How do you tell this story?
For those who have not endured the last six months in the area devastated by Hurricane Michael, there is no frame of reference. As much as we all want the world to know what is happening here, we don’t know how to say it. For those who have lived through it, it almost seems there’s no need to tell the story. We all seem to share a common awareness of what has happened, and in just a sentence or two, we can communicate where we are within the larger narrative:
“We’re still waiting on insurance.”
“Our house isn’t ready, but we had to move out of our rental last week.”
“My employer hasn’t announced their long-term plans yet.”
“We’re trying to find someone who can do sheetrock, but they’re all is booked for months.”
Everyone is waiting on something. And we’re waiting longer than we ever anticipated. Six months ago, I naively thought we would have at least the inside of our house almost back together by now. And here we are, in April, and our house is still completely gutted. Insurance has yet to give us anything close to the amount required to restore the house. We’re camping out–all seven of us–in an RV in our front yard. I’m still confident that our personal situation will, in time, be sorted out. Even so, it looks like we’re still at least six months out. Or will it be longer…who can tell anymore?
The recovery period has brought with it greater uncertainty. What will happen to the millions of uncleared trees as they dry out and sit through the long, hot summer, just waiting for a spark? What will happen to our streets and homes when the billions of gallons of water all those trees used to absorb are no longer absorbed, and there’s nowhere for the water to go? What will happen to local roofing companies and fencing companies when every roof and fence in Bay County is brand-new a year from now–unless there’s another hurricane?
In the early days after the storm, I watched hope burn brightly as strangers from all parts of the nation poured in to restore power, serve food, deliver supplies, and help clear roads and yards of debris. As our plight faded from the news cycle, so did the number of people who came to help. When I travel out of town now and mention how things are here, I always get the same answer: “I didn’t know it was still that bad.” It’s not that people don’t care; it’s just that they don’t know.
So my hope is that now, at the six-month mark, people will again become aware that the needs here in the Florida Panhandle are still great. Don’t get me wrong: The people here are strong and hardworking. Most of us have resigned ourselves to the fact that not much more help is coming, and we’ll have to deal with things ourselves. And we will.
But I believe we don’t have to. I believe that the people who cared six months ago still care today. I believe that, if they know there is a need, they will still do what they can to help–I saw it firsthand in October, as I received call after call, message after message from people who wanted to come bring what they had and to do what they could. They came willingly, unasked, and we were able to connect them with countless needs. And I assure you, there is still a need. Many from middle-class backgrounds may not feel it as greatly right now, but many others, with little income, with little or no insurance, and with limited means of seeking out assistance are as bad off or worse off than they were in October. As time goes on and city and county governments have to pay all of the bills to clean up and restore our communities, we will all continue feel that impact for years to come. If you live elsewhere and want to help, I encourage you to reach out to local churches, local governments, and other agencies who are serving here. They can point you to where the needs are. And if you live here and you need assistance in recovery, don’t be afraid to ask. People care; they just need to be given the opportunity to show it.
To my fellow Hurricane Michael survivors: I love you. I am so honored to live each day with the brave men, women, and children who have endured this season of hardship. I know many of you are steadily recovering, and I know that others are struggling day to day. Please reach out for the help you need, whether that is emotional, mental, physical, financial, spiritual, or something else. What was most meaningful about the #850STRONG hashtag we rallied around in those early months was not the “STRONG”, but the “850”. It was the unity of the community. After the storm, it was like the winds that took away our trees and our jobs and our homes also blew away the walls we build up between ourselves. As we rebuild our lives and our community, let’s be careful not to reconstruct those walls. Let’s unite with one another, and with friends from all over, to make sure we all recover together, and we’ll find ourselves stronger than ever.