Ballroom Dancing with Hurricane Irma
On the weekend of SUPERAMA 2012, Hurricane Sandy devastated the state of NJ leaving 346,000 homes damaged or destroyed and over two million households in complete darkness.
With $75 billion worth of damages and a total of 233 fatalities nationwide. Superstorm Sandy would become known as "the deadliest and most destructive hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, and the second costliest hurricane in the United States history."
Although residing on the coastline overlooking New York City, my parents, my husband Leo and myself were among the lucky ones as we suffered no water and wind damage to our homes. We were additionally fortunate that our two Arthur Murray dance studios in central NJ were spared. However, with limited water and no power, it was nearly impossible to get gasoline for generators or vehicles.
My husband and I stayed in line for over three hours at a local gas station eating Domino's pizza and watching the dance competitors arrive via Facebook at Arthur Murray's prestigious competition, not to mention our primary goal of the year. My family stuck together through the experiences of Sandy, and eventually, we did make it out to Las Vegas.
But this is not that story.
A Ballroom Dancing Family
Working with family, although not easy, can be a gratifying and fulfilling experience. Being second generation Arthur Murray, I often get asked many questions about how it all works and how we can spend all that with one another!
The truth is that we are genuinely passionate about what we do! In the studio, we all do our own thing and try and give each other space while doing our best just to be 'regular people' when not in the studio setting.
Although we see each almost every day, with three studios now and around seventeen team members in addition to ourselves, things can get a little busy. So, my husband and I often utilize dance competitions as fun little checkpoints throughout the year to spend some quality time together and catch up on things beyond our studio life.
The United States Championships
One of our annual checkpoints is in September at the United States Dance Championships held at the Swan and Dolphin Resort in Orlando Florida. It's an important event for my husband Leo and myself since, among other things, this competition crowns the title for the United States Nine-Dance Champion, second to the Arthur Murray SUPERAMA.
It's a pinnacle career goal which we have been striving to achieve for more than five years. So for this competition, with the stress that comes with the event, my parents religiously join us for the week's festivities playing many roles such as coach, counselor, doctor, and, most importantly, Mom and Dad.
Since our competition takes place on Tuesday and Wednesday, we always stay until the end of the week to have some fun in the sun and regroup before the end of the year.
However, this year our trip would be cut short. A category 5 hurricane was headed our way.
Our Ballroom Dancing Date With Irma
During the entire week of USDC, the news was talking about a few hurricanes looming in the ocean, but my family and I were not sure if these storm predictions were just media hype and would result in them spinning out to sea or become true catastrophic tropical cyclones that would leave behind them extensive damage.
The news switched hurricane Irma's category back and forth, trying to guesstimate its path and pinpoint just where the eye would hit.
On the morning of September 6, the last day of our competitive events in Orlando, the storm's center bombarded the island of Saint Marten sweeping away entire structures, flooding roads, and leaving an island-wide blackout. That's when we realized the potential danger of Irma heading straight in our direction.
We realized that Irma was due to hit Orlando on Sunday, which of course was when we were scheduled to head back home.
After unsuccessfully trying to move our flight to an earlier one, we realized that we were left with limited options. One idea was to stick out the storm. Because this trip is usually part vacation, we stay at our family timeshare.
However, with no water or power, the relaxing family time we were looking for would inevitably transform into cabin fever and a lot of cuss words. Another idea was to drive the rental car to a different airport in Florida. Alas, the idea of flying out, in general, was not looking good. My mom, being the real adventurer that she is, said something like, "Well, what if we just kept driving?"
So, we called a family meeting and took a vote. For the first time in five years, our trip would be cut short, and we would be driving back home.
That Wednesday night Leo and I finished up the competition, and we all headed straight home to pack. However, we went back to the table for another vote. Having grown up on all things Disney, it was a unanimous decision that we should not break our family tradition of visiting a Disney theme park. It was decided.
