Emma’s story isn’t a unique one, in that sadly, in 2020 alone, the number of new cancer cases in the United States was estimated at 1.8 million, with approximately 606,000 of those ending in death, cancer.org.
However, her story is unique, in that, when it happens to a family member, a friend, yourself, the statistics cease to matter. In that moment the reality of it becomes real in a way it never could before. It’s no longer separate, but very personal, very intimate, and very frightening.
Like many families, cancer has impacted ours many times over. Cancer took my husband’s father in 1999, my father in 2010. We lost our niece to breast cancer at the age of 33, in 2013. A few years later, in 2015, we lost my husband’s sister to brain cancer. She was only 56.
Yet, even the pain and devastation of those losses could not prepare us for the blow that four little words would deliver: Your daughter has cancer.
This is Emma’s story.
Five years ago, at the age of 17, after almost a year of tests and continued deteriorating health, Emma was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkins Lymphoma. The diagnosis was both a blessing, we finally knew what was wrong, and a curse, how could this be happening to her?
Fear and faith overwhelmed us. But in the end, it was Emma, herself who would fight this battle in mind, in body, in spirit. We could comfort, support, care for, and pray, but it would be Emma doing the fighting. And with faith and hope, did she ever fight.
She spent her senior year of high school at Shands Children’s Hospital in Gainesville where she underwent intensive chemotherapy to battle this deadly disease. Her warrior spirit and faith were something to behold.
As parents, my husband and I were humbled by her strength during such devastating circumstances. Instead of complaining or feeling sorry for herself she rose up. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, she turned her love and talent in music and art to gifts she shared with other patients and their families on the children’s wing.
She finished high school virtually, and played her guitar and sang as often as she could. She became known as the “Rockstar” of the pediatric floor.
June 2021 marks five years cancer free for Em. Five years cancer free in the medical community is often referred to as ‘cured’ since the likelihood of reoccurrence is very small. We’ll take that.
We know how lucky we are. We know that Emma’s story doesn’t always end for others the way it did for her. And we are so very grateful for this miracle. We praise God every day for this precious gift he has given our family.
During her illness, Emma wrote a beautiful song called, Breathe. In 2019, we traveled to LA as a family, where she worked with producers and recorded it as her first single at Paramount Recording Studios. It was a family celebration of a lifetime.
She asked her dad, also a musician, to play on the track. She asked her big sister and I to sing backup vocals. It was a beautiful and inspirational moment when it all came together. One that we will cherish for a lifetime.
Emma is almost 23 now. She’s healthy and strong. She continues her journey grateful every day for the opportunities and the life before her. She still sings. Still plays her guitar. Still writes music. She doesn’t define herself by her cancer story. Rather, she acknowledges that her story is one among millions and deeply humbled that unlike so many others, she was given another chance to live, to love, to be.
I’ve learned to be grateful for the hard times, because without them the good times wouldn’t be as good. I’ve learned more about myself and who I am. I’ve learned that even in the toughest times, you can make great memories. And I’ve learned that the way you think can change not only your experience, but also those around you. If you’re positive, it affects others in a positive way. Mostly I’ve learned that worrying is pointless, because you’re not in control. I’ve learned to trust God in all things, no matter the outcome.
Emma Rose Fenwick
Thank you for letting me share Emma’s story.
Breathe by Emma Rose is available on all platforms if you’d like to listen. ♥️
JN Fenwick, author, In the Eye of the Storm | In the Aftermath of the Storm
A room without books is like a body without a soul.
Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, has always been one of my favorite places to visit; especially, his library. Standing in the dim room, surrounded by Jefferson’s many books, their spines lined neatly on the shelves, the smell of old parchment and the musty scent of tomes that, at one time, rested in the hands of the man himself, is inspiring to a history lover like myself.
I can almost imagine Jefferson standing there amid the shadows, searching for a particular title, running his hands over the volumes until his fingers touched upon the one he sought; smiling as he pulled it down, certain that within its pages he’d find the passage he needed to complete a letter, or a thesis, or perhaps even a document that would one day guide and inspire a country through a war for independence.
Books are indeed timeless treasures. They inspire, convey, impart, teach, and perhaps most enjoyable of all, transport us to different times, different worlds, allowing us to become something other, for a while, then who we are.
A quote I came across the other day, “I am part of everything I have read,” brought to mind just how much reading has transformed and informed my life. Honestly, though, I think, much more than me becoming a part of the books I have read, that they have become a part of me. A part that I carry with me like a treasured friend. A friend I revisit from time to time, to discover an ever-evolving world; a world changing as I have changed; growing as I have grown; and through the years moving and becoming along with me.
Since I was a young girl, books have been an integral part of my life. Growing up in a big family, I often escaped from the chaos of so many siblings and the constant blur of motion, into a book; sometimes for hours at a time. Or at least until I’d hear my mom’s call for me to come help with something or other.
I even had my favorite hiding spots, places my siblings wouldn’t think to look for me; like the big oak tree in our back yard. I was notorious for getting stuck in high places once I’d climbed up. I’d inevitably look down and then freeze, almost every time. “Get the ladder,” my brothers would call, “Jen’s stuck in the tree again!” So, climbing up as far as I’d dare to settle comfortably on the wide branches of the sturdy oak, was a clever hiding spot! I’d grab an apple or a peanut butter sandwich and settle in for the day. I loved the classics, and Judy Bloom, and To Kill a Mockingbird was a title I must have read a hundred times. I even wanted to name my first daughter, Scout!
As a grew, my horizons expanded, as did my library. My ever-increasing love of history took shape in a myriad of biographies, historical non-fiction, and then gradually historical novels. In my early twenties, I was introduced to Anne McCaffery and her dragon-filled world of Pern. I not only quickly devoured every single book in the series, I hunted eBay and old book stores until I had an early edition hard copy of each book. They were all second-hand, but I felt that added to their beauty and charm.
