Christie: Thankful Hurricane Irma wasn’t worse, but we can’t dodge bullets forever

Police turn around traffic attempting to cross the bridge on Lake Avenue after the passing of hurricane Irma in Lake Worth. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

We, meaning Palm Beach County, “were damn lucky.”

Basically, that was the assessment in my editorial following Hurricane Irma last year. The massive storm looked like it was going to swallow the entire state as it approached us from the south after beating the snot out of Puerto Rico and Cuba in the Caribbean.

That’s not to say Irma didn’t leave a mark here, of course. Power and cellular service outages, tens of thousands of folks in shelters, tons of debris and hundreds of non-functioning traffic lights made life miserable for a lot of us for a while. Enough so, as the Post’s Kimberly Miller recounts today, that many residents still “believe they survived much worse during the September tempest, and aren’t keen to hear otherwise.”

RELATED: Hurricane Season 2018: Think you survived a Cat 4 here? Not even close

Well, we need to listen up and get real. Not to belittle anyone’s feeling of suffering, but we should be thankful we didn’t get Irma’s worst. Our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico can’t say that.

And as the 2018 Atlantic storm season kicks off today, we need to take whatever lessons learned from our Hurricane Irma “test run” and apply it to this year.

Because we can’t dodge bullets forever.

So following is my Sept. 13, 2017 editorial in full… Thanks for listening, and be prepared.

Editorial: Hurricane Irma spared Palm Beach County its worst

We were lucky, Palm Beach County.

Hurricane Irma, after taunting us for days with its record-breaking size and power, spared us its worst.

It may not seem that way to some. Not if you’re one of the roughly 300,000 residents still without power. Not if you’re one of the thousands of residents of Delray Beach and unincorporated county who still can’t flush their toilets. And not if you’re the parent of one of the School District’s 193,000 students who won’t return to school until Monday — at the earliest.

But we were.

You see, dozens of people here weren’t left dead in Irma’s wake as in the Caribbean. A quarter of our homes here weren’t made uninhabitable as they were in the Florida Keys. There was no 10- or 15-foot storm surge here as was seen in tiny Goodland on Marco Island.

A skateboarder takes advantage of a sidewalk damaged by uprooted trees along South Olive Avenue just north of Southern Boulevard in West Palm Beach after Hurricane Irma. The road was blocked in both directions. (Meghan McCarthy / The Palm Beach Post)

We are instead left with some trees down, spot flooding, long gas station lines and a chance to show some gratitude.

There are, of course, those who, ready to hurl the asinine “fake news” moniker, complaining that the media over-hyped the storm. Really? Yes, we should be skeptical of hype — especially from dubious sources. But when the National Weather Service says the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean is headed in your direction, the prudent thing is to shutter the house, grab the kids and get the hell out of the way.

No less than Gov. Rick Scott, himself no fan of the media, wasted no time in taking this monster of a storm seriously and pleading with us daily to do the same.

As The Post’s Kimberly Miller reported, “Mother Nature stepped in to tweak Irma’s plan” to deliver a worst-case scenario for our county.

“By the grace of Cuba’s northern coast, which was abraded by Irma before the strong Cat 4 hurricane reached the Florida Straits, and a tongue of dry air sucked into its massive, state-swallowing wind field, the storm weakened slightly and couldn’t regain strength before making its first landfall Sunday morning at Cudjoe Key,” Miller wrote.

And according to Jonathan Erdman, a senior digital meteorologist at Weather.com: “There are just so many little subtle things that can make all the difference. After it hit the Keys, it took a more due north path instead of north-northwest and that drove the eye wall ashore near Marco Island, which started weakening it.”

Weakened, but not inconsequential. In its wake, Irma left billions of dollars in damage and thousands of people across the Florida Peninsula who could use a hand — in shelters, in nursing homes, and yes, even next door.

Yes, the vast majority of us were damn lucky.

As good a time as any to show some gratitude, and volunteer to help those that weren’t.

