by: Esther Stoltzfus
We had a visitor last month named Michael. It wasn’t the archangel Michael. And no, Michael was not the visit of a dearly loved cousin, uncle, or friend.
Michael started as an innocuous late-season tropical storm in the middle of October. We are hurricane savvy in the state of Florida. We had passed the worst of the hurricane season so we weren’t too worried, and besides, Blountstown is an hour off the coast. Furthermore, it was predicted to hit an hour east of us.
The day before Michael roared in, we started hearing predictions of it strengthening and moving west. Elam and I gathered our normal hurricane supplies, and as an extra precaution, he emptied his office of all valuable hard drives and precious books.
Our little hospital in Blountstown is old and decrepit, with a roof like a faded patchwork quilt. The staff decided to do the prudent thing and transfer our inpatients and swing bed patients. We had a generator at the hospital, but it was almost as ancient, and not big enough to provide air conditioning or continued oxygen capability.
We kept our eyes on The Weather Channel and waited. When we heard that Jim Cantore (the well-known meteorologist from The Weather Channel) was headed this way, we paid a little extra attention. By the dawn of October 10, it started looking a bit more serious. Michael was a category 3 hurricane and now headed towards a category 4. We planned hurricane parties, and we had a team of people at the hospital that were prepared to stay if we got some wind. People who lived in mobile homes were encouraged to evacuate.
It got blustery around mid-morning, and our son Nic called and said “MOM!! Why are you staying at work? You can’t leave Dad alone.” Thankfully, I paid attention to the concern in his voice, and something told me to go home. My boss said they didn’t need me. The ER was empty and there was no risk-management issue going on that fit my job description; anything that might happen was beyond my ability to fix. So I left. The wind was already whipping my car around a bit, but I still wasn’t that concerned. I figured some wind would come and knock out our power and a few limbs would be lost, but that would be it. The official weather statement at noon was a wind advisory from 1:00 pm to 3:15 pm.
We lost power soon after I got home. By 1:00 pm the wind was a low howl. We watched as the trees whipped back and forth and leaves flew past the windows. I saw a small sapling go down but still had no concept of the horror that would unfold over the next four hours.
We soon heard a crashing thud. I looked out the window and tears came to my eyes. Our beloved sheltering tree—the grand dame of all our live oak trees—the marvelous shade in our back yard—the tree that was the landmark for the placement of our home—the tree that housed countless birds and an occasional wayward cat—was now on its side, ripped out with its entire massive root system exposed. Roses, hydrangeas, and Miz Naomi’s summer phlox lay somewhere underneath this 60-foot-tall tree. Fortunately, it had fallen away from the house.
At that point I realized this was far worse than anything we could have anticipated. The wind howled and moaned like a freight train. It was like the roar of a tornado that wouldn’t stop. Elam and I watched in horror as beloved tree after beloved tree bent, swayed, and fell in the wicked wind. We began to pray that God in His infinite mercy would protect our house and us. We went from one window to another to see trees being uprooted and falling, falling, falling all around the house, with the closest ones landing on the front and back porches.
Three o’clock came and went, and the wind continued. Elam was shooting video on the porch at one point until the wind nearly pulled him off. He went upstairs, and came back with tears streaming down his face. The horse barn was gone and trees were down everywhere in the pasture. He couldn’t see any of the animals. By hour three I covered my whole head with several pillows, trying block the sights and sounds of the destruction.
By this time most of the trees in our yard and pasture had fallen, except for a huge oak right in front of Elam’s office. The eye of the storm finally passed and we thought we were almost done. But… not so fast! The wind simply turned around the other way; the office lifted off its foundation, squished down a little bit, and then—almost gently—that grand old tree just leaned over and covered the office like a bad embrace.
After four hours of wind speeds of 145-150 mph—with gusts up to 170—it was over. There was carnage everywhere as if a bomb had gone off. We had a sparse bit of communication with family to let them know we were safe and our house was safe. Elam walked outside to check on the animals. His beloved horse was safe but shaking like a leaf. Ten out of eleven chickens were huddled in a little hayrack. One chicken was gone; she definitely flew the coop. The air smelled of pine and muck and something metallic.
The sight broke our hearts. We went to bed in the pitch black, knowing our world, as we knew it, had changed.
The next morning the sun rose with a cruel beauty, exposing pieces of sky we had never seen before. Everywhere we looked there were destroyed buildings and more tree damage than I can describe. We couldn’t go anywhere because a broken and mangled forest was lying on our road. Elam asked, “Where do we even begin?”
Buildings can easily be replaced, but trees… Ah, we southerners love our trees like Kansans love wheat fields and Alaskans love snowdrifts and Manhattanites loved the Twin Towers. Trees are our signature here in the piney woods of north Florida. Trees are the lifeblood of this county and provide employment in the form of timber, pulpwood, pine straw farming, millwork, and wood pellet mills, along with all the other hubs of the support network—stores that supply diesel and machinery and stores that sell groceries, and so on. Along with the later estimates of $1.3 BILLION of overall losses of timber, farmers also lost a whole cotton and peanut crop. Local peanut mills were destroyed. Cotton bales blew apart, making fields look like an errant blizzard had hit.
On that first morning after the storm, we carefully picked our way down our dirt road to check on our neighbors, struggling through the mangled and broken trees mingled with downed power lines. A five-minute walk took at least thirty minutes. Our neighbor and her teenage daughters were alone during the storm because her husband works in Atlanta. We hugged, cried, and shared storm stories, but soon got to work. Elam got their tractor and, along with our other neighbor, began to chainsaw and push logs out of the way so that we could at least connect to each other. The quiet was almost eerie. There was no communication with anyone else. No phone, and no ability to get in or out. No traffic on the main road.
