Matt’s parents celebrated their 50th anniversary this year, and we’d long had plans to go join them in South Dakota in September for a road trip out to the Black Hills. A week or so before we were set to leave, we started seeing signs of a potential hurricane headed toward our island. We kept an eye on it, knowing we may need to prepare our house before leaving. We never expected things to go quite the way they did.
Our flight from Key West to Sioux Falls was scheduled on Thursday, 9/7. All of Labor Day weekend, every conversation in town centered on whether or not the hurricane was coming our way. All the models except for a couple showed it turning north and heading up the East Coast, but those few outliers were enough to make us nervous enough. I started to worry about the plan for Roy to go to his birdsitter’s on Thursday, in case they were going to evacuate. I called Delta and confirmed that I could indeed bring him onboard if necessary (for $150), as long as I had an airline-approved underseat cage. I quickly found one online and ordered it with 2-day shipping.
On Labor Day itself, Matt and I decided the possibility was real enough that we should figure out how to put up the hurricane shutters. They were way easier to put up than we expected, thankfully. We put a set up on the guest room window to try it out.
On Tuesday, I woke up and checked the NOAA prediction (like we’d been doing every 4 hours for the past few days). The new forecast track for a potential category 5 Irma went directly over Key West. The authorities declared a mandatory evacuation. And that’s when the panic started to set in.
At that point we were for sure putting up the hurricane shutters, and had to figure out what to do with Roy. I talked to his birdsitter, and said they were going to evacuate with their own 6 pets. A couple friends offered to take him, so we figured we had that option. His cage was supposed to arrive the next day, so I figured we had the option of flying with him if necessary. All of that was fine until my friend called and said the Key West airport was shutting down on Wednesday. Which meant we weren’t going to be able to fly out Thursday.
The rest of that afternoon was a full-on scramble involving rebooking a flight from Miami instead, piling all of our belongings up as high as possible in case of flooding (we have a ground-level house that got 3 feet of water in Hurricane Wilma), making staying-in-contact plans with our neighbors and tenants, putting up the hurricane shutters, and trying not to have a nervous breakdown. Matt did almost all of the work, because I was so panicked I felt like I was going to pass out. We hauled everything outdoors into the shed and gave our tenants the key so they could get out the shutters for their windows and door when they evacuated. We put our kayaks face-down on the patio and chained them up to a post, and gave our next-door neighbor the key; he asked if they could use them in case of emergency, since they planned to stay. Since Roy’s cage wasn’t going to arrive in time, I made arrangements to send him with Mark and his daughter Kennedy, who were going to be evacuating with their camper.
I ran to Pet Supermarket to get Roy more seeds and pellets, and the shelves there were already half-empty. I ran into his birdsitter there and she was nearly in tears, trying to deal with her responsibilities at the SPCA. Being outside was surreal – all you could hear was saws and power drills as people cut down dangerous tree limbs and put up storm shutters. People were on the street and online sharing evacuation plans, which was somehow reassuring knowing everyone already had a plan to be safe, just in case.
Our flight was at 7:30 the next morning, so we figured we’d wrap everything up at home, do the Roy handoff, and drive north. Matt booked us a hotel, and we finished packing. I had our safe contents with passports, birth certificates, and everything we couldn’t afford to lose. I also grabbed our wedding illustration signed by our friends and family, plus a bag of random stuff around the house (stuffed animals we’d gathered over the years, a wooden bird from my grandma’s house, a pottery fish – all the things where I couldn’t possibly explain to anyone why it was important, but I couldn’t leave it behind). We put those in the trunk of the car, which would be parked in Miami for the duration. (Much, much later, I had serious regrets over not bringing some of my nicer knitting projects – I had double-bagged everything in plastic and put it on the guest bed – and my favorite Christmas tree ornaments. Those are things that will *definitely* be on the evacuation list should this ever happen again.)
And then suddenly, through a massive SNAFU, we didn’t have a flight out of Miami after all. I called Delta, sat on hold forever, and cried my head off as the agent told me that all flights were booked and there was nothing they could do. I tried messaging them on Twitter (their support there is usually excellent), but got no response. We spent an hour or so frantically searching for any possible flight combinations that would get us from here (Miami, Ft Lauderdale, even Orlando) to either Sioux Falls or Minneapolis, so we could make it to my in-laws’ anniversary trip. We even considered driving all the way to Atlanta to catch the second leg of our flight that was supposed to leave Key West on Thursday. But everything was booked, and flights were coming up at $1200 and disappearing instantly before we could try to book them. (That was before they caught the runaway auto-pricing problem and set caps on airfare.)
