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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.