In Tampa Bay’s flooded Idalia aftermath, asking why


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Jun 08, 2023

In Tampa Bay’s flooded Idalia aftermath, asking why

There’s a well-known psychological technique for dealing with panic and anxiety; it involves naming physical realities as a way to ground mental flurries. The ticking hand on a clock. The way your

There’s a well-known psychological technique for dealing with panic and anxiety; it involves naming physical realities as a way to ground mental flurries. The ticking hand on a clock. The way your hands feel in your lap. The smells trickling through the air. The idea is that checking in with the known can help calm a mind racing with catastrophes, with possibilities, with an impossible question:


Every time we fumble through the cursed communal proceedings of a hurricane, the answer remains elusive. Why, again, was Tampa Bay spared more than other areas? Why do we live this way, in a state of seasonal transience, ready to bug out at a moment’s notice? Why even bother going through the drama of leaving our homes when we have not, in a lifetime, come out on the losing end?

We don’t know the full extent of destruction from Hurricane Idalia, an unwelcome guest who lingered in the Gulf of Mexico, triggering fresh memories of Hurricane Ian’s sudden turn less than one year ago. Early Wednesday morning, Idalia finally intensified and plunged into the Big Bend region, wreaking havoc there as a brutal category 3.

We know that the storm’s timing clashed regrettably with high tides, pushing a potentially record-setting deluge of water onto the shores of communities from Madeira Beach to Gulfport to Tampa to Hudson to Tarpon Springs. We know our coastal residents are trying to dry out their homes and piece together businesses and will be saddled with a long road of repairs ahead. We also know, on the whole, that Tampa Bay got lucky again. We know that others cannot say the same.

These floods offer a painful preview of the chaos a closer hit would cause. We just don’t know when, or how — or why.

I’m writing to you from the Terrace Garden Inn on U.S. 19 in Clearwater, staring down a jumbo jar of Peter Pan peanut butter and a crate of paperwork and family photos. We’re waiting for the high tide to pass to return to our soggy, flooded Dunedin neighborhood. By all accounts, our home is fine.

This motel is not a resort. It’s one of those acutely Floridian liminal spaces where folks smoke cig after cig, leaning against walkway railings, before getting where they’re going next. The lobby line was deep on Tuesday, with many guests saying they fled mobile homes near Gandy Boulevard. A woman with a tiny, nervous dog requested a high floor. An elderly couple tottered through the sliding doors, dropping a bottle of prescription medicine. The front desk manager was harried, so busy checking in guests that he hadn’t seen the latest storm forecasts.

We all lugged our lives behind closed doors to ride out another round of stormy unknowns. Another feast of granola bars and bagged bread. Another night of TV presenters in raincoats reminding us to stay calm while somehow finding the most horizontal palm tree in town.

We know this tired routine: Watching radars, analyzing spaghetti models, Euro models, cones of uncertainty. Shopping for cans and bottles, candles and batteries, chargers and propane. Moving patio chairs and plants, boarding up windows, filling bags with sand. Getting evacuation orders, wrestling with the decision to leave or stay. Coaxing a cat into a carrier. Sharing memes, cracking beers, finding slivers of laughter. Hunkering down, seeing lights flicker, marinating in heat and darkness.

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We know everyone has different value judgments in a crisis. We know that some people would sooner be swept away than leave their homes behind, a hard calculus for others among us to comprehend. We know those who evacuate sometimes feel foolish after preparing for an apocalypse and encountering little more than heavy summer rain.

But since we’re naming things we know for sure, here’s one more: I think many of us know a deeper truth, something that keeps us checking into motels and shelters, stocking survival kits and paying attention.

With warming oceans bringing us to this brink in more frequent and intense ways, we know that plastic tubs in the trunk and pennies in the freezer are simply a patented part of paradise. We know that, though Tampa Bay has been wildly fortunate, our time is still coming. That even though we’re burned out from the hurricane hamster wheel, we have to be OK with worrying too much, with packing and unpacking, with being wrong every time until the day we’re finally right.

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