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

Image by Sharon Owens

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.

In Mexico Beach, FL, there is still no gas station, no bank, and no grocery store. Eighty percent of the small coastal community was destroyed by Michael. Image by Tony Miller

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).

Remnants of the destruction unleashed by Hurricane Michael are still plainly visible throughout the Panhandle even ten months later.

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.

Image by Cindy K. Sickle

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.

Cover image by Sharon Owens

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.

Jennifer N. Fenwick, author/editor, survivor

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