The Rollercoaster


The emotional rollercoaster sits ready at the gate to once again raise us to new heights, only to plunge us to deeper depths.  The familiar butterflies fluttering in my stomach signal the anticipation of the unknown.  I do believe they have taken up permanent residence.  At least they have a permanent residence – unlike so many of my neighbors along the Gulf coast.

The déjà vu is not a mystery, nor an unexplainable phenomenon.  Twelve years ago, Mark and I moved to Pensacola Beach.  Dreams of retiring on the beach and raising our children in its small community created the eager anticipation I felt then.  Nine storms later, the anticipation I feel is far from eager, it is dread.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I am becoming familiar with the emotional cycles of being a repeat hurricane survivor.  Too familiar.  The stages for me go something like this:

Storm season approaches and I hold my breath, praying that the storm god will exact his vengeance elsewhere. Or even better yet, that he has no vengeance in him this summer.

A storm is in the Gulf and its path is unknown.  My quick glances at the perpetually playing Weather Channel silently beg for a prediction cone that completely ignores the Alabama/Florida coastline.

The insensitive prediction cone ignores my pleading and includes Pensacola Beach.  The strength expected upon landfall is unknown, so we prepare for the worst.  Actually, we (coastline residents) always have to prepare for the worst.  There are so many unknowns; being prepared is not only for the Boy Scouts.  If we prepared for a minimal storm and it gained in strength and speed, the meager preparations would be pointless.  If we prepare for an intense storm and it exhausts itself before landfall, we gratefully count our blessings as we remove our shutters and take the generators back to storage.
With the intensity of the last two years’ storms, a community panic sets in, creating
the need to prepare for the preparations.  Ten years ago, I did not need to buy
barrels and barrels of gasoline or gallons and gallons of water as soon as a tropical depression was detected in the Gulf.  Food, water, and gasoline literally disappear before my eyes.  Who knew David Copperfield, master magician, was performing at the local Wal-Mart?

I wake up one morning and the Weather Channel has definitive projections on the size, strength, and predicted place of landfall.  I rub the sleep from my eyes, thankful for my last night of real rest until this nightmare ends.  I call my favorite weather man, Jim Cantore, ask him to pinch me and tell me it’s not real, to go back to sleep, that I’m just having a bad dream.  Adrenaline replaces my grogginess with alertness as Jim says to get prepared.  By now, preparations are rote.  I always want to be completely “ready” at least 24 hours in advance…just in case it doesn’t follow the Weather Channel’s parameters and decides to speed up.

“Completely ready.”  What a concept.  I never really thought about it until I typed that sentence.  How can a person be “ready” to have his/her life completely turned upside down for the next few years?  Can a person pre-prepare to be psychologically thrown into such turmoil?  Although the storm lasts days, the devastation is interminable. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, I heard a psychologist on the news explain that
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder doesn’t really hit a person until eighteen months after the event.  Eighteen months?  Well, hell, then I have PTSD on top of PTSD, on top of more PTSD.  I don’t think we have gone more than 18 months without a storm affecting us on some level.
Even if the storm doesn’t make a direct hit on your home, your body is pumped full of adrenaline each and every time a storm is named in the Gulf of Mexico.

As I carry the lawn furniture upstairs, help Mark tape the windows, decide how far we will travel, and load up the cars, my consciousness recedes with the rote behavior.  The action actually is comforting, better than the inactivity of waiting.  The procedures are so mechanical by now, I feel detached from their implications. Detachment.  It can be your friend or your enemy, but necessary for me if I am to survive the perpetual storm cycles.

The calm before the storm. I never understood that saying until I moved to Pensacola Beach.  The gathering forces of the hurricane suck the humidity off of the beach, leaving a beautiful, clear day and an exquisitely star filled night. As the storm draws nearer, bands of clouds approach, swirling against the still blue sky. Within several hours, I know the gentle breeze will begin gusting;  the gently lapping waves will morph into lashing walls of water eroding the protective strip of sand that separates my house from the ocean; and the sky will darken with threatening storm clouds.   When the beach is in its beautiful “calm before the storm” stage, I can barely get my brain around the fact that just miles from the beach a monster swirls in a ravenous rage, ready to once again devour my life as I know it.  Before I evacuate, I sit on the beach, gazing around, drinking in the beauty; knowing full well that this could be the last time the beach looks this way.  I ride my bicycle around the island, waving to neighbors, stopping to discuss evacuation plans with friends, sharing hugs and wishes that all will be well when we return. Despair and hope linger in the atmosphere.  Many of us have done this many times.  Veterans.  You’d think we would know better by now and just bail.  All I can say is that it is not as easy as it seems.

i000767_bigEvacuating the beach evokes a myriad of emotions.  Being forced from my home sends my emotions through their own tumultuous storm.  Not that I want to stay, I don’t.  But, the powerlessness I feel in regards to the impending storm is magnified by the mechanical voice of the local officials announcing the mandatory evacuation through their bullhorns. Poignant memories assail me.  Love and laughter with friends and family; the blood, sweat, and tears of remodeling and rebuilding repetitively; breathtaking sunsets; bicycle rides with friends; solitary walks on a foggy beach; a pregnant full moon rising from the ocean’s depths, the light shimmering brilliantly as the waves bring the reflection ashore.  Wonderful memories I cherish.  Encroaching on the Kodak moments are the gut-wrenching memories of returning after a storm to find our home wounded and wet, inside and out.  I am nauseous as I mentally review the trauma of displacement; of my neighbors and friends being scattered across the region; of living like a refugee for months on end; of fighting the frustrating battle with the insurance companies; of not being able to locate reputable labor to begin repairs; of knowing that even if we manage to make the repairs, we could be doing it all again next year.

