Keep your head up Panama City. A feat that has proven much harder as the weeks since Michael have turned into months. Image by Sharon Owens

There have only been four.

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.

This destroyed bank building on 23rd Street in Panama City, FL proved to be no shelter at all for those trapped inside during the height of the storm. Image by Rebekah Nelson.

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.

The Guardian

Only the basics remained.

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.

Destruction and debris left in Mexico Beach, Florida after Hurricane Michael as emergency first responders and National Guard comb the area door-to-door for survivors. Image by Brandon Perdue/iStock.

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.

The Guardian

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.

Linemen from all over the country, 6,000 in all, traveled to the affected region to help get the over one million customers without power back on line. Image by Jennifer Fenwick.

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.

The Washington Post

A day-to-day struggle.

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 single day.

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.

Government Technology – Emergency Management

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.”

The Washington Post

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.

Sights like the one above are rampant throughout the area. Image by Jennifer Fenwick

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.

© 2019 Jennifer N. Fenwick, Panama City, FL resident and Author, In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle

Teachers are expected to reach unattainable goals with inadequate tools. The miracle is that at times they accomplish this impossible task.

Haim Ginott

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 soul.

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.

John Dewey

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.

Empowering my students was a daily goal. Teaching them to think for themselves and to embark on a journey where seeking knowledge was always at the forefront.

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.

As 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?

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 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.

Josef Albers

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 gift.

The teacher’s task is to initiate the learning process and then get out of the way.

John Warren

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.

My students are now young adults, embarking on their own lives and successfully pursuing their goals. In my heart though, they will always be the best reminders of what it truly means to teach, to inspire, and for me, to always be a lifelong learner.

I 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 their lives.

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.

Robert Hutchins

(©2019)  Jennifer N. Fenwick, former teacher and author Four Weeks and In the Eye of the Storm  

“The only thing that you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library.”
~ Albert Einstein.

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.

“Google transformed the way most of us get our information with a search engine that enables us to find citizen-created media content alongside the work of professionals.” ~ Rebecca MacKinnon, American Journalist

“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.

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, the man who never reads lives only once.”
~ George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

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.

The improvement of understanding is for two ends: first, our own increase of knowledge; secondly, to enable us to deliver that knowledge to others.” ~ John Locke, English Philosopher (1632-1704)

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.

“Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is most important.” ~ Bill Gates

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. 


© 2019 Jennifer N. Fenwick, Author, In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle

“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. 

Hurricane Michael barreled into the Florida Panhandle during the early afternoon hours of October 10, 2018. Packing 155-mph sustained winds and a carrying a storm surge in excess of 16-ft, Michael obliterated the tiny coastal community of Mexico Beach, literally wiping homes, businesses, and structures off the map.

“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. 

Jane Smith and her family were among thousands who lost everything.

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. 

Within hours of Michael’s landfall, linemen from around the country descended on the region to assist with restoring power to the over 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.

Destroyed landmarks, street signs, and buildings make navigating the storm ravaged region tenuous at best.

“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).
  • In Florida, cotton farmers essentially lost most of the season’s crop, which was ready for harvesting when it was swept away by the 155-mph winds. Aquaculture along the Gulf Coast, including oyster farming, suffered 80 percent to 100 percent losses from Michael (Jim Turner, News Service of Florida). 
  • 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.”


AP News | 4 MARCH 2019

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. 

A lone cross carved from the remains of a tree is the only sign of hope in the battered Sandy Creek region of the Florida Panhandle.

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.

© 2019 Jennifer N. Fenwick, Bay County resident, author/editor,
In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle

My niece’s essay on the pitfalls of blindly seeking perfection is as timely today as when the short stories on which it is based were written.

Based on The Cathedral, by Raymond Carver and The Birthmark, by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Physical perfection is something our society places great value in. There are multi-billion dollar industries devoted to health, fitness, anti-aging, cosmetic surgery, skin, make-up, hair; the list goes on and on. It’s often this focus on perfection, to the exclusion of all else, that prevents us from seeing and appreciating the beauty and form that can be found in the world and in the people around us.

This is the case for the main characters, in The Cathedral, by Raymond Carver and The Birthmark, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Written almost 140 years apart, these short stories tell, in compelling and tragic ways, the age-old story of man’s illusive search for and focus on perfection, and the often uncomfortable, almost dismissive way we perceive imperfection, disability, and physical defects in others.

In laying the groundwork for both stories, Carver and Hawthorne focus first on the actual physical defects and imperfections of Roger and the scientists wife, Georgiana, before moving on to the transformation that takes place in both husbands as the stories progress. 

In the beginning of The Cathedral, Carver provides the foundation for the central premise of the story by describing the relationship, the main character’s wife has with Roger, a blind gentleman she’d met some years before their marriage. Roger has recently lost his wife to cancer and is coming for a visit. “A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to,” Carver wrote, admitting that his ideas on blindness mostly came from the movies.

