As an essential grocery store employee in these strange times, I feel a unique connection to the chaos brought on by COVID-19. I’ve had two weeks now of watching fights over hand sanitizer, checking out lines of customers, their baskets full of cleaning supplies and non-perishable food items, and answering phone calls from frantic voices begging for toilet paper from our shelves (we’re always out). Some folks are coming in, fresh off day-long shifts, looking with tired eyes, for essentials that were sold out a week ago and yet to be restocked. Others rushed in before government word started coming down and are now sitting at home amidst a sea of unopened Charmin packages, their pantries brimming with canned goods. My coworkers and customers alike are shaken by the sudden shift in life, something I’m going through as well, but I had the ill luck of moving to Tampa, Florida in the summer of 2017, which placed me smack dab in the path of Hurricane Irma in the fall of that year.
I haven’t been able to help myself noticing the similarities between hurricane preparation and prep for COVID-19. At both times, the world around me was preparing to hunker down for an unknown amount of time, scrounging up as much food as possible like bears approaching hibernation. There’s a familiarity to the madness because of my experience with Irma, and I believe that’s made life under the threat of COVID less jarring so far. The one thing causing me some anxiety is that with a hurricane on the horizon, there are two choices: prepare for impact or avoid the impact by skipping town. I was able to pack up irreplaceable belongings, sandbag doors and windows, and head to my aunt’s house in central Florida. We were still battered by the storm and thought, even that far inland, that it may tear the house down around us. In this pandemic, there is no running, no guaranteed escape except to stay inside our homes for as many hours of the day as possible. Our only option is placing ourselves in voluntary solitary confinement. There is no ETA for when things will die down, when the storm will run dry and dissipate, when the waters will recede and we can all leave our homes and see the sunshine and cease being afraid. When I compare this time to living through a hurricane, my conclusion seems to be that at least with Irma there was an end in sight. It would run out of juice or move along eventually, and we would know when it did because the winds and rain would no longer roar against our homes. Now, as this pandemic is striking down thousands around the world and chaos is taking the reins, I think the biggest difference between this and Irma is that it’s much scarier waiting for a storm you can’t see coming.