Christie: PBC school teacher may have answer to post-Hurricane Irma blues

John I. Leonard High School teacher Xi Bajipura (standing second from right) hamming it up with other shelter volunteers and residents. (Photo courtesy of Xi Bajipura)

As we continue to dig ourselves out from under about 3 million cubic yards of debris, the memories of our time with Hurricane Irma remain fresh on our minds.

A friend of mine is fond of saying that many Palm Beach County residents are still walking around in a post-Irma funk… like folks just aren’t quite themselves yet.

Easy to understand, right? I mean between the loss of power, messed up traffic lights and above-mentioned vegetation debris still piled up on many neighborhood streets, it can be hard to put Irma behind you.

RELATED: Hurricane Irma: Employees question county shelter staffing policy

For a smaller group of residents, there was also the time spent at the 15 country-run shelters. The Post, last month in the days following Irma, spoke with a handful of county employees who were none-to-happy to be “volun-told” they’d have to work in shelters before, during and after the storms.

Shelter residents at John I. Leonard High School doing stretching exercises during Hurricane Irma. (Photo courtesy of Xi Bajipura)

The Post’s story got lots of attention; much of it negative toward the county as readers felt for the county employees who obviously didn’t want to work at the shelters despite being paid double time-and-a-half to do so.

Well, that’s something that County Administrator Verdenia Baker will have to contend with going forward given that she has made it clear the new policy of requiring county employees to staff shelters will not be changing — at least for the remainder of this hurricane season.

It might surprise some, however, that there were shelter workers who actually did want to be there; helping friends, neighbors and strangers get through the storm.

To that end, Monday’s “Point of View” column from Xi Bajipura — “Pooja Patel” to her friends — was a pleasant reminder that no matter the inconvenience to our own personal lives, that we can be here for one another. That our county’s diversity is not a burden, but a blessing. And that there is more that unites us than divides us.

It’s just possible that the ESE VE instructor in the Social Sciences at John I. Leonard High School in Greenacres. her uplifting words may bring many of us out of our post-Irma daze. Let’s hope so.

Her column is worth repeating. So here it is in its entirety:

What I witnessed in the four days serving in John I. Leonard High School’s shelter stretched my heart to how deep love can swim in times of crisis.

Imagine uprooting yourself from the comforts of your home, bed and safety in the midst of a devastating hurricane not knowing if there would be a home on your return. This cracked open the window into how refugees must feel except there is no chance of returning home.

About 2,100 people of all backgrounds and ages entered the gates of John I. Leonard. There was richness in life experiences and cultures. I met beautiful families and students of mine from Pahokee, Belle Glade, Haiti, the Caribbean, Bangladesh, Iraq, Guatemala and South America. All were united under one roof in Greenacres.

Despite conditions and finite resources, evacuees offered water and food to each other and volunteers. They shared their limited blankets, pillows and air mattresses to those who came with no bedding. They helped lift elderly from the ground. They aided the disabled using the restroom in the dark.

For the first time in some time I felt that Americans were united above politics, religion, nationality and income. I could breathe in the vastness of humanity, its unlimited greatness.

Residents who sheltered at John I. Leonard High School during Hurricane Irma made their own checkerboards and game pieces to play. (Photo courtesy of Xi Bajipura)

With unconditional care, volunteers built community in the special needs and physically challenged unit. Our 19-hour volunteer shift around the clock helped us become family to our guests. We organized karaoke and Zumba classes with seniors, including a WWII veteran, amputees, and those with special needs, dementia and PTSD. We played checkers on a homemade checkerboard that one evacuee made with cardboard and Sharpie markers. Guests quickly drank so they could offer their caps and pill bottle tops for game pieces. We told stories and listened. We sent positive vibes of prayers and love to all those affected by hurricanes. One evacuee has already started planning activities and games for her next stay at the shelter.

