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One Airman's thankfulness: Dodging bullets with Tupperware

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --

This morning my husband said something profound: “Every day you should slap yourself in the face so you don’t forget yesterday.” At first, we busted out laughing at his over-the-top phrasing, but afterward he expanded what he was trying to convey -- that we all need to remember the things that happen to us in life. With a near-miss by a potential category 4 hurricane in our rearview mirror, the sentiment was suitable at this time of Thanksgiving for the soon-forgotten, monumental sigh of relief we felt last month.  

Early in October, Hurricane Matthew was reaching immortal strength with winds up to 155 mph and was heading straight toward us. Patrick Air Force Base and the Barrier Island here were under a mandatory evacuation. After watching a plate-full of spaghetti models on TV and joking around with friends and coworkers about 'hurrications' and 'evacucations,' within a few days I found myself sitting in a Wing Crisis Action meeting and getting scolded by the 920th Rescue Wing commander. "If you’re not ready by now…" I was not ready. Gulp.

Many of my longtime fellow wing members landed here after Hurricane Andrew dismantled their Miami area homes as well as Homestead Air Reserve Station in the 90s. However, after a decade living as Florida coastal residents, my family’s original fear of hurricane destruction wore off. We went from being the first in our neighborhood to board up all of our windows when hurricanes were mere embryos in the Caribbean, to seasoned pros with go-bags, a generator, shutters and a plan. All was well.

Alas, when the realty hit that the storm might flatten our abodes and flood our yard flamingos, we began dusting off the plan and realizing it had holes -- not just pin holes, but gaping craters. We collected quite a few potted plants through the years that were now considered terra-cotta missiles, there was a mountain of half-finished projects blocking those Teflon storm shutters. Would they really stop a speeding tree trunk? And now we had elderly parents to protect -- another big gulp.

Laissez-faire turned into cra-zay hair on fire; there was little time to spare before zero hour and we still had a boatload of things to do. In between trips to the grocery store for jugs of water and batteries, emails from friends and coworkers flurried in: “Come stay with us.” “We can help you rebuild.” “EVACUATE NOW!” The offers and concern were comforting amidst the race for survival, but when your entire life’s contents float before your bloodshot eyes, adrenaline takes over and your decision-making can get clouded.

After interrogating several seasoned neighbors who all said without a doubt they were staying put like they had for every hurricane since 1950, even category 4s, we made the informed decision to hunker down. My in-laws joined the party and brought their dog and cat to our house, along with a cooler full of frozen food and a ration of cigarettes. My father-in-law’s dementia demanded he fire up regularly. Mom even had an e-cig on hand so he could smoke indoors when the storm was bearing down. We thought of it all.

After the pendulum dropped, through texting, we learned that we were the only foolish ones in our neighborhood who didn’t evacuate, besides our neighbor who we called “The Viking.” We were saying, ‘I beg your pardon’ to a giant churning beast with no brain and one big eye, and lots of prayers he’d go away.

In this pre-hurricane, post-no-more-evacuation time, I texted my operations group commander, Col. Kurt Matthews. He seamlessly led the effort to relocate our fleet of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft out of harm’s way to Keesler Air Force Base, Miss.,to stage for rescues after the storm’s unfriendly visit. I was at a gritting-my-teeth point, but Colonel Mathews reassured me that he would come check on us. From there, I knew if we were buried beneath rubble, Team Rescue would come dig us out. My thoughts went to the poor victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Throughout the years, my fellow rescue warriors told harrowing stories of picking up survivors by chopping through shingles and wood to create homemade skylights.

Even my vice commander, who lived several states away, was heading this way to pilot rescue missions. And not to be outdone, my public affairs team of award-winning chair pilots who live beyond the storm’s reach, opened up their homes and hearts. My brand new Airman was already chomping at the bit to come help after just joining the unit. All of the great concern became that emergency light illuminated in the psyche when going through a dark time. Our wing chaplain even conducted live prayer broadcasts on Facebook.

Through the night, the wind picked up and the lights flickered. The eyes wanted rest, but the brain was on high alert. Finally, the wind became a freight train with akin speed and sound. We were passengers along for the ride hoping it would not derail.

While it was a long, mostly blind ride through the night waiting in hopeful anticipation, a glimmer of home came from our only window to the world: our cell phone. I received a text with a link to a story that ran on a Mississippi TV station of our aircrews and maintainers waiting in the wings to serve as our rescue saviors should we need them. They conducted media interviews that broadcasted their reassuring words and rescue capabilities. In the hours leading up to, during, and after the hurricane, I shared much useful information on social media in my official public affairs capacity, but that news story was by far the most impactful. It grew legs, and many East Coasters who saw it were rest assured they wouldn’t be forgotten.

As the beast crawled northward out of our reach, the next day was like Christmas morning for us. Somehow, some way the storm didn’t take the hard left turn predictors said it would. Instead, it veered slightly right, barely grazing our habitats. We lost tree limbs and fences (and partially our minds), but we were celebratory knowing full well what could have been. The conclusion could have been fatal. We made a pact to never stay for a category 4 again, ever.

When it was all said and done, I learned a lot, like putting tape over the key hole allows you to still lock your door despite a sand blasting from sideways winds. I learned the meaning of the word 'hunker': to sit tight in total darkness for hours and hours while resisting draining your phone battery. Mostly though, I learned, check your plan -- really check it. Force yourself to really open your eyes and look around. Really go through the motions. Sit down with the whole family and talk out your plan. Don’t try to dodge bullets or even rocket-propelled trees with Tupperware-esque hurricane shutters. Get real with it.

My Thanksgiving blessings go out to so many who gave us that peace of mind during the storm despite our foolish decision to stay, and for their forward-leaning volunteerism. If we are ever in the crosshairs of another relative of Matthew or Andrew, I will slap myself in the face so I don’t forget yesterday.