Likewise, in The Birthmark, the scientist, Aylmer, although in his mind he loves his wife and thinks her beautiful, is focused so single-mindedly on the small hand-shaped birthmark upon her cheek, that soon this all he sees. After asking his wife if she’s ever considered that “the mark upon your cheek might be removed,” Aylmer is dismayed when Georgianna replies that she had not, seeing the mark as a “charm” instead, as it had often been called. Aylmer’s response that “upon another face” the mark might be considered thus, but not on hers deeply hurts Georgianna. ”No dear,” he says, “Nature made you so perfectly that this small defect shocks me as being a sign of earthly imperfection.”

Hawthorne’s use of the word “shock” here is especially poignant, since that is the emotion, we most commonly feel when faced with deformities and physical imperfections. We try not to stare, but in the end, like both men in the stories, the defect is often all we see.

As The Cathedral, progresses, Roger and his host find themselves sharing drinks and smokes before the television on which a documentary about cathedrals is playing. Having the benefit of sight, the host feels compelled to provide Roger with a synopsis of what’s being shown on the screen. While Roger can hear perfectly, the man is acutely aware that he can’t see and so “waits as long as he can before feeling he has to say something.”

Roger begins asking questions about some of the details the man is describing. For example, at one point the man mentions the cathedral’s paintings and Roger asks, “Are those fresco paintings, bub?” To which the man replies, “That’s a good question,” but that he doesn’t know.  It then occurs to him, that Roger in fact, may not even know what a cathedral is, having never actually seen one. This is the point in the story when the host’s preconceived notions about Roger will be challenged most.

The evolution of Aylmer and Georgiana in The Birthmark, occurs in a similar fashion. Georgianna becomes increasingly aware that her husband’s focus is not on her, but rather on the birthmark on her cheek.

“With the morning light, Aylmer opened his eyes upon his wife’s face and recognized the sign of imperfection. When they sat together in the evening near the fire, he would look at the mark,” Hawthorne describes.  Soon, Georgiana “began to fear his look,” and agrees to having him remove the mark through scientific means.

All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy.


Ruskin

Hawthorne describes Georgianna’s trust in Aylmer’s scientific prowess, but also her apprehension going in. Following the description of Aylmer’s dream about his failed attempt at removing the mark, there’s an undercurrent that the outcome of this actual attempt will not be a good one.

The transformation that occurs in Roger’s host and Aylmer by the end of each story is markedly different, yet the underlying message is the same. In The Cathedral, Roger answers his hosts inquiry about whether he knows what a cathedral is with the detailed facts he has gleaned from listening to the television. Facts, it is apparent, the host himself has not picked up on since he focuses on what he sees rather than on what’s being said. 

Roger asks his host to describe the cathedral and in doing so, his host soon realizes that providing this description is quite a bit harder than he’d imagined it would be. “You’ll have to forgive me,” he finally says, “But I can’t tell you what a cathedral looks like. It just isn’t in me.”

Roger than suggests getting “a pen and some heavy paper” so they can draw one. It’s the experience of drawing the cathedral with Roger that ultimately changes the host’s perception of blindness and Roger himself. With Roger’s hand covering his, they begin to draw, in great detail, the cathedral that just moments before he’d been trying desperately to describe. By the end of the story, though he can see the world perfectly, he realizes that maybe he has suffered from “blindness” as well, and that Roger, even with his defect, has viewed the world with much more clarity.

In The Birthmark, the transformation of Aylmer is much more tragic and heartbreaking. Trusting implicitly in Aylmer’s scientific skill, Georgianna, though fully aware of the risks, agrees to try whatever Aylmer proscribes. By the final attempt Aylmer is certain “the chemical process went perfectly.” After testing the clear liquid on a plant, he gives it to Georgiana who drinks it trustingly.

Sitting by his wife and taking notes on the changes occurring, Aylmer is once again so focused on the now fading birthmark that he doesn’t see his wife’s imminent death. “My poor Aylmer,” Georgina says, before taking her last breath, “You have aimed so high. With so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best the Earth could offer. I am dying, dearest.”  

As Hawthorn states at the end of the story, Aylmer’s focus on his wife’s meaningless imperfection cost him her life and along with it his own chance for happiness, “In trying to improve his lovely wife, he failed to realize she had been perfect all along.”

While the endings of The Cathedral and The Birthmark are very different, the message is the same. Roger’s host and Aylmer both discover that what they perceive as defective and imperfect are actually the things that make Roger and Georgianna who they are, and in reality, perfect just as they exist. True beauty, after all, goes much deeper than the just the surface and the skin. By focusing only on the imperfections confronting them, both men are incapable of appreciating these imperfectly perfect human beings.

