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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Florida can be a shock

It’s not just moving that’s an adjustment for North Carolinians when arriving in Florida. It’s simply visiting, too.

My friend Chris recently took a vacation to Miami for a week to celebrate his graduation with his bachelor’s degree and being promoted to sergeant at the police department in Lenoir. He and I met about a year ago through my work at the News-Topic since he was the school resource officer at one of the high schools. As I was the education reporter, we ran into each other often and started a friendship. When Chris said he was in Miami, I badly wanted to see a friendly face and asked him to meet me halfway for dinner.

We decided to meet in a tiny town south of Lake Okeechobee at a diner. For both of us, the trip should have taken an hour and a half to get there. Chris’s route involved tolls so I texted him, “Make sure you bring quarters.”

“Quarters?” he said.

“You’ll hit a few tolls. They’re usually 65 cents to $1,” I replied.

“Ohh gotcha! Thanks for the reminder!”

That evening, I left my house and headed for the diner. Chris left at the same time. However, he was immediately caught in horrendous Miami traffic. He texted me that he’d be half an hour late. I told him not to worry; I always bring a book with me because I’m usually an early bird. As I continued at 65 mph down nearly empty highways, Chris was still stuck in stop-and-go traffic. Half an hour turned into 45 minutes, which turned into over an hour.

As I was approaching the town where we’d meet, Chris told me he was still stuck in Miami. I pulled over at a gas station and texted him that I was going to give him a new place to meet closer to him. However, there’s not many towns in the middle of the state, so we met at a steakhouse that was only 15 minutes closer to where he was. It was odd little town, and the steakhouse was out of nearly everything on the menu, including most of their steak cuts. I ended up sitting in the parking lot talking to my boyfriend on the phone then reading for an hour before Chris and his cousin showed up.

Poor Chris was so frustrated from the drive that he stopped at a gas station to get some headache relief medicine before coming to the steakhouse. He said that not only was the traffic bad but that he also got caught in one of Florida’s infamous thunderstorms and stuck at the toll booth.

“It said it took exact change, and all I had were dollar bills,” he said, explaining that there were people honking at him as he tried to figure out how to pay.

“I told you to bring quarters,” I answered, laughing.

“Wait, you literally meant quarters?” he asked.

Chris was also sporting a large straw hat, a very Floridian wardrobe choice, and a red, blistering nose from having too much fun in the sun without any sunscreen.

Despite the great hurdles we faced to get together, seeing each other was worth it. Chris is one of those people who will move the earth if it means the happiness of his friends and family, and I was beyond excited to see an old friend! I cannot thank him enough for braving the traffic, toll roads and thunderstorms to meet me.

Most of the people I’ve met in Arcadia have been sweet, welcoming and enjoyable to be around. It’s been two months, and I’ve made a small group of friends. In fact, I’m hosting Game Night this week! However, there’s something comforting and refreshing about sitting down with someone you’ve known for over a year and picking up right where you left off. Honestly, I’m just terrible at small talk!

To Orlando or bust

While I have mostly lived in small, rural towns in North Carolina, I have also lived in the large cities of Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh. They all have extraordinary amounts of traffic. If you’re impatient and have a lead foot like myself, traffic can be one of the most insufferable aspects of life. That vehicular congestion and long commute times to destinations only a few miles apart are probably why I only lived in Raleigh for a summer and Greensboro for a single college semester. Charlotte was always a fun destination for activities while my family lived in the quiet suburbs 30 minutes away.
Based on my experience in those cities, I thought I knew what traffic was.

