Adventures of a Sage—Photography as a Lens for Self-Discovery
Reading Time: 15-20 minutes / 1-2 cups of coffee
Adventure Date: Hurricane Ian—September 28, 2022
Typically, ‘Adventures of a Sage’ is about self-discovery through the lens of photography. This journal article (long overdue) is more about a life-changing adventure than it is about photography—featuring smart phone snapshots instead of polished images. As you read on, you’ll understand why.
Please note, this is not intended to be a “Woe is me,” or “Poor us,” sympathy missive. Rather, consider it as a documentary about what happens when you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have tried to inject characteristic Sage-like humor—tempered by the fact that this was a devastating event causing the death of 149 people; most of them in Lee County (where we lived), and many of them on Fort Myers Beach (about 5-miles, as the crow flies, from our previous home in Fort Myers).
Let’s begin …
Important Events This Past Year
It’s been 14-months since my last journal post on July 21st, 2022.
11-million babies have been born. Queen Elizabeth II died. Elon bought Twitter and changed the name to ‘X.’ (What is the verb that replaces a “tweet”?) The U.S. military eventually stumbled across Chinese spy balloons parked over North America (tipped off by a civilian with a telescope). King Charles III’s coronation occurred on May 6th. India surpassed China to become the most populated country in the world. Artificial Intelligence hit prime time via ChatGPT, OpenAI, and Google Bard. Mad Vlad, and He who is Xi, continued their quest for world domination, with Vlad blowing his one-time caterer Prigozhin out of the sky.
“With all these significant world events occurring in the past year, how can you sustain a blog by not updating it for 14-months,” you ask … critically, with an air of condescension?
“Not very well,” I confess, and acquiesce. I offer my apology … but also an alibi.
How Does One Lousy Hurricane Change Your Life?
Start with this one minute and 20-seconds of drone footage of our house on October 1, 2022, three days after Hurricane Ian.
Now let’s rewind. The week of September 26th, 2022, felt like every other September week in Florida: hot and muggy. Unlike the rest of the U.S., when September days start to cool off from summer’s heat, Florida continues to bake. With an average Florida temperature of 92° (Fahrenheit) in August, September will still be right up there at 90°F+. Some days occasionally hint at cooler weather around the corner in October, but most days just simmer, hot and muggy.
Who was Fahrenheit? Daniel Fahrenheit was a Pole of German descent (Jawohl !) who (this is scientifically important) established 0°F by freezing a solution of brine made from water, ice, and ammonium chloride. Whereas, Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius established 0°C as the freezing point of water.
Honestly, why do the Germans have to complicate everything?
Back to September in Florida, 2022, which was a long way from freezing no matter what scale you use.
The Week of September 26th, 2022
The week of September 26th appeared normal. On the hurricane front, we had already been introduced to seven ‘named’ storms:
- Tropical Storm Alex
- Hurricane Bonnie
- Tropical Storm Colin
- Hurricane Danielle
- Hurricane Earl
- Hurricane Fiona
- Tropical Storm Gaston
But alas, yet one more tropical depression lurked in the Atlantic. What else was new?
Between September 14th and 15th, a tropical wave developed off the west coast of Africa. The wave swelled, surged, and swashed (note clever alliteration) westward for several days as a series of showers and disorganized thunderstorms. Nothing to worry about because this wave was “disorganized” (a concept that I am familiar with).
Tropical Depression Nine formed out of the wave northeast of Aruba on Friday, September 23rd, and then developed into Tropical Storm Ian the next day on Saturday, September 24th.
Monday, September 26th, 2022
Hurricane Ian officially formed on Monday, September 26th, 2022. Two days off the west coast of Florida, NOAA predicted that Ian would hit Tampa and St. Pete.
NOAA Forecast for Hurricane Ian
Then living in Fort Myers, we were safely out of the cone—NOAA only forecast a tropical storm warning for Fort Myers. (Huge sigh of relief here.)
I shook my head and said a silent prayer for our friends up in Tampa-St. Pete.