Eventually the magical world of Harry Potter was introduced to the world, and like so many others, I stood in line at Books-a-Million to get my hands on the next volume as soon as it was released. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series was no less compelling and deserving of the same attention and dedication! When eReaders hit the scene, I initially balked at the notion. I wanted a book in my hand; and a hardcover one at that. I loathed paperbacks! It wasn’t until my husband brought to my attention the exorbitant amount of money and the increasingly growing amount of space my book habit required, that I consented to a Kindle. I’d still rather hold an actual book, but I’m nothing if not adaptable!
As I stand in front of my own bookcases and delve into the many containers full of books stored in my spare room, I can trace the evolution of my life, from childhood to young woman; through college and graduate school; through my years as a history teacher and through my progressing physical and spiritual journeys.
My daughters’ favorite books reside there along with the many intrigue and mystery books my husband also enjoys reading. They are nestled there, along with my own hand-written journals.
Taking it all in, I can’t help but think that perhaps one day, when my grandchildren and great-grandchildren read one of these books I love so much, that maybe the part of me that resides within their pages will speak to them; and that for a moment, despite the distance and time that may separate us, we will exist alongside each other, sharing a secret, speaking the same silent language. And perhaps in that moment, they will know with certainty that I lived, that I breathed; and that I once held the very same book and read the very same words. That is the magic of books, and therein lies the treasure.
As Dorian approaches, media outlets are reporting it as “an unprecedented storm in Florida,” and that Dorian “would be the strongest storm to hit Florida since 1992.”
Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock
As I look around the barren landscape and notice the still clinging blue tarps, the vacant lots where homes and businesses used to stand, the stark and revealing evidence that some forgotten disaster occurred here, I have to wonder, exactly when the rest of the world decided Michael was nothing more than a blip on their radar?
For us, Category 5, Hurricane Michael changed everything. Just ten months ago we were struggling through the first days and weeks following the destruction he left behind.
Those of us who have lived in the aftermath of Michael have weathered countless storms since that day last October. Though progress is being made, the region and its people are suffering.
Now, just ten months later, the threat of another storm has brought into stark and disheartening clarity, the fact that the rest of the world has indeed forgotten.
A recent survey conducted by Rebuild 850, an initiative launched shortly after the storm to advocate on behalf of hurricane victims still trying to rebuild their lives, showed nearly half of respondents would do nothing to help people affected by the hurricane and nearly 75 percent said they would not consider donating money to help with relief efforts (FLAPOL, 26 June 2019).
For those outside the region, who mistakenly believe that all is well, the numbers don’t lie, though they are rarely, if ever reported on.
Since October 10, 2018, affected counties are suffering. Loss of jobs and income, closed and damaged schools, a housing crisis, and increasing uncertainty coupled with the difficulty of navigating the government-aid and insurance bureaucracies have coalesced into massive storms of their own.
Hurricane Michael was the first Category 5 storm to hit the United States since Hurricane Andrew, tearing a path through some of the poorest parts of Florida. Insurers report nearly $7 billion in losses across nearly 150,000 claims that have been filed (The Tampa Bay Times, 26 August 2019).
In Mexico Beach, where Michael’s eye passed, virtually obliterating the tiny coastal community, the losses are staggering and rebuilding is slow.
The city’s budget depends on property taxes. But 70 percent of the storm’s 27,000 homes were damaged or completely destroyed by the storm. Before the storm about 1,1000 people lived in Mexico Beach. Now only 400 or so remain. The city doesn’t currently have a gas station or a grocery store (mypanhandle.com, 18 August 2019).
Residents throughout the entire Panhandle region continue to struggle with the after affects of Michael. The emotional trauma of living through a natural disaster of this magnitude and scope have left many in a perpetual state of fear and anxiety.
As Dorian makes his way across the Atlantic, many residents are still living in tents or ruined homes, waiting for contractors or government funds to help them rebuild. Some fear heavier rains attracting black mold, with roofs still covered by tarps that can leak, even with a typical summer’s afternoon thunderstorm. Others are wary about water damage from flooding, as state and municipalities still work to clear debris, or about weakened trees from Michael that might topple in a lesser storm (Miami Herald, 10 July 2019).
In Bay County too, progress is slow and the after effects of Michael are still readily visible. Debris and damaged buildings remain along Highway 98, the main drag, and 5,000 kids are still considered “homeless,” crashing with friends and family or living in FEMA tents and trailers. About 30 percent of the school kids never came back. More than 50 percent of the apartments still are not livable (Fox News, 31 May, 2019).
The sad truth is, that outside of the impacted areas, the rest of the country is oblivious to the continued hardships survivors of Michael face.
And nothing brings that into clarity more glaringly than listening to the media reports on Dorian. In truth, we do not wish the kind of destruction and the hardships we’ve endured since Michael on anyone. And we recognize that we are not the only region of the country to suffer from natural disasters. All we ask is please, just please don’t minimize our struggles or trivialize our survival by continuing to misreport Michael’s destruction and impact.
The forgotten coast we may be, but rest assured, not a single one of us who lived through that day, who continue to exist in the aftermath, will ever forget.
How can we? The destruction is still all around us.
Jennifer N. Fenwick, editor, contributing author, In the Eye of the Storm and the soon to be released, In the Aftermath of the Storm, coming October, 10, 2019.
When Hurricane Micheal slammed into our cities last October, he took more with him than just our trees, our businesses, our homes. He took pieces of us. Memories we’d planted long ago. The world outside has moved on. But we, we are still living in the aftermath.
Like the many cities destroyed before us by Andrew, Katrina, Florence, by fire, and flood, the rebuilding is slow. It will be years before our landscape looks anything like it did the day before the storm. So many are still suffering, homeless, frightened, weary. We’re doing our best, but there are days when even the most you can give is not enough.
And there are stories. So many stories. It has been my privilege to work with talented writers, poets, photographers, and artists in the first months following Michael to put together a book expressing what it’s been like to survive and then live in the aftermath of a Category 5 Hurricane. Entire towns were swept away in the violence. Entire communities joined together to offer aid and assistance where they could.
