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.
SPARED IN THE END
11 a.m. Monday
It felt as if I had a brick in my stomach as my husband and I drove the three miles from our hotel to our home early Monday morning.
We'd fled to a hotel not because we were in an evacuation zone, but because several tall oak trees surround our house. Hurricane Irma had been projected to hit the Tampa-St. Petersburg area as a Category 4 storm, and we didn't want to be inside if the trees came down. On Sunday before the hurricane came, we stopped by the home, only to leave late in the day when branches started to fall as wind kicked up.
Early Sunday evening, we'd heard from neighbors that the electricity was out.
As we drove home Monday, it quickly became clear that St. Petersburg was spared much of the damage of Miami, Key West and Naples. Branches, leaves and some signs were down, but nothing major. People stood on sidewalks in T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops, squinting at the sun that was just starting to peek out. Some were already gathering clusters of leaves and branches.
As we pulled up to our home, I exhaled. No trees were down. Our roof was intact.
We still don't have electricity and don't know when it will return. But that's a minor inconvenience. By sheer luck and some steering currents, we got out of this storm unscathed, only a bit of cleanup necessary. My husband will do that today, and I'll get to work for the AP.
It's also time to take stock. I don't feel my husband and I were as prepared for the storm as we should have been. The Tampa Bay area hasn't been hit with a storm since 1921, and like lots of people in the area, we've gotten complacent.
Most importantly, we don't have storm shutters, and we're going to remedy that soon.
We also should put together a better hurricane food kit. Living on granola bars for days is common among reporters, but not ideal. I haven't seen a vegetable in days.
I think we also need to have a better evacuation plan; working as a reporter and dealing with one's spouse and dogs and possessions is a lot to juggle. It's much easier to cover a storm as a reporter when you don't have to take family members into account. In the future, I'd probably want my husband and the dogs to go far, to safety, leaving me to focus on work.
Now that everything is (almost) over, I can already feel stress leaving my body, and my muscles actually ache. Between covering the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, preparing personally for Hurricane Irma, and covering that storm too, I'm pretty spent.
My heart goes out to people who have so much more to deal with after a storm, and this gives me a different perspective on covering natural disasters.
A PEACEFUL MORNING
6:30 a.m. Monday
Many of my fears were unfounded.
I'd worried about the hotel and whether it would withstand hurricane-force winds. I'd worried that our cars would be swamped by water. I'd worried about electricity going out and not having contact with my editors, and of sweltering in a tiny hotel room with my husband and dogs.
In the end, the only things that kept me up overnight were the dogs. They barked every time they heard anyone walk by our room door.
The hotel building, fortified with concrete block and stucco, didn't emit so much as a creak during the storm. Because our room faced the courtyard and was shielded by other hotel buildings in kind of a U shape, wind and rain were barely audible. Our air conditioner worked all night, and electricity never went out.
Around 6 a.m., I wandered around the hotel grounds. There was a large puddle of water in the parking lot, but it was only a few inches deep. Branches and leaves were down, but nothing major. I was hesitant to venture far because it was dark and I wasn't sure if power lines were down.
There was, however, fresh coffee in the lobby.
My husband and I are now drinking coffee, feeling incredibly fortunate. Soon we'll make the short drive to our home so we can see if it's been damaged. I'm still anxious about that - local TV reporters are broadcasting images of downed trees.
Within a few hours, we'll know how we fared with Irma.
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 three 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 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