Really, it was about time they took a hurricane on the nose. After all, we got hammered by Hurricane Irma in 2017. When we evacuated for Irma, our house was surrounded by floodwaters, and we were without power for nearly three weeks. Enough, already. Bring it on for the Tampanians and the St. Petersburgians! Let them have their fair share!
Tuesday, September 27th
On Tuesday Ian was on top of Cuba—right on the predicted NOAA flight path. We were still out of the cone, and only in a tropical storm warning area. No Big Deal. We had endured countless Florida tropical storms. We were professionals. Some wind. Some rain. Maybe we’d lose power for a few hours. What’s streaming on Netflix tonight?
NOAA Forecast for Hurricane Ian
Wednesday, September 28th, 2022
By Wednesday morning, things looked a bit dicier: Overnight, Ian had jogged to the east. We were still outside of the central cone, and the path was still north of us. More importantly, we still had time to evacuate.
Often, when you face a major life decision, it doesn’t feel like a major life decision. It just feels like another decision. Decisions like: Hit the snooze button? Walk the dog now? Supersize that meal? Order a mattress online based only on reviews? (Already made that mistake.)
The Bekster and I calmly discussed our options. What should we do? Should we leave? Should we stay? Should we leave? Should we stay?
Nah. It’s just another storm. Why grab the Hurricane Away Bag and make a run for it? So much driving. So much time. So many no-room-at-the-inn hotels. We decided to ride it out. Just another decision.
By Wednesday afternoon, everything had changed. Ian had taken a hard turn east, and we were officially in the hurricane zone.
Ian made landfall at Cayo Costa at 3:05 p.m. Eastern on 9/28/22 as a Cat 4 hurricane with 150-MPH winds. (Cat 5 hurricane winds = 157 MPH.) We were only 27-miles distant, as the crow flies (assuming crows were flying that day, which they definitely weren’t).
Landfall: Cayo Costa Island
Riders on the Storm
At first, Hurricane Ian blew in like a blustery tropical storm. Lots of wind and rain. Shaking trees. Limbs down. Neighbors’ lawn ornaments blowing down the street. Typical storm stuff.
My point-of-view is that cleansing the neighborhood of pottery pelicans, plastic rabbits, ceramic chicks, spinning yellow sunflowers, lawn gnomes, winged cherubs, smirking snails, and plastic pink flamingos should be done frequently.
Our house in Fort Myers was (more about the past tense in a few paragraphs) less than 2,000 square feet. Two thirds of the footprint was on the main floor. The second half-floor consisted of a bedroom that Bekki used as her office, and a bath. A large loft on the third floor (my office) looked down over a half wall onto the combined living and dining room below.
Heavy winds bent tree trunks as electricity flickered off-and-on for several hours. At one point we thought we might survive the storm with no power loss. Our confidence diminished, however, with each successive transformer explosion. After five or six neighborhood explosions, a loud nearby detonation finally knocked out the power.
Sitting at our bistro table in the kitchen, with a commanding bay window view of the lawn between our homestead and our neighbors’ abode, I was commanded by the Beckster to consider the water streaming in between the two houses. Not just water accumulating in puddles from rain. Rather, a flood of Biblical proportions rushing in between our houses at about 15-knots. Pedestrians refer to this as a “flash flood.” Meteorologists have a more precise term: storm surge.
Houston, we have a problem.
Storm surge occurs when 150 MPH hurricane winds push massive amounts of water into land. NOAA clarifies that “the amplitude of the storm surge at any given location depends on the orientation of the coastline with the storm track; the intensity, size, and speed of the storm; and the local bathymetry” (a fancy word for shape of the ocean floor). The amplitude of Ian’s storm track, combined with our local bathymetry, was now yielding rough seas, resulting in a decidedly sinking feeling. To put it mildly, the bath tub was overflowing.
Bekki provided frequent reports of water levels in the garage:
- “We have water in the garage!”
- “Water coming up the steps!”
- “The water is at the top of the steps and the cars are floating!”