In the Eye of the Storm was released in January, 2019, just three months after the catastrophic storm destroyed our cities. All proceeds earned from book sales, both online and locally, have gone to the United Way of Northwest Florida’s Hurricane Michael Relief Fund. All money earned through this fund remains local to help those in need across the region. We are so very grateful to all who have supported our efforts and purchased a copy.
We are currently completing the sequel to our first publication, In the Aftermath of the Storm: Stories of Hope and Healing. Over the past ten months we have collected many beautiful stories, poetry, and images of survival and determination in the face of such daunting circumstances.
Like it’s predecessor, all money earned from sales will continue to assist local relief efforts through the UWNWFL. In the Aftermath of the Storm will be available online and again locally in October, 2019; the one year anniversary of the day that changed our lives, our cities, our region forever.
I very rarely, if ever post anything that might be construed as political in nature. I find that those thoughts and opinions are usually best kept to oneself. However, in the current climate of chaos and noise and the constant barrage of talking heads and talking over one another, I was reminded of the numerous conversations I enjoyed with my father. He instilled in me a love of history and the constant thirst for learning that has dominated much of my life.
As a teacher, I found myself in the unique position of being a mentor to hundreds of students over the course of the fifteen years I taught. Of all the subjects I taught during those years, American History was by far my favorite. As a result, my position as a history teacher was one I took very seriously, constantly seeking new and meaningful ways to teach my students the great importance of looking deeper than the history books, beneath all the clutter, in order to find a truth that does exist. It takes time and focused research, which in this day and age, is becoming a lost art. Still, the impact of seeking, of reading, of being willing to dig deeper, is so very rewarding and necessary if we are to become informed citizens.
One of the easiest, and most underused methods available to us all is simply this, learn to perfect the art of distinguishing fact from opinion. In doing so, you become more adept at drawing relevant conclusions, thus arming yourself with one of the most powerful weapons available, knowledge that is earned and not simply given. It’s not hard, but it makes such an important difference.
A fact is simply this, something that can be proven either true or false. I might say, “the sky is green,” but just by looking up on any given day, you can plainly see that it is not. That the sky is green, therefore, is simply my opinion. If on the other hand I say’ “I have green eyes.” You can look at me and clearly see that my eyes are, in fact, green. See? Simple. If we then apply this to our research, to how we consume the news, or any media for that matter, the bigger picture becomes clearer. Or to put it more succinctly, the truth beneath the noise.
Try this, the next time you read a news article, take two different color highlighters and highlight all the opinions in one color and all the facts in the other. Then rewrite the story using only the facts.
I used to do this with my students regularly. It was amazing how much obsolete filler there was being reported and consumed as fact in our everyday news, at all levels.
Now, armed with the facts, you are in a much better position to determine what is indeed valid and to then form your own opinions about the subject rather than allowing others to do it for you. This in turn, also puts you in a much better position to develop educated opinions, something vastly different and much more powerful than the noise we are constantly subjected to.
Taking it a step further, you can apply this process to not only consumption of the news and media, but also to consumption of non-fiction, history, any offering that is presented as factually based. Again, it’s the delving into the subject, of questioning its validity and embarking on the quest that is important here.
In my own quest for historical knowledge, I have found this to be true. There’s a wealth of beauty and sustaining principles upon which our country is founded. Is it perfect? No. But I firmly believe it strives to be. I’m not talking about politics here, I’m speaking of the rich and meaningful history of our country. The good and the bad. The foundations upon which our Constitution was founded and the amendments that have been added since the Bill of Rights. The foundations that have guided us through decades of growth and progress, through wars and discord, through changing centuries, and a changing world. These are not obsolete, but very much relevant even to this day.
Once you open yourself up to studying and truly learning our history in this manner, I can assure you from personal experience, your thirst for knowledge will continue to increase, while your acceptance of the status quo will constantly diminish. More than just a right, I think it is a responsibility that we, as Americans, as citizens, as voters, are called to do.
So I leave you with one of my favorite Leonardo da Vinci quotes, “It had long come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”
Strive to be a person of accomplishment in your quest for knowledge as much as you are in other areas of your life. You live in a country that values and protects your right to do so. Embrace it and even more, seek it, for it is in this we all prevail from generation to generation.
Jennifer N. Fenwick, former American History teacher and author | In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle and Four Weeks: A Journey from Darkness
I love the sound of rain. However, the sound of rain on a tin or metal roof is something else altogether. It brings to mind childhood afternoons with my Nana.
My Nana, Mary Murphy Chaknis, was born in 1911 in County Cork, Ireland. Her family was poor, and by the time Nana had reached her early teens, her mother and father decided to send she and her sister, Lily to America to live with relatives, and hopefully to have a better life. Nana was only 16.
She and Lily traveled on an ocean liner and passed through Ellis Island in the latter part of the 1920’s. Her first job was in a hospital kitchen, preparing meals and helping with the laundry. It was a much different world than the one she had grown up in, and far away from home.
Early on, Nana realized that her deep faith and the strength she received from God would be the cornerstones that would sustain her throughout her life. Nana would never again visit her homeland. Instead, she would live a long and beautiful life in America, meeting and marrying my grandfather, Pete Chaknis, an immigrant from Greece, and raising six children, first in New York, and then in Florida when the family transferred here in the 1940’s. My grandfather was a chef and he moved the family to Panama City when the opportunity to run his own café presented itself. The house my mother and her three brothers and two sisters were raised in would eventually be purchased by my parents after Grandpa passed away in the early 1960’s. Nana would move across the street and I would spend many hours of my childhood in her company.
Nana taught me how to
crochet. She patiently helped me create, first small granny squares and then
later on, blankets and afghans. She taught me how to bake her famous carrot
cake and cheesecake. I followed her around the kitchen watching as she prepared
her delicious fig preserves from the tree in her backyard. She’d send me out
with a basket to collect the figs when they were ready for picking. Spending
the night with her was a special treat because in the morning she’d serve the
best, fluffiest, lightest buttermilk pancakes in the world!
