This is the 4th and final installment of our experience during Hurricane Irma. Read parts one (preparing), two (evacuating and three (enduring) here by clicking on each link.

All packed up and loaded with enough gasoline to bring us home, our two-car convoy headed out into the unknown around 10:30 am on September 14th. Our power had been restored at home and we were ready to get back to see how Naples had faired. Plus we could hardly afford to stay in the hotel any longer. While the drive south was just as long in terms of miles, there was definitely less urgency as we made our way towards Naples, FL.

It was a bit strange seeing more and more destruction with each passing hour as we headed south, and the gas situation was still pretty limited. Knowing that it would likely be a few days until gasoline would be widely available in Naples, we took the opportunity to fill up whenever we had the chance along the way.

Thankfully by the time we reached the major cities of Tampa and Sarasota, the seaports (Florida’s main source of gasoline) had been reopened and the tanker trucks were starting to supply most of the major gas stations along the way. We stopped one last time near Sarasota to meet one of our friends’ friends to pick up a few more cans of gas to take to his mother in Naples. But otherwise the trip was pretty smooth and we made it back to Naples just after the curfew set in at 9 pm.

Stefan, being the prim and rule following German, had texted one of his friends at the Collier County Sheriff’s Office to make sure we wouldn’t get into any trouble if we arrived in Naples after the curfew. We were assured that Deputies are reasonable people too, and if we did get stopped to be friendly, show our ID and tell them that we were returning evacuees.

Back in Naples

Since most of the power was still out south of Tampa, I-75 all the way down to Naples was virtually pitch black. Once the sun had set, there was no telling how much damage there really was because it was so dark. We did notice that not a single highway sign at our highway exit was still standing. All of the traffic lights were also off, as were the street lights. Thankfully everyone largely obeyed the curfew, so we saw very few cars on the road.

When we first pulled into our neighborhood, we thought our neighbor had lied to us and the power was not really back on. All of the streetlights were out (we found out the next day that they were spread over the road like pickup sticks) and all of the homes still had their storm shutters back on, blocking out the light from the inside.

We pulled into the driveway and Stefan immediately got out of the car, grabbed a flashlight (even if there was power, all of the breakers in the house were off) and went inside our condo to inspect for damages. He emerged with a grin on his face – not a single thing had been broken, not even the ugly patio table he had hope would get wiped out.

As Mackenzie and I started moving everyone inside our condo, Stefan first went into his parents unit across the street to check things out. No damage. Then into a friends unit. No damage again. Finally he checked another friends’ unit. No damage either. We couldn’t believe it. Even though our units had taken a direct hit from a Category 4 Hurricane (peak gusts of 142mph were measured just 2 miles from us) there was virtually no damage to the buildings and zero damage inside. What a blessing.

Since the power was not back on yet at our friend’s place we decided that they should stay at Stefan’s parent’s place for the time being. They were in Germany anyway and are always happy to help a friend in need.

As the adults were outside emptying our belongings from the car, the kids came running from the house telling us that we NEEDED to see a funny video. As some of us looked at the screen, Stefan scratched his head and asked, “Mack, how did you figure out how to allow YouTube to stream on Cell service”? He had locked it because (as described in Part 3) our data plan was draining quickly. “Oh no Daddy, we were in the house and it just worked”.

Could it be? Could we be part of the lucky handful that not only had electricity but also Internet? Yes, it was amazing but true.

After a lot of prodding and convincing, we also got our friend’s parents to agree to move into Stefan’s parents’ place for a few days. Their home was without power, had massive tree damage and was surrounded by 2 feet of water. They didn’t want to be a burden on anyone, but we did not let them refuse the offer.

After a quick celebratory drink, all of us collapsed into our respective beds and were excited to be home. I don’t think I ever slept as deeply and relaxed as after coming home to an undamaged home.

 

Surveying the Damage

Once the sun came up, we were up bright and early working on removing the first of the shutters and to assess the damage to the community.

We tried to drive around as little as possible since the traffic situation was pretty damn dangerous and gas lines were still several hours long. Even with constant warnings from the Sheriff’s Office to treat every single intersection as a 4-way stop, people would still just plow through. The first 3-4 days right after the storm when the power was out everywhere was the most dangerous at intersections. The county and cities worked hard to restore signals at insections as quickly as possible to prevent accidents.

We did a quick assessment run to our office just to make sure that everything was as we left it. Same here, no damage whatsoever.

The rest of Naples did, however, look like a war zone. Trees were down, power poles had snapped like twigs and every single tree looked like it received an extremely bad haircut.

Four days after the storm, it also seemed like the heat and misery were taking a toll on many in the community. With temperatures in the high-90’s during the day and a moist mid-80’s at night, it seemed everyone without power was grumpy.