- “Water is coming underneath the front door and the sliding doors!”
With almost a 5-foot crawl space, the surge was approaching 6-feet. When water started percolating through the floorboards, reality transformed to ‘sur-reality,’ defined as “disorienting and hallucinatory.”
Unfortunately, we were not hallucinating. Unlike most of my baby-boomer peers, I never indulged in hallucinogens. And that’s the truth! (There was this concert choir tour in high school, however.)
As the storm surge surged, and the flash flood flooded, we grabbed our pooch, Murphy, and climbed the stairs to the loft. We sat for hours, shuddering with each falling tree trunk that shook the house as it crashed on the roof. Curious how every tree around the perimeter of the house falls directly towards the center of the roof, as if drawn toward an imaginary black hole.
Having previously learned the importance of tossing out everything in the refrigerator when the power goes out for more than a day (another story you do not want to hear), I rushed downstairs, grabbed several contractor lawn and leaf bags, and sprung into action. As the water lapped at my ankles, I frantically stuffed Volkswagen-sized black plastic bags with the contents of both fridge and freezer.
No time to think:
- Recently frozen salmon from Costco? Down the drain.
- Several hundred dollars’ worth of steaks? Sent to the slaughterhouse.
- Frozen jumbo shrimp? Consigned to Davy Jones’s locker.
- Several containers of ice cream? Curdled.
- Frozen pizza? (Sunday night is frozen pizza night.) Kiss your pepperoni goodbye.
When I use the term ‘water’ above, that is a misnomer. The soup that had now surrounded and penetrated the house comprised a blend of:
- Salt water from the Gulf of Mexico.
- Swamp water from miles of inland waterway mangroves.
- Buckets of mud and muck.
- Septic back-flow. (Let’s just stop there.)
At the height of the storm, we had 6-feet of water in the garage, and 4-inches of water on the main floor. Here’s the view from our entry at the height of the flood.
Surrounded. Come Out With Your Paddles Up!
For as bad as this looks, we were lucky. In the above photo, you can see the rooftop of the house across the street. These single-story duplexes were built to the original code—meaning slab construction. Whereas we had 6-feet of water in the garage, the owners of these units had 6-feet of water in their homes.
These homes were totaled. In Lee County, where we resided, the code states that: if the cost of improvements are equal to (or greater than) 50% of the property’s assessed value, the structure needs to conform to current code. Current code would require rebuilding on a 10-foot crawlspace (that’s a guess), which would likely add $100k-$150k to the construction cost. None of these residents can afford those new construction costs, and their insurance—if they were lucky enough to get anything from their insurance company (many did not), won’t cover additional funds needed. Their only option is to take whatever insurance money they could get (if any), bulldoze the structure, and live with a relative or sympathetic friend.
There’s Got to be a Morning After
Eventually, the storm passed, leaving us, and the house, still standing—shaken and stirred. That night, powerless (in more ways than electrical), Bekki and I slept in the fold-out sofa bed in my loft. It was eerily silent and pitch black. Usually you hear dogs barking, AC units blowing, cars in the street, neighbors chatting, and Chevy’s without mufflers racing by at 70-miles an hour down our 35-MPH street, whose drivers are compensating for the fact that they never got past Romper Room.
Not that night. Dead silence (in some cases, literally. But thankfully, no one in our neighborhood.)
Around 2:00 a.m., I awoke to the sound of a huge engine. A Chevy without a muffler? Turns out it was an airboat motoring up and down our flooded streets, searching for survivors.
As the sun rose the next day the flood water receded enough to venture into the garage and outside the house.
The garage looked like Godzilla had picked it up and flipped it upside down. The high-water mark on the drywall recorded 6-feet. 55-pound steel shelves with 100-pounds of stuff were scattered at various angles above a sea of mud-coated detritus. Items previously hung on the garage wall with care, were now strewn around the parking space lair. Worse, both cars (Bekki’s 2-year-old Kia Soul with less than 4,000 miles; and my 3-year old SUV) had been completely submerged—and totaled. (During the flood we heard the batteries exploding as the water doused the electrical systems.)
