MWANGI: Of tornados lifting up cows and other scary memories of Florida

Tuesday September 12 2017

Water rises up to a sidewalk by the Miami river as Hurricane Irma arrives at south Florida, in downtown Miami, Florida, US on September 10, 2017. Millions have vacated the Florida Island due to the hurricane. PHOTO | CARLOS BARRIA | REUTERS

Water rises up to a sidewalk by the Miami river as Hurricane Irma arrives at south Florida, in downtown Miami, Florida, US on September 10, 2017. Millions have vacated the Florida Island due to the hurricane. PHOTO | CARLOS BARRIA | REUTERS 


The memoirs of my stay in the United States would be incomplete without an account of the hurricane and tornado scares I faced during my four-year stay in Pensacola, Florida.

I arrived in Albany, New York in August 1996. I did not particularly like my stay there because of the frigid weather.


During winter, temperatures would sometimes fall to below zero degrees Fahrenheit. Wearing double trousers, several layers of shirts, double socks, groves, ear plugs, thermal pants, t-shirts, shirts, heavy coats, pullovers, sweaters, and other clothing was not my cup of tea.

I got homesick every time winter commenced and snow fell and turned into huge mountains of ice. It was common for one to fall on the ice and almost impossible to drive a car sometimes.

Initially, I rode on the city buses and the walk to wait at the bus stop was not funny. One time, I was with my housemate, Irungu, holding pizza but had to drop the box of pizza on the ground after my hands got frozen and it was almost impossible to hold anything. It was then minus 23 degrees Fahrenheit!

Albany sits on the Catskill Mountains and the elevations make her very cold most times with snow and ice staying on the ground from October to March. It starts to get cold in September and most cases, you can only hope to enjoy the weather from May.


Summers were not fun too. The humidity, and the fact that we lived in a home where air conditioning was alien made things worse and sometimes we wished it was winter.

At least all homes have heaters but air conditioners seem like luxury in most places especially for those whose budget could not cater for them.

The heat would force us to spend time in libraries or malls during the day. Kenyans will always smile during autumn and spring when we enjoy the Nairobi type of weather.

Americans in general enjoy the weather changes but definitely seem to like seeing snow fall. A remark by one elderly lady who seemed to curse lack of snow during Christmas (they prefer a white Christmas) forced me respond that we Africans prefer a black Christmas!


In 2001, I decided to relocate to Florida. I needed to be close to my son but to also escape the frigid weather of the northeastern US. I enjoyed my stay in Florida for only a few years.

First came a few scares of hurricanes and tornados. Cases of tornados lifting cows and huge objects into the air scared us. A tornado warning would force you to hide in a closet or a depression.

Warning sometimes came too late, unlike those of hurricanes which are predictable and provides evacuees with ample time to run and hide on safer ground.

You only needed to visit a place where a tornado had touched down. Trees, houses and any rising objects are flattened in seconds, some moved from one area to another.

On September 2, 2004, Hurricane Ivan hit what is known as the Florida Panhandle (named so because the area looks like a handle of a pan, with that part being the larger part of the state).

Pensacola is located in the Panhandle and Northwest Florida, along the Gulf of Mexico. It is normally hot in summer but the Gulf Breeze makes the place cooler, unlike Miami and other places in southern Florida.

Winters, autumns and springs are beautiful and no one will complain of the weather during those periods.

From June to November each year, those living in Florida undergo emergency protocol related to hurricane and tornado preparations. None really bothered us from the time I arrived in 2001 to September 2004.

Then Hurricane Ivan hit Pensacola and other areas, leaving massive destruction.

For about a month, we stayed indoors, since electric wires and debris lay all over. The only reported positive outcome that time was the increase of population.

It was reported that many couples spent that time indoors, so a baby boom was reported a year after, thanks to Hurricane Ivan.


The worst mistake I ever made in my life was to listen to a graduate student friend attending a nearby Pensacola Christian College.

He convinced me that it was okay for us to ride out the storm in my apartment located at the back of someone’s house.

We moved our two cars close to the house but forgot that hurricanes uproot trees. I have never been as scared as I was that night.

During the day, we went to watch the early signs of the hurricane expected that night at Pensacola Beach, a beautiful beach with super-white, sugar-like sand and water always clean and blue.

Huge waves, several feet long, made water run from the ocean to the houses on the beach and it looked very scary. Boats and yachts were being tossed like leaves. We ran back inland and waited for the hurricane.


That night, we never slept. The one-floor apartment was tossed, swinging all over. The glass door and windows were facing a force I have never seen before.

We had to put sofa sets and other items around the doors and windows to avoid destruction. We slept under the staircase.

Hurricane and tornado preparation calls for one to stay in the basement if any exists and in the smallest room (bathroom or closet) with the head kept between your legs and if possible below your back so that any fall only hits the back. We had two coffee tables to protect our bodies.

The huge tree next to the cars was uprooted and destroyed the two cars. The house was not massively damaged but needed repairs.

The hurricane caused massive destruction and also spawned other destructive tornados. Ivan is reported to have caused an estimated US$ 14 billion in damages and was then the sixth costliest hurricane to have ever hit USA.

For close to one month, we relied on food donated by the US Army called MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). Not the best food, but it was available and distributed at the local shopping centre for free.

Electricity, gas and heat services resumed after three weeks. With the Florida heat, most of us slept outside our houses with minimal clothes on our bodies. Everything came to a standstill.


I was only able to return to work after three weeks. Fortunately we got paid. Those with insurance got paid while the Government provided soft loans via the SBA (Small Business Agency) to cater for damages.

During the Hurricane Ivan crisis, a Kenyan friend who was facing a rocky marriage went home one night and found it locked from inside by his American wife. No problem.

Their house was destroyed by a huge tree which fell on the roof and some of the branches were right inside the living room. They were waiting for the insurance company to come and assess the damage.

He climbed the fallen tree and descended into the living room via the branches, safely into the house. His wife was not impressed charged at him with a kitchen knife.

He grabbed his cell phone and called 911 giving details of his location as he run away half naked, dressed only in underwear. His wife grabbed his cell phone and threw it in the swimming pool.


He ran towards the police station and managed to get two armed huge policemen to accompany him to the house. He was instructed to leave over his safety and was allowed to take his earthly belongings, which fitted in his car. The marriage came to a halt that night.

Around 3:00 am, he arrived at my house and called me using a friend’s cell phone. I did not recognise the number but took the call. What has made me laugh again and again to this day was how he framed his calamity. 

He used to call me Njamba and reported it this way: “Njamba, I was hit by Hurricane Jane”. That confused me because I only knew of Hurricane Ivan. Then I remembered his wife’s name and opened the door. We spent the rest of the morning discussing the two Hurricanes, Ivan and Jane.

Later, Hurricane Katrina hit Florida and Pensacola again in 2005. It was time for me to leave Florida.

Now I live in Baltimore, Maryland. The weather and seasons here are not too bad and the Kenyan population is large enough to make you feel at home. I am from Murang’a and Baltimore is known as Murang’a Ndogo.


Kuria Mwangi is a Service Coordinator for individuals with Developmental Disability in Baltimore, Maryland