When Chris Rothwell was barely a teenager, his spark for meteorology was jump started when Hurricane Andrew passed by his southwest Florida home in 1992. “It was quite the experience,” said the forecaster at the Keys West campus of the National Weather Service.
Rothwell was holed up in Corpus Christi, Texas, working Hurricane Harvey in the weeks before Hurricane Irma made landfall on the lower Florida Keys.
“Basically, I went an entire month sleeping on a foam mat on the floor of computer rooms,” he said. Rothwell flew back to Key West the weekend before Irma, spent a brief time with his wife and two daughters, and then got back to non-stop work again at the Key West office, prepping for Irma’s landfall.
“When the cone is five days out and it had Key West in the middle, that’s when the decisions have to be made,” he said. His personal preparations included sending his family out of town and boarding up his Big Pine Key residence. Two days out, he was still looking for the wingnuts for his shutters and topping off gas at every station between his Big Pine Key-to-Key West commute.
Twenty of the service’s employees camped out for days eating MREs and Chef Boyardee, sharing one
bathroom and a camp shower at the White Street location. “Our
mission is to stay up and running as long as communication allows us to, so we can save lives and property,” he said.
He shares the same sentiments as his co-workers. “When a hurricane is hitting our community, our first priority is to stay focused,” he said. “None of us even consider our own houses until the storm passes.”
On Tuesday following Irma, Rothwell cut his way through the debris on his street to survey the damage at his home in the Avenues. He was glad to find that only the doors blew in on his stilted house. The two houses beside his were gone.
“It’s a shock to see the damage a hurricane can do,” he said. The Texas office took over control of the station for a couple weeks so the Key West staffers could get their lives picked up off the streets of the Keys.
“We went to each other’s houses to clean up as a team so we wouldn’t get overwhelmed,” said Rothwell, a sentiment they will remember for when the next big one is heading toward South Florida. “We realized we will prep our houses as a team next time too. It’s so much easier as a group.”
As for this season, Rothwell has started re-upping his hurricane supplies and insisted his wife buy the best blow-up air mattress on the market. “If I have to go another month sleeping on the floor, I want to at least be comfortable,” he said.