A few places such as stores and restaurants had reopened but were working with limited inventory because trucks were not yet running restocking routes yet. It was also not safe to drink the water without boiling it and there was the imminent threat of poop overflowing the city streets if people didn’t stop flushing, washing clothes and dishes, and otherwise using a bunch of water. Our lift stations for the sewage all needed electricity to keep moving the waste down the line. But few of them had generators so tanks were at their peak. Boy were we glad we had done all of our laundry before leaving the resort.

 

A Few Bright Points

A few months earlier in 2017, we had decided to take a cruise with our friends to celebrate both of them turning 40 that year. The sailing date for our 7-day cruise aboard the Norwegian Getaway was scheduled to leave September 16th, exactly one week after Hurricane Irma moved through.

When we contacted them on Wednesday (before leaving the Sandestin), NCL informed us that even though Hurricane Irma had caused damage, the cruise port was operational and the cruise was on. We briefly considered canceling the cruise because we almost felt guilty leaving everyone behind…until we came to the following realizations:

  1. we had spent a lot of non-refundable money
  2. they had power
  3. you could drink the water
  4. you could flush toilets or have laundry done
  5. there was lots edible food
  6. we had already packed our cruise bags and taken them with us when we evacuated just in case anyway
  7. we would be way more comfortable on the ship than in a disaster zone

We spent the rest of Thursday cleaning up as much as we could around our condo and office and coordinated some of our spare resources to help friends and family.

While the storm was moving through, Stefan received an email from an insurance company up north which needed to assess the damage to some of their properties. Stefan is a licensed drone pilot and we offer real estate photography to our marketing clients and they had found him through a simple Google Search. Since travel was still quite dangerous and gas in short supply, Stefan was reluctant to take on the mission, but they were willing to pay very handsomely.

After we had switched gears from evacuating to fixing up to going on vacation the next day, we were thankful our friends took Mackenzie so that we could pound out the surveys. Much of Friday morning flew by in a haze as we made our way from place to place in Southwest Florida with Stefan snapping aerial pictures of various buildings for the client. The list was long and spread all the way from Cape Coral to Marco Island, and we were a bit excited and curious as we made our way from place to place to see how it had faired. It appeared the first signs of normalcy had already arrived in some areas with certain places open for business and some gasoline becoming available again. Some places had suffered damage here and there, but many of those places had also not been well maintained in the last decade or two.

We did think someone might pull a gun on us as Stefan piloted the drone over one property, but when we explained that we were taking pictures to facilitate faster insurance payments to affected clients, they were more than happy to see us. Happy and tired, we called it a day when the last photo was snapped and quickly headed home and off to bed in preparation for our vacation. We were definitely looking forward to leaving anything Hurricane related behind for a few days.

What about Ayla, you ask? As fate would have it, our dog sitters had their power restored about a day after the storm (they had neighbors who worked at FPL). So she was actually inviting people to bring their dogs over to enjoy their A/C, and they were more than willing to take Ayla (as she was already booked to stay with them anyway and is like an extended part of their family as it is.)

Before heading out for the cruise terminal Miami, we made sure to pass out our remaining supplies of ice, water, and gasoline to friends and neighbors in high hopes that we wouldn’t need any of them at the end of our cruise.

 

Two Weeks After Irma

Once we returned from our cruise 7 days later, it seemed that most things had returned largely to normal. The city was still a complete mess and there were a lot of blue tarps on buildings everywhere, but restaurants operated on regular hours and even the last household had power restored.

Meanwhile, huge piles of debris had been placed at virtually every corner consisting of branches and broken trees and a lot of the broken trees had been cleared leaving the landscape very open. It was interesting to drive along roads we traveled hundreds of times before and see homes for the very first time now that the trees around them had been trimmed.

Schools were ready to reopen and it appeared that the worst was behind us, but somehow neither Stefan nor I could snap ourselves out of the post-hurricane funk for a few weeks. Everyone we talked to seemed to have the same problems going back to business as usual after so many weeks of craziness. We called it the Post-Hurricane Depression and it lasted for four-six weeks after the storm. After that, things kicked back into high gear and there was no time be depressed – we had to get back to work.

Moving On

In just a few days, it will be the 6 month anniversary of the storm and Naples is stronger than ever. While there are still bumps and bruises seen here and there, life has largely gone back to normal. There are still occasional business signs that are missing a letter or two and quite a few blue tarps on roofs…but those are going away one by one too.

Hearing from our friends in the tourism business it seems that this winter Season is stronger than ever (thanks to a super cold winter up north….thank you weather gods.) Yes, Naples is back – and it’s still paradise. But one thing is different: perhaps now we appreciate it even more.

