by Teri Hord, contributing writer, In the Aftermath of the Storm: Stories of Hope and Healing.
I remember October 7 like it was yesterday.
My family and I get together every Sunday for “Family Day.” All 12 of us. It was my turn to host lunch for us that day. We were all sitting out back listening to Eagle’s Radio on Pandora when someone asked, “Hey, have y’all seen this tropical storm that’s forming? They’re saying it may hit here this week. Could end up being a Category 1 or 2 hurricane.”
My heart sank for a brief moment.
I also had a voice in my head telling me not to over-react.
I felt fairly well prepared already. I had really worried about Irma the year before. Irma was the first major storm projected to make landfall here since my son was born over 4 and a half years ago. Preparing for a storm as a parent is much different than preparing for one before children.
We had plenty of water, canned goods, batteries, and a flashlight. I felt like that should be enough to get us through.
The following day, Steve went to work. I took Camden to school. It was a normal morning, coupled with a lingering sense of fear that kept looming in the back of my mind.
I told myself to not be ridiculous. It was just a tropical storm for God’s sake.
As a precaution, I decided to fill up my gas tank and pick up some more water and non-perishables. We’d eat and drink them anyway, even if we didn’t “need” them. There were several people who seemed to be preparing, but I wouldn’t describe it as chaotic. It certainly was not like you would expect it to have been now that we’ve seen the outcome.
Camden’s school informed me at pick-up they were closed until the storm passed for the staff and their families to make appropriate preparations.
That night, I begged Steve to take off work Tuesday. I couldn’t imagine myself preparing for a hurricane alone with a four-year-old. Plus, it could get windy early and I couldn’t have him on a roof in those conditions. I needed him home. We still needed to get our boat out of the water, bring all of our outdoor furniture inside, gather important documents, EVACUATE! No, that wasn’t necessary.
I took a deep breath.
At that time, Michael was still a Category 1, forecast to possibly become a Category 3.
My mind was fixated on Opal.
Opal wasn’t Katrina. We’re fine.
I Facebook messaged the owner of our house at the time Opal hit. He said we had one foot of water come inside. Ok, I can handle that. We have flood insurance and I hate the carpet in the master bedroom anyway.
But this could be a direct hit.
“More like Ivan in Pensacola?” I wondered.
I stayed up that night googling, “Hurricane Ivan images,” “Hurricane Michael track,” “Hurricane checklist,” “Storm surge videos.”
Steve was calm but woke me up around 4am. He said, “Hey, I had an idea. Google what time Home Depot opens.”
“Just do it and see how much those 5 gallon buckets are.”
Tuesday morning, shortly after we woke up, Michael had been upgraded to a Category 2.
I vividly remember Steve on the phone with a customer that morning pushing their appointment back from Wednesday to Thursday. “Tentatively, of course, until we know what this storm will do. Probably won’t be a big deal. I’ll keep you on the schedule. Call me if you have any questions.”
He left to go to Home Depot.
He returned with fifty 5-gallon buckets.
“What the hell are those for? Bailing water out of the house?” I joked.
Just as he would read a grocery list, nonchalant and monotone, he said, “We’re jacking everything up. I’m getting the drill to poke holes in all these, so they don’t float away. We’re really low, Teri. We will flood. We’re gonna save what we can.”
So, we got to work. We raised everything we had. Things from low cabinets went onto the countertops. We stacked furniture, one piece on top of the other, until it almost touched the ceiling. It was like a game of furniture Jenga. We made a “before” video for our inevitable insurance claim. Our neighbors got sand bags.
I explained to my 4-year-old that our house would most likely fill with water, but we could live upstairs. It will be sad, but we will be OK.
Camden caught a lizard outside and put it in one of the buckets. Inside the house. I didn’t care.
That night, we settled in upstairs. We Face-Timed with our friends in Costa Rica and were in constant contact with our families, all in town, except my brother, who decided to leave and stay with family in Alabama. They all begged us to come in town to stay with them. We were way too close to the coast they said. We would flood. What if the surged reached upstairs? “Think about Camden!” my mom pleaded. I began to think they may be right.
I wouldn’t say I begged, but I definitely strongly urged Steve to let us go in town to stay at my brother’s. They’d gone to Alabama, but wouldn’t mind us staying there. It had to be safer than our house. Everyone knew it was better to be in town than on the beach. Do you not see the evacuation orders? Hello!
Steve said that was ridiculous. He’d inspected every one of their houses and watched the news and we were in the best place.
I trusted him. The man skydives, scuba dives, and climbs on roofs for a living. A man who fears nothing.
I trusted him.
After the 10 o’clock news, I decided to take a “nap.” I guess Steve dozed off sometime shortly after.
I went to bed that night on our mattress on the floor silently crying, wondering if we would end up like those poor people in Katrina reaching out for helicopters to rescue them off the tops of their flooded homes. I actually considered going to get the pool floats out of our garage. Ridiculous, I know.
