Oct. 10, 2018.
Michael deserves the top spot in a review of the stories of 2018 and it’s hard to conjure many other stories even earning a spot among the top 10.
Michael, safe to say right now, might very well be the top story of a lifetime for many who lived through it and are trying to rebuild.
As it eclipsed the sun and the landscape on that October day, Michael pretty much eclipsed so much of what went before while coloring all that has happened since.
So, in that vein, we have moved most of the other top stories and images over to the B or Community section.
Michael stands alone and deservedly so.
Michael also presents a unique challenge because instead of being at an arm’s length, as with most any other story, this one is personal: my wife and I lost our home, our only car, furniture, clothes, memorabilia, artifacts of 30 years together, nearly every single pair of shoes (counting Crocs as shoes which is a stretch).
But, thanks to a son-in-law who has joined our personal Hall of Fame, we did not lose our lives to the flood waters.
So, what follows is more than an attempt to review Hurricane Michael in orderly chunks, it a personal recollection, like so many, and is presented in hope that our common experiences unite us as we rebuild in the years ahead.
In a way, we make our choices and our stands to weather the storms that come with life through our choices of partners for the journey.
Let us choose each other.
There is a deep divide among those rebuilding between those of sense, who evacuated when told, and those of little sense, who did not.
Those who did not, who believed no big deal ahead or, more accurately, realized too late they should get out of Dodge, experienced first-hand the terrifying passage of Michael.
The whistling of the winds, bending at impossible angles of trees, the relentless rain and, of course, most alarmingly the surge that inundated Port St. Joe and Mexico Beach.
I have been through storms, from tornadoes to hurricanes, from Midwest to South, and have never experienced anything as unsettling as the eight hours or so of that storm at its meanest.
Dazed and confused
As scary as hearing Michael was, seeing and describing what it wrought was beyond the capacity of words.
Trees, huge, old trees, torn and toppled by the roots as if dandelions.
Surging waters turning the flood plain between Marvin and McClelland into a raging river.
Reid Ave. appeared as if a huge blimp of water had exploded.
Navigating was rendered nearly impossible by the number of roads, from State 71 to nearly every numbered street in Port St. Joe, blocked by downed trees and power lines.
There was no power; the popping of transformers had started around 10 a.m., and would not be for days.
In addition, there was no communication and no ability to know what was happening beyond your little block or neighborhood.
But that was enough: silent, gaping-mouth shock was the look of the day.
Only as internet returned in the coming days, when Facebook could be accessed and videos shared did most of us who rode out the storm come to understand the magnitude.
By the day after Michael survival mode set in.
For days the eating times were spent scrounging for food, whether it was the chicken dinners offered at the elementary school or, as the days passed, the many pop-up feeding stations.
Two people stood out.
This man could have just collected his insurance settlement and kicked back, but by Thursday afternoon he and his employees, with miner’s lamps on heads, were shuffling through flood waters inside the store to fill orders curbside.
They continued that curbside service until early the following week when full power was restored to the Piggly Wiggly; at that point Duren had to toss more than $300,000 worth of food.
The owner of Krazyfish Grille couldn’t open his restaurant, but what he did was get the word out to chefs he knew up and down 30A in Destin and they showed up each day to provide incredible fare.
Seafood, Italian, Mexican and hamburgers were among the food served, free of charge, each day.
As the days unfolded, and more businesses, such as Peppers, opened, they too began to provide free sustenance.
A willingness to eat anything
Want is a peculiar thing, as many experienced during the days following Michael.
Get hungry enough, the desire for that cheeseburger or piece of pizza can turn to an item you might not otherwise touch.
We speak here, of course, of the MRE, or meals ready to eat, which were distributed at several locations after the storm.
Vegetable lasagna, chicken cacciatore were among the selections we picked up, but you have not lived until your breakfast is an MRE of sweet and sour chicken and rice.
Packed six years before and inspected two years after that, none of which mattered.
The heating sleeve of an MRE, a brilliant design and source of endless fascination.
And the idea that some foods are breakfast foods, some lunch, some dinner?
Toss that one aside after a major hurricane because a quarter chicken is just as good in the morning as it is as an evening repast.
For those along the coast, in the storm surge area, the mud, slippery, deep and nasty, was a major impediment.
