12 October 2016


I have landed (or come to a stop, if you prefer) in rural Georgia.

The simple answer to the question why is that I have a place to crash here, a house that belongs to a family member who spends about 50 weeks a year somewhere other than here. The house isn't empty of furniture and there are several cans of black beans in the pantry, and dishes and pots and pans and so on. It has been empty of people for a while now, and so when I arrived a day or so ago the house contained a lot of cobwebs that I've since cleared out.

The family member I've been helping move is here too-- she's going to be staying here for an undetermined amount of time. It took September to get all of her stuff sorted and packed into a 20-foot U-Haul. Packing a truck with random household goods is a lot like playing Tetris, except that the blocks are boxes and bins that are different sizes and weights. The additional challenge is that she hasn't moved for a few decades, which makes deciding what stays and what goes a few orders of magnitude harder. There are things that are in the house somewhere that need to be located. These things are never where they are expected to be. I've been through this before, and it's not fun moving when you've been settled somewhere for a while.

I have become accustomed to moving. I hate it, but I've moved enough in the past few years that I at least know what needs to be done and can come up with a plan eventually. It took me a lot-- in time, money, and effort-- to get things in order so I could get moved out of my last apartment. That experience helped here, but ultimately it wasn't my decision what stayed and what didn't because it wasn't my stuff. I've been through the process of saying "fuck it" and leaving a house full of belongings behind that were once important, and starting over. So while I was ready to cut bait and leave, my dear family member was not.

There's no anger here from me. You don't know, can't understand, someone's situation or why they do the things the way they do if you haven't been through it yourself. I've been through enough of the same kind of situation to understand, mostly, but I'm at the point where I can grab my backpack and haul ass and figure it out from there. Not everyone is at that point.

I'm repeating myself, I know. I've been in enough places now where people who said they were on my side and claimed they were helping didn't want to understand where I was or how I was feeling. There's help, real help, where you do something that can or might or will make someone's life better than it is. You don't always get to decide what the "something" is that accomplishes that when it's not your life.

My mission was to help a family member get moved from one state to another, and helping for this mission meant helping pack, load the truck, drive the truck, and get it unloaded at the destination. That there was a hurricane in the Atlantic complicated things. When to leave (vs "when everything is loaded") changes. My deciding factor in leaving came when Hurricane Matthew started meandering through the Caribbean, bumping rather quickly from Category 3 to Category 4.

My first experience with tropical weather was landing at Keesler AFB in Biloxi MS after boot camp at Lackland AFB. Coincidentally this was around the same time as Tropical Storm Florence had arrived and so my new squadron's new people inprocessing area was under water. Not long after that, Hurricane Gilbert threatened Biloxi (and Keesler AFB) and so in addition to filling a lot of sand bags I also got to spend a night in a shelter.

My second encounter with a hurricane was Hurricane Hugo, a category 5 storm that stomped on South Carolina in 1989 just before I arrived back in the states from Turkey on leave. I wasn't there for the storm, but I did see all of the aftermath. It wasn't pretty, and it made a lasting impression: hurricanes can really mess a place up so don't ever take one lightly.

In an operations sense, the next hurricane I had a connection to was Hurricane Katrina, which was another category 5 storm that stomped on New Orleans LA (as well as Biloxi MS, Keesler AFB, and the rest of the neighborhood). At the time Katrina happened, I was active in things like the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES). I didn't actively participate in Katrina relief efforts, but as a ham I had the tools to monitor what was going on very closely.

The one thing I'd always heard from people in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi went something like "if we ever get another Camille through here, we're fucked" (Camille having visited the area as a category 5 storm and leveling most things in its path in 1969). Katrina was just that "another Camille". Many people were unprepared for a storm as strong as Katrina. Many more thought it would just go somewhere else. Very few people though that the worst possible outcome would happen.
Now that things are settled down a little and I have a desk to sit at and a coffee maker to make coffee
The people who didn't think the worst could happen found out they were wrong in a really bad way. There are still people who haven't returned to where they lived before Katrina. I monitored a lot of emergency radio messages that came from within the area affected by Katrina, and it was frightening and heartbreaking. Between that experience and my experience seeing what Hugo had done, I developed a sense of both awe and respect for hurricanes. You can't beat them. They are simply too powerful.

