Hurricane Preparation: There is no price on life

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Buffy Galbraith
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
"It's alive!"

My daughter shouted to me from across what was, just days before, our carefully-manicured lawn. The urgency in her voice caused me to immediately stop my raking and run to her. I wasn't sure what I would find when I reached her; it had been a traumatic few days for all of us. As I braced myself for the worst, the previous days' events flashed before me.

Four days prior, we pulled out of our driveway to head north. As our home appeared smaller in the rearview mirror, I ran the first of many mental checklists, hoping I remembered everything. The car was packed to capacity, with everything from photos to mortgage deeds, food to memorabilia. The dog and cat were along, even a few family heirlooms. I continued scanning the vehicle, and as I met my 3-year-old's eyes, it dawned on me that I needed to remember that what was in the car was all we needed.

She grinned at me and asked if we were on an adventure. Enthusiastically, I told her "yes." I hoped I was convincing. In my mind, I was preparing for the reality that our adventure was a nightmare, and that we could return to nothing.

That was September 2004, and we were evacuating for Hurricane Ivan. According to The National Hurricane Center, Hurricane Ivan was the tenth most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded. The cyclone was also the sixth hurricane and the fourth major hurricane of the active 2004 Atlantic hurricane season.

When permitted, we drove back into the area that we knew as one of the most beautiful places on Earth. As we closed the gap, mile after mile, a knot grew in my stomach. By the time we drove into our neighborhood, I felt nauseous.

Nothing could have prepared us for this. Even The Weather Channel's Jim Cantore, who reported from down the road, didn't forewarn us of the devastation that hit the area. Power lines were down everywhere, the wires littered dangerously on the ground. Metal roofs and other man-made materials lay twisted as if a giant had ripped them off their structures and tossed them aside. The total devastation made me feel vulnerable and small, inconsequential and mortal. We drove closer to our home in silence, occasionally gasping. I covered my mouth in disbelief as the tears fell from my eyes as I tried to take it all in.

Billboards were toppled and road signs bent over awkwardly. Boats were "docked" in the parking lot of a strip mall, and vehicles appeared to be floating in standing water. Where the water had receded, sand created make-shift beaches. Though the sun was shining, a gloom hung in the air.

Though the man-made carnage was horrific, it was the natural devastation that hit me the hardest as we neared our home. Seeing the roots of hundred-year-old, once-powerful and sturdy oaks threatened my ability to keep my composure. The exposed strength of their mighty foundations rocked my own foundation, and I found myself mourning their loss.

The dog whimpered, and my daughter's voice caused me to sit up straight and wipe my tears away.

"Mommy, what happened?" she asked with a hint of trepidation in her voice.

I turned in my seat to face her as we slowed to a crawl, turning onto our street. A telephone pole lay on its side in the road, a tangled mess of wires. Trees were toppled, their limbs broken and twisted. Debris was everywhere. As I explained that the hurricane's strong winds did some damage, I saw the confusion written on her face as her young eyes took in the scene.

As we pulled up to our home, she looked even more confused. Roof shingles littered the yard alongside large branches and limbs. We exited the car and saw neighbors we didn't really speak to other than the occasional "hello." They approached us and we spoke kindly, like old friends. We hugged after surveying the damage. It was extensive.

Over the next couple of days, we persevered through the discomfort that comes with the lack of electricity and modern-day technology. Cold showers were the norm, but we came to welcome them to combat the sweltering heat. We pretended we were camping, making the best of cooking outside and using candlelight through the hours of darkness. We worked hard during the day, cutting up the old oak tree that destroyed the fence that separated our neighbors from us. We built new relationships by rebuilding that destroyed fence with those same neighbors. Through it all, we formed friendships with neighbors by sharing what we had.

On a day where the fatigue and frustration of our situation was wearing us thin, my daughter and I were cleaning up the yard, where I sweated profusely and cursed my destroyed mature landscaping. She was wearing on my patience, for her own attention span was steadily declining. She was asking questions about why God would let the hurricane ruin everything. I was struggling to come up with positive answers because I really wasn't sure.

I was weary, weary of hearing the bad news on the emergency radio. Tired of hearing nothing but the droning sound of generators or the deafening sound of silence. There was so much devastation, so much to do. Not enough people to help, not enough food, not enough water, not enough patience. The National Hurricane Center reported that Ivan had left a path of destruction that killed 52 people, 16 of those innocent lives in Florida.

Then, out of the silence, "It's alive!" pierced the dead air. I ran to my little girl, who was staring down at a baby squirrel so young it didn't have any fur. Alive it was, though, miraculously, after about a week alone and exposed.

She squatted down to get a closer look and I followed. She looked to me for answers, and this time, I knew what to do. She asked me if it was going to live, and I told her we would do everything we could to save its life. If this squirrel could survive out in the elements this long, it could make it. My daughter's discovery of this vulnerable creature became a beacon of hope for me, and saving that squirrel became the most important thing I could do.

We took the squirrel to Panhandle Animal Welfare Society, where they accepted the tiny animal and told my daughter that she did a great job of saving its life and they would make sure that it went to a shelter nearby. As we walked hand-in-hand out of the shelter, she looked up at me with her innocence and said, "God didn't let the hurricane ruin everything, Mommy."

As we enter the 2010 Atlantic Hurricane Season, keep in mind that being prepared is the most important thing you can do to be ready for a natural disaster. If the base orders an evacuation, what you leave may not be the same thing you come back to. Material things are replaceable. What we came back to made us far richer than we could have ever imagined.

There is no price on life.