Letter From Key West: Right After Irma, A Provisional Ad-Hoc Existence

Dec 1, 2017

People have asked me a lot since Hurricane Irma if it was scary to go through the storm. I was very fortunate to spend the storm in a strong concrete building, on high ground. And Key West was very fortunate, only 20 miles away from where the eye crossed the island chain we were spared the worst of the winds and didn’t see much of a storm surge.

But the initial aftermath was kind of scary. Within that first day or two I realized what a weird world we were living in and wrote this essay. I wrote it out, by hand, on a legal pad. And I called it in to the Google voicemail that was my primary method of filing audio those first couple days.

Extra special thanks to WLRN engagement producer Katie Lepri, who retrieved the audio from whatever weird place Google voicemails go in the middle of a hurricane with ever-changing and chaotic communication channels.

Filed on Monday, Sept. 11:

This is Nancy Klingener in Key West.

Life in Key West, at least for those of us who escaped structural or water damage, has acquired a provisional, ad hoc quality. It’s like we’ve been transported to the pre-digital, pre-cellphone era. In fact, it’s the pre-telephone era for most of us, so information — that commodity that used to be instantly available from that phone in your pocket — is suddenly a scarce resource.

I’ve been longing for the printed list of phone numbers I used to keep as my version of a rolodex. They were all landlines, of course. Because that’s all there were. And land lines worked in power outages. Sometimes even after hurricanes. But these days, even land lines tend to be power- or internet-dependent.

So I’ve gone really old school. To get information now, I have to show up where I hope someone will be. Then, write it down. On paper. And use that old standby, word of mouth, to get the information out. Like the water will be on from 10 to 12 tomorrow. So we can all shower and flush.

People plan meetups and pool resources like tools and labor. But you can’t really plan your day because you don’t know what era you’ll be in. The bathing deprivation era? That’s one I hope ends very soon. The world lit by only fire? (That’s the title of a book about the Middle Ages, that I would double check if I had a web connection.)

Are we living a subtropical version of the Road Warrior, where no one can say when the fuel trucks and gas station staff will be back? (That’s another reference I would have checked on my phone, but fortunately my husband is a master of that kind of information.)

And maybe the scariest — will we still be in a throwback to the pre-telephone era for medical help? When there’s no 911, and an emergency room is unavailable, much less an airlift to a trauma center.

When they’re urging us to leave before a hurricane, public officials warn the aftermath can be uncomfortable. And I can imagine how much more miserable it would be with a little bit more damage. People who insist on staying often say they want to be here to take care of their property and avoid being closed out of their homes, clamoring for access and information.

In Key West right now, we’re seeing the predictions from both perspectives play out.