In the greater Tampa Bay area, we’re the lucky ones just now. Hurricane Matthew is churning north, bearing down on Florida’s eastern flank, threatening the coasts with their charming names: Gold, Treasure, Space, First … now suddenly sounding like the beaches of Normandy — Utah, Omaha, Juno, Gold, and Sword.
So much likely destruction, so much potential human suffering.
Hours before the core of the storm was scheduled to strike the state, Thursday the outer bands already had knocked out power to 20,000. Florida Power was predicting 2.5 million outages before Matthew clears the peninsula.
Forecasts have called for an eight-foot storm surge, a wall of water that can do more lasting damage than any howling wind. Horrifying.
But for us on the other side, Matthew is projected to pack only inconvenience: occasional tropical winds, heavy rain, some localized flooding. While our neighbors across the state flee to safe haven and worry what they’ll find when they return, or hunker down and pray, we see public schools and nonessential government services close out of an abundance of caution, and lament another round of Friday night football games lost to the elements.
Still, we are on the other side. The Gulf of Mexico side. The safe side. Let’s hope, the generous, welcoming side.
My wife, the redoubtable Debbie, was gassing up at the neighborhood 7-Eleven in Tampa Palms when she locked eyes with a shaken young woman at the next pump. A sticker on her car revealed her status as a Palm Beach Atlantic University student.
Campus closed Thursday morning, she said, and as a Missourian, she didn’t want her first tropical experience to be a Category 4 hurricane. She packed quickly, phoned her parents, hopped in her car and headed across Alligator Alley, not stopping until she hit Fort Myers and began looking for a place to stay.
She didn’t find a vacancy until she hit Fletcher Avenue, 130 miles north. The catch: She’d have to decamp Saturday morning. Her name was Peyton, and she was alone and frightened. Debbie reached out and, as she pulled her into a hug, felt this lost daughter melt into her.
“We have a spare room,” she murmured. “We have space if you need it.”
Peyton held on. “This is what I need right now. A mommy moment.”
They clung together for a while longer, then, as they separated, Debbie pressed one of her personal cards into her hand. “Call. If you need anything. Please.”
My experience was somewhat different.
Returning from a job assignment in Dade City, heading south in a windblown storm through a construction zone on Interstate 75 — driving, probably, a little faster than I should have — I saw red tail lights slide abruptly across two lanes, from an inside lane to the right-hand emergency lane, before the driver righted himself.
I backed off my accelerator.
Moments later, a silver muscle car — a Dodge Charger, I think, low and wide, shining in the late afternoon sun peeking between clouds — sprayed past on the left. Several hundred yards ahead, it, too, hit a patch of water, and hydroplaned crazily. Right. Left. Right.
In either case, had another motorist been in the wrong place, disaster would have resulted. In the greater Tampa Bay area. On the safe side.
We were on a patch of interstate between lines of construction barriers on either side, and the rain had nowhere to go. My mind raced. What did they teach us about hydroplaning in Drivers’ Ed?
It was a long time ago, but I seem to recall cars being able to lose contact with the pavement on less than an inch of water. The steering wheel tugged in my hands.
My foot eased a little more off the gas pedal. Safe, it seems, is a relative term.
So, what did I learn on Hurricane Matthew Eve? Three things. We are obliged to be welcoming. As long as we are under the influence of the storm, there is no “safe side.”
And, above all, let’s be careful out there.