But rainy afternoons were my favorite. It was on those days that Nana would pull out her button box. To me it was much more than a box filled with buttons. To me it was a treasure chest. Nana saved buttons from just about every garment that lost one or that was past mending.
The box contained treasures from tiny pearl buttons to big ornate ones from suits and jackets. The were not the sort of buttons you’d ever find in a store. No, they were precious, and unique, and every bit the little gems they appeared to be. They had been saved over the years from the very garments Nana wore; from my grandfather’s worn clothing; from my mom’s and her sibling’s hand-me-downs. It was like sifting through history.
Nana could recall in vivid detail the garments from which they came and the occasions on which they were worn. It was like peeking through the looking glass into the past and seeing her as a young girl, crossing an ocean to begin a new life; a young wife and mother, caring for her family; a widow, who lost my grandfather when she was only in her mid-forties; to becoming Nana, the women I admired and whose warm hugs were the best in the world; whose Irish twinkle never left her eyes; and whose words of wisdom I still carry with me to this day.
When Nana passed in 2004, at the age of 93, she left me the button box and all of her yarn and crochet tools. Sometimes, on rainy afternoons, when the drops are pattering softly on the metal of our roof, I take out the button box and slowly sift through the buttons, thinking of Nana and the sound of her voice as she reminisced about each one.
I’d hold up one of the little treasures, asking, “What about this one, Nana? Where’d it come from?”
“Oh, that one, Jenny-Pooh,” she’d say using the nickname she’d lovingly given me, “That one was from the dress I wore on the train when we moved here from New York. I was pregnant with your Uncle George. You mom was just five…”
The story would continue, and I’d listen intently every time. Because even then I knew that one day, my own children, her great-grandchildren, would ask me the same questions. And I wanted to be able to give them these same pieces of family history that Nana was giving me; with just as much joy and just as much love. Especially on the rainy afternoons, when I knew I’d feel her presence next to me, her warmth moving through me, and perhaps most meaningfully of all, her story, living on as I shared it with the next generation.
Only four recorded Atlantic storms have maintained category five strength as they barreled inland. The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, with its maximum sustained winds of 185 mph, was the most intense to ever make landfall. It destroyed nearly all structures in the upper Florida Keys as it came ashore on the evening of September 3, 1935.
Hurricane Camille is the second-strongest hurricane to make landfall in the United States. Coming ashore just before midnight on August 17, 1969 along the Mississippi Gulf Coast with maximum sustained winds of 175 mph, Camille tore a path of total and utter destruction through the region, killing over 140 people with its extremely high storm surge and massive flooding. It was decades before the region fully recovered from the devastation.
Hurricane Andrew made landfall around Ellicott Key, Florida on August 24, 1992 with maximum sustained winds of 165 mph, making it the third strongest category five storm on record to hit the U.S. Andrew produced devastating damage across southern sections of Miami and nearly completely wiped Homestead, FL off the map. The damage total in Florida alone after Andrew was over $26 billion.
The most recent category 5 hurricane to devastate the Gulf Coast was Hurricane Michael, who made landfall in the early afternoon hours of October 10, 2018 along the Panhandle of Florida. With maximum sustained winds of 161 mph, Michael’s eye came ashore near the tiny coastal community of Mexico Beach, FL, nearly eradicating its existence from the landscape. With its minimum central pressure of 27.13 inches, Michael also holds the distinction of being the third-most intense U. S. storm ever (behind Katrina, 2005, and Andrew, 1992). Hurricane Michael caused catastrophic damage from winds and storm surge in the Panama City, Mexico Beach, and Cape San Blas areas. Michael was directly responsible for at least 79 deaths, including 59 in the U.S. and 15 in Central America and over $53 billion in damage, including $5 billion in property damage in Florida alone and almost $4 billion to Florida’s forestry and farming communities.
An Eerie Silence
In the early afternoon hours of
October 10, 2018, Hurricane Michael barreled into the Florida Panhandle
altering our lives in ways we could never have imagined or prepared for. When
we emerged from the shelters we had hurriedly taken, we were greeted with an eerie
silence that was so total in its completeness that we were left with nothing but
a devastating shock that shook us to our very core.
Over the course of the next few
days, the stories began to emerge. Stories that broke our hearts while at the
same time, inspiring and strengthening our resolve and determination to
overcome the chaos all around us.
There were so many stories.
Like the emergency responder who
dropped everything immediately after the winds died down, leaving his home to
travel to the very center of the destruction in Mexico Beach only to return to
his home days later to find that everything of value he’d left behind had been
taken by looters.
The story of the young couple who
sheltered in a three-story bank building near their townhome, only to be forced
into a stairwell as the windows blew out all around them. Their saving grace was
the dog leash they’d secured around the stairwell door to protect their pets. As
the intense fury of Michael’s winds swept through the building, that leash kept
the doors from blowing open, sparing their lives as well.
The story of the father and son who exchanged “I love you’s” during the height of the storm, fearing death was imminent as trees fell on their home and they wrestled valiantly to keep the doors closed against the wind while Mom used every pot and bucket available to keep the rain from flooding the interior. Or the story of the new parents forced to sleep in their car with their newborn infant after their home was totally destroyed and they had nowhere else to go. As Tony Simmons, a writer for the News Herald wrote a few days later, “We all became storytellers that day.”
A Mexico Beach resident, Scott Boutell, was close to tears as he spoke to a reporter in front of his wrecked house a few days after the storm: “Our lives are gone here. All the stores, all the restaurants, everything. There’s nothing left here anymore,” he said.
As the days and weeks began to
blur and muddy, we were stripped to the very basics of survival. No power,
phones, or internet meant no communication with the world outside. And no way
for family members outside the Panhandle to know for certain if their loved
ones were still among the living. No grocery stores, gas stations or drinkable water,
meant we had to rely on the kindness of strangers and volunteers for our basic
needs. Entire neighborhoods banded together to pool available resources and in
some cases, to provide shelter for those who lost everything.
