IRMAGORGON and a Waffle House

A tale of hurricanes and waffles and surviving through both.

There is a chain of restaurants in the US named Waffle House. They are small, one room “diners” usually seating no more than 40 people in the eight or so booths and the six stools at the counter. The kitchen is right in front of you, so you can watch your “covered and smothered” hash browns or “patty melt” being cooked as you wait. And of course, they have waffles. The menu is simple, unvaried, and most items arrive on your plate with a not inconsiderable amount of grease included at no extra charge. However, they can always be relied on to be open 24 hours…usually no matter what. In fact, FEMA…(the Federal Emergency Management Agency),  uses Waffle Houses as a guide for how severe a hurricane is affecting an area. They call it “The Waffle House Index”. Managers and owners of Waffle Houses are so loathe to shut their doors that even when they lose power during a storm they have been known to start their generators running so they can continue to go about waffle-making.  During hurricanes, FEMA calls around to the Waffle Houses that are in the path, and after the storm has passed to see if they are open. If they are closed, then FEMA knows that an area is being hit hard and they then prepare accordingly.

Both a hurricane and a Waffle House featured prominently in my life very recently, although not at the same time.

I am well aware that I have been keeping some of you unfairly in suspense waiting for the next part of my “deportation” story, and I apologize. The experience left me in a profound state of insecurity and self doubt that I am quite frankly not used to. After all, I am the person who just gave up most of her possessions to spend a year traipsing about Europe and the UK on her own. How could I be a person who lacks “self confidence”?  But I am afraid I spiraled down into a funk of severe depression and anxiety. Every time I tried to work on the next part of the blog post I had a panic attack. I’ve heard of what people go through but never expected to experience them myself. I’ve always suffered from bouts of depression, but that I recognize. And I have felt anxious about things, but this was some other damn beast entirely, and it kept springing out at me and yelling YOU ARE A FAILURE!! in a very nasty tone.  Also during this time I had finally come to the realization that a friendship that had meant a great deal to me and I had been fighting to maintain and believe in was irrevocably broken and it was time to let it go.  Needless to say, that did not help my “failure” mindset at ALL, the beast just gleefully added that to its repertoire of seemingly endless examples of my ineptitude. (Although there is a bit of relief to be found in finally making a decision and walking away from a painful situation.)   And… in the midst of this, as I am sure most of you are aware, we here in Florida and in many other areas were visited by Hurricane Irma, or as I named her, IRMAGORGON. There is nothing like the imminent threat of a Category 5 hurricane to distract you from the mental mind fuck you have been putting yourself through.

For those of you who have never had the singular joy of preparing, going through and then recovering from a major hurricane I can tell you from my own two experiences that it is exhausting…mentally, physically and emotionally.

First comes the constant checking of the National Hurricane Web site for the latest projected track. They put out updates at 5 and 11, (both am and pm) and you find yourself obsessing over each little change. Is it coming our way or not? Will it still be a Cat 5? Should I evacuate or hunker down? How many supplies should I get? Most Floridians don’t start to get worried unless it is at least a Cat 2, and are even proud of their unflinching nonchalance in the face of “minor” hurricanes. Well let me tell you…IRMAGORGON had us scared…even those of us who secretly enjoy all the excitement of it. For the week prior to her actual arrival we were all in constant heightened state of agitation. Watching the news and seeing the devestation the storm had already caused on her trek across the Atlantic didn’t help. Stores were packed with people stocking up on supplies and tempers flared as water, batteries and generators became harder and harder to find.

I live near Orlando and my daughter lives in Tampa so the track of the storm was going to be the deciding factor in where we rode it out. I wasn’t too concerned when it’s path seemingly led it near Orlando, as we are the second safest city in Florida to be in as far as hurricanes go, but when the path was projected to head right over Tampa I begged my daughter to leave and stay with me at a friend’s house near Orlando.  I had seen the horrible footage of people stranded on rooftops during Harvey and wanted her away from the Tampa Bay Area which would surely flood if IRMAGORGON continued on her projected path. She acceded, and the Saturday night before the storm was to hit we were tucked safely in the home of my dear friends, the Buckos in Altamonte Springs.  I had brought an air mattress, food, and plenty of wine to last the next two days.

The Buckos are the type of large family that you see portrayed on TV and I had always wanted as a child. Their home is filled with love, laughter and LOTS of “boisterous communication”. Except they are better than the families on TV because you are allowed to visit with them for more than a half an hour.(in our case… 41 hours ) And, I can tell you…they are a hell of a lot more fun than “The Brady Bunch” could ever hope to be.   It was a full house…my friends Jim and Cathie, four of their children, three of whom are grown and had with them their own little ones. All total, there were eight adults, four children under three years old, two dogs and two cats and one teenager. (she turned 13 on Sunday, the day the storm hit.) We were calm that night, but still wary of what the next day would bring.