Being the overachievers that we are, the next day we grabbed park hopper tickets and headed over to both Disney's Animal Kingdom and Epcot Center for a much needed day of family fun in the sun. After a day filled with adventure, laughter, and lots of pinot grigio, we finished out our evening with fireworks in Paris... ok so it was the France Pavilion in Epcot's World Showcase, but a fantastically picturesque night nonetheless. Although, in true Disney form, we had escaped our reality for the day, Irma rapidly intensified and the news late Thursday evening was frightening people off the roads. It was reported that people were spending hours in traffic struggling to get out of the state, some even running out of gas and getting stranded roadside while others suffered personal injury in car accidents amidst the chaos.
After the governor of Florida came on TV and encouraged everyone to leave, it was with a quick vote and another unanimous decision that we would hit the road early-morning and sticking to the plan to drive back to New Jersey.
The Long Road Home
Friday morning, we quickly packed our rental and checked out of our room, my dad getting ready as the lead driver to set out on our journey.
Luckily, this year we upgraded to an SUV.
With four passengers and a ton of luggage, we hoped to be as comfortable as possible as we hit the road for our journey home.
My mom, playfully called Sacajawea for a majority of our trek, had "real" (i.e., paper) maps. She planned our route, and we backed her with our WAZE navigation apps as we headed up towards Georgia.
We have always felt that our little pack was the perfect balance of old and new. Our spirits were high, and just like that, we were off.
We drove for a couple of hours happy to see that the roads were clear and not as jammed up as reported on the news. The sun was shining, the music blasting, in some odd way we felt out of harm's way and relieved of the media's predictions of pending catastrophic doom.
Our smooth sailing was short-lived, and after about two straight hours of driving, we started our pitiful crawl at a snail's pace. At this point, having already struggled with sitting still this long, I began to fuss with my phone and reach out on social media. I posted on Facebook,
"What do you do when a category 5 hurricane is coming for you, and your already rescheduled flight is canceled?" with little car emojis.
To my surprise, I got twenty-two responses! Fun! People to talk to!
I kept posting away, chatting back and forth, mostly filling in our family who we forgot to tell that we decided to drive back from Florida. We made our first pit stop to refill our gas tank around midday. Due to pre-comp dieting, and overall stress, it was our pleasure to purchase a plethora of travel plaza snacks, you know, gas station junk food!
I don't know if it was the sugar high or utter boredom, but I decided to take a video of my family in the parking lot. Another Facebook post! Although I often think my family should have its own reality tv show, we tend to be pretty private, sometimes at the risk of seeming standoffish or unapproachable. However, I feel that our social media is a fun way to show people a side beyond the "representative," beyond the "competitive dancer" and beyond other people's opinions of what they think we are like.
Although I have to say, I paid for that post by Sacagawea who is notoriously anti-Facebook in addition to all social media outlets, actually (which are lumped into one category and jokingly called "My-Face"). Let's just say the next couple of hours were EXTRA long.
By two in the afternoon we had finally made it to Georgia.
The original plan was to drive up to, and stay the night in North Carolina - only my family would come with goals on an evacuation trip back to New Jersey. After nine hours on the road and only making it to South Carolina, it was becoming pretty clear that we would need to revisit the plan. At that point, we realized that we had not yet made a hotel reservation since we weren't quite sure what we would wind up in for the night. With the sun going down and limited phone battery due to my Facebooking of family adventures, I used the last of my battery to Google hotels near me. Those damned maps (i.e. "digital") did come in handy after all.
We called over twenty-five hotels over the next two hours and quickly realized we might be in trouble. We were tired, there was a lot of accidents on the road, and the traffic wasn't moving. Even if we kept driving to North Carolina as initially planned, the time it would take in traffic would be over four hours. A few hotels that were vacant were all out of our way, having us drive a couple of hours inland adding time to our overall trip. Some hotels even raised their prices, taking advantage of the downtrodden travelers and Florida residents forced to flee their homes. By the grace of God, we eventually found a hotel and pushed ourselves to drive the extra two hours out of the way.
