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Carlton: Getting real on Irma

By Sue Carlton
Jonathan Capriel | Times
Tampa Bay spent a tense week preparing for what Hurricane Irma could bring. Now we wait.

The waiting is the hardest part.

— Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Okay, technically, for us the hardest part is still to come — the torrential rains and brutal winds and whatever happens wherever it decides to happen. But right about now around here, we get Mr. Petty's point.

These are strange days, waiting for Irma.

We've already seen the destruction this monster is capable of. And we've spent all week willing those hateful tracking maps to show it pushing east into the Atlantic — away from Florida, away from us. No such luck.

When did it really get real here? Was it when suddenly we found ourselves madly searching for plywood and waiting for water instead of picking up the dry cleaning? Was it when the Gators — I would say the die-hard, orange-and-blue-bleeding Gators, but that would be redundant — actually canceled their home opener that would have put thousands of fans on highways already clogged with people trying to get out of Irma's way?

And, by the way, wondering what the world would look like when they got back?

Or maybe it was Friday, a day that started out so pretty it was hard to believe what was coming. I took the dog for his morning constitutional along Tampa's Riverwalk. Because who knows what it might look like soon?

The same homeless guy was asleep on his same swing by the water, except the swing was now cable-locked and battened down. And across the water was a sight to see — the Gasparilla pirate ship, the one you could count on being at the city's annual pirate party — leaving.

The dog and I watched it set sail for presumably safer port across waters smooth as glass.

For now anyway.

With angst has come absurdity. This week as I topped off my tank —at a gas station with only the most expensive grade left and cars stacked and seething behind me — the screen on the pump politely asked if I would care for a car wash today.

Given that my car might soon sport its own waterline, no, I said. I think I'm good.

Someone I know ran into a man at Costco with a cartful of water — not buying it, but waiting in line to return it. His girlfriend turned out to prefer flavored water, he explained. Whatever was coming, they would do this hurricane in style.

Speaking of our frenzied search for water this week, a friend asked this rather interesting question: Whatever happened to that old-fashioned idea of filling up every empty jug and container in the house with water from, you know, the tap? It's not like we have to suddenly churn our own butter or something, as she pointed out.

Absurdity? We hear the governor speaking gravely of storm surge and killer winds and the critical importance of evacuating when we are told to evacuate. Then we learn this hellish beast weakened from category 5 to 4 at one point and think: All right!

If there's some small comfort in the news of the moment, we'll take it.

And have you noticed that people — like the city worker who stopped to pat my dog, the woman at the bakery who rang up my Cuban bread, neighbors, colleagues — have pretty much abandoned the standard "have a good day?"

"Stay safe," is what we tell each other now.

So we wait for the inevitable, prepared for the worst and hoping for the best.

And once more with feeling: Stay safe.

Sue Carlton can be reached at [email protected]