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Hurricane Irma: Stay or go? The question we are all contemplating

By Ben Montgomery
OCTAVIO JONES | Times
Dimly Tamayo, 33, left, her husband William Tamayo, 28, center, both watch her father Omar Perez measure wood to cover the windows of his home ahead of Hurricane Irma in the Palmetto Beach neighborhood in Tampa on Saturday, September 9, 2017.

We've spent all week worrying, wondering, trying hard to remember why we moved onto this peninsula that juts into the ocean like a spur. We threw plans against forecasts that looked like spaghetti noodles and came away with threadbare answers that weren't really answers.

The only thing that seemed certain on Friday was that there is one way out of here, and that's north, and if we're going to leave we'd better go soon.

Stay, or go?

Saturday was the day of decision.

The sun came up and the birds chirped outside, under clouds that raced low and dark and quick across the sky. We put the coffee on and climbed back into bed with the kids, and we marveled at how big they've gotten. We stayed a few minutes and listened to them breathe. The 8 a.m. weather update could wait.

That was Saturday's resolve, if you looked around: The children will be safe.

We duct-taped shutters and boarded windows, then boarded our neighbors' windows, regardless of politics, then gawked at the plywood that seemed to come out of nowhere, to multiply. Saturday sounded like the screech of circular saws, the thud of hammers and the whine of cordless drills. We worked, nails between our teeth, and left the worrying to other people in other places.

We dropped extra gear at the shelter and drove the deserted streets to the dump and waited in line without fuss, our trunks and pickup beds laden with anything we thought might fly in a strong wind. We pondered the aeronautics of everyday objects: potted plants, trash cans, lawn ornaments. We dusted off our hurricane lingo and put into sentences words that felt foreign in our mouths: projectile, wind shear, storm surge, hunkering, barreling.

Stay safe, we said.

Y'all too, we said.

Storm's as wide as Texas, we said.

Biggest on record, we said.

We analyzed architecture and pretended we knew what we were talking about. Will that hold? Yeah, that'll hold, but I'm worried about that. We swiftly, hopelessly became students of infrastructure and building codes and insurance policy. We sized up trees and utility poles and took best guesses of how things might fall.

It seemed more when than if on Saturday.

We let ourselves wonder about the butterflies outside our windows, and the squirrels in the old oak. Where do they go?

Our mothers called, and called. Facebook messages piled up Saturday from our aunts and high school friends, anybody out of state with a television set. They all have extra rooms. They will do anything we need if we just say the word. Here's a secret: Some of us like the attention.

We quietly admitted on Saturday that there's something exciting about a powerful storm, something beautiful even. We admitted that, in a way, we mark time by hurricanes. We remember when Donna ruined our eighth birthday party or when Wilma whipped around like a boomerang or when we rode out Andrew with the family huddled in the garage and it peeled back the roof and, now that we think about it, that was the last time mom and dad were together before the divorce.

We admitted that there's a cleansing quality, and a chance to throw out leftovers, to take stock of where we've been, who we are. A chance to sort through our stuff, to assign value to objects, to prioritize in the purest way.

That's what we did on Saturday. We prioritized.

We put birth certificates in high cabinets and passports in Ziploc bags. We made sure the dog and cat had their tags. We stuffed into backpacks the old family Bible and the photo albums from our childhoods in Ohio or Tennessee or the Dominican Republic. We put the Guinea pigs into cardboard crates.

Do we take the parakeets?

Is there room in the truck for the Tempur-Pedic?

What about your grandmother's painting, with the ducks that don't look quite right?

We let ourselves play, too, against the big black clouds swirling down south. When everything was in order, we drank some, yes, at the outside tables in Ybor City as the gusts kicked up. We tossed soft pitches to the kids at the ballfield on Columbus Drive.

We took a quick spin in the boat before hoisting it on the trailer. We rode our bicycles on Saturday down familiar streets, the ones we might not recognize tomorrow.

Contact Ben Montgomery at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.