I was terrified.
At 4am, we were jolted awake by that horribly shrill sound they use for Amber alerts coming from our cell phones. This would be the first of many in the coming days. How they could send 50 of those annoying alerts to your phone per day, yet no one had cell service for miles, remains a mystery to me. Groggy and sore, our hearts now pounding, we turned the television on. At 4am Wednesday, just 8 hours before Hurricane Michael made landfall, it had finally reached Category 4 status.
I will never forget looking at Steve, my eyes filling with tears, asking, “What should we do now?”
I knew what he would say. “We’re fine.” “Stop over-reacting.” “Calm down.”
But he didn’t.
Instead, he looked me dead in the eyes and very calmly, but very seriously said, “We need to leave. Pack a suitcase. We don’t have much time.”
It was an out of body experience.
I began quickly, but methodically packing for what I just knew would be all we had left after the next 8 hours passed. I stayed oddly calm until I called my mom to let her know our plans. We both cried. I was scared. Actually, there, in that very moment, I was the most scared I’d ever been in my entire life.
We had no idea where we were going. We just knew we were going west.
When I got into the car, the outer rain bands were already upon us. I glanced back and saw Steve standing in the doorway just looking at our house. I knew what he was doing. He was saying goodbye. It broke my heart. We didn’t know if we could make it over the bridge or if it would be closed due to the ever increasing wind. There was a fairly good possibly we’d be forced to ride out the storm in the car. At that point, I didn’t care. That seemed like a better option than remaining at our home.
I called every hotel and motel beginning in Destin, and working my way west. I got an alert on the way that the winds had reached a staggering 155 mph. Sustained. I will forever remember the look Steve had on his face when I told him that. It was like he saw the future and knew what was coming. It still gives me chills to think about it.
“We don’t build houses this way,” he said, and kept driving.
We finally ended up in Mobile in a musty motel room in a bad part of town. We watched the storm hit from that muggy, dirty room, not having a clue what we’d come back to, if anything. Of course the cell towers went down fairly early. We had lost communication with the inside world.
We woke up before dawn the next day, not that we really slept, and headed back east. I remember reaching Pier Park and wondering why there seemed to be no damage. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as we’d thought. But how? No, that couldn’t be right.
Then we reached Thomas Drive.
We dodged power lines and downed trees. We came home to a world no one could have prepared us for. Our once beautifully manicured neighborhood was now a gigantic mess of twisted, broken, mangled trees. There was debris everywhere. People were missing parts of their roofs. Cars were in ditches. We cried. The sun was out. ”How ironic,” I thought.
I was confused. We had prepared to flood.
We parked our car down the street. The roads were blocked with giant fallen pine trees. With a four-year-old and a dog, we finally made it home.
The relief I felt at that moment was indescribable. Our house was a mess, don’t get me wrong. Our roof was missing several shingles. We lost 8 trees. Our brand new paved driveway was torn up pretty bad. Outside lights were broken and missing. Our pool pump and fence were broken due to fallen trees. We had, what I now know to be, about $100,000 worth of damage. But I didn’t care. All of that was trivial. I had expected to come home to a house that had three feet of water inside. I think, in that moment, I actually laughed like a wild, crazed person experiencing a manic episode. But inside, I knew there was nothing funny about any of this.
We made the trek back to our car, now scratched on both sides from maneuvering through the debris. We went to check on the rest of our family in town.
Unfortunately, they hadn’t fared as well. I will always remember pulling up to my brother’s house. His yard was covered in insulation, like it had just survived a blizzard of melt-proof snow. Most of his roof was on the ground in the neighbor’s yard. And the smell. You could smell it before you even went inside. Mold.
My eyes filled with tears. I looked at Steve and squeezed his hand, silently thanking him for not letting me have my way and ride the storm out here. I was thankful my brother didn’t either.
He is still living in a travel trailer.
Later that day, we drove to Lynn Haven to check on Steve’s parents. Everywhere we looked was total destruction. We drove to Parker to check on our old neighbors and old house the next day. I don’t have words for that. Most of the homes on that street will be torn down.
“How could this be? How is this possible?” I kept asking over and over.
We had prepared to flood.
We had prepared for town to be safe.
We had prepared for the entire beach to be destroyed.
We hadn’t prepared for this.
There were not enough buckets at Home Depot to have saved us from Michael.
And I often wonder, “What ever happened to that
Teri Hord is a wife, mother, and lifelong resident of Bay County. After graduating from Florida State University in 2010, she moved back to Panama City where she met her husband, Steve, also a Bay County native. They own and operate a local home inspection business and have two sons. While writing has always been her passion, in the months following the storm, it became a vital outlet in order to foster strength and healing.You can visit Teri’s blog, Living in the Aftermath, for more of her beautiful writings.