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From when I lived in Raleigh in 2011

Then, I drove to Orlando for a day.
My cousin is an accomplished dancer, and one weekend, she participated in the Orlando Ballroom Showcase at the Hyatt Regency Hotel near the International Airport. My cousin has lived in Melbourne all her life, and since I’ve been in North Carolina, I’ve missed many of her great accomplishments, such as dance performances, her high school graduation, etc. When my aunt told me about the showcase, I thought it would be worth seeing even though I’d spend four hours in the car that day driving from Arcadia to Orlando and back.
Setting out, I wrote down directions from Google Maps so I wouldn’t have to use my cell phone data for a map app until I got to Orlando. I figured at that point I’d need an electronic voice talking me through the many red lights and lane changes as I was driving through them. My first mistake was opting to leave U.S.-17 to cut through Avon Park to avoid the toll roads. FL-64 E wasn’t bad, but once I turned left onto U.S.-98 N in Avon Park, the red lights, congestion and headaches started. I got stuck behind so many trucks, U-Hauls and other slow-moving vehicles that by the time I got up to speed from the last red light, I’d hit another one and would have to brake. I kept driving and driving, and I thought I’d never make it through the stop-and-go traffic lights. Finally, I saw a big green sign with that familiar blue and red logo.

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Bindi is usually my co-pilot (although normally in the back seat)!

“Please, be I-4,” I begged.
Sure enough, it was the merging lane for I-4 to Orlando. Now, the directions from Google Maps told me to take Exit 72 for International Airport and Cape Canaveral. Instead, I decided to turn on the GPS on my cell phone, which is not Google Maps, just to make sure. My cell phone had very different directions. It had me take an exit 10 miles earlier than Exit 72. I trusted the phone. It hadn’t led my wrong before.
I ended up on International Boulevard, the road where I knew the hotel was located. Then, my phone told me to cross a highway and get back on I-4. Wait, what? I was just on I-4. I followed the phone’s instructions, which involved crossing the highway at a place that was not safe for me to cross. What my phone thought was a crossing on both sides was actually the end of turning lane for the other side of the highway, and I was nearly T-boned by another car trying to turn in my direction as I skedaddled across two lanes like a clueless tourist.
I got back on I-4 right in the middle of stop-and-go traffic for Disney World. When my phone told me to exit for Sea World, I said no. I wasn’t falling for that again. I drove on to Exit 72. Turns out Exit 72 is also an exit for Sea World, the more popular of the two if trying to get to see Shamu and all his friends. I nearly crunched the front of Little Honda into the back of a huge van because the exit ramp was backed up at a complete stop up to the highway as people tried to turn left to Sea World. Mouth open, I gaped at the blocked intersection under the ramp I was sitting on. Never had I come to a complete stop while on an exit ramp for traffic.
I eventually made it to the Hyatt and saw my cousin dance in four heats of the competition. Unfortunately, I missed her receiving a third place medal for her dances earlier in the day, but still my family was delighted that I attended the competition. My cousin was awesome, and we took a bunch of silly pictures together with the showcase’s logo in the back. I don’t regret being there, but now I know to never take “just driving up to Orlando” lightly.
Just so you know, I did make it safely home by taking I-4 to U.S.-17 through Bartow and Wauchula. As my luck would have it, I drove through two major thunderstorms. I’m proud to say that I did not pull over like a North Carolinian but powered through them like a true Floridian. Now, people may have been passing me on the left as I crawled forward at 25 mph, but … I didn’t pull over!

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Tara, left, and I being silly at the Orlando Ballroom Classic!