So we were stuck, and Matt had to call and tell his parents we couldn’t make it, because we were just going to evacuate by car and go… somewhere. We didn’t really have a plan in place. I texted Mark and told him we would meet him tomorrow with Roy instead.
We’d just sat down on the couch in surrender around 9pm, when my phone beeped. It was the Delta Twitter agent, responding hours later. I explained the problem and told them we were desperate. Within a few minutes (with me dying of stress the whole time), he had us booked on the same flight out of Miami the next morning. I have no idea how they did it, but I’m considering it an actual miracle. It definitely felt like it at the time.
I called Mark, explained the abrupt change of plans, and we finished up at the house. We put the last shutters up over our front door, wished our tenants luck with their own evacuation, and headed out. We met Mark around 10pm for the Roy handoff, and then got on the road to Miami. I cried for a while, and then got down to the business of getting us to the mainland as fast as possible. Matt called his parents and told them the good news.
Despite the evacuation order, there was barely any traffic that late at night. The ocean was perfectly calm, which made it nearly impossible to believe that the hurricane was coming. We got to Miami in record time, checking into our hotel at 1:30 in the morning. We had exactly 4 hours until we had to be up for our flight the next morning. Exhaustion was a good thing, though, because it gave us no time to think about what was next.
We got up at 5:30, drove to the Park and Fly by MIA, and took the shuttle to the airport. Even at that time of morning, it was mobbed with people trying to evacuate. We made it to our flight and discovered that our miraculous Twitter agent had also booked us in Economy Comfort seats, which were fantastic. We flew from Miami to Minneapolis, where we had a couple hour layover. We went to get breakfast and ended up sitting at the bar. When the bartender asked where we were coming from, everyone around us gasped and stared. (That’s something we got used to quickly over the next few days.) By the time we were done there we had talked to everyone around us, met another KW local who was sitting elsewhere in the restaurant, and the bartender had comped almost our whole tab. People are really, really great to each other during emergencies.
We then boarded a short flight to Sioux Falls at met Matt’s parents at the airport. We had lunch in town, then drove to their house in Watertown where we spent the evening doing not much of anything except trying not to panic. Matt’s dad turned on the Weather Channel in time to see our next-door neighbor driving his Model A out of the Keys.
The next morning, the new forecast tracks were out showing they expected the storm to take its hard turn early enough to miss a direct hit on in the Keys. It was predicted to hit Miami instead, which was also terrible, but we were breathing a tiny bit easier over that. The further from our island, the better.
Since we didn’t have Roy with us, I’d brought the knitted version of him. This one’s WAY quieter. We spent the day working at the dining room table, with plans to leave on our roadtrip the next day.
That night, things seemed a bit calmer. The storm predictions were looking better all day, if a near miss. After dinner, Matt and I went to check out Watertown Brewing for a couple hours. It was a really great little brewery. Also, we hadn’t been in South Dakota for almost 2 years!
The next morning, we got up and headed off on the Great American Road trip. The distraction was good, but long hours in the car staring out the window aren’t exactly conducive to *not* thinking about a hurricane, either.
The Dignity Sculpture along the Missouri River was really impressive:
The giant prairie dog was less impressive, but we still got Bally’s picture with it.
I hadn’t been to the Badlands in years. I forgot how impressive and strange those mountains are.
I kept checking my phone for updates from NOAA and the NWS over the course of the day, and again things were getting much, much worse for us. The hurricane was going to reach Florida on Sunday, and we were running out of time for it to make the turn north. The outlier predictions that had it going directly over the Keys and then up the west coast of the peninsula were starting to look like the accurate ones.
I cried in Wall Drug.
We met a guy from Florida there who wanted to talk all about the hurricane. I hid behind Matt and made him deal with it while I tried not to have a breakdown in public. Bally was having a good time, though.
We got to our hotel in Rapid City, and I decided it was finally time to disconnect from everything. Seeing the predictions was only making me panic more, and there was no longer anything I could do about it. We just had to wait to see if we had a home to return to.
All the while, Matt’s parents were having their 50th anniversary trip, wanting to take photos of all of us together and celebrate. I know that mostly they just wanted the distraction as well, but it was still awful. I was just a zombie the whole time, alternating crying and feeling totally blank for a few hours at a time. Those couple of days are a total blur. We went out with friends of his parents, had some great meals and some good beers, and saw a lot of really cool stuff on our trip. I just have a lot of trouble remembering it.
