Singaporean in Miami braves Hurricane Irma, learns lessons in surviving natural disasters

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MIAMI - For a Singaporean who had never been through a natural disaster, I didn't know what to expect when news broke that Hurricane Irma was heading towards Miami, Florida, where I currently work.

The closest "disaster" I had experienced was too much haze, or the typical Singapore rain that never stopped.

So, a hurricane was kind of a step higher.

In my five years of living in Miami, there have been a few hurricane scares that turned out to be tropical storms - otherwise known as just another day in Singapore. So, I never knew the frenzy that occurred when it came to preparing for a hurricane.

In fact, Miamians possess a level of kiasuism that I don't even see back home, where nearly every essential item you would want is sold out every day.

The news that Irma, then reported as a Category 5 hurricane, was coming was reported on Sept 4.

The next day, most grocery stores were out of water and non-perishable food. Petrol ran out, with only a few petrol stations remaining open. And if you were lucky to find one, there were queues longer than those at a new cream puff stall in Singapore.

I bunkered down with my girlfriend's family - hurricane veterans who went through Wilma in 2005 and knew how to prepare for one. Their house also survived another Category 5 hurricane, Andrew.

We had already seen the destruction Irma caused in the Caribbean, and what Harvey did to Texas not long before. So, tensions were high.

The main hurricane wasn't expected to hit Miami until Sunday morning (Sept 10).

But the power went out the day before, at 1pm, as we waited behind boarded-up windows for the first bout of storms to hit.

The howling winds were deafening. There is a certain feeling of helplessness when you can't do anything but sit in darkness and hope that the structure you are in will hold against catastrophic winds.

Fences were torn apart, palm trees were uprooted, and, worst of all, phone signals went down, so we couldn't use 4G. It was a disaster.

An entire tree is uprooted in Miami. PHOTO: ROXANNE MAYRAND

Of course, I am incredibly grateful that I survived.

But, like the average 25-year-old Singaporean, I felt at a loss without my phone and electricity.

The house the writer is staying in, with boarded up windows, in Miami. PHOTO: MARCUS LIM

I couldn't contact my family in Singapore for more than a day and a half.

And, without any power, being boarded up in a house felt like being in an oven. It was definitely hotter than an afternoon in Orchard Road. There may have been a roof over my head, but it was stifling and uncomfortable. I was close to sleeping outside.

Popular pharmacy chain CVS has its signs blown off. PHOTO: MARCUS LIM

During my national service days, I did sleep in a ditch I had dug while it was raining cats and dogs. Would this be any different?

Well, yes, because a pebble in 135kmh winds could be a deadly projectile, and a coconut, in abundance in Miami, could feel like an artillery strike.

The house the writer is staying in, and the destruction Irma caused. PHOTO: MARCUS LIM

So, bored, and confined to darkness, my girlfriend and I could find only one source of entertainment to help pass the time - Sudoku.

There were, though, brief moments of panic when the living room started flooding. Irma's unrelenting storm seemed determined to drown some items of significance.

The hurricane left us on Sunday evening.

We fired up the generator and had some power for some essentials - the fridge and the fan. But air-conditioning is still out, and we still have to use torches.

There is no Internet, so I have no idea what is happening around the world and the true impact Irma had on Miami. (To send this story, I had to go to a nearby pizza place and use its Wi-Fi.)

We were fortunate to not lose much, some weren't so lucky.

However, when faced with a disaster, a spotlight is shone on the community. The neighbourhood was helping one another - giving people water, fixing damaged property together, clearing debris and fallen trees, and keeping spirits up.

After all, we are alive, and that is wonderful - though I would love to have a phone signal. And air-conditioning.

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