We woke Sunday to a dreary, drizzly and slightly windy day…nothing to get excited about. The track of the storm was still projected to go over Tampa, and much of the day was spent with us all just lolling about, tucking into our hurricane snacks and watching the Chicago Bears play the Atlanta Falcons (American football) Hannah and I are Green Bay Packers fans and the Buckos are die hard Bears fans, (the two teams are long time rivals) so there was much yelling and friendly rivalry. (The Bears lost. So sad. Green Bay won their game that Sunday against Seattle by the way. Just pointing that out. )

As the day went on, one by one various counties in Central Florida were put under Hurricane Warnings, and Tornado Watches. “Warnings” indicate that the effects of the specific weather phenomenon are imminent, while “watches” indicate that the phenomenon “could” happen.   The winds started to pick up, and at 6:30 pm Sunday evening all of our cell phones started loudly screaming the first tornado warning alarm for our area, which meant that the local weather service had noticed significant cloud rotation in the area that usually predicted the formation of a tornado. Tornado’s are the scariest part of hurricanes as you have no idea when or where specifically they might strike, and the conditions outside make it impossible to see them coming. The only thing you can do is listen for a “wind roar” that is much louder than the already constant wind sound caused by the hurricane. Most of us gathered in the master bathroom shower, as the safest place to be in a tornado is in an interior room on a ground floor that has no windows. A bathroom is excellent as it is also has the benefit of being more secure to the ground due to the water pipes. After about ten minutes the warning was lifted and we went back to the living room. The mood in the house was now changed however, going from a sort of hyperactive ennui to actual concern.

Around 8pm the lights started flickering as the power went off and on. We were ready with candles and flashlights. Large gusts were coming down the chimney and making an eerie “whooooooooo” sound. We were still calm, and in all honesty, kind of enjoying this bit. We had been hyped up for over a week for this thing and it was finally happening. We took turns going outside on the back porch to feel the wind, and you could see large flashes of light that were either power transformers blowing up, or lightning flashes. (You can see one of the “flashes” in the video I have attached.)

Then shit started to happen. My daughter came running into the living room and announced that the skylight in the master bath had blown off, the tiles under it had fallen down and there was a gaping hole in the roof. After taking a look, Jim and his son Colin (an army reservist) grabbed a tarp and tools and bravely headed out on to the roof to secure the tarp over the hole, which was about 2’x2′. The winds at this point were about 50 mph, and as they were out there on the roof struggling to secure the tarp all of our phones started sounding the alarm- another tornado warning.

That black bit, yeah, that is the sky.

As the master bath was now out of commission, we decided to get everyone into the hallway, but we weren’t panicked. Cathie’s daughter Hannah (yes, there are two Hannah’s in this story) went outside to get the men off the roof, trying to yell over the wind to her father and brother that there was a tornado warning. Cathie and I were standing in the living room when we heard it…the “louder roar”. We looked at each other as it got louder and louder and we both knew…it wasn’t the hurricane. She ran to warn the others and corral anyone who wasn’t yet aware. I scooped up one of the little ones who was sitting on the sofa and went to stand in the hallway with her in my arms. But where were Jim and Colin? Cathie was trying to find her daughter Hannah, and I remembered she was outside trying to get the men. I set down my precious bundle and ran outside to find the men still working on the roof! Hannah had been yelling at them to come down but they had kept working and poor Hannah was hoarse from yelling.

Now, anyone who has ever been in a show that I have directed knows that when necessary I am capable of producing a mighty bellow. I took a deep breath and hollered at the very tippy top of my lungs “Get off the fucking roof, there is an actual fucking tornado so get your asses down NOW!

They got down.

(Once inside they poo pooed the idea that there had been an actual tornado, but the next day while surveying the damage in the neighborhood they saw a tree that had been TWISTED out of the ground only a block away and Jim conceded that yes, there “might” have been an actual tornado. But Cathie and I knew. Oh yes we did.)

Everyone now was safely back inside the house, but there was more drama to come. All the local news stations were announcing that the hurricane had shifted course and was now headed toward Orlando. I checked the NHC website for the new 11pm update, and sure enough, IRMAGORGON was now coming our way. (A similar surprise shift toward Orlando also happened during Hurricane Charley in 2004. I guess the allure of a visit to Walt Disney World is just too strong.) The eyewall, where the winds are the strongest, was predicted to hit us sometime between 1 and 3 am. So we waited. There were no more tornado warnings as we were now closer to the heart of the storm. (Tornado’s are usually spawned by the rotation of the outer rings, especially in the right front quadrant….right where we were.)

By 1 am, most everyone had fallen into an exhausted sleep. Isa (the now 13 year old) was out cold on a pile of pillows in the hallway. We had managed a birthday celebration for her in the middle of everything, complete with a cake and presents and a heartfelt rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’.

The birthday girl.

There were a few hardy souls still hanging in there trying to stay awake in the living room, but the events of the past several hours had taken their toll. Cathie and my Hannah were dozing in and out…leaving Colin and I the only ones in the living room still awake…both determined not to miss a moment.