Beating the heat

North Carolina gets hot. That may sound funny to you all here, but I promise you my home can become sweltering, especially in July and August.
However, in the mountains, the breezes are cool, and there isn’t near as much humidity as there is in Florida. I enjoy being outdoors, and so my dog Bindi and I would go hiking in the mountains and Foothills even in the middle of the summer. If you needed to cool off, you just dipped your toes (or your whole body if you’re my dog) into a cool mountain stream or lake. Paradise! In all my times hiking throughout the summer in North Carolina, I never had a problem with the heat.
I stupidly thought I could do the same here. One weekend, I was tired of unpacking, cleaning and sitting around my new house. I Googled some places to hike that would take longer than a time or two around a walking track at a park. I found Myakka River State Park in Sarasota. The Web site told me I’d get to see alligators, birds, deer, raccoons and all sorts of wildlife. I was particularly excited about the alligators because I hadn’t seen one yet since moving here. So I packed up a bag of two bottles of water, snacks, sunscreen and rain ponchos for both me and Bindi then set off in my car, “Little Honda,” with Bindi in the backseat.
As we entered the park early in the morning, we stopped by the attendant’s shelter to pay the entry fee and get a park map.
“So, where are the trail heads? I’ve never been here before. We’re here to hike,” I said.
He grimaced. “Oh! It’s a bad time for hiking.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yeah, we’ve gotten so much rain that everything is flooded,”  he responded.
At first, I thought he meant I was going to have to go back and find something else to do. My heart sank with disappointment.
“All the trails are underwater, but you can walk along the paved road,” he added.13403346_10154256003117500_7355071886824491563_o
I thanked him and continued into the park. I decided to drive along the road until I reached the center of the park where there’s a restaurant, air boat rides and equipment rentals. Then, Bindi and I could continue walking along the paved road through the scenery. Sure enough, water was lapping both sides of the road from all the rain. There’s something unsettling and eerie about seeing dark water along the sides of the road, which snakes between thick trees, bushes and Spanish moss dangling down. I felt like something big with lots of teeth was watching me from the murkiness.
When we reached the large parking lot next to the general store and air boat rides, Bindi, who was already panting, and I got out of the car and set off on our hike. Not two minutes down the road, I was sweating. My short-sleeved shirt was stuck to me, and the backpack was like a heating pad on high pressed against my back. We stopped after 10 minutes for a water break. Still, it didn’t feel too terrible, especially in the shade.
The thing with dehydration is it sneaks up on you. One minute, I was walking along thinking, “Hmm, it’s really hot out, but wow, that prairie is beautiful.” The next minute, my legs were shaking, my brain felt like it was pounding against my skull, and I could barely keep my eyes open. As I described it to my boyfriend later, “There could have been an alligator sitting right there and I still could have curled up and fallen asleep on the road.” Bindi, the poor dog, had her tongue hanging out nearly to the grass. While there was lots of water around and Bindi desperately wanted to go swimming, I wasn’t taking the risk of letting her cool off in one of the flooded pools! Just because I didn’t see an alligator didn’t mean there wasn’t one hiding under the deep brown surface of the overflowing lakes. Bindi is the perfect gator-sized snack!
We stopped for another water break, and I poured water all down Bindi’s back and over her ears. Bindi and I are used to hiking uphill over rocks, wooden stairs and fallen tree trucks to the top of a waterfall every weekend for an hour to three hours. Now, a flat, paved road had us beat in 30 minutes. It was embarrassing, but we turned around all the same. If Bindi decided she couldn’t walk back because of the heat, I knew there was no way I could carry a 55-pound dog down the road.
As we stumbled into the parking lot, I thought maybe stopping at the general store would be fun. Little Honda’s air conditioning isn’t great, so I knew we’d at least have a nice, cool reprieve in the store. Sure enough, it felt like Canada in there! Bindi collapsed on the cool floor while I looked around at the hats, shirts, snacks and postcards. The guy behind the counter was very friendly.
“Would you like some ice cubes for your dog?” he asked.
“That would be great!” I answered.
He handed me a small plastic cup of ice cubes, which Bindi lapped at while laying on the floor. The man just loved her funky patterns on her coat and engaged me in conversation for nearly the entire half-hour we hung out at the store. His conversation alone was worth the drive.
I must say that to any newcomers, like myself, Myakka River State Park is definitely an enjoyable place to visit. From what I hear, the trails — when they’re not underwater — are incredible and packed full of wildlife (we did see four alligators on our drive out). That day, Bindi and I learned the hard way that not all heat is the same.

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Bindi in Myakka River State Park

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!