The sport of hurricane watching

“Hurricane Watch” should be more than a phrase used as a distress signal by meteorologists whenever a hurricane is threatening a region. It should be a sport.
Last week, Florida residents kept a close eye on Hurricane Matthew as it spun closer to the state, threatening to be the first hurricane to make landfall on the east coast for the first time in a decade.
As it continued to strengthen, gas prices skyrocketed, bread disappeared from grocery stores and Gov. Rick Scott started live tweeting his panic on how everyone who chose not to evacuate was going to die.
I watched Hurricane Matthew like a hawk. I kept a website browser open on my computer at all times just so I could check the “cone of unpredictability” of where it was planning to hit and when.
You see, I had a plane to catch on Friday. It would be my first time returning to North Carolina since moving down here at the end of May.
I was to be a groomsman, or a “groomslady,” in my best friend’s wedding, and of course, that’s the very weekend that the first hurricane since Andrew decided to strike Florida and cause statewide hysteria.

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A photo of Hurricane Matthew courtesy of Pixabay

Facebook posts started emerging about bread disappearing even in DeSoto County, which received only a little rain and some gusty winds. Traffic was deadlocked on Highway 70 in front of Walmart as people ran to the store to stock up or get out of town.
My aunt, uncle and cousin evacuated from Melbourne to my house. They arrived late in the dark on Wednesday night in two cars with two cats, as much of their possessions as they could pack and a lot of baked goods (my aunt bakes when she’s stressed). All day Thursday and into the night, my aunt paced around my house, texting all her friends who decided to stay behind and ride out the storm. With tears streaming down her face, she told me that nothing would ever convince her to not evacuate again.
“That constant howling of the wind. You will never forget that. Nothing is worth listening to that all night long,” she said.
My uncle continually updated his phone and gave us a play-by-play of where meteorologists predicted Matthew to go next.
For the whole week, coworkers and other community members told me it was going to be impossible to fly out of Punta Gorda on Friday morning. The conversations felt like we were talking about some ultimate sporting event.
I kept reading Gov. Scott’s tweets of doom, looked at news articles coming from Haiti and tried my best to hope and wish Matthew away.
I also saw a ton of messages on Arcadia’s Facebook pages supporting neighbors, offering rooms to stay in at private homes because the hotels were full of evacuees, and people offering their services to put up shutters, help people pack and more.
When Friday arrived, I was a nervous wreck. I hate flying. And now, I was going to face flying in a hurricane. While the rest of Florida was preparing for the storm as shown on large screen TVs throughout the terminal, the airport in Punta Gorda was shockingly calm.
I sat in front of my gate for two hours waiting for them to delay or cancel the flight. No such thing. My fellow passengers and I boarded the plane right on time.
“It’s going to be a bit bumpy, but we’re scheduled to land early,” the pilot announced quite cheerfully.
Could it be? Could I text my friends and boyfriend without a doubt I’d be arriving on time in North Carolina?
Sure enough, the plane rocketed down the runway and into the air without a hitch.
“Congratulations,” the pilot announced as we reached cruising altitude. “You are all officially storm chasers. If you look out the window, you’ll see the outer band of Matthew.”
I peeked out the window, and sure enough, below I could see the swirling blue bands of Matthew slowly moving over Florida. It doesn’t get more Floridian than that. All I needed was an alligator and Mickey Mouse sitting in the seats next to me.

ARCADIAN PHOTO BY LEX MENZThe view of Hurricane Matthew out the plane window

The view of Hurricane Matthew out the plane window

Hurricanes are very serious and dangerous matters. I’m not trying to make light of that. Twenty-two people in the U.S. were killed by Matthew.
St. Augustine and other coastal cities of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina suffered devastating loss and destruction.
There are some things that could have been done differently by our state’s leader during Matthew, and there is a lot to learn about the unpredictability of these storms.
Hurricane Matthew’s eye stayed out to sea as it passed Melbourne, which is unlike what meteorologists originally predicted. My aunt and uncle’s house never lost power throughout the storm. They did the right thing by evacuating, but it was an overwhelming relief to be wrong rather than to be right and lose everything.
DeSoto County, too, saw a bit of a panic that was unwarranted as Hurricane Matthew stayed on the Atlantic side, but the memories of Hurricane Charley are still too raw for residents here who lost so much and are still trying to recover.
Hurricane Matthew taught me an invaluable lesson about being prepared, staying calm through the storm, valuing family and keeping positive in the face of unpredictability.
If we face another hurricane this season or in years to come, I hope to see the unwavering support, love and friendship in DeSoto County that I saw from neighbors and community members last week.

