The year 2005 was a record breaking year for named tropical storms and hurricanes. Hurricane Katrina made the world sit up and take notice during that season due to the devastation along the gulf coast of Louisiana and Mississippi. Shortly before Katrina, hurricane Ivan shook coastal Alabama and the western panhandle of Florida. All in all, 2005 was a costly year for the Southeastern United States in terms of financial loss and human lives. There was another year, however, that stunned Floridians and kept us on edge in terms of the number and threat of hurricanes and tropical storms. In 1995, we saw more storms in one season than we had ever seen in history up to that point. Hurricanes Erin and Opal showed us the dangers of waiting out a storm, and those of us who lived through it would learn to carefully monitor the progress of tropical disturbances and prepare accordingly.
We hadn’t seen a severe storm in years, and residents were becoming complacent towards the threat of a hurricane. When hurricane Erin formed in the Atlantic, those of us in Pensacola, located in Florida’s panhandle hardly noticed. It was on the east coast of our state, and history showed us that it would likely move up and roll in around the Carolinas somewhere. Erin surprised us all, though, by building up a little steam and rolling right over the peninsula of our state, then strengthening in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I was pregnant at the time, and married with two small boys. We lived in a mobile home, so at the point that we knew Erin was going to slam into our area, we packed some things in our car and went over to my grandmother’s house about a mile away. She lived in a sturdy brick home so we knew we would be safe, and we weren’t close enough to the coast to worry about flooding from storm surge.
Hurricane parties were all the rage back then. The news was playing constantly on all the networks, and reporters looking for the big story highlighted surfers and residents who used the storm as an opportunity to party and get their mugs on TV. A handful of those partiers would die in the Gulf waters.
The eye of the storm was eerie. If you have never experienced a direct hit from a hurricane, it is difficult to describe. Just when the storm was at its strongest, everything suddenly stopped. No wind, no rain, and a brightness in the sky that reminds you that the sun is still up there above it all. When you step outside, you feel a cool, humid stillness that almost makes you forget that it’s not over yet. Now you know you’re only halfway through the storm and you still must endure the final blows from the back side. The stillness lasts for about twenty minutes and ends abruptly with a driving rain and howling winds that turn in the opposite direction of the first strike. Darkness falls upon you again.
When we got back home, we had no power. Otherwise, though, we were lucky not to have extensive damage. Other homes in the park where we lived were not so lucky, there were many that had fallen trees on them and torn up awnings and roofs. We lived without power for a week. During this time, we grilled out a lot or went to eat at our other family members’ homes who still had their electricity. Lines to buy ice were around the block, and we found ourselves waiting in one just once right at the beginning.
A couple of months later, hurricane Opal threatened our area. Many of us were still shell-shocked from hurricane Erin, and Opal was expected to be about the same. We were preparing for Opal, and went to bed on the night of October 3. Last reports was that Opal would come ashore late the following evening as a category 3 (out of 5) storm. About five a.m. the next morning, though, I was awakened by the phone ringing. My mom was calling to tell me that the storm had unexpectedly strengthened during the night and was bearing down on us. We were not prepared for this. My mom and I decided to pack our family up and drive into Georgia where we could stay with family and friends to wait out the storm.
Getting out of Pensacola was frightening. When we got on the interstate, traffic was bumper to bumper. We were nearly at a standstill for hours as the rain and wind picked up. We were all on edge, not knowing if it would be safe to exit the interstate and find another route. It took us three hours to drive a distance that should have taken us twenty minutes. When we got out of Pensacola, traffic was moving faster, but we were still concerned that we were going to be stuck in our car on the highway when the storm moved ashore.
Just outside of Crestview, my mom, who was driving, suddenly screamed and drove into the side of the highway. I didn’t know what was happening or why she did that, but I noticed other cars stopping too. I looked up to my right and saw a tornado heading right for us. Trees to my right were snapping in half. As the tornado moved over our car, I imagined it lifting us up like in the Wizard of Oz. I worried for my boys who were in the car next to me. The tornado moved over us quickly, though it may have been the most frightening few seconds of my life. After it passed, I watched it snap trees in half on the other side of the highway. My mom opened her car door and fainted.
Traffic moved more steadily for the rest of the trip. Reports on the radio told us that the bands from Opal’s reach were close behind us. Tornado warnings sprang up in each county as we entered the next.
Later that evening, tornadoes and flash flooding tore right through the town where we were staying with family members. We lost power through the night and wondered if we were really safer than if we had stayed home. Back home, the storm was over now, but we had to endure the winds and rain through the night.
When we got back home a day later, the power was out again, and would be for about four days this time. But, once again, our home was spared and damage was minor. The hurricane season that year would reach the alphabetical letter of “T” for named storms before it was over, something that had never happened in any season prior. We were lucky, but would never take our safety during a hurricane for granted again. Though the 2005 hurricane season trumped 1995 and every other since then, those of us who experienced the 1995 season learned great lessons about safety and preparation.