It’s been several weeks since Hurricane Ian devastated huge parts of Florida then moved northeast to do it again in the Carolinas.
And now with looming mid term elections and the Russia aggression, that storm is old news.
Except for all the people whose homes were in Ian’s path. For them the aftermath of the hurricane is far worse than riding out the storm.
Unless you’ve lived through a massive hurricane you can’t imagine what the weeks, months, and years after it are like.
Even second guessing what to do before the storm hits is equally unimaginable unless you’ve lived through it. Do you abandon your home and all your possessions? Where do you go?
It’s easy to believe that officials are being overly cautious when they say to evacuate. If you wait too long to make a decision it’s made for you. Gas stations have sold out of gas. Bridges have closed. Highways are clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic that is creeping along.
There are benefits to staying. If you stay and your home is damaged you can start clean up right away. Plus you’re there to protect it from looters.
But if your home is destroyed you will have put your life in jeopardy.
I know, because on October 10th of 2018 my husband and I rode out Hurricane Michael at our Florida home. Michael was a massive Category 5 hurricane with 9 foot storm surge and nearly 200 mph winds that wiped out the town of Mexico Beach, damaged or destroyed much of Port St. Joe and Panama City, and created wind devastation north all the way into south west Georgia.
The back of our home faces St. Vincent Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. On a normal day the water is about 200 feet from the house. Our house is built to the latest hurricane standards and the living quarters are elevated, not at ground level. That’s where the garage and lower level storage are. We are only 20 miles from Mexico Beach which put us in the inner eastern band of the storm.
It was terrifying, but we and our home survived. The top level where we live was fine. The lower level was a mess. And our cars, which we had moved to a 100 year flood plain portion of the property far away from the coastline were totally destroyed. Raging waters went far beyond that 100 year flood plane, picked them up and carried them to the adjacent woods and that’s where we found them when the water receded.
There was no power for a week; no water for longer than that. And we learned a lot about the lingering effects of a natural disaster. Such as:
Insurance companies will find as many reasons as they can to not pay you a cent. They spend more time looking for ways to get out of paying you than they do in assessing your damage. This includes FEMA. We had FMEA flood insurance.
Well-meaning family and friends up north offered to come down and help us clean up. That’s not possible. After a hurricane you need a re-entry pass to prove you are a resident. Non residents aren’t let in.
Concerned family and friends asked what we need, and said they would have things shipped to us. Again, not possible. There was no mail delivery for weeks. Our post office in PSJ was closed while postal employees dealt with damage at the post office as well as the damage to their own homes.
Our UPS and Fed Ex hubs were both in Panama City. They were destroyed. As was the Post Office Sectional Center Facility in Panama City where mail sent to us goes before it comes to Port St. Joe. For more than a year after the storm the Panama City post office was a series of temporary trailers.
Contractors of all kinds … roofers, electrical, plumbing, and general … were needed by thousands of people all at the same time. And all of those contractors were also dealing with their own damage. Many lost their businesses. A triage system prioritized those with the most need, but also those who had the money to pay.
Grocery stores and hardware stores ran out of whatever supplies they still had and waited until large trucks could get through to re-supply them. Not an easy thing because many roads were washed out. So there is often nothing to buy.
Forget about finding bottled water to drink until relief services can bring it in. Then wait in lines to get a supply. And the luxury of a hot shower or soaking bath is but a memory until water services are restored.
You spend the day, from sun up to sun set raking and sweeping smelly muck out of what was your home. You walk the area and search for things you recognize that are yours but were swept away by the water. If you’re lucky you find your stuff.
After Hurricane Michael, the streets and Highway 98 in Mexico Beach were washed away, and homes were gone for blocks from the water. It was impossible for people to even recognize where their homes once stood.
The lingering effects of a natural disaster linger for years. Some people never recover. We were lucky. We could stay in our home and live in it while repairs were done. The last repair was finished in February of 2020 … then Covid hit! We went from one disaster to the next.
During that time you learn to live a life where nothing is normal. Patience is a necessity. Expectations are a waste of your time.
The day after the hurricane I was overcome with joy when my husband found our heavy duty rake lying in the muck that washed into our garage where the bottoms of garage doors had been blown out by wind and water. That rake meant we could start cleaning up! It became one of our most valuable possessions.
Because our propane tank was buried under ground it wasn’t damaged and we had fuel. I could cook on our gas grill by igniting it with a match. I even baked blueberry muffins in that grill. We had stored up plenty of drinking water in pitchers and jugs in our fridge and I could make coffee each morning in my French Press when there was no power to run the coffee maker.
You appreciate little things like fresh coffee and blueberry muffins.
Those little pleasures change your perspective on life.
Hurricane Michael changed me forever. I will never be the person I was before that.
It is now 2022 – four years later, and the highway department is just now repaving the road that goes past our house that was partially washed out by Michael. For four years we’ve lived with the sawhorses blocking the parts that washed out and the incredible bumpiness of the parts of road that are still drivable.
At least we still had a road.
There are many jokes and stories about the weirdness of Floridians. What many don’t realize is that because of hurricanes, all of Florida is a tightly-knit community. When one part is ravaged the parts that weren’t quickly pull together to help.
When you meet other Floridians, both multi-generational and transplants, the initial conversation immediately includes which hurricanes you survived. It is a bonding that is more powerful than Gorilla Glue. And it’s probably the thing I love most about being a transplant to Florida.
“The human capacity for survival and renewal is awesome.”Isabel Allende
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