The arduous task of digging ourselves out of the destruction, literally, began as soon as equipment could be obtained. Rescue teams went door-to-door, combing through wreckage to check for survivors, helping to dig out those trapped, or to remove the deceased who had not been so lucky. Large red X’s began to appear on doors across the region, a way of marking that the dwelling had been checked and cleared. It was like moving through the set of one of those apocalyptic movies, only the set was real, and we were the bedraggled cast of shell-shocked, weary survivors.
And the eerie quiet remained pervasive.
In the immediate aftermath, 4,000 National Guard were deployed to assist the nearly 2,000 law-enforcement officials already on the ground in the area. Crews with dogs searched door-to-door in Mexico Beach, pushing aside debris to get inside badly damage structures.
A strictly enforced dawn to dusk
curfew was put in place to protect citizens, but also to deter looters from
taking advantage of the plight of others.
Within a day, over 6,000 linemen
descended on the area to get the decimated power-grid back on line as quickly
as possible. It wouldn’t be quick. It would take over a month to restore the
nearly one million homes and businesses affected throughout the region.
Work crews removed 31 million cubic yards of debris in Florida left by Hurricane Michael, compared to 3 million for Hurricane Irma, a much broader storm that affected the entire peninsula in 2017, according to T.J. Dargan, deputy federal coordinating officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hurricane Michael response and recovery effort, The Washington Post.
However, the aftermath still continues unabated. Our homeless numbers are on the rise as FEMA assistance begins to run out and more and more people are forced onto the streets. Livable properties are scarce, and supply and demand has caused rent prices to skyrocket, leaving many without any hope of shelter in the near future. Bay County Schools reports some 4,800 students, about 1 in 6, are living in temporary homes, a classification federal officials consider as homeless.
Down a country road in Bay County, Sam Summers, a heavy-equipment operator, and his wife, Sherry Skinner-Summers, who works with the sheriff’s department, have opened their five-acre lot to people whose houses and trailers were destroyed in the storm. The Summers and their donors provide tents to families and individuals who cannot find or afford hotel rooms or apartments and pass a background check.
Many of the lingering effects of
the storm are more intangible. We are visibly fatigued, with stress, anxiety,
and depression affecting us more and more. The constant and ever-present
reminders of the storm are a blow to our psyche and a punch to the gut every
During all this time, while we have
been focused on survival, recovery, and healing, doing all we can to stand on
our own, we never anticipated that
some of our greatest frustrations and heartache would come at the hands of those
we believed we could rely on most to assist us.
If [Federal] funding isn’t passed soon, repair work on Tyndall Air Force Base, which is estimated to make up a third of Bay County’s economy, will grind to a halt on May 1, hurting both the local area and military readiness. Also in jeopardy are repairs to the local VA medical facilities, the U.S Coast Guard facility repairs and federal dollars for the schools, according to Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s office.
That the world quickly moved on and donations for Hurricane Michael relief have fallen well-short of those for previous storms and disasters hurt, yes, but we could understand that. We knew from the beginning that we were not the only natural disaster affecting the country. Other regions, most notably the victims of the wildfires that burned though California, are also in need of assistance.
No. What has sickened us most as
the weeks turn into months, is the partisan politics in Washington that have
hampered the passage of the relief bill we so desperately need. As lawmakers continue to
spar over the details of the supplemental disaster funding bill, we, and all
the other disaster affected regions in the country continue to suffer. We are
doing our best, but it’s a day-to-day struggle. In truth, we are still living
in a war zone.
“If this hurricane had gone through Central Florida, South Florida, the dollars would have been there by now,” said state Agricultural Commissioner Nicole “Nikki” Fried. “People are out there struggling every day — people whose entire life savings, entire college fund, is basically lying on the ground.”
There are still trees resting on structures. There
are still blue tarps covering damaged roofs. There are still pieces of plywood
covering windows. There are still piles of rubble in parking lots and in
neighborhoods where structures once stood. People are still living in tents. Others
have lost all hope and are leaving the area for good.
Every day you hear stories of shady contractors
taking advantage of desperate, weary people. Of battles with insurance
companies leaving victims with scant resources to make much-needed repairs to
homes and businesses. You wonder what it’s like to live in the aftermath of a
category 5 hurricane?
It’s hell. And until Washington puts aside their
partisan bickering and passes the aide package so desperately needed, the flames
just continue to rise.
Teachers are expected to reach unattainable goals with inadequate tools. The miracle is that at times they accomplish this impossible task.
I left teaching in
2008. As the years pass, I realize that I left a bit of myself there too. In
the lives of all the students I taught and in all the ways they enriched my
For the past
decade I have worked in the government contracting industry as a developer of
training and educational products for the Department of Defense (DoD). Still a
form of teaching, I suppose, but not in the same way as the fifteen years I
spent in the classroom and as a coach. Those years, I admit, were the pinnacle
of my career, for nothing else I would ever do would feed my soul or fill my heart
with so much gratitude and pride.
My students are
now adults, college graduates, husbands and wives, parents, contributing in
their own ways, to the world around them. I keep in touch with many of them,
thanks to the ease of social media, and I’ve even worked with a few of them at
times. They still call me, “Ms. Fenwick, or Fenny,” even though I tell them
they can call me “Jennifer,” now that they are grown. They have a hard time
with that, as I suppose no matter how old they get, I’ll always be their
teacher. A title I wear with extreme pride. As much pride as I feel every time
I see their successes, celebrate another milestone in their lives, or witness
the moments in which they truly blossom.
Any genuine teaching will result, if successful, in someone’s knowing how to bring about a better condition of things than existed earlier.
For a year or two,
I was witness to their growth and learning every day, then I had to let them go
– on to the next
chapter of their lives. But I never stopped holding them in my heart, and more
than that, I never stopped being poignantly humbled and eternally grateful for
all the lessons they taught me.
For the short time I had them, I felt a deep sense of responsibility for helping to shape their attitudes and perceptions toward knowledge and learning, and not simply to just teach them American History. “Learning,” I’d explain to them, “is a lifelong endeavor. It’s not something that has a finite end, but instead, it’s something that continually shapes our lives and ultimately our growth.” And truly, isn’t that the real goal of education, to continually grow and evolve, as we gain knowledge through experience, as well as through education?