These hungry burros are in Custer State Park. They were hilarious.
We got caught in an actual bison traffic jam.
Contrary to our expectations, it was HOT in South Dakota, into the low 90s. We didn’t have to dress for fall after all.
This is the only picture I took at Mount Rushmore. But what else do you need, really?
We’d go into souvenir shops at all of the tourist attractions, where we’d usually pick up a magnet or Christmas ornament. I couldn’t even manage that (thankfully, Matt could do normal things), because I didn’t want to consider the fact that those souvenirs might be the only things we owned.
Meanwhile, Mark and Kennedy were fleeing the storm themselves. They’d originally driven up near Orlando, then kept going and adjusting their plans as the hurricane changed course. By this time, they’d made it all the way to central Alabama, where they were in a city campground. Mark had stories about how amazing people were along the way, and how the town had adopted all the evacuaees, bringing them food, supplies, and even shelter where necessary. Roy was having the time of his life camping – the dude loves riding in the car and hanging out outside, not to mention being totally spoiled by Kennedy. Here he is camping:
I’d been in touch with all our KW friends pretty much the entire time, but everything went quiet around the time I dropped off the internet. I think everyone else just went into quiet panic mode then, too. Almost everyone we knew, even the people who swore they were riding it out, had left town by the time it started looking really bad. We knew of two people who were staying, and I was terrified we were going to lose them as well as our entire city. We all knew well that if Key West took a direct hit from a cat-5 hurricane with 160mph winds, there was very likely to be nothing left to return to.
We had an amazing lodge that night in Keystone, with a view overlooking Mount Rushmore. We went into town for dinner and a visit to an oldtimey saloon. I’m sad that I basically floated through all of it, because I know normally we’d have had a great time. I kept having to go to the bathroom to cry.
The strange thing was that I never had nightmares during the trip. I don’t remember anything I dreamed about, thankfully. My days were full of visions of the ocean rushing into my house and my belongings washing out to sea, but at least I was mostly able to sleep during the trip. Evening cocktails with the in-laws helped with that, of course.
The next morning, I woke up knowing the hurricane would have arrived in Key West by then. It took me half an hour to decide whether I should check my phone or just wait for Matt to get up and tell me what was going on. I decided it would be easier to just look, so I did. Unfortunately, I didn’t wait long enough, because it was just arriving. Of course there was no communication from anyone by then – the power and cell towers were long gone – but there was something about the NWS Key West’s posts that were somehow encouraging. I don’t even remember exactly how we found out, but indications were that even though the eye had passed within 25 miles of Key West, it passed on the “good” side, meaning KW would have been far less affected. You don’t want to be on the east side of a hurricane.
By the time Matt was showered and ready for breakfast, we knew that things were probably better than we expected, though we had to wait for the storm surge threat to pass. They kept saying they were predicting a 3-5 foot surge, which was a very bad thing, especially on our low part of the island. Still, we knew chances were good that we still had a house at *that* point, and I had seen a couple videos from storm chasers in town that didn’t look very bad at all.
I couldn’t go to breakfast – Matt went with his parents while I sat obsessively reloading Twitter and Facebook for any news. After breakfast, we checked out and got on the road to Deadwood, stopping in Hill City along the way. The museum there (which told the story of the guy who found Sue, the famous t-rex who lives at the Field Museum in Chicago) was great.
We stopped for a beer and a snack at Miner Brewing, the sister company to Prairie Berry Winery, where we stopped to pick up my sister’s favorite wine. (Note: when the cashier there asked to see my drivers license, I had a small panic attack that she would say something about Key West. I was long past the point of wanting to talk to any strangers about anything related to it. Thankfully, she didn’t.)
We drove through Spearfish Canyon on the way to Deadwood.
We also stopped to see Wild Bill’s gravesite:
People had left him some thoughtful tributes!
Potato Creek Johnny was my new favorite Deadwood local, though. Matt’s mom said that her parents used to threaten them that he’d show up if they were bad.
