A Walk In Hell

The tropical cyclone is a synoptic scale meteorological event in which cyclones form over warm waters within tropical latitudes. Most tropical cyclones in the Atlantic Ocean, called hurricanes, are formed from dust particles from the Sahara Desert being blown west over the sea. These dust particles help form clouds and ultimately develop a low pressure storm system. Tropical cyclones can do a devastating amount of damage. Almost every year, there is at least one tropical cyclone which makes landfall in the US and leaves a trail of devastation behind it with sometimes millions of dollars worth of property damage and countless lives lost. And that's only in the US. These storms happen on every tropical coast, just with different names. Cyclones, Typhoons, Hurricanes. They're all the same thing. The only difference is where they occur.

The most recent of these storms in the US was Hurricane Idalia. Reaching a wind speed of 130mph and becoming a category 4 hurricane, but weakening to category 3 at landfall, Idalia was the first major hurricane, meaning category 3+, to ever make landfall in the Apalachee Bay. On Wednesday, August 30th at around 7:45am local time, Hurricane Idalia made landfall near Keaton Beach. It continued travelling Northwest through Valdosta and into the Carolinas until it moved into the Atlantic Ocean. On one hand, it's a good thing that it landed where it did. The population density of the area it did the most damage is relatively low populated. But the history of never having a major hurricane hit it directly made the construction of what was there too weak to properly withstand the storm.

On Tuesday, the day before the hurricane made landfall, I was in Perry, FL for work. The cone of uncertainty showed the storm heading directly for it. As I was there servicing a gas station, people there started getting notifications on their phones from the National Weather Service which warned that the storm surge in the area was so high that areas on the coast are not survivable. Being so blatantly faced with their mortality, terror filled many of the people in the gas station, even those who didn't live on the coast. And it wasn't running around screaming or whatever would be depicted in any form of media of people suddenly showing fear. It was like any other energetic conversation, except you can hear the fear in their voices. One of the gas station employees started talking about how few things scare her but she's terrified of nature and told stories about her husband joking that she was scared during thunderstorms.

The rest of my day after this stop had different tones to it. Suddenly everyone was scared. They didn't know what to expect. They just knew that they were being told to get away. I only had 2 more stops after that initial gas station incident. At my next stop, I saw the manager of the gas station had been crying. She told me that she was scared and her mom was refusing to evacuate. I told her that I have a degree in Meteorology and that I highly recommend evacuating. She asked me if her mom would be safe in a brick house. I asked about trees in the area and suggested that the storm could damage the roof. After that, she stepped outside and was making several phone calls. I'm not sure what ended up happening with her and her family but I have a hunch that everything turned out okay for them regardless of what the decision was.

That day, I was racing to get home before 2pm. That's when rain would start and it wasn't going to stop for a long time. Gladly, there wasn't much more than a drizzle on occasion. But when I parked my truck, I realized that I managed to leave my work iPad at my last stop. I called them and made sure that they had it, then set out in my car, not my work truck, back to Perry to pick up the iPad. The entire time, I was thinking about the fear in these people. Even the confident ones that knew what they would do to be safe and prepared were scared. 14 hours before the storm made landfall, the gas station that I left my iPad at was still open. I told the employees to be safe and I was on my way to weather the storm myself.

I'll save the description of my experience through the storm, but Perry was hit directly by the storm. Restaurant signs were destroyed, The entrance to stores were blown open, countless trees and telephone poles fell, and, coincidentally, the canopy at the gas station where the crying manager was fell over. We expected it to be bad and it was. The following day, Thursday, I spoke with people who said that Valdosta, which is farther north of Perry, in Georgia, but also in the path of the storm, expected to be without power for up to 2 weeks. This had me really worried about Perry since they got hit by the storm when it was much stronger. I asked my boss if I should even go to Perry on Friday. I was scheduled to, but I knew that most places would be closed on account of the damage. He told me to go so sure enough, I went.

The best way I can describe going to the town is it was like a walk in hell. As I drove south towards it, I saw more and more downed trees on either side of the road. Once I got to the north side of the town, I could immediately start to see the damage that was done to the buildings. It was heartbreaking. The town looked wartorn. The biggest difference being the unmistakeable bent trees iconic of a hurricane in the various tree farms around the town. The people are living without power and cell towers are down. They're in the dark both figuratively and literally. Everywhere around the town were lines for things. The 2 working gas stations both had lines of cars where people would fill their car and extra gas canisters. I saw some elderly people who could barely walk there at gas pumps getting as much as they could in their gas cans. There were long lines for food, both of cars and people. Food trucks had set up throughout the town to provide people variety as well. I even came across a line of cars that went around a corner and I have no idea what it was for.

I was speechless. This once bustling town was absolutely devastated by this storm. Throughout everything, among the residents was this apparent gloom. They were all suffering and just doing the best they could to get through it. Many took to jokes. They seemed to be in mostly positive moods. But it was that sort of mood where you could tell that most of them were scared and were just coping with the pain. That isn't to say that the smiles were fake. There was just more to it. Most of my stops in the area were closed due to no power or because they were just too severely damaged. With the damage I saw, it'll be a blessing if the entire town has power back in 2 weeks.

Even when you know the threat is there, you never think it could happen to you. There's only so much you can do to prepare for it. With a tropical cyclone, you mostly just have to let it happen and then react to what was done. But at the scale of an entire town, or in many cases entire cities, these peoples lifestyles totally destroyed. Their favorite stores, hangout places, houses, everything destroyed and some places never come back. And no matter where you go, there seems to be some sort of natural disaster that can do this sort of damage. Tropical Cyclones, Earthquakes, Volcanoes, Wildfires, Blizzards, Haboobs, pick your poison. Though just like a forest that's been destroyed by a fire, we rebuild and regrow with new life, or in our case, buildings and businesses. Some places go and never come back, but over time, the buildings are repaired and rebuilt to a new standard, a town can be cleaned, new technology can be tested and utilized. We can't prevent it. So our best bet, as I said, is to just react to what it does. And it's best that we see it as an opportunity for growth than the end of it all.

That isn't to say that natural disasters are good. Lives are lost and many people suffer. I'm using this experience as a motivator to get more involved with the organization that I'm a part of which partly exists to help in such difficult times. Even as one person, my contribution to supporting an area following a disaster can make the recovery process that much quicker. But in this case, I am not one person. I am a representative of a much larger group with the power to motivate others to do what is necessary to get involved. And that's what I'll be doing. No, this alone is not the driving factor to do such a thing, but it was the kick I needed to set things into motion. This isn't so much a call to action. Do what you think is best for you. I personally can't stand to be a weatherman who can only provide advice to evacuate from a storm and so I'm going to stop being that and be one that can also provide support for those left in the wake of devastation.

I had hoped to put a link to a video featuring what I recorded while driving through the town, but the video doesn't do its justice and you really can't see too much of the damage if you don't know what to look for. If you want to see the videos anyway, you can ask me for them, and I'll try to take pictures when I'm there again this upcoming Friday.