Soused, Doused, and Water-logged Garage
Outside, it looked like a war zone. The only difference between us and Ukraine was that Russians weren’t shooting at us. A downed palm tree in our side yard had crushed the waterline. So, no water.
The Morning After
This Palm Crushed the Waterline
Neighbor’s House with Uprooted Tree
Although the water line had been crushed, being hurricane-savvy Floridians (or, in our case, maybe not so savvy), we had filled our waterBOB in the bathtub. Never heard of a waterBOB? Where have you been all your life? Obviously, not living in Florida. A waterBOB is a huge plastic bladder that fits in your bathtub providing 100-gallons of drinking water while you’re waiting for electricity (or your water line) to be restored.
Emergency Supplies Arrive
On September 30th, two days after Hurricane Ian, one of my business partners drove down from St. Petersburg to deliver emergency supplies and a much-needed gas powered generator.
With the delivery of the generator, however, several more challenges arose—the need for: 1) gasoline to run the generator, 2) gas cans to transport the gasoline, and 3) a vehicle to transport the gas cans. (Sitting securely in the garage behind the recently installed hurricane-proof garage door, both vehicles were totaled. I asked the garage door company if my recently installed “hurricane proof garage door” was under warranty. “Not for water damage,” they replied. Silly me.)
Thus, small, trivial errands become huge challenges after a natural disaster.
Alas, no cars were available to rent in a 100-mile radius. I was, however, able to rent a GMC Yukon for a small fortune up in St. Pete. After my business partner dropped off the supplies, I rode with him back to St. Petersburg to pick up the Yukon, which was the size of its namesake: The Yukon Territories. Actually, I think it was somewhat larger than the Yukon Territories.
On the way to the car rental, we went on a scavenger hunt for plastic gas cans, stopping at every auto parts store along the way. Sold out. Sold out. Sold out. Sold out. Sold out.
Until we arrived at one Advanced Auto Parts store that had no less than seven 5-gallon gas cans. Holy fossil fuel containers Batman! Jackpot!
During natural disasters such as Hurricane Ian, human beings are under an unwritten code of decency, courtesy, and professionalism; whereby there is no such thing as price gouging. This code of conduct rings particularly true with auto-parts and hardware stores that would never, ever, consider taking advantage of their fellow man after a hurricane. Therefore, I knew that these seven gas cans would be available at the every-day retail price of $29.99 = $210.00.
$350 later, I was the proud owner of the last seven gas cans available on the west coast of Florida
Plastic Gas Cans: An Important Public Safety Notice
As an important aside, all gas cans now come with life-saving safety features that prevent accidental explosions. Legislated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, otherwise known as the EPA, these safety features also prevent anyone from actually pouring a single drop of gasoline out of the can. Obviously, no one from the Environmental Protection Agency’s 17,202 employees has ever run out of gas. I don’t care if you’re a 6-foot six linebacker with hands the size of a baby grand piano—it is impossible to transfer gas from these ‘safety pour’ cans into anything—let alone a gas tank.
The EPA’s gas can safety features have resulted in a subculture of ‘Gas Can Haters’ and ‘Gas Can Modifiers’ who have created several hundred videos on YouTube which are HIGHLY entertaining. You can peruse some of these videos here …
Finally a decent GAS CAN among STUPID GAS CANS!
Gas Can Modification
HOW TO MAKE A GAS CAN NOT SUCK
After the storm, staring at lifeless generators, several men in the neighborhood came to The Sage for guidance regarding how to properly use these ‘easy pour’ safety valve-equipped gas cans. I explained my solution, which is quite simple:
- Buy an oversize funnel like this:
Start with an Oversized Funnel
2. Unscrew gas cap on target tank.
3. Insert oversize funnel into the opening on the target tank.
4. Completely remove the easy-pour safety valve on the top of the gas can and set said safety valve aside—preferably somewhere where you won’t trip over it. (Safety first!)