We checked into the Celebrity Hotel, which also happened to be a casino. (That’s pretty much every hotel in Deadwood – it’s mini-Vegas). His parents had a fancy suite, and we had a slightly less-fancy suite, but both were great. They’d told us they would have champagne in the room for the big celebration. Nobody tell them this wasn’t exactly champagne:
Matt and I went to our room to decompress for a bit. I’d learned on Facebook that people were using Zello to communicate with people in Key West; there were a couple people in town on either satellite phone or a land line – the only form of communication the storm hadn’t taken down – who were relaying info a few evacuees, who were then transmitting the information over Zello. People were asking for the status of various neighborhoods and streets, and people would respond if they’d heard anything about them. We left it running for a couple of hours while we were sitting around in the hotel, and by then had fairly good confirmation that our part of town was largely undamaged. There were hardly any reports of flooding in Key West, which was incredible.
The keys to the east were clearly in much, much worse condition. The fact that there was zero word about anything past Stock Island was a very bad sign. The roads were largely impassable, so people weren’t even able to drive up there to check.
There were ongoing reports of things like the Snake Creek bridge being out and the 7 Mile Bridge taking damage, things that would’ve delayed anyone’s return by possibly months. The news was reporting that Key West was basically destroyed, which was exactly in opposition from what we were hearing from people reporting from the ground there. We all knew there was no power or cell service, so it would be a while before we had a good sense of what was actually happening, but all signs were looking fairly positive.
By the time we were ready to head out, we were starting to feel like everything might be OK. We all went to gamble for a bit, Matt and I heading to the automated craps table and his parents going to play slot machines. Afterward, we reconvened for dinner, and then went to Saloon #10, which was famous as a Deadwood haunt back in the old-west days. There was sawdust covering the floor, and a country band playing. Matt’s parents went to dance.
After a while, Matt and I went to play blackjack in the other room of the bar (that’s a thing that happens in Deadwood). I ended up winning a lot, which felt appropriate on a day when I learned that my house probably survived a major hurricane.
The next morning, Deadwood was very quiet. Everyone must have been out late. I myself had probably the best sleep of my life, for once not trying to drown out the deathly panic and horror of the hurricane. It was the first morning I hadn’t cried in the shower, either.
We went downstairs to join Harlan and Judy in the lobby, where they had free breakfast. Have you ever made toast on a casino floor before? We have!
They had Herbie the Love Bug there, too. Deadwood is hilarious.
We hauled our stuff out to the car and started the very very long journey back across South Dakota. I was checking my phone for news from home every time I had a signal, which wasn’t that often.
Along the way, we stopped to check out the Minuteman Missile sites. One of the silos is just off the interstate, but you wouldn’t know it at all from the road. You can see a fenced enclosure in the middle of a giant cow pasture, and that’s it.
See? Those are all cows in the background.
I love this old Cold War stuff.
From there, we went about 10 miles down the interstate to their new visitor center, which was very nice, and also in the middle of nowhere.
This sign is the best. They had a good little museum there. Once you’ve been to a lot of Cold War sites (hello, Berlin), you get to the point where you could narrate the tour yourself.
We got back to Watertown, unpacked and reorganized everything, and went to get dinner at Dempsey’s downtown. The next day (Tuesday), we worked at the in-laws’ table again. Sometime that day, NOAA started publishing satellite flyover photos of the Keys, starting with Key West. I was shaking as I zoomed in to look at our neighborhood. When I found our house, I figured something was wrong, because everything looked normal. There was no debris visible in the street, and everything looked the same way we left it. I had heard that a nearby hotel had lost a lot of its room, so I found that on the map and sure enough – the roof was gone. Those were indeed post-Irma photos, and our house was still there. I could see the kayaks laying on the patio upside down exactly the way we left them, which meant that we probably didn’t even have much flooding. The huge buttonwood tree in the backyard appeared to be down, but it hadn’t fallen on anything. Seeing that was incredible.
The next day, we headed to Minneapolis. We checked into the Hamptown downtown (conveniently attached to my work) and then headed to dinner in St Paul with the in-laws, Wendy, Amelia, and Missy and their kids. It was great to see them and just have a totally normal night out.
Here’s the view from our hotel room! It’s starting to feel like we’re tourists when we visit Minneapolis now. It’s been two years, after all.
Some of the things we evacuated. You know, the important stuff. Emergency Backup Roy was especially important.
Work was pleasantly quiet. I got a huge project done, and was happy to see all my coworkers again, even though we’d just been there for a quick trip the previous month. That night, a bunch of friends came out and we took over the side room at Grumpy’s. It was great.
The next night, we had dinner with my family and went out to see our friends’ band. We had a quick stop at Triple Rock before it was time to head back to the hotel. We got up early Saturday morning, checked out, and took the train to the airport. We weren’t quite going home yet (they weren’t allowing residents back into most of the Keys yet), but at least we were going to be a lot closer.