8 Things Learned from the Aftermath

Keeping in tune with the other parts of this series, and since everything we do in life should teach us a lesson, here are 11 lessons we learned in the aftermath of the Hurricane.

  1. Things Take Time
    If you have read the other parts of the series, you may notice a recurrent theme: Patience. Everything about a Hurricane takes forever.
    Now that the storm had moved through, it took time to get roads cleared, supplies delivered and repairs made. This was a huge storm and the relief efforts by utility companies and grocery stores like Publix was INSANE! There were literally armies of linemen, truck drivers and others working around the clock to restore life as normal. Considering that millions of households all the way into the panhandle of Florida were without power, it was a miracle that it only took two weeks to restore power to everyone.
    That being said, two weeks in Florida with few supplies and no power is a LONG A$$ time. But guess what, it can’t be changed – so patience even while uncomfortable is the only way to get through it.
  2. Opportunity Strikes
    Stefan is an economist by trade, so even during the storm, he mused that the storm would mean a massive economic boom for our community, far outweighing the initial cost to make it through. It seems he was 100% correct. Virtually every business in the area has seen an uptick in sales following the storm, from contractors fixing storm damage to hotels housing relief workers.
    Now, 6 months later that boom seems to continue and countless jobs have been created due to Ms Irma. I don’t like sharing financial information about our own business, but I will say that just that one drone job for damage surveying covered more than all of our preparation and evacuation costs.
  3. Beware of the Drama Queens
    Ok someone has to say it – we all have some drama queens on our social media feeds. You know the kind, those who will give a play by play of their minor sniffles (erm…sorry, of course, I meant pneumonia) including real-time stats on the color of their snot. Being affected by a natural disaster brings out the best in them. I know, I just wrote the better part of 10,000 words describing our experiences, so maybe I am being a hypocrite.
    Anyways, back to the drama queens. You will find them reporting real time on of the going ons of the recovery effort and directing people to open gas stations even long after life has returned to normal. While social media played a major role in staying informed before and during first aftermath of the storm, it seemed that some people had a bit of difficulty letting the subject go long after it was over with.
  4. Here Comes the Guilt
    They say luck favors the prepared, and while the vacation after the storm was pure luck, all of our vigilance over the years to keep a bit of an emergency supply stashed for a rainy day and a good plan in hand to deal with trouble ahead paid off. We had the means and knowledge to prepare, the money to evacuate to a NICE place and got lucky that we’d booked a vacation for right after the storm. The last was just shear dumb luck, but it definitely worked in our favor.
    While the ride was shaky – we did forget to prepare for gas shortages – and we didn’t know exactly where we’d end up. But our general plan worked out and we made it through this disaster unscathed and so did our home, office and all belongings. We got extremely lucky and things could have been a lot worse, but in retrospect it was our long term plan and vigilance that caused us to make it through the storm as comfortable and safe as possible and compared to others experienced very little real discomfort.
  5. Time Heals All Wounds
    It might take a little while and at some point, it seems life will never get back to normal. But life does go on and so does recovery. It was a few months until the last pile of debris was picked up from curbs around town and there is still a lot of repair work going on in some areas. Soon enough, though, everything gets to a state where if you didn’t know there had been a storm, you couldn’t tell.
  6. Leave the Shutters Up A Few Days Longer
    No, this is not a safety precaution or anything like that. It’s about cold hard cash and supply and demand. Before the storm, there are quite a few entrepreneurs making the rounds to help mount hard-to-reach shutters. If you are on the ground floor like us, removing shutters is a breeze; but once you get to higher floors it can be a bitch.
    Right after the storm, nobody could be found to remove shutters. All the entrepreneurs found easier and better paying jobs cleaning up. But just a few weeks later, there was plenty of labor around to do it for a few bucks per window. So, if you are not a full time resident, just leave them up for a while and save a few bucks.
  7. Be Ready to Shell Out Even More Money
    Going back to Lesson 2… well, money moves in a circle. All those windfall profits earned have to be paid by someone. So, even though the positive economic impact after the storm will benefit you, there will be bills to pay months after the storm has passed. In our case, we benefited from living in a condo, where all of the cleanup is coordinated by the association, but just because it gets handled for you, someone still has to pay for it. For condo owners, this comes in the form of special assessments. If you are affected by these, don’t fret – up to $2,000 per incidence you are covered by your property insurance (with co-pay).
  8. Support Your Local Businesses
    After a hurricane, the businesses that get open quickly will survive. And some businesses will fail. It’s possible that they were doing poorly before the storm already and being closed for weeks is the final straw. Those that do open still have employees to pay and losses to cover. So remember to support your local economy after the storm whenever you can.
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