5. Pour gas from open gas can into oversize funnel.
This works EVERY TIME.
The Return Trip to Fort Myers
My Yukon-size GMC now fully stocked with $350 worth of gas cans, and $175 worth of gasoline, I now drive home from St. Pete to Fort Myers. Slowly. In the right lane. With all the windows open so as not to asphyxiate myself.
The drive from St. Petersburg to Fort Myers is normally about 2-hours and a straight shot via I-75.
Driving south on I-75, about 1-1/2 miles before exit 191, all three lanes of I-75 southbound have become a ‘parking lot.’ Standoff. Standstill. Stalemate. And then, to my wonderment, I see vehicles driving northbound on the left and right shoulders of I-75 south. I have never seen this. Maybe the Russians were shooting at us after all.
Rumors from northbound drivers were that the overpass on county road 777 had collapsed from flooding. That turned out to be a rumor. The truth was that when Ian passed over the center of the state 2-days earlier, it dropped up to 27-inches of rain. Water flows downhill (hang around for more visionary Sage-like knowledge), and so, 2-days later, the Myakka River decided to overflow across I-75 south just as I was driving back to Fort Myers.
As I watched the cars driving northbound on the shoulder of the interstate, passing all the stopped southbound vehicles, I vowed to remain law-abiding. Not following the law creates chaos, anarchy, and the total breakdown of society! There are red lines in life. No. I would not become an agent of lawless chaos!
Two minutes later, I was driving northbound on the southbound lanes of I-75. Slowly. In the right lane. With all the windows open.
As you can see by the photo below, all southbound lanes have become northbound lanes. Thus, laws are broken by mob action.
Driving Northbound on the Southbound Lanes of I-75
Heading north on the southbound lanes of I-75. You can see cars driving on
the left side of the white line, tires on top of the shoulder rumble strips.
About a mile north of where the above photo was taken, the Florida Highway Patrol had adapted to the lawless mob by stopping the law-abiding suckers, I mean both southbound and northbound lanes of traffic, allowing the mob to cross over a median into the northbound lanes. Who says crime doesn’t pay?
After exiting I-75, and winding my way through more detours, floodwaters, inland floating boats, and many streets and roadways of angry drivers, it required another 5-1/2 hours to get home via more flooded roads, intersections with powerless stoplights, and numerous ‘road closed’ and ‘detour’ signs.
It’s a Miracle
The next day I fired up the generator. What a miraculous piece of equipment. God bless the generator manufacturers of America (and China, as is more likely). In humble gratitude, I fell to my knees in devout prayer to St. Philippa 66, the patron saint of petrochemicals. The generator powered three free-standing portable air conditioners I purchased from Lowe’s. These portable AC units were able to drop the ambient temperature by 10-degrees and purge the house of humidity.
With power to spare, I also ran an extension cord to the entrance of my driveway where I set up a charge-your-phone station for my fellow neighbors who still lacked cars, gas cans, and generators of their own. The impromptu charging station quickly morphed into a repository for volunteers who drove distressed neighborhoods to donate snacks, water, and other supplies. The Sage’s charging station became a community hangout for several weeks.
Charge Your Phone Station
The neighborhood charge-your-phone station became a repository for water, Gatorade, snacks,
and even military MREs (meals-ready-to-eat), as seen in the lower left-hand corner.
Clean-up started immediately, as soon as gas generators provided a trickle of electricity, and mobile phones connected to the network. In our former neighborhood, clean-up still continues. While the swimming pool and hot tub are operational, one year later, the club house has no floor.
What Was Once Home Sweet Home
Humor Prevails Amidst Adversity
Erma Bombeck was right when she said “There is a thin line that
separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy …”
More Storm Stories
This article could go on, as there were many more adventures to share. I’ll conclude, however, with a few stories from people we know and people we met. Everyone had a storm story.