The storm strikes.  I am watching the news coverage constantly — to the uninitiated, that means I have evacuated far enough away to not be affected by power outages.  My veteran status has taught me that much.  I see no need to brutalize myself by living through the storm and the immediate aftermath.  If I have repairs to make, I need to be as refreshed as possible, not suffering from heat exhaustion.  When the storm strikes the beach, the residents cannot immediately return to their properties.  We must wait for the officials to open the bridges and arrange for transportation to the neighborhoods. Frustration is inevitable, but rather than frantically pace in a hot, humid self-imposed prison, I choose to enhance my emotional well-being by resting in an air-conditioned place complete with amenities.   Instead of aimlessly pacing, I surf the internet eager for the first trickling of pictures and reports.  The Pensacola News Journal does the community a wonderful service by allowing anyone to post digital pictures of the area on their web site.  I also have angels on line who converse with me on our web site’s forum.  I cannot express how much their supportive comments boost my morale.

The storm has dissipated and now we assess the damage.  In horror, we try to absorb the mangled messes we see. We need to report back to our friends about the status of their homes.  After an interminable excursion of two miles to our home, we give our home a cursory once over from outside.  Doors, windows, any breaches in the structure?  Landscaping and the pool are expected casualties once again.  No surprises there.  It’s time to find a way into the home.  Did the ladder we left for re-entry get swept away?  That’s a yes.  Okay, let’s find an orphaned ladder somewhere in this debris and get into the house.  The humid heat is sweltering, and the sun’s intense light focuses onto our unwelcoming backs.  Let’s get into the house and drink some of that water I collected during the preparation stage.  We manage to get into the house, turn up our noses at the mildew smell permeating every nook and cranny, and douse ourselves inside and out with  water.  We look around, make a general list of immediate concerns, and tell ourselves it could be much worse.  It is definitely lemonade time.  We count our blessings and fret over how much worse it could have been.  We have to take the lemons and make lemonade.  We have to – it is vital for our emotional survival.  Somehow the situation seems less daunting when we compare them to what could’ve been.
After resting a bit at the house, we walk the neighborhoods with pen in hand.  Some neighbors have traveled hundreds of miles and won’t be back for a while.  We need to report to them; the unknown is the worst.  You can’t make a game plan until you know what needs to be done.  And having a game plan is also an essential element of emotional survival.  What I find interesting and disturbing is that I can pass by a damaged home for months and not really see it.  Then, one day, I am walking by and I actually see the ruined building. I am shocked that I hadn’t noticed before. My theory is that I can only absorb so much devastation at one time.  As I digest my first helping, more information can be assimilated.

The storm has dissipated and now we assess the damage.  In horror, we try to absorb the mangled messes we see.Weeks later, the power is on and repairs can begin in earnest.  Well, if we had our insurance claim payment and could find laborers, we could begin.  Frustration overwhelms us as we want, no need, to start the repair process, yet cannot.  At this point, I am usually ready to bail out.  I have had enough, I am ready to sell and could care less if I never see a beach again in my life.  I am in the middle of a nervous breakdown and am ready to hide from it all.  I want to run away and never return.  I want it to be a chapter in a book that I incinerate. I cannot keep doing this, it is absolutely insane.  What the bleep do we think we are doing?  I am so traumatized that I am numb….almost.  Not quite detached enough to be unaware of my fragile state of mind.

Finally the repairs begin.  The house begins to show its beauty once again.  The repairs become improvements, and I become attached once again to my home.  The better it looks, the better I feel.  When normalcy reappears, so does my desire to stay.  I fall in love with the beach again and beg the water to let me visit her instead of her coming to my home.  And in the deep recesses of my soul, there is a seed of hope.  A fragile flower lifting her face to the sun, my hope blossoms into a desire to remain a resident on Pensacola Beach.  I fertilize my hope by counting my blessings and verbalizing why I am grateful to live on the beach.  Before long, I am determined to stay.

Which brings me to the stage I currently find myself in: a mix of emotions so varied I worry that I am in the worst stages of a multi-personality disorder. I am writing this in January 2006, sixteen months after Hurricane Ivan and less than a year since Hurricanes Dennis and Katrina.  I have the delusional hope that we may escape catastrophic damage this year, yet the sense of dread has taken up residence in my gut once again.  I love the improvements to the house, and I do not want to move away from my community and friends.  But, acknowledging that we could be making the same repairs a year from now is distressing.   So, it’s a hope against hope kind of day.  My fellow islanders reassure me that we couldn’t have another year like the last two.  Says who? Their denial mirrors my own.  Their seed of hope combines with mine to create a fragrant bouquet of the lemons we will be making into lemonade.