I love to read. I also love to share great books I’ve read so others travel on the same roads, live the thousands of lives found within the pages, and experience the same magic.

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)

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

When I set out to capture the stories of Hurricane Michael across the Panhandle, I never anticipated the impact, In the eye of the Storm, would have on the region devastated by the October 10, 2018 monster storm. It started out as a way for survivors to share their stories, their grief, and heartbreak, and their hopes for the future.

In the weeks since In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle was published, the outpouring of support and engagement has been humbling.

“We need more people like you,” said Tina Rudisill in a message she sent me via social media after purchasing two copies of the book, one for her and one for a friend. “You can show the world our journey.”

Rudisill and her husband, both disabled, rode out the Category 4 storm in their home in Panama City. “We lost everything but our lives,” she explained. “We had just bought our home two years ago and it is devasting seeing everything destroyed.”

Rudisill is not alone in her grief. There are so many stories like hers across the region. So many I wish I could have included in the book. So many that deserve to be shared. As I continue to meet people, to listen to their voices, to provide comfort where I can, I’m inspired to continue this journey.

“Perhaps a follow-up book will come out of this,” I told Rudisill in my reply to her message, “An anniversary edition marking one-year following the storm. Stories of progress and hope in the aftermath.”

“Oh my goodness,” she immediately responded, “What an awesome idea. A follow-up of healing and starting over is so needed for the communities impacted.”

Thousands of homes were destroyed rendering them unlivable throughout the region. Including the home of Tina Rudisill and her husband, who rode out the Category 4 Michael in their Panama City residence. Image by Terry Kelly/Shutterstock

“It pulls at the heart strings to hear from other people that survived the storm and to hear their stories of strength and moving forward after such major devastation to this area. Anyone that doesn’t know or isn’t struggling to come back from this storm really needs to read this.”

Amazon Reviewer, February 24, 2018

Our book is not the only one telling the stories of the heartbreak of the people living in the aftermath of this historic storm. Survivors: Work Created in the Wake of Hurricane Michael, released on Amazon November 20, 2018, is a collection of poems, essays, short stories, artwork, and images compiled by Tony Simmons of the Panama City News Herald and local artist, Jayson Kretzer.

Mike Caz Cazalas, also from the News Herald, produced a beautiful book of compelling photographs and newspaper front pages documenting Michael’s impact across the Panhandle. Michael is a collector’s item that will forever commemorate October 10th and the immediate weeks following the storm. A portion of the proceeds from both of these publications, as well as our own, are being donated to the Hurricane Michael Relief Fund to assist with rebuilding across the region.

Memoirs of Michael – The Hurricane is a Facebook page dedicated to sharing survivor stories. The Blog, created by Ashley Conner and Photographer, Cierra Camper, and recently featured on WJHG-TV’s Morning Show, tells the stories of the men and women who survived Michael and are committed to rebuilding their communities.

October 10, 2018, is a day the Florida Panhandle will never forget. The day, our lives and our cities were dramatically altered, irrevocably and forever. Compiling the stories, poetry, and images submitted for this project was raw and real. I realized going in, what a huge undertaking and responsibility this task was. I also realized that we could not tell every story; and there were thousands and thousands. What we hoped instead, was that the stories we were able to tell would resonate, and that in doing so, In the Eye of the Storm, would become a voice for the region.

Jennifer N. Fenwick, editor/contributor, In the Eye of the Storm
Cities just north of Bay County, including Marianna (pictured) suffered the destruction of Michael. It will be a long time before this region heals. Image by Robert Blouin/Shutterstock.

Update

Promotion and outreach for In the Eye of the Storm are ongoing. Our goal is to reach a wider audience and to raise as much money as we can for local recovery efforts.

We recently made our first donation to the Hurricane Michael Relief Fund from book sales and will continue to do so for the long-run. Some of the contributors and I have joined efforts to reach out to area individuals and businesses for sponsorships so we can get the book into the local market.

Media coverage here and in surrounding areas has been wonderful. WJHG-TV presented our story on their Morning Show with Paris Janos and in a piece by Neysa Wilkins, which aired during their news broadcasts. The Panama City News Herald’s Tony Simmons was gracious to write a story about the book in his feature Book Notes.

We are participating in a book signing event at My Favorite Books in Tallahassee, FL, on March 23 and are planning to host one locally as well.

We’ve also sent out press releases to national media outlets to garner exposure and coverage. Our momentum continues to grow. All of us who contributed to this project feel a deep responsibility for getting the word out and for correcting misperceptions that all is well here.

“The contributors and I are humbled by the outpouring of support and the responses we’ve received thus far. For those who feel left out or forgotten, that was never our intention. We’re part of the communities that survived that day and are living in the aftermath. Know that your stories, your pain is interwoven in every word. How could it not be. We are in this together.”

~ Jennifer N. Fenwick

Four Weeks CoverMy new book, Four Weeks: A Journey from Darkness, is now available for pre-order on Amazon! It hits on October 16, 2018!

The poetry and reflections included in Four Weeks, come from the journals I kept during my time in treatment for the eating disorder and alcoholism that darkened my life for decades. Four Weeks, is my journey from darkness. More than that, it is my journey from despair to hope. A hope I long to share with others walking the same path I did for so long. Hope exists in each of us, I have learned, it is when we surrender to that hope and to the source from which it flows that we begin to heal.

Check out the link to reserve a copy today!