Real-life hurricanes and the importance of sports

Hurricane Irma is gone, but in her wake lays destruction and devastation.

It will take weeks, if not months, for South Florida to look normal again. And the Florida Keys will never be the same. The west coast of Florida also took a major blow.

And it could have been so much worse.

The thing I really love about sports is the escape. Regardless of what is going on, for those two or three hours we have the ability to compartmentalize and lose ourselves in a game.

Life is unfair. Every day people must overcome things that are not of their own doing. But sports? Sports, when you strip away all the “embrace debate” nonsense and gasbagging, is pure. It’s two teams agreeing to the same set of rules, a set of officials in place to equitably enforce those rules, and the team that wins based on how the rules defines winning actually wins.

Sports is the ultimate meritocracy.

And thus the ultimate escape. You can almost always turn to sports to allow you to escape reality, if only for a few hours.

Almost always.

Hurricane Irma was a transcending event you couldn’t hide from, and couldn’t escape. It was all encompassing. We had to deal with it, while obsessing over a millimeter of forecast change and every wobble of the storm.

And it is one of the scariest things that residents of coastal communities have to deal with.

The night Is dark and full of terrors

Unlike many people who call South Florida home, I had the option of avoiding the hurricane. I currently live in the Washington, D.C. area and went home to Miami for Labor Day with plans to go to Las Vegas with a Brazilian college friend who was getting married, and then swing back through Miami before returning to D.C.

When I left Miami, it looked like Irma was headed to the Carolinas. By the time I landed in Vegas, it was headed straight for South Florida.

I could have flown straight back to DC–that would have been the smart thing to do. But most of my family is still in Miami. And Miami is and always will be home. At the fork in the road, there was never really a choice for me. I headed back to Miami.

We intended to ride out the storm, loading up on water and closing up the shutters, a practice we were all too familiar with. Hunker down, wait for it to pass, and then see what’s left. If I’m going down, I’m going down in Miami. 305 ‘til I die.

Then we decided not to die. On Thursday afternoon, the mandatory evacuations expanded to my family’s neighborhood. This had never happened to us before. Never even a consideration.

A staple of hurricane coverage is always the reporter on the beach, admonishing the residents that are staying put for not evacuating. For viewers at home, it’s easy to make fun of those who stubbornly refuse to leave. At least until your number is called.

It is a surreal feeling when the mayor decides to evacuate a neighborhood and you realize he is talking about you. We deliberated, even though we always said we would follow local authority instructions. It’s one thing to in the abstract say you will abandon your home. It’s a completely different thing to actually do it. But we decided to leave, first thing the next morning.

That gave us one last night in Miami, and it was eerie. Everything was empty, we rarely saw cars. I looked through the neighborhood I grew up in, and wondered what it would look like when I saw it again. I looked through my possessions, some from my childhood, and wondered if I should I take any of them with me. I visited my first dog’s grave in the backyard where we sprinkled his ashes, hoping I would see it when I got home.

Briefly, I had second thoughts. But a well-positioned traffic sign flashing a warning that we were in a mandatory evacuation zone and should leave immediately snapped us back to reality. We left for Orlando.

Similar scenes played out across South Florida, as people deliberated over what to do, each family making a personal decision. Abandon my home for more personal safety, or protect my home. There is no easy answer here. It was all a nightmare.

Gotta hear both sides

It was against this backdrop that some of the fine people in Jonesboro, Arkansas, including the Athletic Director, wanted the University of Miami to travel up there to play what is a meaningless football game in college football in general but in particular with a Category 5 monster spinning right at our home.

Look, I get it. We’re “The U” and they’re Arkansas State.

From the second the game was announced, their fans have been anticipating a big-time program coming to their town. They likely overpaid for tickets, overpaid for hotels, and this was going to be a moment for their school. And it was taken away. Disappointment will be natural.

But this went well beyond disappointment. They criticized Miami for “ducking” them.

Newsflash: no one ducks Arkansas State.

The reason that they were so excited for Miami to visit is the same reason why Miami would not duck them: Miami is Miami and Arkansas State is Arkansas State.

The Arkansas State rationale was that they didn’t look like ass against Nebraska, and therefore Miami is afraid of them. There are two problems with that theory: (1) Nebraska sucks and is lucky that they were able to play Arkansas State, or they’d be winless and (2) They’re Arkansas State. Even in some alternate reality where Arkansas State was poised to beat Miami, Miami wouldn’t know it or consider it.

Part of being the big fish is that you don’t worry about the little fish eating you.  

Perhaps, just maybe, Miami chose not to travel to Arkansas because a Category 5 hurricane was about to wreck the state. Maybe that is the explanation. You know what this is?

