It's been 12 months since the storm. 365 days. Exactly one year since we thought we might never make it, yet here we are, moving forward, fighting and reclaiming what was ours before Hurricane Michael came along and took so much away.
That job isn't done yet, a fact that's obvious when you look around. But oh, how far everyone has come! So much has been accomplished in the past 365 days. When I wrote the paragraphs below, I wanted to encourage the people of Northwest Florida who were so mercilessly devastated by the storm. I knew it was completely overwhelming, but I had no doubt that our people would rise up and fight for what was ours.
Some didn't make it; those without the strength or resources fled the area for their own reasons, but those who love this place too much to lose it stayed, fought through tears, depression, economic loss and unimaginably hard labor, and won, and continue to win, battle after battle. The resilience of those who remain is completely inspiring. They're helping and praying for each other, sharing resources, and protecting one another.
If there's one thing that has become stronger through all of this, it's the sense of community that has bonded everyone together more than ever before. That will remain even after the rebuilding is complete. It's the silver lining behind the clouds. It's made us stronger than the storm.
Here is some of what I wrote one year ago. I was right. You picked up that figurative hoe and kept working, and you haven't put it down yet:
"Many a farmer has said the words, 'I’ve got a long row to hoe,' looking at the hard work ahead of him. He didn’t say he wasn’t going to do it, of course. He just acknowledged it, and probably said a prayer for strength to do what was before him.
Likewise, all our beloved communities affected by that awful storm have 'a long row to hoe' to regain any semblance of normalcy, and as I drove through some of them on my way to St. Joe Beach after the storm, I was brought to tears by the enormity of the job.
The thousands upon thousands of trees, broken in half like toothpicks, or lying on the ground. The tents pitched in front of now unlivable homes, popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm. The utility poles, tossed to the ground as if they were nothing more than pieces of driftwood. The homes. The boats. The cars. The businesses. The churches; so many smashed, damaged or gone altogether.
It is, indeed, a daunting task.
But like the farmer, we Northwest Floridians aren’t giving up. I immediately saw people reaching out to their neighbors, making sure they were safe, and helping them when they could. Businesses, damaged themselves, were opening their doors when safe to do so, for anyone who needed food or a place to just sit for awhile. Churches and fire stations became central safe places for hurting, hungry people, which is so appropriate it doesn’t even need to be explained, really.
Strangers from around the country suddenly showed up en masse, feeding, washing, working alongside us, working for us. The power trucks seen around the area bore the names of companies from cities far and wide, all there to help restore what Michael temporarily took away. The people bringing food trucks and trailers and feeding people without charge are not only feeding bellies, they are feeding hearts and souls.
There’s no way to adequately express the depth of emotions everyone feels right now. The nearly complete devastation of our beloved towns breaks our hearts. The longing for what we had before....light switches that actually turned on a light, faucets that offered clean water to drink and wash with, streets that had no huge piles of debris along their length...those are things that we will never take for granted again, even years after this is all over.
So while we grieve for what is no longer, I know that so many of you are out there, hoe in hand, doing the hard work. I see you. I appreciate you, and I am praying for your stamina, resolve, and protection. People like you will make Northwest Florida even better, even stronger, than it was before."
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is “Mama Steph.” She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three sons who are significantly taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com.