Understanding that middle school students wouldn’t understand this perspective from my words only, I set about teaching them through example. My goal? To instill in them a lifelong desire for knowledge; a deep and intrinsic desire to continually ask questions and to seek, of their own volition, the answers. In my own experience, and through the guidance of my parents and some of my own teachers, I was shown the value of the quest and ultimately the lasting effect of earning knowledge.
a history teacher, I found myself in the unique position of being a mentor to
hundreds of students over the course of the fifteen years I taught. I took that
position very seriously, constantly seeking new and meaningful ways to teach my
kids the great importance of looking deeper than the history books, beneath all
the clutter and noise, in order to find a truth that does exist. It takes time
and focused research, which in this day and age, is becoming a lost art. Still,
the impact of seeking, of being willing to dig deeper, is so very rewarding and
necessary if we are to become informed citizens.
One of the easiest, and most underused methods available to us all is simply this, learn to perfect the art of distinguishing fact from opinion. In doing so, you become more adept at drawing relevant conclusions, thus arming yourself with one of the most powerful weapons available, knowledge that is earned and not simply given. It’s not hard, but it makes such an important difference.
When we were
embarking on the history of the U.S. Constitution, I wondered, what better way
for them to understand the process, the debate, the compromises that went into
shaping this document, then to recreate the Constitutional Convention in my
classroom? To assign each of them to the role of one of the delegates? To give
them the opportunity to step into the past and assume the perspectives, if they
could, of the very men who met in the Summer of 1787 to draft the document? It
wasn’t the names and the dates, after all, that were important, but rather the
lessons learned and the words that were drafted, that still held relevance
today, that were at the heart of the lesson.
From the activity,
many questions arose, many debates ensued, and many new perspectives were gained.
I think one of the most important lessons my students learned, something I
myself had learned when I was their age, was that history should not be judged
by the principles of the present, but rather we should acknowledge the
evolution of those thought processes and the changing mindset of ensuing
generations. How else are we to learn from the past? How else will we prevent
the repetition of events that have already transpired, that have already been
sacrificed for, that have already left their indelible marks?
a wealth of beauty and sustaining principles upon which our country is founded.
Is it perfect? No. But I firmly believe it strives to be. I’m not talking about
politics here, I’m speaking of the rich and meaningful history of our country.
The good and the bad. The foundations upon which our Constitution was founded
and the amendments that have been added since the Bill of Rights. The
foundations that have guided us through centuries of growth and progress,
through wars and discord, through changing centuries and a changing world.
These are not obsolete, but very much relevant even to this day.
Good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers.
When studying the
U. S. Civil War, my classroom became a replica of the country during that
period of our history. My students were divided into the Union and the
Confederacy. They were tasked with researching each battle, each conflict, each
principle, from the perspective of the side they were on. It was difficult at
times. There were many issues that were difficult for them to wrap their minds
around, many questions that we needed to address together. But in the end, by
the time we reached the surrender at Appomattox, they shone with a sense of
pride, and a deeper understanding of one of the most poignant and agonizing periods
of American History.
Above all, I hoped
that they walked away with a deeper understanding of the power of actively pursuing knowledge, rather than simply
receiving it; of being willing to ask the questions, of doing the research, and
seeking the answers on their own, and then, and only then, when armed with the
information and the facts, in forming their own, individual opinions. Their
successes became my reward. Their pride in themselves for a job well-done, my
The teacher’s task is to initiate the learning process and then get out of the way.
Teaching is in fact a calling. There are no grandiose salaries. The work itself can be at times, frustrating and it often goes unappreciated. Our society doesn’t go out of its way to value teachers or to stress the importance of their role in the lives of future generations. Teachers go into this profession, knowing and understanding that. But thankfully, still go into it nonetheless.
I can only hope
and pray that the call to teaching continues to beckon future generations. That
individuals who understand the value and necessity of embarking on this career,
aren’t dissuaded by the negative aspects, but look at it instead as an
opportunity to make a lasting difference in the lives of so many.
You may be
wondering at this point, if I feel so strongly about this profession, why I
left? It wasn’t an easy decision, nor was it one I took lightly. An opportunity
that enabled me to provide more financial support for my family, better
benefits, and a better retirement package presented itself. It was as hard and as
simple as that.
Though my new
position has many perks, it hasn’t, nor will it ever, replace the things I gave
up when I left teaching. I will always be an educator at heart. And though I’ve
been out of the profession for a decade, I continue to support my fellow
educators and the individuals and programs that give them the support and the
tools they need to continue to do their jobs effectively and with passion.
The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see (Alexandra K. Trenfor),” while, “A good student is one who will teach you something (Hanifa Jackson-Adderly).
That’s the beauty of being a teacher. It’s a two-way path. The path we chose, to become teachers and the preparation we undergo to ensure we are effective ones; and the path our students walk; eager to learn, often frustrated and combative, wanting desperately to reach that capstone year so they can graduate and enter the “real world” finally.
encouraged my students to strive to become individuals of accomplishment in their
quest for knowledge as much as they were in the other areas of their lives. I
reminded them daily that they lived in a country that values and protects their
right to do so. That they should, in fact, embrace this gift and even more, actively
seek knowledge, for it is this that will ultimately enable us to prevail and to
grow from generation to generation.
Afterall, The best and most lasting gift
we can give our students, is the ability to critically
think and the desire and passion to pursue knowledge and learning throughout
It must be remembered that the purpose of education is not to fill the minds of students with facts – it is to teach them to think, if that is possible, and to always think for themselves.
My students used to tell me I was a nerd. I’d laugh and thank them, taking it as a compliment. I wasn’t ashamed of the fact that I loved books, and words, and writing and research, and well, learning in general.