Dade County, Fla., August 24, 1992 -- An aerial view showing damage from one of the most destructive hurricanes in America�s history. One million people were evacuated and 54 died in this hurricane. FEMA News Photo

That’s what Hurricane Andrew did to Miami. And this?

That’s a size comparison between Hurricane Andrew and Hurricane Irma.

Hurricane Andrew left over 175,000 people homeless in Miami. This one could have been two or three times as bad, easily, given the size and path of the storm. To put that in perspective, there are less than 75,000 people in all of Jonesboro, Arkansas.

Let me ask you a question: Do you think if the entire town of Jonesboro was about to be rendered homeless by a natural disaster, Arkansas State would travel to play a football game?

Of course not. It would be absurd to do so.

But what happened here is a continuation of a decades-old pattern of the dehumanization of the Miami player. They are often reduced to caricature, labeled “thugs” and prejudged as guilty of any number of “crimes” that only apply to those which dawn a “U” on their helmet.

And this was the logical extension of that. Demanding that they play this game, demanding that they entertain the masses, like lions in the Coliseum. The response out of some in Arkansas was not just uncouth or in poor taste, it was inhuman. The natural human response is to have empathy for people whose entire world is about to be wrecked, unless, of course, you don’t consider them human.

Schools all over Florida cancelled games, including South Florida cancelling a game in Connecticut… a conference game no less. And no one said anything.

But Miami? Think pieces on how the Canes are afraid of Arkansas State. And since Arkansas State was upset, people like Brett McMurphy and Rick Neuheisel took up the Arkansas State cause.

Except there is no Arkansas State cause. Diversity of intelligent opinion and alternate viewpoints are important. But there are not multiple sides to every situation. This situation is simple. Something horrible was about to happen to South Florida, and therefore they couldn’t go to Arkansas to play a football game. Arkansas State and their feelings don’t count here.

Our players deserved to be with their families. That was the human thing to do. Arguing otherwise is to argue that somehow these players are not human, which is unfortunately something that is all too comfortable for too many.

And this missed…

Fortunately for South Florida, the storm took a path which took the eye of the storm away from the tri-county area. Unfortunately, it leveled the keys.

And even though this amounted to what was a best-case scenario for Miami given the possibilities, there are tree downs everywhere, many still don’t have power, and the University of Miami can’t even re-open until September 25th.

That’s the things with hurricanes. They don’t discriminate and the big ones forever alter communities. Nothing is ever the same. I’ve been through blizzards in the northeast, and perhaps some erroneously thought that hurricanes are similar. You lose power, you have to hunker down, then it passes, you get out some plows, and things return to normal.

Nope. One look at Houston or one look at the Keys tells you otherwise. Those places will recover in some manner, but they will never be the same. That’s what hurricanes do. They change you.

Miami was staring down not having a campus, and having to play their home games somewhere else if they were even able to finish the season. Such was the serious nature of this storm.

But it drifted west. It still caused damage across South Florida, but that damage is recoverable. The tri-county area will be a little brighter with the leaves stripped off trees. We got very, very lucky.

The Keys did not. Our fortune was their misfortune. Our neighbors to the south and, later our neighbors to the west, took that bullet.

And that is probably the most base human instinct surrounding these events. At some point, it becomes apparent that the storm is going to hit somewhere and we all shift into self-preservation. Missing land entirely is no longer an option. It is then that you are forced to root that something horrible happens to someone else so it doesn’t happen to you.

As Irma pushed ever westward, South Florida exhaled. Yes, we’d still get hit with significant wind, but a Category 5 storm rolling right up the center of Florida and over the tri-county area was off the table.

But we also knew that the horror which we expected to be greeted with was still delivered, just not to us. And there is a level of guilt there.

While Florida is often the butt of jokes due to its quirkiness, it is that same quirkiness that makes it so resilient. Perhaps because Florida is a such a diverse melting pot that it’s strength arises from that diversity. But hurricanes have been crisscrossing this state with regularity for decades, leaving no part untouched, and the state keeps coming back.

And it will again, even if Irma was the worst storm we’ve seen in over 10 years. The Keys will come back too. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Thomas Moore:

You may break, you may shatter the vase, if you will, but the scent of the roses will hang round it still.

The smell from the roses still lingers. And we’ll get a new vase, which will allow new roses to bloom. From the Keys in the south all the way to flooded Jacksonville in the north.

And we’ll return to caring about sports. It will once again serve as an escape. When the Canes finally take the field against Toledo next week, it will be cathartic. A return to normalcy.

But with a new sense of appreciation. An appreciation that we once again have the luxury to care about the trivial things in life, rather than worrying about life and death, and a storm called Irma.