuesday, September 5th, Andrea and I got back from our NY trip and already were starting to hear a lot of news and talk about an approaching tropical storm in the Atlantic named Irma. As the week went on, the storm strengthened and we started to make plans. I suppose there's never a good time for a hurricane, but we hadn't slept well in NY and weren't able to sleep well with all the worry about the approaching storm. I actually went for a jog past midnight one night to run off some nervous energy.

As the storm approached, I kept tracking the forecast from NOAA and started saving them off so I could compare the actual path vs the projected path. The storm took a turn to the west, which ended up putting it on the west coast of Florida. We were initially relieved for Jacksonville, but since the NW edge of the storm tends to have some of the nastiest weather in the hurricane, we realized we weren't completely off the hook.

I took Connor with me a few times to get sandbags. Our first trip to the distribution point under the bridge, there was no sand and no bags. On the second trip, they had bags so we grabbed our allotment, but there was no sand. On the third trip, they had sand but no bags. Thankfully we had our bags and we got to work filling up the bags. Andrea had convinced me to sacrifice one of our beach buckets and it was a big help to funnel the dirty brown sand in to the bag. It took over and hour to fill all 20, and holy cow were they heavy.

We put the bags on the outside of the doors and I also put a tarp between the doors and bags to hopefully create a somewhat watertight seal. I'd also meant to put some over the drain holes in the downstairs showers to prevent backflowing sewer "water" from entering the house, but forgot on our rush to leave. We prepped the golf cart with a tarp. We drove it over the tarp and then tied it up on the sides to create a few feet of protection.

The mandatory evacuation order was issued and the island was supposed to evacuate starting  Saturday 9/9/2017 at 8am. We continued our prep and decided we'd stay in our house longer this time around. For Hurricane Matthew we left way early and then it made the whole process longer and more difficult being out of our house. Sunday morning 9/10/2017 we got up and I was preparing some of our final steps when Andrea checked the weather and we got very nervous. The hurricane wasn't arriving until much later, but the winds had already picked up substantially and we were scared the bridges would close earlier than anticipated. They usually close the bridges when winds sustain speeds of 40mph or more. It turns out a big weather pattern created a nor'easter, which brought lots of rain and high winds almost to tropical storm strength. Our pond filled up quickly, the tides got trapped by the blowing winds, and it was not a good start for the coming hurricane weather.

We packed everything up and fled across the bridge to Grandma Alice and Grandpa Rick's house. They were out of town on a river cruise in Europe, so we had to turn on the water and electricity and get things put together a little for our stay. We continued to watch the weather and were a bit more hopeful for this storm than Matthew since it was on the west coast, but we were surprised by the strong winds and torrential rain that came through just on the outer bands of the storm. The pond behind Grandma and Grandpa's house filled up more than I'd ever seen, and that made me very apprehensive for what we would see in our neighborhood.

Overnight on 9/10 Irma passed to the west of our area and the Northeast bands of rain and wind battered Jacksonville. I slept a little between 11pm and 2am, but couldn't stop myself from checking the storm and checking our security cameras to see what was happening. In the dark, they didn't see much, but I could at least tell there wasn't water in the house. At around 3am I noticed the street was very filled with water and based on a reflection of a streetlight I started to see the water overflow the street and engulf one of the trees in the front of our house. The feed from my phone was very poor, but with the video in motion I could see the water flowing down the street. At around 3am I saw some bright flashes outside my window and the power went out at my parent's house. I still had cell service, and could still check the cameras at our house until some time after 4am. The cell service started to degrade rapidly and some time between 4am and 6am the power was lost at our house. Andrea was watching the wind speeds and it didn't seem that they exceeded 50mph sustained winds.

Next was the second painful part of the hurricane experience, the waiting. The storm had mostly passed by morning. The sun actually started to peek out at times, although there were some strong gusts blowing through. We used our electronics sparingly and tried hard to find a usable cell signal, but it barely worked. I tried posting a brief update on Facebook to let everyone know were were OK, and after trying to submit it a half dozen times it went through.