Finally, the worst of the storm arrived. While our county was not directly hit by the eyewall, we still had sustained winds between 70-80mph.  A few of us went outside to the front of the house, where you could better SEE the wind. We were protected a bit by the eaves on the garage and the wall of the house, but we could still feel the powerful winds as they blew through. I stepped out briefly from the protection of the garage and was surprised at how little rain there was. And we all found ourselves thinking about the poor souls on whom Irma bestowed her most dangerous winds on her way to us…those hitting 185 mph. What we were feeling was nothing compared to that and yet still filled us with awe. I cannot fathom 185 mph winds, and my gut twists when think of the terror those in the islands must have felt.

Eventually, around 3 am we all went back inside and everyone started to drift toward their beds. The wind had dramatically died down, and the silence sounded strange as we had been hearing the background noise of the storm for almost 24 hours. I was dragging my air mattress (already inflated, thank goodness) into my assigned sleeping area….when the power went out. (FYI, the Bucko’s power was out until today, Sept 18th., and many still have not gotten it back) I plopped myself onto my temporary bed, and it took all of two minutes for me to fall in to a deep and exhausted sleep.

I returned to my own little flat the next morning to find my own power out as well, but it was restored the next day. The fence around the property had blown down and there was debris EVERYWHERE, but other than that my abode had sustained little damage. My Hannah stayed with me for a bit as there was a curfew till 6 pm in Orange County and she would have had to drive through there on her way home to Tampa. While they lost power briefly, her home sustained no damage, thanks to IRMAGORGON shifting her butt our way.

Most people who have never been through a natural disaster don’t realize that the effects of the event are felt long past the end of the event itself. Millions of people have to re-adjust their lives, and even something as seemingly trivial as being without power for a long period of time can instill in a person a sort of mental lethargy…a constant state of tiredness and anxiety. Hurricane Fatigue Syndrome is a very real thing, with the preparation , the event itself, and the recovery causing long lasting mental and physical health issues. If you have a friend or family member who has experienced one of the recent storms…be kind. Get in touch and let them know you care for them. Let them tell you their story, and be patient if it seems they are struggling for longer than you “think” they should. Until you have gone through a similar experience it can be hard to understand that not only does the actual “physical” recovery of clean up and repair take a lot of time and effort, so does the “mental” recovery.

(By the way, BOTH of the Waffle Houses near us closed, and were still closed the following day. And indeed, our county was given the dubious honor of being a Federally Declared Disaster Area. Never bet against the Waffle House Index)

As for me, while the hurricane did distract me for a while from my internal turmoil, it wasn’t until this weekend that I started to find relief. It started with something very simple…an invitation from a friend to see him perform in a one act play being held in a small local venue. I attended, and not only experienced an enjoyable performance by my friend, I was also boosted in my confidence by a small remark made by him that he most likely has no idea influenced me as much as it did. Another friend attended the show with me, and during a conversation she too said something that also pushed back the dark curtain in my mind a bit and let a little light shine in. If you were to ask either of them what they said that brightened me, I doubt they would be able to tell you. But that is the beauty of moments like that…when you know a thing is said not to placate you, or try to cheer you up….but is said simply because to them it is the truth. And since my entire depression was caused by people not believing the truth of me…those two little tiny moments created a small spark of light that I will do my best to keep lit.

The day after the show, I decided to go for a drive. I only planned on driving locally for a bit and then finding a coffee shop….but I enjoyed DRIVING and feeling the thrill of freedom so much I ended up driving 340 miles up I95 all the way into South Carolina…where my brain finally said. OK…this is far enough. “Far Enough” turned out to be Waltersboro S.C.  and I pulled off the highway at 10 pm and into the parking lot of a Waffle House. I wasn’t hungry, but did want some coffee, so I headed in. I was the only customer, and after ordering a grilled cheese and coffee I started chatting with the women working. I asked them about the FEMA thing and they said yes indeed, they had been called. They had lost power during Irma, but true to form had started up the generator and served many meals both to locals and hungry evacuees. I enjoy chatting with the people who work at Waffle Houses. They are usually very open and freely tell me all about their lives, including many personal details most people hesitate to tell strangers. And they are a perfect example of why you should never judge someone by their job. Chatting with them reminded me of what I had been missing by locking myself inside my head and forgetting that there is a big old world full of people out there who don’t see “failure” written on my forehead.  I ate half of my grilled cheese, drank three cups of coffee, thanked the ladies for the food and conversation and headed home.

Ten hours and 680 miles of singing with the radio at the top of my lungs and FINALLY  giving my mind permission to let go of the past and return to moving forward. Plus, a damned good grilled cheese sandwich.

I’m not going to pretend I am all “peachy keen” now. But I do feel better. Ready to finish my “deportation’ story, hopefully with the panic attacks a thing of the past.  Ready to move FORWARD.


P.S. I have attached the link below if you have been emotionally affected by Irma and need someone to talk to. Of course, you are more than welcome to try my “680 Mile Grilled Cheese” method of creative therapy. If you do, let me know how it goes. 😉






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