There are also a lot of people in Florida that say similar things about hurricanes, things like "it won't hit here, because they always go by or aren't anything" and "it's been n years since we've had a major hurricane here so this one won't affect us either." These are statements of faith-- blind faith. It's true that you can't often afford to react with full on battle readiness to every storm, and it's true that forecasters are often wrong. I found myself in Florida watching Matthew develop and saying "we need to go, we need to finish, we need to geNow that things are settled down a little and I have a desk to sit at and a coffee maker to make coffeet out of here" for days, always receiving the response "don't worry about it, it's nothing, it won't do anything". It turned out that Fort Lauderdale didn't get much from Matthew, but a lot of other places in Florida did. And it could have been far worse, had Matthew turned just a little more west and run right up the coast instead of staying offshore. Saying a hurricane won't get to you because none have before is like saying "none of the scud missiles so far have hit me, the next one won't either."

It is true that not every street or restaurant is dangerous. Danger does not, in fact, lurk around every corner. That being said, every gun is always loaded. In order to not shoot yourself, the safe and wise thing to do is assume that every gun, no matter what, is always loaded. That keeps you from doing stupid shit with guns, or at least it should.

Every missile is going to land on you. Every hurricane that's pointed towards you is going to make landfall where you live. Missiles and hurricanes are a lot like guns. Always loaded.

I did all I could to get the truck fully loaded, and then I left in the middle of the night without the family I was there to move. The message boards above the highway on I-95 North exclaimed "HURRICANE WARNING", ominously speaking to no one. Everyone, family included, had decided for themselves that Matthew wasn't going to be a problem. Me, I was in a loaded U-Haul doing 75, gas tank full, coffee cup full, headed for the Florida Turnpike (and ultimately,
Georgia), alone. Missiles and hurricanes are a lot like guns. Always loaded

At a certain point, the first rule of first aid applied: in trying to help someone else, don't put yourself in a position of danger. Playing chicken with a category 4 hurricane (or any hurricane) met that criteria.

The drive? More or less uneventful. I've made the trip driving from Wisconsin to Florida and back before, and so I know that there's nothing to see from the Florida Turnpike. I stopped at a couple of the service plazas to eat and rest, and check in with the family that I thought would be following closer behind than they turned out to be following. I sent updates: the food service places at the service plazas are closing, fuel isn't rationed but they're not staying open all night like they normally do. Continuing north on I-75 all of the rest areas were filled with hurricane evacuees from farther north in Florida into Georgia, so I kept going until traffic got terrible and I let Google Maps find me another way here. I've lived in my car for weeks at a time, I can handle being in a truck for a day or two (although I don't like sleeping in the car/truck, because it reminds me of being homeless).Now that things are settled down a little and I have a desk to sit at and a coffee maker to make coffee

I made it here safe. So did family, although a day or so later. Mission accomplished.

The lesson in all of this is that a lot of the things that make PTSD a bad thing-- hyper awareness, avoidance, etc. -- can sometimes be assets in civilian life just as they were on the battlefield. One of the things in therapy that I heard over and over again was that the world isn't as dangerous as PTSD wants us to believe. Okay, so maybe the crowded and loud restaurant where we ate dinner last night wasn't a dangerous place (although it was triggering), but there are times when being in battle mode is exactly what you need to keep yourself safe. Fear of hurricanes didn't keep me from volunteering to go to south Florida to help my sister move, but I damn sure kept an eye on the weather and knew when Matthew began to look like a threat. When Matthew was a threat I took action on my own to make sure I was safe and in doing so protected an entire truckload of my sister's stuff. (If Matthew had leveled her house, at least she'd have all of her stuff safe and dry.)

It is sort of strange being where I am now, in someone else's house that feels like everything here (including the house itself) is here just in case. If all else fails they always have this place to come back to.

I'm finding myself thinking about maybe I should have a place like this, some small house out in the middle of nowhere that I can drive to any time of day or night, to find the power on and non-perishable food in the pantry and a few cases of bottled water in the closet. A car in the garage, gassed up and on a battery charger. Clothes. Tools. A generator. Internet. The extra expenses every month would be worth the peace of mind know it's there.

There is always the question of what's next; the answer to that is the same as it's been for a while now, I don't know. It's quiet here, out in the country, which at this point is pretty nice. I have a vehicle to drive, even if it is borrowed. I have a desk to sit at and work. I have a coffee maker and coffee. I have internet, although it's just me tethering to my phone. I'm setting up a work schedule, trying to get into some sort of routine, where I can work on the training I have available and get some resumes out.

More to come.

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