- We knew an elderly, not very ambulatory, neighbor woman who lived across the street. She would occasionally walk around the front of her house towing a 10-pound, 3-foot oxygen tank connected to a plastic oxygen tube. The day of the hurricane, as the water rose to 6-feet in her single-story townhouse, she swam (inside her house) to the attic access panel where she hoisted herself into the attic to spend the night until the waters receded the next day. (I’m not sure how she got down.)
- Across the street, a 90+ year old World War II veteran and his wife stood on their kitchen counters all night in the dark, knee deep in flood waters. (Can you imagine?)
- About a quarter of a mile west of where we lived is a neighborhood called Tidewater. I learned about a husband who decided to hold down the fort at their house while his wife and children evacuated. Why, you ask? After natural disasters such as Hurricane Ian, evacuated communities and vacant houses attract a segment of society referred to as ‘looters.’ In Florida, this has given rise to signs such as “You loot. I shoot,” and (my personal favorite) “Security provided by Smith & Wesson.” As the waters rose engulfing his house, he decided to escape with his canoe (stored in the garage). Outside the house he spotted his elderly neighbors clinging to the gutter, horizontally, barely able to hold on as the storm surge swept through the community. Somehow, he was able to furiously paddle over to their house and save them from being swept away.
- Friends who owned a house on Fort Myers Beach discovered that the only thing that remained was a hole in the ground where the foundation used to be. (The entire house was swept away.)
The Gulf Coast Writers Association has published a book titled Storm Stories—Hurricane Ian—Stories of Survival, Heroism, and Humanity, which is based on eighty stories from Hurricane Ian survivors. Eight of those stories were written by Island Park Village residents (the neighborhood where we lived).
Ian hit September 28, 2022. According to NOAA, Hurricane Ian caused “over $112 billion in damage, making it the costliest hurricane in Florida’s history and the third-costliest in United States history.”
In November, we decided to sell our Fort Myers house ‘as-is.’ After warding off hordes of opportunistic vultures who tried to buy the house for pennies on the dollar, we sold the house in January 2023 for a discounted but fair price. The ‘as-is’ sale enabled us to recoup what we paid for it plus improvements we made for the 7-years that we lived there.
Although I thought we were fully covered with multiple insurance policies, no insurance money was paid due to technical terminology in the policies known as ‘loopholes,’ ‘gaps in coverage,’ and ‘policy-crossovers.’ I consider myself to be reasonably astute, but the insurance companies all got me. I thought we were fully insured, but Allstate was the only policy to pay. I previously ranked insurance companies above used car salesmen. No longer.
We decided to move to Bradenton in December, 2022, which turned out to be one of those ‘blessings in disguise.’ We now live east of I-75—about 12-miles east of the Gulf of Mexico. While no location in Florida is hurricane-proof, we should now, hopefully, be away from any future storm surge. We love our new home, which includes a guest room. Visitors invited. (Caveat: We need to know who you are. No ‘European Vacation‘ surprise visits, where the Griswolds visit the wrong relatives in Germany.)
We sorrowfully recognize that so many others weren’t so lucky. People who lived through Ian just want to get their lives back to normal. However, in many instances, that’s impossible. Caught between the county that raises costs for rebuilding codes (the new foundation must be 10-feet off the ground); and insurance companies that refuse to pay (“I thought I was covered. What was I paying for?”), many lives were destroyed. To those who lost so much, no amount of empathy, compassion, sympathy, or kindness can suffice.
Self-Discovery and Lessons Learned
Given that Adventures of a Sage is all about self-discovery, what did I learn from Hurricane Ian?
Hurricane Ian—and not just Ian, but any tragedy—is an allegory for life. The magnitude and shock of tragedy forces us to emerge from self-absorption to discover empathy, learn humility, broaden our compassion, and embrace others: even those who are not members of our own tribe.
Ian taught me that we do not need to act out the roles, emotions, anger, and dissatisfaction that others project upon us today.
We can choose.
Thank you for accompanying me on this life-transforming experience. I trust that the next Sage Adventure won’t be as dramatic. That said, one never knows.
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