Sunday, October 4, 2015

Cat's at a Hurricane Party--I'm Taking Over (For This Week)

Your favorite Middle Flipper author is stuck in the Bahamas this weekend with the rest of IMATA. Thanks to hurricane Joaquin showing up late to the conference then throwing a big fit when they wouldn’t let him in, you get me, Russ, as your guest writer.

In the epic vacancy left here by Cat, I’m humbly shuffling onto the stage like Seymour filling in for Clyde.

For those of you who don't know me, I'm Cat's husband, a former marine mammal trainer, and currently Cat's biggest fan.

Hurricanes are no laughing matter--they can wreak havoc on lives and livelihoods, and I’ll start this post by saying that my heart goes out to those on the out islands of the Bahamas who’ve been slammed by Joaquin. 

But as a marine mammal trainer, you’d better be prepared to deal with a hurricane or two throughout your career. Oh, you’ll deal with plenty of scares thanks to 24-hour weather coverage, but taking a direct hit is a different animal altogether.

This would be a good time to prepare.

Being in the cone and in the eye are two very different things, and if you wear a whistle long enough, you’ll probably get to experience both.

For me, my first real hurricane experience came in my second year of zoo work. Until then, hurricanes generally meant: buy a bunch of batteries, wax up the board and strategize my way out of school. But life was different once I took my first grown-up job.

After working my way into a job with the animals at Sea World, I eventually scored a position at Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key in 2004.

Yes, that’s the DRC where folks in the MarMam field always say they want to land a job at some point. And yes, that’s the 2004 that kicked off three years of relentless hurricane beatings in the state of Florida.

I ran from Jeanne, but I couldn't hide. So I surfed.

We were hit from the west, south and east that year and I logged over 1,000 miles on Florida Interstates chasing waves and running from storms with names--it was a busy year to be a guy living in a matchbox on a dock in the keys and a surfer on the weekends with a job during the week.

What follows is sort of a survival guide for young trainers bound to experience the oddities of a hurricane landfall at some point in their careers--well, at least my version of a guide.

Get Some Jerry Cans

I’m a second generation Florida native, and that comes in handy because my parents have already experienced the weirdness of Florida long before I had to deal with it myself. 

A unique thing about living here is that I’ve seen what it will look like when the oil finally runs out. We don’t have refineries in Florida, so our oil comes in by truck. But when the southbound lanes are closed, whatever’s in the ground is all there is. That means that during an evacuation gas stations get f****** crazy. Throw in the fact that south Florida is home to approximately a China-load of people, and you have a mass exodus and limited fuel combination that can lead to a Walking Dead scenario.

These are jerry cans. Buy them. Fill them. Transport them safely--Avoid Walkers.

So buy some damned jerry cans. This tip was passed to me by my dad who said before I set out on a 350-mile evacuation, “Fill some jerry cans and put them in the back of your truck--and cover them up so you don’t get shot.” 

It was good advice because I stopped for a coke at a gas station in Martin County on my way north to Daytona Beach. They had one pump running at a trickle and about twenty cars in line. Everybody was out of fuel and the gas stations all had highway patrolman stationed limiting each car’s fuel purchase. While a rear-end collision could have rained fire on my parade, I did get to sip a cool soft drink while cruising right past every almost-out-of-fuel gas station thanks to good advice from dear ol’ dad.

Buy Beer and Dry Ice Early

As the bottled water stocks dwindle, beer prices will go up. Count on that. As a dolphin trainer, you’re into a bargain, and that means you’ll need to stock up on your favorite canned cocktail before it hits champagne prices. This means hit the stores before a hurricane warning is issued. Dry ice is a good choice because when the power goes out, it will keep your beer and pot pies cool for several days. 

Get to the store before this happens.

Oh, and buy some food, too.

Get Your Swim Test Practice

Start surfing now. It’s a great alternative to boring exercise, and when a hurricane threatens it can be the best swim test practice you’ve ever had--but you’ll need several year’s experience to take advantage. 

Note to beginners: that's not a surfboard.

I mentioned that chasing waves was a big part of the miles I drove in 2004, and that’s because there are no legitimate surf spots in the keys. However, with storms bouncing all around the Atlantic basin, Florida received some epic waves. This meant heading north nearly every weekend during that season either chasing a swell or running from a storm.

Paddling out takes it’s toll on the arms in a big hurricane swell, but the best swim test practice I’ve ever had is losing my board on a big day and having to swim in after it. 

Once this happened as a result of a broken leash on one of the biggest days I’ve ever seen in Florida. The barrier islands were closed, and getting to the beach required sneaking across three blocks of a locked-down neighborhood with cops patrolling. And I was wearing yellow flowered shorts and carrying a ten-foot red board.

I’m not going to say you should defy a mandatory evacuation, sneak past patrolling police, and paddle out from a closed beach. In fact you shouldn’t. Don’t do it. 

But it is one heck of a way to build the confidence that makes a 110-foot underwater swim feel like a day at, well, the beach.

Just don’t do it.

Be On Call

In the days leading up to a hurricane’s arrival, especially those last 72 hours when it becomes more and more imminent, prepare to work like you’ve never worked before. Depending on the facility where you work, the animals could be in serious danger, and that’s going to require some major prep. 

You’ll be working like a construction worker one minute and then spending hours in the freezer the next. Everything has to be ready for intense storm conditions and the possibility of days without power following it.

Be there when your supervisors ask for your help. Trust me--your help is needed.

Until it’s time to evacuate, you’re working to save the lives of your animals, and that means safeguarding their habitats and securing their food.

Preparing for a storm is hard work, but you’ll do it because, when it comes down to it, those animals are the reason you do what you do. 

We'll just hang out while you get everything ready.

You may or may not become a millionaire, but you’ll have a relationship and love for those animals that only a handful of humans have ever experienced.

When it comes time for your first hurricane experience as a marine mammal trainer, enjoy it. Take it seriously. And give your all. I’ll tell you that when it gets bad, you’ll be amazed at the way everyone comes together.

You’ll get your Cat back next week, but until then send her some photos and comments about your craziest natural-disaster-at-work experience!

1 comment:

  1. I can't even imagine living in Florida and definitely not in the Bahamas since they seem to get hit with a majority of the hurricanes. I live in Baltimore and even though we get our fair share of strong storms and a few tail ends of hurricanes, the destruction where we are is nowhere close to what happens down south.

    Rolando Ramirez @ Aardvark Dryer Vent