Since I was a young girl. I got excited at the thought of finding a new author to follow, eager to read their words and to become a part of the fabric of their story. I got downright giddy when I’d come across a new word. I’d excitedly add it to my “Word Journal” – yes, I kept a journal of new words I came across. I’d write them down and then look them up and use them in conversation and in my writing. I’d been doing it since I was very young. When I shared this with my students, hoping to encourage them to do the same, they’d look at me as if I’d just spontaneously sprouted wings and a tail right in front of them! “What?” I’d ask them.
“Ms. Fenwick,” they’d explain, exasperatedly, “You can Google anything;” like I was from a different planet, rather than a different era. “In my day, Google wasn’t even a word in the English language,” I’d mutter under my breath, further proving the vastness of the cavern between us.
What was the fun of “Googling” everything? It wasn’t
the same as writing a word down and then looking it up in an actual dictionary.
The act of writing it down made it personal. And seeking out the meaning,
turning the pages of the dictionary, running your fingers across the pages
until they located the word you were searching for – it was like a treasure
hunt; and writing down the definition, well that just meant you’d taken
ownership of the knowledge. It was tangible and therefore something that would
then become part of your vernacular, part of your story.
“You can’t get that from GOOGLE!” I’d say, throwing my hands out, pleading for my students to understand the beauty of the process as I did. Nothing. Blank faces.
“Um, Ms. Fenwick,” one brave student would finally raise their hand slowly, speaking for the whole group, “Google has dictionaries too.” Of course, it did! Apparently, GOOGLE had everything. How had I managed to get through my life, let alone three college degrees, without Google!
My love of language, history, reading, of learning in general, I could attribute to my father’s influence. He grew up in a poor, rural community in Georgia. After graduating from high school, he entered the Coast Guard, where he served for four years. College wasn’t something his family could afford, so the service was the next best thing.
For my Dad though, life was his university, living, his degree. He surrounded himself with the classics. He made sure we had a beautiful set of encyclopedias and a Webster’s hardbound dictionary in our home. A library card was a well-earned privilege. I spent many hours talking with him about history, current events, even philosophy and spirituality. He was well-read, and wise, and engaging, encouraging us to think for ourselves, to never stop asking questions.
“When you cease to learn, to continually seek knowledge, no matter what your position or pedigree,” he’d explain, “You cease living.” I loved that about my Dad, his humility and his understanding of the importance of being an active seeker of knowledge, rather than a passive receiver.
I couldn’t help but wonder at times, if the advancements being made in technology and the ease in which today’s students could access information, wasn’t somehow diminishing that active pursuit of knowledge my father was talking about.
Was “Googling” for information the same as opening a book and searching for answers? Was it the same as actually going to the library and looking up book titles and then searching the shelves and finding them, checking them out?
Though a great tool that allows access to a wider world of information, should Google be the only way students seek information? Is the resulting knowledge somehow less appreciated because it is so easily gained? Or am I simply as antiquated as my students think me to be; resisting the new because I had grown up in an era when Google wasn’t an option?
I taught Language Arts and American History, so
reading, research and writing were a big and natural part of my lessons. I
found incorporating modern technological advances into my curriculum, along
with a good dose of the old-fashioned tools – like the library and actual books
– was a happy medium. I wanted my students to experience both worlds. I wanted
them to uncover the answers to their questions and to seek out knowledge on a
personal level; to understand the intrinsic value of life-long learning and to
experience the feeling of pride and accomplishment for a job well done.
I understood that Google was part of their generation, as were electronic books, video games, social media, and easy and instant access to everything on their cell phones.
In order to grow with my students, to engage meaningfully with them, and to remain relevant as an educator, I would have to embrace these things, BUT – and it was a pretty important “but” to me – I also felt a responsibility to keep the past alive as well. To give them opportunities to do things the old-fashioned way; to open actual books; to understand how to use and to experience a library, to write a research paper, to increase their vocabulary through reading, and yes, to keep a word journal – even if it was using the notes app on their phone.
Acquiring, retaining, and applying knowledge was the most important part of their education. And though they might not appreciate that in the moment, I knew there would come a time when some of them would actually be grateful. And for this life-long logophile and lover of learning, that’s the reason I became a teacher in the first place.
“Everyone here has a story of loss they struggle to describe and recovery they cannot yet comprehend.”
1. There was no way to adequately prepare.
We’d done this before, many of us, more than once; prepared for the possibility of a hurricane visiting us during the Season. We were used to Summer ushering in, not just the tourists, but the Atlantic Hurricane Season as well. Hurricane Season begins the first of June and lasts through the end of November every year.
Living in the Panhandle of Florida, we knew that during any given Season we could be at risk, so preparedness was something we took seriously. Many of us had remained through Opal (1995) and Ivan (2004) and felt confident we could safely weather Michael as well.
But there are some things you can’t prepare for. Some things that happen so quickly and change so dramatically that no amount of preparation matters. Hurricane Michael was one of those.
“I think that if people are comparing storms, what was really fascinating was that Michael was still intensifying when it was making landfall, which is similar to Hurricane Camille also intensifying as it moved inland,” said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski, in an article that appeared in Time Magazine. “Other storms, like Hurricane Opal in 1995, actually went from a category 4 to 3, just like most storms that make landfall on the Gulf Coast tend to weaken.”
In an October 10, teleconference organized by FEMA, Brad Kieserman, vice-president for disaster operations and logistics for the American Red Cross said, “This storm intensified extremely quickly. It didn’t give anyone time to do much. And the one thing you can’t get back in a disaster is time.”
2. The destruction was catastrophic and widespread.
Michael’s path was far reaching. From the coast of the Panhandle deep into the farming and forestry communities of north Florida and Georgia, he carved massive swaths of utter destruction.
As the sun was beginning to set on the evening of October 10, residents in the path of Hurricane Michael emerged to a nightmare of unimaginable proportions.
“Nothing, and I stress NOTHING, could have prepared us for what we saw,” said Jane Smith, who rode out the storm with her husband and son in their Bay County home. “I think at this point we went into shock.” Smith and her family, like many, lost everything and are now trying to recover and rebuild in this new normal.
