“It’s Just Stuff” Has A Whole New Meaning

On the night of Friday, September 8th, I was in NYC, safe at a friend’s house. But that night I couldn’t sleep. Mr PoP and Kitty PoP were still at home in Florida, and though I knew they would be trying to leave the next morning – presuming that the remaining flights weren’t cancelled like so many others had been, I still couldn’t sleep.

Earlier in the day, the police went around our neighborhood telling everyone still around (there weren’t many) they were under mandatory evacuation notice and that if they needed assistance during or immediately after the storm emergency services could not guarantee they would be able to reach our streets.

Sidenote from Mr PoP – The mandatory evacuation notices were surreal.  After midnight, as I was attaching the last boards to the house before leaving the house, police cars were riding slowly through the street announcing (again) the mandatory evacuation over the loudspeakers and instructing everyone to get out.  

Flying car!

Flying car!

Remaining friends that thought some of us had been overreacting and had originally planned on riding the storm out in town had pretty much all changed their minds and gotten out.

Mr PoP had raised the car up on jacks inside the garage to give it any help it could in avoiding potential floodwaters.  That brought it to 22″ above the ground.

I had seen projected storm surge maps showing our coastline (our beautiful coastline that that we live about 1.5 miles from as the crow flies), as having possible 10-15 foot storm surges. I’m not sure how, but I managed to find a NOAA map that showed which areas had a 10%+ chance of varying water depths due to flooding from Hurricane Irma’s rain and possible storm surge.

I zoomed in and found our neighborhood on the map. That didn’t help. My thoughts started racing and instead of sleeping this is what was going through my head.

The neighborhood is colored orange. Orange isn’t red, so that’s a positive. Red means there is a 10+% percent chance of 9 or more feet of water above ground level. Orange is better. Orange means there is a 10+% chance of ONLY 6 or more feet of water above ground level.

Okay, so what do they consider ground level? Surely NOAA doesn’t have the incline of every single part of every single lot mapped out. So realistically, they probably mean street level.

Our house sits a little bit above street level. I know our house’s elevation to the inch – 13 feet 3 inches! – but I don’t know the elevation of the street. So what if I had to estimate the rise from the street… 6 inches? 9 inches? Probably not a lot more than that.

I stand 5’ 3.5” tall. (Or as Mr PoP might joke, 5’ 3.5” short. =P)

So orange means there’s a 10+% chance that there’s going to be water higher than the top of my head all throughout our house.  Deep enough to cover my head while I’m standing. 

Water with waves.  

A 10% chance isn’t huge. But it’s still a decent chance.

And, though I couldn’t find great information on the calculations behind the map, some basic knowledge of math and probability distributions led to 2 easy determinations.

FullSizeRender (26)1. This was very likely NOT a binary distribution where we had a 10% chance of 6+ feet of water, and a 90% chance of no water. Physics doesn’t generally work that way. It’s usually closer to a Gaussian distribution, which looks more like this…

2. There is some other percentage that represents the probability that we would have fairly catastrophic flood damage (is that 1 foot? 2 feet? Surely 3 feet would be terrible…), and that percentage is greater than 10%. But I don’t know how much greater than 10%, because I have no way of knowing how shifted or how shifted or squished the distribution actually is.

Is there a 50% chance of 3 feet of water? Flip a coin and heads the house is flooded?

25%? Flip the same coin again and two heads means the house is flooded?

Three “heads” in a row means we’re getting pretty close to the probability of 6+ feet of water, so these estimates feel entirely possible.


At this point it’s past 3am. I know that by that time, Mr PoP had long ago left our house and was probably headed to the airport with his parents and Kitty PoP trying to catch the last flight out of town.

Somehow I fell asleep for a couple of hours. By 5:20, when I’m awake again, Mr PoP has texted me an update. They all got on what they think is probably the last flight out of town and are waiting in the gate area. It’s due to leave in 45 minutes and they will be boarding any minute.

By a little after 7am when Mr PoP told me they had landed in Atlanta for a layover, I had breathed a sigh of relief.

With everyone I held most important safe, the orange on the map was almost comical. I honestly didn’t care about our stuff. Or our house.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the house. In fact, I picked it out.  By myself, a little over eight years ago, while Mr PoP was on an extended vacation in Mexico.

Then we spent the last almost 3 years fixing it up so the inside would be perfectly suited for us.  It is getting dangerously close to being our little dream home.

We also finally bit the bullet and bought Mr PoP the car he had been wanting for years this spring.  He had finally gotten most of the big repairs done on it just a month before.

I was in the midst of building what I think is going to be my prettiest woodworking project yet.  Despite spending the bulk of that three day Labor Day weekend working on the project, it wasn’t done yet.  But the potential was really coming together.

In terms of the “stuff” quotient of our lives, we were pretty darned near having everything we had ever hoped and dreamed for.

How ironic that we reached near peak “perfect stuff” only to lose it all.