For one the transformation comes too late. For the other, the opportunity to learn a beneficial lesson and experience a change of heart is provided by the blind man himself. By the end of The Cathedral, Roger’s host realizes that his “sight” had in fact, improved markedly when his eyes were closed. 

by Taylor Derbes

 

Nothing could’ve prepared us. Not for this. Though we did prepare. We boarded up our windows. Stocked up on supplies. Safeguarded our valuables. But this time would be so much different than those that had come before. Pretty soon, all we had left were our prayers. And our fervent hope that we’d still be alive when it was over.

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.

Within hours the potential Category 3 impact had grown into a nightmare of monster proportions. We awoke on Wednesday, October 10, to a very different situation than the one we had gone to bed with the night before. There would be nowhere to hide from Michael. It was too late to try to evacuate so we rushed to get to safety or hunkered down where we were, hoping, praying for a miracle.

“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.”

Michael makes his way onshore in the Florida Panhandle during the early afternoon hours of October 10, 2018. At almost Category 5 strength, Michael’s 155-mph sustained winds and over 15-ft. storm surge, obliterated the tiny coastal community of Mexico Beach, FL.
I shot this image with my cell phone around 11:15 AM on October 10, from the foyer windows of the Panama City Surgery Center, where my family and I were sheltering with other employees and their loved ones. During the height of the storm, we could hear transponders exploding all around us, metal being ripped from the roof of the structure, trees snapping, and limbs and other debris barreling into the building. Some of the worse moments occurred as the barometric pressure bottomed making our ears and heads pound. There were moments when it felt like the walls were actually breathing and the building was shifting on its foundation. At one point the foyer doors were breached by the intensity of the wind.

On October 10, 2018, Hurricane Michael made landfall at approximately 12:15 p.m. along the Florida Panhandle. A deadly Category 4 storm (just two miles shy of Category 5 strength) with sustained winds of 155-mph, gusts reaching a staggering 185-mph, and a minimum central pressure of 919 millibars, Michael made his presence known as the third strongest hurricane on record to hit the U.S.

In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle | Jennifer N. Fenwick

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 went from a tropical storm to a projected CAT 3 at landfall in six hours yesterday. It’s not behaving normally. It 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.”

As the sun was beginning to set on the evening of October 10, residents in the path of Hurricane Michael emerged to a nightmare. “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. It looked as if a bomb had gone off and the silence was eerie. All we could see everywhere we looked was downed trees, all the trees. Those that did still stand looked like barren twigs. Most every house in view had fallen trees on their roofs, in their yards, on their fences. They were everywhere. We walked around like zombies. We saw the destruction, but just couldn’t comprehend it.”


Jane Smith, like many, ended up losing her home to Michael and is now living in a trailer provided by FEMA as she awaits rebuilding. She took this image a few days after the storm. “Seeing the devastation now,” she remarked, “It’s truly a miracle we survived.”
You can read Smith’s entire story and the poetry she wrote following the storm in the book, In the Eye of the Storm, to which she is a contributing author.

Search and recovery began immediately with teams from around Florida deployed to the Panhandle. In Mexico Beach, where the eye of the storm crossed, rescue teams used dogs to comb through piles of rubble and mangled structures of the once pristine seaside town. Authorities say it could be months, even years, before anything approaching “normal” returns to the region.

Image by Jennifer Fenwick

“This morning, Florida’s Gulf Coast and Panhandle and the Big Bend are waking up to unimaginable destruction,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday morning. “So many lives have been changed forever. So many families have lost everything. … This hurricane was an absolute monster.”

Doyle Rice | USA Today

In the first few weeks following the storm, residents in the Florida Panhandle struggled to come to grips with the destruction of their homes and cities. Many who returned, once allowed, are still 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.

Like the felled trees, power poles were snapped by the 155-mph wind, lines were down everywhere, and substations were damaged leaving over 800,000 residents without power across the region. Linemen from all over the country worked 16-hour days trying to restore power. In all, about 6,000 tree service and line workers were deployed to the area within a matter of hours, The Pensacola News Journal reported.

As the days, weeks and months have passed, the initial shock and focus on survival have given way to grief and frustration as we learn to navigate our way through this strange new world. There are reminders of that day everywhere we look. There’s just no escaping the carnage. There are deep scars on our landscape and deeper ones carried within.

Property damage in the impacted region is estimated at over $5 billion dollars. The current housing crisis is compounding problems as residents who lost everything have nowhere to go. One local woman has opened up her property to victims of Michael who now, through no fault of their own, find themselves without shelter. Images like this home in the Cove area of Panama City, by Terry Kelly, are common place throughout the region.

For weeks after Michael, we were cut off from the world outside. Internet and cell phone service, like the power, was completely wiped out. When the power poles fell, they took the internet and cable lines with them. In addition, the major cell phone carrier in the area suffered extensive damage to their towers and network cables, all of which were above ground. It was months before services like cable, internet, cell phones, and wifi were restored.

