ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Tamara Lush is the Associated Press correspondent and multimedia journalist for the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, covering Florida's Gulf Coast. She has covered 10 storms — including the recent Hurricane Harvey in Houston. She returned to St. Pete, where she's lived for seven years, to cover Irma and soon found herself among Florida's many evacuees as the storm moved west and put her home and family in danger. She's filing occasional dispatches on her experience.
STORM JUST HOURS AWAY
3 p.m. Sunday:
I feel as if the stress of this storm has taken a year off my life, and I'm sure millions of my fellow Floridians feel the same. Several times, my shoulders have been so tense that I have to remind myself to lower them away from my ears.
My husband and I snapped at each other while deciding what to bring with us. I became peevish when he told me to watch the dogs; he was annoyed when I lost the hotel key. Tensions are high, and now, we're treating each other and ourselves tenderly.
For days, we've planned, prepared and discussed scenarios of where to go during the worst of the wind and rain. And it's not as if I have a job that allows me to think about anything but the storm.
Perhaps it's because of the flooding I saw from Harvey in Houston, or the wind damage I saw back in 2004 in Punta Gorda, but with each passing hour, I second-guess my decisions. A lot of that is due to social media. I see reasonable, intelligent people leaving their homes, and wonder whether I'm doing the wrong thing by staying in a hotel.
In rational moments, I tell myself that everyone has different tolerance for risk and anxiety — although my anxiety levels are through the roof at the moment. My dog Dino can sense this, and early this morning, he threw up.
An awesome start to the day.
When my mind goes in a panic loop, I remind myself that tens of millions of people around the world have it way worse than me. Even though for the moment, I'm a bit trapped here, I have options. I have money. I have friends and colleagues who are eager to help (and I love them for that).
I went through Wilma, a Category 3 in Key West, in 2005. But somehow, I didn't have the fear back then that I do now. Was it because every person I knew then wasn't posting every thought, fear and anxiety on a public forum?
We're about six hours from the storm coming to our area.
What do you pack when you might lose everything?
It's a question I've thought about during every interview in every storm over the years. I was even in the middle of reporting a story in Houston about flood victims' relationship with their possessions when I was called home to Florida to cover Irma.
And this week, I got to answer my own questions.
Since I hadn't unpacked one bag from my time in Houston — a suitcase filled with rain gear, a first aid kit, video equipment — I rolled it toward our front door to await the trip to our hotel. I washed my storm-chasing clothes from Houston and repacked those.
Since I had the luxury of time before the storm hit, I carefully considered what to take. What did I own that was truly meaningful? What would I need if our roof was torn off and we couldn't live in our home for months?
I thought of what my former colleague, Ramit Plushnick-Masti, wrote when she had to evacuate her house a few weeks ago in Houston's floodwaters. She packed jeans and her favorite moisturizer. So I packed a bag with my nicest professional clothes, and another bag with makeup and skin care. If I didn't have a home to live in, I'd want some soothing, nice-smelling things to make me feel normal and beautiful.
The sentimental stuff was a bit more difficult. Which books, which photos, which mementoes of my life?
In the end, I filled two plastic tubs. The ashes of my mother went in first, then photos of her. Some reporter's notebooks. My own published novels. Also, a first edition of "For Whom The Bell Tolls," by Hemingway, a man who saw a few tempests himself.
"This was a big storm and he might as well enjoy it," Hemingway wrote in that book I packed. "It was ruining everything, but you might as well enjoy it."
NO BLUEPRINT FOR THIS STORM
9 a.m. Sunday:
I was in Houston a week ago, talking with a woman whose home had flooded during Harvey.
"Have you ever been in a hurricane?" she'd asked.
I nodded, telling her I'd covered eight storms. "And, I live on the Gulf Coast in Florida. So there's always a threat. It's not a matter of if, but when."
As I type this, Hurricane Irma is closing in, and I'm sitting on a bed at a hotel in my city of St. Petersburg. My husband is next to me, watching The Weather Channel. Our two dogs are letting out little woofs and sniffing the bags that hold everything important to us.
Yeah, I covered them before. But now I'm a hurricane evacuee.
Like tens of thousands of Floridians, we waffled before leaving. Evacuating our home, at a whopping 22 feet (7 meters) above sea level, wasn't mandatory.
I booked a room near home. Someone would use it, or we'd cancel ... Irma would probably hit Miami in any case.
Then the hurricane veered west, and we considered the five giant oak trees towering over our house. They drop large branches during even small rainstorms. What if a whole tree crunched our roof?
The sun cast a sparkling, golden, weirdly ominous hue as we left home, hours ahead of the first wind and rain.
I'm hoping we'll be back home soon. But I know enough about natural disasters to understand that there's no blueprint for what's coming.
Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush
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