The mud, too often mixed with, ew, sewage, was particularly cruel to those who lived south or west of Garrison Ave. in Port St. Joe and along U.S. 98 where storm surge was major.
The mud was an obstacle to just cleaning a home or yard, particularly for those who lost footwear.
This reporter spent one day cleaning my home and yard slipping and sliding in Crocs.
By nightfall my knees felt like falling off.
But the mud, which got on clothes, in feet and toenails and fingernails, and the required cleaning of it, represented the major hurdle toward rebuilding for many along coastal areas and rendered more than one yard a bog pit.
Volunteers of Port St. Joe
Whatever the hardships many were mitigated by the army of local volunteers who manned, and continue to man, stations providing food, ice and water and, as the days went on, clothing, hygiene items and cleaning supplies.
The Washington High Gym, the Centennial Building, First Baptist Church, the STAC House all became beacons of assistance, manned by smiling, welcoming faces.
Another army was the volunteers who took up chain saws and got busy on the hard work of carving the community out from the hundreds of thousands of cords of wood which had fallen.
Didn’t matter if they knew you or not, wherever there was a driveway to clear, a house to free, street to open up, these folks were up and at it early each and every day.
Volunteers also assisted in the grim searches for casualties and many joined in supply convoys, driving to Alabama and other points north for needed gas, food and water.
And in the middle of most of this volunteer effort were the volunteer fire departments, becoming community centers, places to go to hear the latest news and receive supplies.
Overarching, the community came together in a way that was sobering and hopeful.
Folks took in other folks who lacked a home; a day stay becoming weeks and months.
Without complaint and with the joy of being able to assist, to lend a hand up.
And the word “rebuild” seemed less and less hollow by the hour.
Volunteers beyond Port St. Joe
Still another army of volunteers arrived from beyond the county’s borders.
Two days after the storm, with the lights out and the cell phone useless, the newspaper received a phone call by landline from folks in Virginia wondering where to donate money.
The breadth of assistance from folks not paid a dime to be here, not paid a dime to lift a finger was staggering.
There was the couple who drove from their Navarre home twice a week to serve home-cooked meals and the young ladies who drove from Marianna to repair damaged storefront signs to add some color.
Church groups from Tennessee and Alabama assisted in both feeding stomachs and souls.
The outpouring of support for several programs supplying Christmas to children in the county was staggering and uplifting.
And that is all just a sampling of the ways in which people who do not call Gulf County home have embraced the county and its residents, as well as those in Mexico Beach (which might as well be in Gulf County).
The cavalry arrived in the days after the storm, by late Thursday the National Guard showing up and by Friday the miles and miles of work trucks that would become ubiquitous.
The tree cutters, the pole and wire installers, the law enforcement and more arrived by the day, Garrison Ave. among the streets turned into something resembling the Oregon Trail in the wagon days.
The high school became a staging ground and every morning the caravan would start again fanning out across the community.
During a county meeting recently, Duke Energy was said to have earned a Gold Star and anybody emerging from their homes in the late afternoon after Michael’s punch who believed it would be less than month before power would have been committed.
But, sure enough, three weeks after Michael the overwhelming number of residents in the county had power; much of the south end of the county had power within two weeks.
Night sounds and sights
An upside to the situation, at least if you nerdishly love the night sky, is that it was rarely as spectacular as the days after Michael.
Yes, it was still hot and humidly uncomfortable, but to gaze at the night sky on a clear night in complete darkness somehow made for an appropriate escape for the brain.
At least for a few moments you could leave it all behind.
In turn, the sounds of a community without power are marked by the omnipresent sound of generators running, informing who at least has some power and who remains without, the difference between a hot shower and cold refrigerator.
Atop for years to come
It is likely that Hurricane Michael will remain part of the language, remain part of this annual list for years to come.
New phrases have been introduced, such as “We will rebuild, but it will take years” and “It will be a long road.”
The extent of the damage, to property values and local governments, won’t be known for months and years, but it will be substantial.
But returning to a theme, we are yoked together, for better and worse, in this common cause, bonded by our survival from one of the strongest storms in history.
We are partners in the coming endeavors, partners in rebuilding a community we still love despite her imperfections revealed by Michael.
This is where we, as partners, make our choices and make our stand.