As the days crept by, the nightmare only worsened. Residents in the affected areas struggled to come to grips with the destruction of their homes and cities. Many who returned, once allowed, faced total destruction of their property.
“Just 1 in 10 of Panama City’s homes and businesses scraped by unscathed. The rest were damaged or destroyed, local officials said. The county property appraiser put the damage total in Bay County alone at $1.3 billion and counting.”
Kathryn Varns | Tampa Bay Times | 27 DEC 2018
“With nowhere to go people were resigned to living in campers, tents, or bunking with neighbors, and relying on portable toilets and boxed ready-to-eat meals provided by FEMA, the Red Cross or other volunteers,” reported The Guardian in an October 26, 2018 article by Jamiles Lartey.
Power was destroyed. Water was dangerous to use and consume. Cell and internet service was nonexistent. Cut off from the rest of the world, each day brought new struggles.
Some recovery efforts began immediately. Like the over 6,000 linemen who descended on the region within hours to restore power to the 800,000 residents left in the dark.
Like the acres and acres of felled trees, the region’s power lines and grids suffered the same fate courtesy of Micheal’s more than 155-mph sustained winds.
Search and recovery began within hours with teams of first responders, National Guard, and law enforcement from around the country deployed to the area. Safety was the number one priority in the aftermath of Michael’s intense fury.
In Mexico Beach, where the eye of the storm crossed, rescue teams used dogs to comb through the piles of rubble and mangled structures of the once pristine seaside town.
Even now, almost six months after Michael, Mexico Beach is in tatters. According to a WJHG/WECP story which aired on March 28, “There are only three restaurants currently open in Mexico Beach, three of its four hotels have been demolished, and the other one is still being rebuilt.”
“This landscape is changed forever. For lack of a better term, desolate,” said Al Burnett, a Mexico Beach resident, whose home was literally lost to Michael’s storm surge. “My best educated guess is that things will never be right for maybe the next three or four years … maybe never.”
The Guardian | 29 October 2018
The impact from Michael is not just limited to the coastal region of the Florida Panhandle. The widespread catastrophic damage spread well inland as Michael remained at hurricane strength into the rural and farming communities of Florida and southwest Georgia, before passing through Virginia and North Carolina, and then finally making his way back out to the Atlantic.
3. The World moved on. We could not.
Traveling anywhere in the impacted regions feels more akin to moving through the aftermath of an apocalypse than home. The constant and ever-present reminders are a blow to the psyche and a punch to the gut every single day.
“People get lost driving around because landmarks were wiped out. They spray-paint their address on a piece of plywood and lean it against the garage door. They eat dinner in a McDonald’s surrounded by construction workers chowing down on quarter-pounders” (Tampa Bay Times).
And while basic necessities have been restored, life in the region is far from normal as people struggle to make a way in this dramatically altered landscape.
Currently, some displaced families are living in a tent city in the backyard of one generous woman who decided that instead of turning her back, she would do something. People have been forced to take shelter in campers, parked in the driveways of homes without roofs, sometimes without structures at all. Others have been forced to return to their all-but-leveled apartment complexes because there is simply nowhere else to go.
As of mid December, FEMA has given out about $28 million in housing repair grants, approved about 14,000 homeowners and renters for rental assistance, and had about 600 families staying in hotels. But without properties to rent and hotels quickly filled to capacity these are short-term solutions. Once the money runs out, with still no home to return to, what becomes of those already struggling before the storm?
To make matters worse. Donations for Michael to three of the top disaster aide organizations have fallen well below the national average for similar storms, like Harvey, Florence, and Irma, who also hit the South in the past two years. “Survivors of Hurricane Michael fear that they’ve been forgotten,” (The Washington Post, 6 APRIL 2019).
4. The numbers don’t lie.
Since October 10, affected counties are suffering. Loss of jobs and income, closed and damaged schools, a housing crisis, and uncertainty coupled with the difficulty of navigating the government-aid bureaucracy threaten to swirl into a massive storm of its own.
In Bay County alone, 5,500 students have had to leave their living situations because of hurricane damage (News Herald, 28 MAR 2019).
Skyrocketing rent prices have further compounded the housing crisis (My Panhandle, 22 MAR 2019).
Health officials report that signs of mental health problems and trauma are on the rise following Michael, including an increase in the number of Baker Act incidents in the school district (WJHG, 13 MAR 2019).
More than 3 million acres of Florida’s forestry industry were severely damaged by Michael and about half of the damage was catastrophic, meaning 95 percent of the trees were lost, according to the Florida Forestry Service. With large tracts of managed land in the region, the storm is expected to cost the timber industry more than $1.3 billion (News Herald, updated 1 APR 2019).
Michael barreled through Georgia at Cat 3 strength causing nearly $2.5 billion in damage, to the state’s agricultural industry. State agriculture commissioner Gary Black said the losses were “our worst dreams being realized.” Crops of all kinds—cotton, timber, and vegetables—suffered heavy damages. (Atlanta Magazine, 17 JAN 2019).
Hurricane Michael left nearly seven times the debris of Hurricane Irma, which barreled across 45 counties in 2017 (Pensacola News Journal, 8 JAN 2019).
Hurricane Michael is responsible for 35 deaths in Florida, 45 total (NBC Miami, 28 OCT 2018).
“Of all the Florida Panhandle areas affected by Michael, Bay County was hardest hit: Officials said almost three-quarters of its 68,000 households were affected. Former Florida House Speaker Allan Bense, who is leading a hurricane recovery initiative, estimated about 20,000 people were homeless in the weeks after the October storm.”
5. The future may be uncertain, but we remain determined.
As we navigate this strange new world, there are days when the frustration and grief become overwhelming. Days when the determination grows stronger. Days when the fatigue and stress settle deeper into our bones.
Through it all, we try to remain hopeful. The world may have moved on, the impacts of Michael may still be revealing themselves, recovery and rebuilding may be ongoing with no definitive end in sight, but there’s one thing we’re all certain of, it will be a long time, and a lot of hard work, before we are OK again.