2017-10-01 / Spotlight News

Irma also traveled an inner landscape of pain

By Dayna Harpster


Will McCarthy ferries a friend’s cats in their carriers across a flooded street in Gateway. 
Dayna Harpster Will McCarthy ferries a friend’s cats in their carriers across a flooded street in Gateway. Dayna Harpster “He questioned again … how memories could resume so much energy as if they were waiting in the landscape, waiting to attack.”

— Jim Harrison in the novella
“The Land of Unlikeness”

You think you know your family and their battle scars. But there’s nothing like an impending hurricane to reopen bygone wounds.

As people all over the state twisted in the wind of shifting predictions about landfall, gust and storm surge, my partner’s old wounds started to hurt that Saturday morning. Suddenly there was talk of Irma being a category 4 or 5, to make landfall Sept. 10 with Southwest Florida directly in its sights. Wind speed: 140 mph or more.

We had been dipping in and out of news reports, because a sustained diet of them is an issue for me. I have become intolerant of the steady drip of doom as a storm approaches. Living in New Orleans for 17 years will do that to a person.


Maggie Knox waves as she reaches dry ground in Gateway thanks to paddlers Francesca, left, and Katie Donlan. 
Dayna Harpster Maggie Knox waves as she reaches dry ground in Gateway thanks to paddlers Francesca, left, and Katie Donlan. Dayna Harpster My partner lived in New Orleans nearly all his 59 years. He carries around a mental list of names and dates that include Betsy, which struck near Grand Isle, La., on Sept. 10, 1965. On that date 52 years ago, 7-year-old Jerry had watched his pet beagle drown in a storm surge.

I didn’t know that detail until after he panicked about our safety that recent Saturday morning. And panicked so vocally that he exposed an old wound of mine caused by another man ranting and telling me I was not planning well enough for an impending storm.

So when a friend called and suggested we all come out to her home in a flood zone D in Gateway rather than our flood zone B in Cape Coral, we did. Our entourage consisted of Jerry, me, 21-year-old Annabelle, two yappy dachshunds, two pet rabbits and a parrot whose vocalizations are limited to “hello,” sneezing and screaming.

Our gang in Gateway would also include my friend and her husband and their huge and aged Labradoodle and their two teenagers, plus another friend of ours and her two teenagers, their Chiweenie and four cats.

“Sounds like an ark,” a colleague said in a text message, informing me that our workplace would be closed well into the next week.

“Ark” was prophetic. My family ended up weathering the storm in a house three doors down from my friend’s because the young couple who lived there had fled to Georgia and was happy to have someone there watching their two cats. On Sunday — Sept. 11, a collective old wound — we watched as shingles flew off rooftops on both sides of the street but counted ourselves lucky — until the streets of the entire neighborhood filled thigh-high with water. The houses were higher, and it became a street full of arks.

Our entourage did not include my 80-year-old father with mobility issues and a flip phone that won’t hold a charge for more than an hour. He was resolute about staying in his condo in Fort Myers. He was nursing his old wounds from evacuating New Orleans with my partner during Katrina, then spending far too much time on the highway and then far too much time in a hotel room in Fort Myers — with a broken kneecap sustained in a fall before the storm.

I had moved to Southwest Florida from New Orleans three months ahead of Katrina, but my parents still had been living there when that monster storm hit.

Our entourage also did not include my 26-year-old daughter, who waffled but ultimately spent storm day in her condo in Naples. She was on the third floor and her building was constructed in 2010, so we all figured she would be fine there.

Maybe I wouldn’t, though. I was still a mother hen clucking about her empty nest. I wanted my chicks where I could see them. But I also wanted my daughter to be safe.

Though the actual damage we suffered was minimal, we were all hurting by the time Irma passed. The “bored” teenagers had been voted off Irma Island in Gateway and dispatched to friends’ houses on dry ground. I had heard from my ex-husband (ouch). My younger daughter hadn’t heard from her boyfriend for days, since he lost cell reception where he had fled with his grandparents in Georgia. Hence the resurfacing of her abandonment issues inflicted by my divorce from her father.

We cleaned out the refrigerator at the house where we were staying, since the power had been out too long. Jerry and I were reminded of the multiple times we had done this for my mother in the year before she died.

But oddly and miraculously, our dachshund Rosie — a perpetual scaredy-cat during daily Southwest Florida storms — had survived the whole thing without her ThunderShirt to calm her. I guess only humans are haunted by their memories.

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