HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — Floridians stared at televisions as meteorologists pointed to a menacing storm marching toward their shores — along with scenes of hurricane-battered Houston. They heard Gov. Rick Scott repeatedly order families to get out of vulnerable areas. They holed up with strangers in shelters, fretting about what this powerful storm could do — would do — to their homes. They waited for the storm to pass, then jumped on packed highways to return to the unknown.
Almost from the first Hurricane Irma forecast, Floridians have been in an emotional cone of uncertainty, even those who were hardened by hurricanes past.
“This has been one of the most anxiety-inducing storms that I can remember,” said Meggen Sixbey, associate director and clinical associate professor of University of Florida’s Counseling and Wellness Center. “The images comparing the size of Hurricane Andrew to Hurricane Irma and the length of time it took to get here made it even worse. In waiting for the storm, you are talking about the fear of the future and when it’s over, you are talking about the fear of what you are returning to, if anything.”
In some ways, watching the sheer power and scale of Irma — wider than Florida itself, at times toggling between Category 4 and Category 5 in strength — forced a series of stressful but necessary routines.
“People are worn down by the process of awaiting a storm, the process of fighting gas lines, the process of evacuating, staying with friends or family,” said Ms. Sixbey, who worked to give psychological first aid to survivors and emergency medical workers after Hurricanes Charlie and Katrina. “After a disaster or major trauma, the first three emotions that people experience are shock, denial and disbelief.”
By the time Irma crossed the state border as a tropical storm, it had made two landfalls in Florida, forced one of the largest evacuations in American history and left people weary and worried.
People like Kathlien Neizer, 59, who tallied her remaining cigarettes on Tuesday. Just four left. And that was the least of her troubles.
The day before, the monstrous storm had sent floodwaters pouring in the windows of the mobile home she shares with her partner, Jonathan Sevigny, 59, who recently had triple-bypass surgery. The couple were rescued as the waters rose — leaving Ms. Neizer so harried that when she finally walked into the hurricane shelter, she had to take blood-pressure medication. As she sat on a hard plastic chair outside the shelter, there were so many worries, big and small, that she barely knew where to start.
“The water’s down a lot, but everything in it is totally lost,” Ms. Neizer said, referring to her home. “We live on his checks. We have no money for cleaning supplies, nowhere to sleep.”
Ms. Neizer knew she would have to clean up the house on her own, because Mr. Sevigny is not well enough to help. Her clothes were wet. Before long, they would be a moldy mess. “I have no way of cleaning them,” she said. “My washer was under water.”
What’s more, much of what the couple had bought with their monthly food-stamp allotment was rotting in the fridge. “I just don’t know what we’re going to do,” Ms. Neizer said. “We can go to the food pantries, but we have no transportation.”
Woes piled up. Ms. Neizer was not sure if her home would be safe to live in by the time the shelter closed. She did not have bus fare to get home. And she could not make any calls, because her phone was drenched in the flood.
Ms. Neizer took a drag of a cigarette and admitted she was unsure of their next chapter, but said, “We’ll be O.K.”
For Tess Peel, the waiting was the worst part.
It’s not that Irma didn’t scare the wits out of her and her partner, Jim Wallace, at their mobile home in North Fort Myers. During the height of the storm on Sunday, Mr. Wallace was holding on to the frame of their screened porch to keep it from being blown apart. And Ms. Peel was pacing, clutching her father’s rosary beads and praying.
But as they and a few neighbors in their 55-plus community gathered on Tuesday for grilled ribs and beer — for them, the loss of electricity was Irma’s biggest legacy — Ms. Peel had no doubt about what had made her most anxious.
“It was the waiting,” she said. “Waiting for it to come and not knowing what it was going to be. We didn’t know if it was going to be a Cat 5.”
The Weather Channel had stoked her anxiety, Ms. Peel said, with constant descriptions of Irma’s strength in the days before the storm hit Florida.
Over the weekend, as South Florida braced for a possible direct hit, Marjorie Metellus and Chantrell Manning met in the hallways of Miami Northwestern Senior High School. They had both taken shelter there, after evacuating their respective homes in South Miami and the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami.
Bonded by young children, tears and a powerful storm, the two single mothers were the last two evacuees at the shelter. Together, they brought their children to the Red Cross center on the grounds of Miami-Dade County’s annual Youth Fair. They sat across from each other on cots as the children played between their feet, and tried to figure out whether their houses were safe.
“It makes you feel like less than a parent when you don’t have a home to go home to,” said Ms. Metellus, 35 and nearly six months pregnant. “It’s sad.”
Their only possessions at the shelter were clothes and personal documents, quickly stuffed into their handbags, a suitcase and a purse. Their children, ages 3 to 5, are barely old enough to understand what a hurricane is. Though overwhelmed, the mothers talked about resilience inspired by their children.
“It’s devastating, but you have to keep moving forward,” said Ms. Manning, 25. “They expect Mommy to have that strength. So you can’t show those weak emotions with the kids. I’m trying my best to be the best mother.”
Ms. Mettellus added: “You can’t be selfish on how you feel. It’s about how they feel.”
For days and days, Simone Lasswell, a ceramic artist, had been haunted by the storm. As she dismantled the kilns and stored glaze and clay on high tables in her Stock Island studio, the questions swirled: Would the Florida Keys take a direct blow? What would be left when she returned? What about her friends?
Then there were the immediate questions of finding food and gasoline and outrunning the storm, a journey that took her and her pet Chihuahua, Paco, from her home in Key West to Naples and then on to Sarasota.
“This has been stressful and scary. I just kept thinking, what if I run out of gas and I am stuck on side of the road during the storm,” said Ms. Lasswell, who has lived in Key West for 22 years. “It felt like the storm was following me.”
She heard from a friend who finally made it to one of the few working landlines on the island. Her friends were O.K. The house was O.K.
The heaviness of the week was finally melting away. Ms. Lasswell, still in Sarasota, cried tears of relief.