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Tackling the legendary Publix sub

Since my arrival, all I have heard about is the new Publix opening.
OK … and?
I completely understand that having a large grocery store chain comDSC_0078e to town is important to the community’s growth and development. It really is a wonderful step forward and should be celebrated.
But, people here seem to focus on that fact that it’s a Publix store specifically, and I was confused by that.
In North Carolina, Publix stores are few and far between, but they are finally starting to make their way across the state. As I was packing up my apartment to move here, the City of Hickory (which was about 30 minutes south of my coverage area) announced Publix was coming. It was met with mild fanfare and excitement. But, when the newspaper I worked for in Lenoir announced Chick-fil-A was coming to town, our Facebook page swarmed with comments, likes and shares. We started getting phone calls at the office about where people could apply for jobs, etc. Construction hadn’t even started yet! We received more Facebook traffic that day after the announcement than we did when the county school board made major decisions affecting their students, or even when murderers were convicted. We get seriously pumped about Chick-fil-A. (Sadly, I never got to experience the Lenoir Chick-fil-A. After listening to rumors for two years that it would be built, I left for Arcadia just a few months before construction began! And, it was only two minutes from the newspaper office, too!!)
So, when I was assigned to tour the Arcadia Publix before it opened, I had no idea what awaited me. Brian West, public relations manager for Publix, greeted me at the door and welcomed me inside. He said that it probably didn’t look like what I was used to since not everything was stocked yet.
“Well, I’ve never been in a Publix before,” I said plainly.
West’s mouth dropped, and he started to laugh. “Are you serious? Really? You’ve never been in a Publix before? That is amazing!”
He then proceeded to say that this was my first time in a Publix every time he introduced me to an employee along the tour. He was delighted that my first Publix experience was at Arcadia’s before it has even opened. He promised that if I returned for the grand opening, he would buy me a Publix sub.
“I’m a really picky eater,” I said. “I’m just warning you now. So, it’ll be put to the test.”
West assured me I would love it.
In the days leading up to the grand opening, the buzz around DeSoto County was evident. It seemed like everyone was talking about it on Facebook, and in some cases literally counting down the days. Even if I hadn’t been promised a sub, I would have been there out of pure curiosity.
It was exciting to see the long line of people standing outside waiting for the doors to open, filming the cutting of the green ribbon and watching people hustle into the store with a grocery cart.

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As soon as I got my pictures of the mini stampede, West took me to the sub counter. It was 8 a.m. — not normally the time one eats a sub sandwich — but West was so excited to have me try one. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’m really not a sandwich person. Slap some peanut butter and grape jelly on two pieces of bread and I’m set. West explained to the woman behind the counter that this would be my first Publix sub.
“You look scared.” she laughed. “What do you want on it?”
“I like turkey,” I said.
“You’ve got to have Boar’s Head. And what kind of bread?” she asked.
“White,” I answered.
She put a big wad of turkey on a beautiful white loaf of bread, which is baked fresh each morning in the bakery. “OK, so we have mayonnaise and lots of different sauces and condiments,” she said.
I smiled. “That’s it.”
She blinked. “That’s it?
“Meat and bread,” I said.
West burst out laughing, slapping his knee. “Oh my gosh! Meat and bread!”
I grinned. “I told you I was picky,” I said.
The lady wrapped up the sandwich and handed it over. For the rest of my visit, West laughed and told everyone we met about my meat-and-bread sub. I’m used to it. At least he didn’t make me eat it in front of him. Instead, I waited until I got back to the office. As I uploaded videos of the ribbon cutting that morning to the Arcadian’s Facebook page, I unwrapped my sub and took my first bite of the legendary Publix sandwich.
You know what? If you’re a sandwich person and love diving into two pieces of bread loaded down with flavor, meats and veggies, it lives up to the hype. It was pretty darn delicious.
So now I can proudly say I’ve eaten a Publix sub, and I can cross that off my “New to Florida Bucket List.” I think next should be baking and eating a Florida orange juice cake. Sweets are more my style!

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My Publix sub – meat and bread!