By afternoon we were able to get out. We heard that the damage at our family farm was extensive, and we wanted to check on our loved ones. In every direction, as far as the eye could see, the land was destroyed and primary roads were nearly impassable. There were whole forests lying on the roads, with power lines and power poles strewn among the wreckage of trees.
By the next morning I could find a path to town. I was eager to see our hospital. That drive was the worst. It looked like an angry giant weather god had scooped up our little slice of Florida and put it in a jar and shook it until everything was broken. The roads were almost impassable at some points because of fallen trees. The massive long-leaf pines in our woods—Elam’s pride and joy—had all been uprooted and lay on the highway, with root systems coming up to my waist. It was disorienting to not recognize the landmarks I’ve known all my life: this patch of pines, that grand old oak… Trees were on houses and roofs were partially ripped off, with sheds strewn everywhere, power poles snapped like toothpicks, and wires and transformers scattered like tinker toys.
Big ugly tears came, and I cried. Hard. Our little town was one big mess of destruction. It was heartbreaking to see my beloved hospital badly damaged, with the roof partly torn off and the windows blown out and in shards. Our schools were damaged, with bleachers twisted upside down like freak grotesque metal sculptures. Friday night lights were destroyed, church steeples had toppled, and historic town landmarks had been damaged by wind or trees.
Trees… broken, snapped, gnarled, and twisted. Some were already cut down, leaving raw and ugly stumps looking like newly formed giant scabs. It was a ghost town, with nothing open except the ER, two nursing homes, law enforcement, and the bare bones of the grocery store. People wandered around in shock, hugging each other and asking after each other. “How’s your mommer’n’em?” was not just a formality; it was a heartfelt question of concern. Our tight-knit little community has differences that divide us, but in a time like this, we united in this tragedy of the wind.
By day two after Michael, we began to realize the widespread and utter devastation that had occurred. We heard stories of our beloved beach—Mexico Beach—being obliterated. That was the beach for common people. It was still old Florida, without the over-priced high rises and the private beaches and the gated communities. We heard about Panama City—the go-to shopping place for many—being ruined, and every community within a thirty-minute drive had sustained horrific and massive damage. The infrastructure of Calhoun County was destroyed, with 100 percent of its citizens without power.
Our children who live out of the area knew more of the devastation than we did. It was our children who were our voice and our advocates. They used their knowledge of social media and their connections to their friends and professional worlds to get help for us. They went head-to-head with AT&T, Verizon, the governor’s office, and FEMA. They tweeted and called and forced the state and the country to look at the disaster beyond the beaches. We have more trees than people and a median income of less than $40,000. They knew this, and knew the resources would be sparse if someone did not ensure that Blountstown got on the radar.
And soon the angels in shoe leather came and brought hope in tangible ways. Supplies started pouring in. Family started showing up with so much love and supplies and hope. Friends and strangers came from all over, bringing everything imaginable. Complete strangers drove from Maryland and Michigan with skid steers and cranes and tractors. Strangers from Illinois sent gas and tarps and water and groceries. A friend filled her Prius with everything from chicken feed to gourmet food (because she knew that we loved stuff like hummus and rosemary crackers) to a bale of hay to laundry detergent to N 95 masks. A friend brought beautiful long-stemmed roses. Another brought a whole carload of delicacies from Publix and her own kitchen.
Strangers and friends brought or mailed nonperishable food, along with bananas and bread and cat food and cat toys and hamburger. A stranger loaned us a generator big enough that we could cook—or bake—or bathe—or wash clothes; we could choose what we wanted to do, as long as we did one thing at a time. We watched as strangers who became friends overnight—as well as our neighbors and friends in the area—cleared the mountains of trees from our yard and pastures. We were all buried under branches and tripping over downed power lines. We learned to cook big meals for hungry men using generator power.
We survived several days of miserable heat of nearly 100 degrees. The men staying in our home lay on our brick floor one night to cool down from the misery of inside temperatures of almost 90. Elam finally figured out how to run the a/c and, voila!—we had one other choice. We could be cool or stinky, and we chose to be cool, people! We went five days with spit baths only.
And then there were generous souls who gave money—retirees, missionaries, and people with bigger hearts than pocketbooks—people who knew we had a monstrous job of cleanup and rebuilding.
Twenty days later we saw the beautiful sight of linemen down our road. They heroically worked almost around the clock. They were from Miami and Texas and North Carolina… I wanted to turn on every light in the house just to feel the magic of flipping a switch again…
The wind that changed our lives cost us possessions, beauty, comfort, security, memories, and jobs. It cost the life of a young teacher who had an allergic reaction or heart attack. Calling 911 was pointless. Nobody could get to her and she couldn’t get out.
Our landscape is going to be changed forever, marked by the “before Michael” and “after Michael” comparisons. The piney woods that gave us shade, privacy, and character are badly damaged for miles around. The trees left standing are stripped naked of leaves and look like living gargoyles in an endless gothic nightmare. Recovery is going to be a long and hard road for all of us.
But we are Hurricane Strong. Our area has never been postcard pretty like Seaside or wealthy like Palm Beach, but people know how to take care of themselves and their neighbors. We’ve also been known to run a chainsaw or two and drive a tractor or bulldozer.
The wind has come and gone but we are still standing and tomorrow is a brand new day. The sun will rise and the sun will set, and thanks to the wind that changed our world, we will see both.