The damage in Miami was apparent right away, with trees down all over the place, and electric trucks still working next to the airport. Our first stop on the way to the hotel in Doral was Publix to buy some subs. (It’s the true Florida comfort food.) We did nothing else but hang out on the couch that night, being glad to be that close to home. Even though we still had no idea when we’d get there.
Sunday, we did some shopping and went to Gulfstream Park. FPL had a huge electric staging site in their parking lot.
That evening, we went over to Miami Beach for drinks and dinner. Sweet Liberty was fantastic, and all the bartenders wanted to talk about the Keys. One of them was doing regular supply runs into Key Largo, which was fantastic.
The rest of the week, all we had to do was work from the hotel and wait to see when we’d be able to get home. It was starting to look like it might be soon, at least. We got to a lot of good restaurants, and managed to meet up with some of our local friends who were also waiting to get home.
They announced that the entire route down the Keys would be opening, but that there was still no power or water for most of it. We planned to wait til our neighbors said that power had returned. That turned out to be Tuesday or Wednesday (it’s all a blur at this point). We asked work for half of Thursday and Friday off so we could finally head home.
We also had to switch hotels in the middle of the week. The whole thing had become insanely exhausting and annoying.
Thursday, we worked in the morning, checked out at noon, and headed up I-95 to our planned a meetup with Mark and Kennedy, who were camping on base at Cape Canaveral at that point. Or course Mark picked the most appropriate spot to meet – a Key West themed restaurant in Melbourne.
We were so thrilled to finally see our little buddy. He seemed pretty happy to see us, too, but we could tell he was having a great time on his evacuation adventure. Kennedy totally spoiled him.
We appreciated that Hemingway’s Tavern didn’t mind having a parrot taking up a seat on the patio. They brought us Key lime pie for dessert after hearing our story, too.
We thanked Mark and Kennedy profusely, said goodbye (they weren’t returning to Key West for a while longer), and headed back to Miami, where we managed to sneak Roy into the hotel and avoid the $150 pet fee. We had absolutely zero idea what to expect from him behavior-wise in a hotel room, but he was great. He was pretty quiet, and just happy to hang out. The next morning, his breakfast consisted of veggies Kennedy had sent along with him, and some eggs from the breakfast buffet. I’m pretty sure Roy thinks hurricanes are the best thing ever.
And then, 18 days after evacuating, it was finally time to go home. We’d already seen a lot of photos from other people driving back, so I had a good idea of what to expect, but it was still brutal to see it.
The spray-painted signs on the road in Key Largo welcoming us home made me cry. So did the damage.
The most bizarre part was the trees – they were brown and completely bare because Irma had blown all their leaves off. The ones that were left standing, at least.
We’d asked around about the most-needed supplies in the Lower Keys (since they seemed to be ok for water and food at that point), and were told that cleaning supplies were in demand. With the storm surge that went through there, everyone was going to be dealing with mold. We’d picked up a bunch of vinegar, peroxide, and trash bags in Miami, so we stopped at a huge distribution center in Big Pine to drop it off.
Despite all the damage, it was great to see so many tents set up distributing supplies where they were most needed.
We got home to find out that our tenants had taken all of the hurricane shutters off the house and put them in the shed, so I wanted to hug them forever. The yard was a mess, as expected. Six weeks later, this tree is still laying across the power lines in the yard, waiting for Keys Energy to deal with it. But it somehow managed to fall in the spot where it damaged absolutely nothing, which is still unbelievable. It could’ve fallen on our house, the neighbor’s shed, or smashed my garden to bits.
We did end up getting some water in the house. We have a 3″ step down by the back door and pantry, and there was a water line showing it was 2″ deep. We were incredibly lucky. We lost a bookshelf and cookbooks to mold, and that was it.
Every street in the city was a huge pile of debris for a couple weeks. When the truck with a crane came to pick it up, everyone went outside to watch and celebrate.
This poor guy took some damage. It’s being repainted as I type this.
Looks-wise, Key West is pretty much back to normal, but the streets are much brighter now. We lost a lot of trees, and some businesses still haven’t reopened. Compared to the keys even 20 miles away from us, though, we got unbelievably lucky; we happened to be on the ‘clean’ side of the hurricane as it passed, and missed the massive storm surge that washed over Big Pine. They’re going to be rebuilding for years, and nobody here should forget that.