We sort of got used to being cut off. Unfortunately, once we were able to connect with the outside world, we quickly realized that it had moved on without us.

Image by Tony Miller

The Tampa Bay Times posted an article that brings into stark and upsetting reality how little is being done outside our storm-ravaged area to assist with recovery and rebuilding. The road ahead is a long and rough one for the afflicted region. We cannot do this alone.

“Hurricane Michael was a major disaster, but big donors haven’t treated it as one,” the article states.

According to Emily L. Mahoney in a Times/Herald Tallahassee article, “The Panhandle’s low profile meant the media attention came and went, so the disaster never drew the major corporate donations that other storms did. That’s a harsh reality — just like the conditions in which thousands of Floridians still find themselves living more than four months after the storm struck. Tarps on roofs. Families living in tents. People taking refuge in their cars.”

According to the Times/Herald analysis of contributions to three prominent national charities, donations to Hurricane Michael recovery fall far below donations for recent landmark hurricanes to hit the South such as Florence, Irma, and Harvey.

The level of damage left behind by Hurricane Michael is catastrophic. According to Mahoney, “Those who felt the full force of Michael were in Florida’s Panhandle, where state officials estimate property damage at more than $5 billion. That’s more than Irma. Yet somehow, at least nationally, Hurricane Michael is not even a topic of conversation.”

Destruction to the timber and forestry industries throughout the impacted region is estimated at over $1.3 billion. “This is a catastrophic loss to the forestry industry,” said Florida Commissioner of Agriculture, Adam H. Putnam. Image by David Herring.

“Georgia has long led in the production of several renowned commodities and now we have the dubious distinction of also leading in the devastation and incredible loss of these prominent crops,” Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said in a statement. “These are generational losses that are unprecedented and it will take unprecedented ideas and actions to help our farm families and rural communities recover.”

Jennifer Brett | The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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.

The powerful storm flattened trees, demolished crops and destroyed chicken coops throughout southwest and middle Georgia. Agriculture industry losses could reach nearly $3 billion, according to the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service and Georgia Forestry Commission.

Jennifer Brett | The Atlanta Journal Constitution

In Florida, cotton farmers essentially lost most of the season’s crop, which was ready for harvesting when it was swept away by the 155-mph winds. Aquaculture along the Gulf Coast, including oyster farming, suffered 80 percent to 100 percent losses from Michael (Jim Turner |News Service of Florida).

Downed trees are seen from the air at Tyndall Air Force base in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael near Mexico Beach, Fla. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

While post-storm analysis is still being performed and the argument surrounding upgrading Michael to CAT 5 is ongoing, the facts remain, this storm was a monster bringing widespread, apocalyptic destruction to the Florida Panhandle and further inland, that will take years to heal.

Nearly five months after Hurricane Michael ravaged the Florida Panhandle, economic setbacks and delays have made recovery increasingly difficult for Florida Panhandle residents trying to rebuild their homes, and their lives.


Allie Raffa, | Fox News, February 28, 2019

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.

© Jennifer N. Fenwick

Hurricane Michael at a Glance

LANDFALL: Michael made landfall at 12:15 p.m. local time on October 10, near Mexico Beach, FL
 
STRENGTH: High-end CAT 4 with sustained wind speeds at 250 KM/H or 155-MPH; Minimum central pressure, 919 MB. The Florida Panhandle took the brunt of Michael’s fury, suffering apocalyptic damage as the storm peeled off rooftops, uprooted and snapped trees in half, destroyed homes and businesses, and caused extensive flooding.
 
HISTORICAL: Michael was the strongest storm to ever come ashore in the Florida Panhandle, as well as the first CAT 4 to make landfall in the area. Michael was the strongest storm to hit the U.S. since Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and Hurricane Camille, who in 1969, made landfall along the Mississippi Gulf Coast with 174-MPH peak winds and a storm surge of 24.6 FEET recorded in Pass Christian, MS.
 
STRONGEST WINDS OBSERVED: Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida recorded winds gusts reaching 224 KM/H or 139-MPH.
 
STORM SURGE: Apalachicola, FL recorded storm surge reaching 8.5 FEET.  Near Mexico Beach, where the eye passed, National Weather Service buoy measured waves greater than 30-FEET before it stopped working.
 
OTHER FACTS: The death toll in Florida has risen to 35 in Florida and 45 overall, with at least 10 deaths reported in other states. Property damage following Michael is estimated at more than $5 billion. Damage to Florida’s forestland is currently estimated at $3 billion.

There will never be another Hurricane Michael. The name was retired following the 2018 Hurricane Season due to the storm’s catastrophic intensity.
Arial image of Mexico Beach, Florida following Michael (Associated Press/AP)