I laughed. Seriously (once everyone was safe, of course). I couldn’t help it.  Irony is funny.

Before this, I never really thought we defined ourselves by “stuff”. Surely we were enlightened non-consumerist people that never fell victim to that, right?

But we still liked our “things”… that was allowed, right? That was healthy. Too much detachment wasn’t healthy. (Sure… that sounds good.) We weren’t detached. But we weren’t overly attached. We had a healthy level of attachment to our stuff. Right?

Then I basically said my mental goodbyes to all of our “things”. I forced myself to imagine all of our possessions not as a collection of mostly organized objects that we use to entertain ourselves on a day-to-day basis, but as detritus scattered near and far by water and wind.

Flip a coin. Heads? Flip a couple of coins. Both heads?

Buh-bye “stuff”. Sayonara “things”.  Auf Wiedersehen “possessions”.

As is pretty clear now, it turned out that goodbye was premature.

Irma’s projected storm surge along our coast didn’t materialize.  A small wobble in the storm’s track took it inland slightly earlier than expected. That wobble saved our house. It saved the heirloom furniture (including the piano that I still need to learn how to play) that we had just inherited from Mr PoP’s parents a couple months before. It saved Mr PoP’s work computer that he had intentionally left behind. It saved the woodworking project that I hope to be far enough along with to share with you guys pretty soon.

While I am grateful that Irma didn’t take it all, we would have been okay if she had. We were safe.

The rest, as it turns out, … is just stuff.

Which honestly, has a totally different meaning now than it did a month ago.

12 comments to “It’s Just Stuff” Has A Whole New Meaning

  • Very tempted to steal your normal (Gaussian) example for my next exam!
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    • Steal away! And if any of your students have great insights into or find good research on getting an approximation of what the percentage likelihood of flooding at different depths would have been, I’d be curious to see their results!

  • Tara

    I’m curious, for things like your custom cabinets that you built yourself, would you be able to get the full value of custom cabinets from a loss versus what you actually spent on materials? How do you prove value for large items like that to insurance?

    • IIRC, we have replacement value coverage for contents up to a cap – I think $100K? So a complete set of custom cabinets would be a pretty penny of that if we didn’t build them ourselves again, but if we were reasonable/frugal in other areas it would probably fit in.

      We have copies of materials receipts for a lot of stuff, but then our insurance agent has always told us to take pictures, which luckily we have a ton of from the remodel. And then as I was packing everything away, I just snapped pictures before I closed the cabinet doors. So many random pictures of things like roombas or grandma’s silver teapot.

  • thebadmoose

    It sounds like we live near each other in SWFL! I had the same conversation with my wife before Irma. We realized it was “just stuff” and if we got flooded out we could always quit our jobs and move near her family in MA and start over. Luckily we have enough of an emergency fund to be able to do that. Although, like Mr. PoP I too was a little worried about my project car (its an old BMW convertible that I’m fixing up).

    Glad to see everything else survived the Hurricane.

  • Another Reader

    It was fascinating to watch the CNN coverage of the hurricane from the Chase Bank building in Naples, just a few blocks inland. The reporter and camera crew were at the northwest corner of the building, on a second floor balcony. The storm intensified over the course of an hour or so and then the eye passed over. A lot of destructive power in that wind. No storm surge where they were, which I believe was the western side of the eye. The storm then jogged east, north of Naples, before it could hit the populated ares further north along the coast.

    Here in the Bay Area, we are breathing the smoke from the wine country fires. These events are good reminders that life can change dramatically in an instant and stuff is just not important.

    • Yeah, I kindof intentionally didn’t watch the coverage, but heard about it afterward from a friend. She said they were watching some coverage of a reporter in a parking garage not far from our office and at one point the reporter took a gust of wind that pushed him back probably six feet and he groaned in pain from the force of the wind alone and the channel cut away from him for a bit shortly after that to give him time to recover his breath.

      Stay safe with the fires where you are. These events are definitely good reminders that it is the people and the ones we love that are the most important “things” around.

  • Jacq

    Back in 2013 there was a fire in my apartment building and I had water damage. They let us in very briefly the 1st day after. I grabbed the clothes out of the washer & dryer. The other things I took were a painting my sister did, and steampunk hats my mom and I spent a weekend making. Sure we could’ve remade them, but some of the sentiment is the time we spent together doing it. But in the end its stuff. Stuff we like and have grown attached to but once the people and pets are safe, stuff.
    Thank you for sharing.

  • […] Planting Our Pennies – “It’s Just Stuff” Has A Whole New Meaning […]

  • Thank goodness your home was spared! I can’t even imagine how terrible it would e to lose all that work and love you’re put into the place. It’s easy for people to say “it’s only stuff”…but in reality, it’s an important part of your life. Better it than you…but still, it’s painful.

    Glad Mr. PoP was able to take the cat. Around here, one tries to imagine what one would do with two dogs if required to leave. I figure the dogs & I will take out in the car, which will be stocked with camping gear, food, & water.