Making myself at home

Most journalists are notorious for being introverts, so when Arcadian Editor Steve Bauer asked me to write a column introducing myself, it was more daunting than the interview process to get this job as assistant editor. In fact, I was recently interviewed for a local television spotlight at my last job, and the interviewer’s first question was “Tell us about yourself.” I literally replied, “Um,” and stared ahead for a minute before stumbling through an answer.
I’m naturally shy, a trait I have learned to overcome in my roles as editor-in-chief of a college newspaper and the education/small towns reporter at a community newspaper in North Carolina for the past two years. More than likely if you ask me who I am, I will talk your ear off about two things: My pets and my work.
My pets are like my children. Sparta and Rameses are my cats, and Bindi is my Australian cattle dog/German shepherd mix.
Sparta, or Spartacus when he’s in trouble, is an Egyptian Mau mix my mom found under a car on a rainy night at a gas station near our home in Mount Holly, N.C. With his golden lemur eyes and ringed tail, he was too cute not to keep. When I went to college at Western Carolina University, Sparta came with me starting my sophomore year. Since then, we have moved multiple times across North Carolina. This is the first time he’s come with me to another state. So far, he is loving the Sunshine State, with its plethora of sun to bask in and lots of lizards to chase.
Rameses is only a year old but is already close to 15 pounds. Not because he’s overweight; he’s just a big cat with a lot of muscle. He’s also known as “Rameses the Destroyer,” because quite often he will get a glint in his pumpkin orange eyes and will wreak havoc, destroy mankind’s livelihood and run amok. He’s chewed through wires on my Internet router, gone missing inside a dresser and peed (twice) all over the dog’s bed. Somewhere, though, he’s got a good heart, and when he finally decides he likes you, he’ll snuggle and give you kisses with his pink nose.

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Sparta, above, and Rameses

Bindi is a rescue dog I adopted just over a year ago from a kill shelter. She’s got a huge heart of love and loyalty for me. If you see us out and about in town on walks, please stop by and say hi. She will be wearing a black harness across her torso that reads, “Please give me space, do not pet.” Bindi was abused by her former owner, which has damaged her emotionally and mentally. At first, she can be very shy and if she’s frightened, she reacts in a negative way toward strangers. The harness warning helps keep people from running up to her and getting in her face, and allows me to provide instruction on how to approach her safely.

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Bindi in her harness

All three made the 14-hour drive with me to Arcadia on May 29. Looking like a champion navigator, Bindi rode in the passenger seat of the U-Haul truck with my dad as we traveled through heavy flooding in South Carolina, which involved a two-hour detour thanks to the tropical depression in the area, and “Mickey Mouse traffic” in Orlando. Sparta and Rameses rode in my Honda running loose throughout the car. Sparta, as I mentioned earlier, is a seasoned traveler, but Rameses has rarely been in the car. I was expecting him to yowl, scream, cry and throw a fit throughout the entire trip. On a previous trip we took together, Rameses whined and crawled back and forth from the headrest behind my head to the passenger seat headrest for the entire hour ride. I felt it might be appropriate to start writing my obituary of how I was killed by my cat while moving to Florida. Considering the dramatics of my life so far, that somehow felt like a fitting ending. However, it was the rain in South Carolina that caused the biggest drama on the trip rather than the Rameses the Destroyer.

For the past two years, I have worked as the education and small towns reporter for a community newspaper published five days a week. I covered the meetings for six town councils, the local school board and the local community college. I also spent time in the school system as a student in the classroom (yes, I actually took fifth-grade science tests, while in kindergarten learned how to write my name and walked around with sore muscles for a week after eighth-grade gym class); skeet shooting with Junior ROTC students; jumping into creeks with 4-H Club members; and discussing STEM education with teachers from all grade levels. At first, I started out as just a journalist, new to the area with no family or friends. However, it wasn’t long before my insistence on not only observing and reporting, but also participating in local events, made me an active member of the community.
As you can imagine, there are many differences between a small county in North Carolina and Florida. For one, the superintendent in Caldwell County is appointed, not elected. I also come from a place where the school system involves 24 schools, including two alternative schools for students who need special direction and instruction in order to succeed at their education. In Caldwell County, there are police chiefs instead of marshals, and there is a lot more furniture instead of oranges.
But, there are many similarities as well. The elected officials of the community are present at nearly all public events, the community rallies around projects to make their home a better place, and people are overwhelmingly giving in their time and kindness to other people. Already, I’ve scoped out volunteer opportunities I can’t wait to get involved in, met a few of my neighbors, discovered several parks to enjoy with my dog and in less than a week already feel at home.
This is a homecoming for me in a way, because although I’ve lived in North Carolina most of my life, I was actually born in Tampa. The sun, the atmosphere and the people feel familiar to me. I thought I’d be shell-shocked and unbelievably homesick at first. Instead, I’m excited, I’m getting a tan and I’m hoping I find an alligator in my front yard. I’m looking forward to meeting you all through interviews, emails, letters, phone calls and while I’m out and about in the community. While I’m shy, I do enjoy meeting new people and hearing your stories. So, please don’t hesitate to say hi!