The Encounter that Made it All Real
After a late night meal at Cracker Barrel, we ran into one of those Florida residents when checking into the hotel. She was on her cell phone sobbing. Although the hurricane didn't hit yet, she had been driving alone for days evacuated from the Florida Keys area and wasn't sure if she would even have anything after the storm to go home to.
She was low on cash and crying because her credit cards were maxed out due to her long trek to stay with her friends and family who lived out of the hurricane's path.
All she wanted was a room to take a shower in and a bed to spend the night in instead of sleeping in her car as she had done the last couple of nights. Although we were trying to make the best of this trip, it was moments like these that brought us back to the gravity of the situation. Like Superstorm Sandy, this hurricane was changing people's lives.
That night, my parents paid for the woman's room and gave her a bit of extra cash for food.
News From Family
The next day we woke up early, determined and ready, knowing a bit more of what to expect on the road. With my dad again at the wheel, we fueled up and grabbed breakfast at the same Cracker Barrel we had dined in the night before.
We were shocked by the number of families who were not as fortunate to find lodging and slept the night in their cars. The parking lot was lined with vehicles, many with small children, and all of them loaded to the brim with belongings. Around that time my father got a call from our family in Puerto Rico telling us of the damage and devastation from the storm.
Hurricane Irma had ripped the roofs off of many of our family's homes destroying their property from the inside out. They kept saying that the trees looked "quemado," or "burnt" from the wind.
Once again, a brutal reminder that although we might be driving home in the sunshine of the day, others were dealing with mother nature's dark side. All things aside, we were able to maintain an upbeat and positive vibe, reaching the Virginia border around 6 PM on Saturday.
A couple of hours later, it was time to take another family vote.
The Final Vote
We were outside Maryland, far enough away from Florida, and the traffic had opened up. However, we still had a bit of a drive. The choice was to stay the night in Atlantic City, or drive the rest of the way home to Central Jersey. By now it was Saturday and although a wild night out in Atlantic City was entirely our style, the thought of sleeping in our beds and having a Sunday at home sounded perfect!
We decided to tough it out and drive the rest of the leg back home.
With a quick driver change and my mom at the wheel, we were blasting our way up towards the New Jersey Turnpike. Let's just say that I couldn't even get a clear picture of the Maryland sign as we were zooming by the border! By 11:30 PM on Saturday we had reached the Turnpike, and with two hours until home, we were on a mission to complete our quest!
Playing games like "I'm going on a picnic" and "the movie game," we somehow found ourselves in the home stretch and in no time we could see the view of the New York skyline as a friendly welcome back.
The Home Stretch
After two long days on the road, we were officially back home at 1:30 am on Sunday morning.
Later that evening we decided to meet up for a quick family dinner to chat about our adventures and share what we had learned through our experiences.
Instead of looking at the negatives, once again my parents looked to the light to motivate, inspire, and challenge us for our next leg of the journey, SUPERAMA 2017.
It might seem corny, but this is how they are.
My parents' limitless support goes beyond Leo and myself, filling the entire studio and all who enter it. Our bond as a family creates a special vibe in our studios which we often refer to as our dance family. Truly, that team feeling, knowing that people have your back and that you should jump in and go for "it," whatever the "it" is that you're looking for, is what makes all of what we do possible here in New Jersey.
This trip is a reminder that when the going gets tough, the tough get going and that all things are possible when you have a vision, and you stick together as a team. I know that it might seem like a silly little unexpected road trip, but sometimes if you can look beyond the ordinary and find the signs along the way, you pick up small life lessons and learn a lot about the inner you.
Most of all, I believe you learn to be grateful and that as uncomfortable as you may be at any given moment, there is always someone who wishes that they had your kind of bad days. Even though, unlike during Superstorm Sandy, we escaped the storm troubles directly, we will always remember Hurricane Irma and our impromptu family road trip.
Besides, even if we do forget, Facebook will remind us next year... much to my mom's chagrin.
Be on the lookout for more stories like this from me as part of the Arthur Murray Live Author's Group! If you liked this and wanted to follow more tales of dance, passion, and adventure, you can find us on Facebook and Instagram or follow our blog at LeoMoraAndChristinaGarced.com
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