John I. Leonard High School shelter volunteers Jim Lynch (left) and Xi Bajipura. (Photo courtesy of Xi Bajipura)

“When I first entered the shelter, I thought that I was making a big mistake. I never had a reason to stay at a shelter before. I thank God for the volunteers who made my experience at the shelter a memorable one of joy and unity during a difficult time. Let’s not forget that a few of the (horror) stories were true, but we all worked together to create an environment where God is welcomed,” said Inger Hogan, a disabled Zumba instructor who shared her passion for dance with seniors.

No matter where you come from, how much money you have, what religion you practice or what you believe in, natural disasters don’t discriminate. As humans we are all connected by natural forces that go beyond the surface. Hurricane Irma reminded us of humankind’s fragility yet beauty. I have so much gratitude for my ability to bond and serve in ways I did not know were possible.

XI BAJIPURA, GREENACRES

Amen.

Hurricane Irma: This storm is really testing Floridians’ patience

Cars back up into Belvedere Road and Parker Avenue as drivers line up for gas at the Citgo Station in West Palm Beach Wednesday morning. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

“What’s up, Irma?”

That’s the question that most — nay, every — Palm Beach County resident must be asking after awakening to news that the “monster” tropical storm is now expected to side-step to the West coast.

For six days, we’ve been buying every drop of bottled water in sight.

For six days, we’ve waited in hours-long, miles-long lines to pay 50 cents more per gallon for gasoline. (And mind you, I’ve been known to skip stations for a two-cent difference.)

For six days, we’ve been putting up metal and plywood shutters, and moving all kinds of grimy outdoor items into our already crowded garages. (Yep; sorry Allstate, the cars are on their own.)

For six days, we’ve rightly heeded the pleas of our governor and local emergency officials, and the Post’s Kimberly Miller to evacuate flood-prone areas. (In fact, we now know that a massive, potentially “catastrophic” storm like you will cause major evacuation problems on our roadways.)

RELATED LINK: Post coverage of Hurricane Irma; updates

Those of us who’ve decided to shelter-in-place are hunkered down. We’re ready for you, Irma. But you’re really testing our patience here.

You were supposed to begin knocking on our door today, but no. You’ve decided — with a wink and nod — to make us wait another day.

That’s another day of finding games and other entertainment to keep the kids occupied. By the way, what do you do when they’ve reached the highest level of Destiny 2, Resident Evil or Madden ’18? Will a game of Monopoly really be enough?

The kids are literally asking, “Is it here yet? Is it here yet?… ”

“No! … She’ll be here to tomorrow!”

That’s another day of trying to eat all of the perishable food in the refrigerator so that those ribs we barbecued over the Labor Day weekend don’t eventually go bad. And that, of course, will leave us with only high-calorie snacks. (You are really bad for diets, Irma.)

It goes without saying, but that’s also another day of exploring the liquor cabinet to … ahem, “catalogue” all of the rums we’ve collected over the years. (It is likely the collection will have to be replenished.)

DORAL, Fla. — Florida Gov. Rick Scott gives an update to the media regarding Hurricane Irma. It was still too early to know where the direct impact of the hurricane would take place but the state of Florida was in the area of possible landfall. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

We’ve been teased before, of course.

Just last year, Irma’s little brother Matthew laid waste to Haiti as a Category 5, and promised a direct hit on Palm Beach County, leading to warnings from Gov. Rick Scott: “This storm will kill you!”

Hurricane Matthew made landfall to the north of us as a Category 1. More folks were probably injured taking down shutters than from the storm’s wind and rain.

But we know better than to ignore the warnings, no matter what.

There is still a great deal of danger from hurricane-, and even tropical storm-force winds likely hitting Palm Beach County.

RELATED LINK: PBC officials: Don’t be lulled into complacency by Irma’s western turn

So we pay close attention to the storm updates. We tune in to the governor’s regular briefings as he traverses the state coordinating with local officials, and making sure that Floridians don’t get complacent.

We won’t.

We’re waiting, Irma. But you’re testing our patience.