Donie Lee, Chief of Police of the City of Key West burst into the communications center and asked tersely:
"Is everyone awake?" Without waiting for a reply from Nick or myself, night dispatchers on duty and hopefully awake, he moved on out and went office to office to awaken the sleeping cops. This was it. This was what the Weather Channel called a "non-survivable event." We were face to face with it.
Me at the back. Kristi Nick and Keith, left to right, the only Irma dispatchers in all Monroe County.
Well, if Nick and I weren't awake we sure were now, no doubt. Kristi and Keith, our daytime relief appeared in pajamas rubbing their eyes, their hair adrift in imitation of the Road Runner's crest, and asked what was up. "Damned if I know. Adam One just told everyone to wake up." Adam in police radio talk means 'Administrator' in our agency, and you can't get a higher rank than ONe. Officer Wiseman our newest recruit is Paul 97, the newest patrolman in the agency. He wasn't one of the 18 officers who volunteered to stay behind and face off against Irma, then rated Category Five, the highest category of hurricane just as Adam One is our police top dog.
Adam One at work in the Emergency Operations Center at the police station
Adam One got all 18 officers, k9 Benji, four dispatchers and our Public Information Officer Alyson Crean in the room and announced the eye of the storm was about to reach land and he wasn't sure the building would hold. We were to prepare to evacuate the police station.
Key West PD communications center during a lull. Adam One center conferring with Keith and Kristi
Golly we said to each other, as we civilians tried to figure out what to pack for immediate flight to "safety." For the officers it was easy as they stuffed backpacks, put on helmets and stood around Like Donie's Praetorian Guard while us lot looked despairingly at our already minuscule pile of personal belongings and wondered what we were supposed to pare down to.
The call out board with frequently needed phone numbers posted non electronically
Everything about Hurricane Irma has been a learning curve and I have suffered through a dozen storms in my 13 years as a Key West dispatcher. Wilma was ghastly not least because communications never really broke down and I took 911 calls during the storm from people facing being drowned in their own homes and I had followed Katrina's New Orleans ravages a few weeks prior. One woman on Catherine Street called to say she was in her bath tub and could see stars as her home disintegrated around her. Those are the moments that try the soul of a 911 call taker.
Briefing room with Adam One's pledge to the community we protect in large letters on the wall
Irma was different. As though coordinated, all civilized functions ceased even before the main body of the storm came ashore. We lost Internet phone and electrical service all at once and the water stopped flowing shortly thereafter. The only service we could provide was to receive 911 calls from any landline telephone in the county. Even the police radio system collapsed. When all forms of communication vanish the telecommunicator's job becomes something less than useful. We sorted out the handheld radios. assembled pen and paper and returned to dispatching 1970s style, hoping phone service might return.
Officer Chaustit, a chef in a former life, kept us fed, though not everyone loved his native scrapple
My first 911 call was from a guy on Industrial Road in Big Pine Key, 30 miles away and far out of our four mile jurisdiction. He was reporting a fire in a trailer and propane tanks exploding. Sorry about that, I said.Aren't you sending someone? No I said. No one to send even if the winds hadn't been so powerful. Monroe County Sheriff's department had fled leaving behind just six deputies to patrol a county 120 miles long and half a mile wide. The jail was empty, their communications center had shut down Saturday morning before the storm, leaving us in Key West as the sole dispatchers for communities we couldn't spell never mind find on the map (had we had one). The county fire department high tailed with the deputies and then they had the kindness to let every crook in Miami know there was no police service in the Keys and no check point to keep them out.We were shocked when we heard that Saturday afternoon before communications collapsed. We're here we said, indignant that we 23 were forgotten.
Police dogs are literate and quite well educated it turns out
So there we were, having told a fearful Key West city manager who ordered us to evacuate we were staying alongside our friends the firefighters and paramedics to protect our town and help clean up afterwards. Right now "afterwards" seemed a tenuous concept as we listened to the winds howl and bang against our building which stood an excellent chance of imploding. We'd seen what had happened in the Caribbean a few days earlier...
Key West Fire Department integrated the ambulances into its service last year
We sat and listened as the sun came up, or at least as pitch black night became gray and wet and fuzzy we sat some more as the wind continued to knock and bang with increasing ferocity as the wind reached fever pitch. Now or never I thought as the palms outside the 155 mph reinforced (God, I hope so!) windowpanes shook like demented pogo sticks. In the parking lot lumps of tree appeared out of the gloom and shot across the asphalt at 130 miles per hour, something none of us had ever seen before. Nick said he saw a palm frond levitate by magic and suddenly fly off horizontally like a feathery cannonball. This is Hogwarts! The air outside the station was gray like a thick fog, the water droplets blown into mist, such that we couldn't see fifty feet outside the windows. It was like being in a spaceship hurtling through some fragmented asteroid belt. We collectively held our breaths and waited and waited for the windowpanes to crack or the roof to come off.
Peak winds and heavy rain of the non-survivable event
Screw this I said to myself, I'm knackered. I dug the t-shirt and shorts I used as sleeping gear out of Officer Sealey's bug-out pack unravelling ammunition and energy bars from my clothes and slipped out of communications to my cot in the prisoner interview room. The generator hadn't missed a beat so the air was cool and my little monastic cell was windowless and thus dark and no one was cracking stupid jokes outside my door as they were glued to the windows watching the wind.
Interview Room #3 All the comforts of home including a plug to charge my phone
I was so tired I feel asleep instantly. When I awoke around lunchtime winds were a modest Category Two, the roof was still on and everyone was outside photographing the trees in winds that normally would have freaked them out. I shuffled off to look for lunch. Surviving the non-survivable gives a man an appetite.
That's what my Vespa and I, at home on Cudjoe Key think of The Weather Channel's alarm mongering