I had actually purchased a really good generator prior to the storm, and I could hear some of the neighbors start theirs up. The only generator in stock was at ACE hardware, and was a 7500 CAT model, which weighed over 200 pounds. It was in my SUV, and I wasn't sure I could get it out by myself. I knew I definitely couldn't get it back in and we decided to wait and see how the day went. We knew if we had to choose, we'd rather be back at our own house with the generator hooked up, so we tried to be patient.

After fighting to get a usable cell signal all morning, we gave up and took a walk. When we got back, Andrea suggested that we try to get my parent's wi-fi working. I had brought a big 1500VA battery backup system that was normally for my home PC. We'd been using it to charge phones, but decided to try it on the internet connection. I hooked it up to the router, and hooked one of my dad's UPS batteries to the fiber conversion box in the bedroom. It worked! We finally had fast usable internet service, but we didn't know for how long the batteries would last. We hurriedly clicked everywhere on Facebook and weather pages to figure out what was going on. We saw some scary pictures of devastation and flooding in the area and were surprised to hear that Jacksonville was on the national news because of record flooding. That wasn't good news for us since the flooding was our main concern at our house.

On our neighborhood Facebook page we saw a few pictures and Andrea came across a lady that gave out her phone number and offered to go by houses. I texted her our information and we were so happy she agreed to stop by our house. She took 11 pictures of it and sent them to us later that day. We were so relieved to see that the water hadn't gotten close to the house, and there were just a few branches in the yard. Nothing major!

Our next door neighbor had also stayed, and he sent me a picture of the water at its highest. It looks like at least a foot before it got in the pool, which should give us another couple feet vertically before it would be high enough to enter the house.

With that news, we decided to get out and do something. We drove around Race Track road and up San Jose. Lots of people were out, trying to find gas and food. The gas stations were closed, but people were parked in the stations, in line and waiting for them to open. We saw PDQ on San Jose looked open, but when we pulled in the manager told us they weren't going to open until the next day, however they'd obviously served a few people. Very disappointed, but we went across the road to a Mexican restuarant La Napolera and they were open and serving food. It was cash only and it was nice to eat something other than PBJ's. The kids were even excited to eat out for once.

We were really hoping to get back home soon, but the initial updates from St. John's county indicated that they were going to keep their bridges closed until Tuesday (9/12/2017). After lunch, we decided to drive through St. John's Forest since we were in the area. We saw some kids outside of Clara's house and stopped in briefly to say hi. Then, we went by Rachel and Chad's and talked to them for a little while. We all went down to Anna and Kevin's house later in the afternoon and sat outside chatting while the kids played. We kept checking news sites and Facebook to see if we could get updates and eventually heard that our neighborhood had power. I checked my parents place and found that they had power too. I brought Chloe back to SJF and after a short wait we heard the bridges were open back to the islands in the Jacksonville Beach area.

We went back to my parent's place and quickly packed everything up and put their house back together before leaving. We rushed home and before it got dark I walked around the house to record the seed lines and high water marks, as well as to look for damage. Surprisingly it didn't look like we'd lost a single shingle and only one small piece of fascia was missing from the highest roof peak. Inside the house was also mostly clean, although a little water blew in through a roof vent. Nothing major at all, it was great news for us.

We got most of the important stuff put away and went to bed fairly early. We didn't sleep much the past few weeks, so it was amazing to be back in our own beds and without the weight of impending doom hanging over us.

We learned more lessons from the experience. During Matthew, I'd watched the major news networks, and found they are horrible alarmists who get everyone worked up for their ratings. I was so anxious during Hurricane Matthew I thought I'd have a heart attack. We realized that at the end of the day, most news sites and the Weather Channel are in business to get you to tune in, and present the most extreme information to keep you glued to their stations. I found that the best, sober and reliable source of information during Hurricane Irma was a guy named Mike that put the data and forecasts on his site for you to see without all the terrifying headlines. We followed the forecast data from different scientific organizations and were able to avoid the additional emotional drama created from the news organizations.

For future reference, I decided to include some of the forecast models, as they'd evolved during the storm.

Irma's final path is below, indicating the strength, as well as the hurricane and tropical force winds.

Forecast models are below, from various points in time.

Big thanks again to Mom and Dad for opening their house to us, it would have been even harder without having a place to go when the evacuation order came.

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