By: Katie Dier
Editor's Note: This is part of a series a first-hand stories from students in ENC2135. For more stories, visit the Hurricane Michael relief page.
No one truly knows when the world will end, or when it will end for them. It’s not something that has really crossed my mind at the age of eighteen, but on October 10, 2018, I was sure my last moments had arrived. It was a whole new level of fear I did not know existed. This was the day Hurricane Michael bulldozed through the Panhandle and destroyed the place I call home. Having only expected Michael to be a category 2 storm my family made the decision to stay and wait out the storm, we never imagined the absolute destruction that would occur in such a short amount time.
We boarded up the windows, stocked up on food and a few other essentials, as well as nailing down whatever we could outside. No matter what we did to prepare there was nothing that could have prevented the outcome. By the time we found out Michael was projected to be a category 4 by landfall, it was too late for us to leave. We have three dogs, two toddlers, my grandparents visiting from Brazil, my step-dad, my mom, and me with nowhere to go. We were not in a mandatory evacuation zone either, so my step-dad decided we would be fine to stick it out. When the storm finally hit, at first it seemed like a bad thunderstorm. My mom and I were able to keep in contact with the rest of our family for a while, none of them were able to evacuate either, however that was short lived. The wind and the rain soon accelerated at an alarming rate. I’m not entirely sure at what point we made it into the closet. I just remember the look of pure terror on my mom's face as she told me to grab the boys.
We wedged ourselves in the master bedroom closet, as the world fell apart around us. The wind was violent and unforgiving, it tore through our house like it was made of straw. We sat in the dark listening to the roof cave in and things break outside our little safe haven. Then my mom checked the time and in the glow of the phone light I saw tears streaming down her face. In that moment I realized just how utterly terrified I was. My mom, the strongest woman I know, was scared for her life and the lives of everyone in that closet. I absently touched my own face to feel for the dampness my tears would have left, but to my surprise there was nothing. The heavy feeling in my chest was definitely there and I could feel my throat closing up as the sudden awareness hit me. My heart went out to my mom, and the rest of my family and friends who were going through the same thing we were. I took a deep breath and pulled my baby brothers closer to me. My dogs stayed curled up close to the boys the whole time, they knew above all else to protect those boys. I never allowed myself to cry. I knew if I did my mom would be inconsolable. Many times in my life I have heard her state I was her rock, and I never knew the true meaning of her words until that moment. I sang my brothers to sleep while chaos reigned around us, never showing them how frightened I truly was.
When the storm died down, we did not immediately leave the closet. My brothers were still sleeping and none of us were ready to see the damage that had been done. My step-dad went first. Ten minutes felt like an eternity. When he returned to the closet, flooding our sanctuary with light, the look on his face should have broken me on the spot. I walked out of that closet clutching my brother to my chest. The dogs followed closely behind and we caught our first glimpse of the devastation Hurricane Michael left behind. My home was destroyed, and I was overcome with a feeling like nothing I have ever experienced. Pictures were ruined, water was everywhere, and our ceiling was falling apart above us. We had no power, no service, and nowhere to go. We were stuck in the aftermath. It wasn’t until 2 days later we were able to pack the few things we still had and head south to my aunt‘s house.
All of my family who had been affected by Hurricane Michael stayed at my aunt’s in Ocala, Florida. It was packed and I slept on the floor for a few days, but seeing my family and knowing they were ok was all I needed. One of the hardest parts of this experience was not being able to communicate with all of them including my sister. This has been the first year of my life we have been separated. She still lives in Freeport with my biological dad and waited out the storm there. My sister, my best friend, dropped everything and drove to Ocala to see all of us. That was the first time I let tears fall down my face. She has been there for me through everything in my life and not having her through something so traumatic was difficult. I may be my mom’s rock, but my sister is mine.
The next step in this seemingly endless journey was to find a temporary place to live. We were constantly on the phone with our insurance company trying to figure things out and get a place lined up. Hearing my mom recount the events that took place only days earlier every time she picked up the phone took me back to that closet. It was a wound I would have rather not kept opening. Our home, where my brothers said their first words, where my mom and I made pancakes every Sunday, where I spent so many late nights watching scary movies with my best friend, was destroyed. Fear and apprehension flooded through me every waking moment. I constantly was wondering what would happen to all of us. Once we found a place in a relatively close area to home it was time to leave Ocala and the comfort of our family. We also had to say goodbye to our dogs, because we were unable to find a house that accepted pets. They are still currently staying with my aunt in Ocala, but saying goodbye to Simba, Nala, and Toby, though temporarily, shattered my already broken heart. For us, our pets are family, and seeing them whine and cry as we drove away made everyone cry including my baby brothers.
Returning home to assess the damage done to our house was next to come. The first trip there to see what was salvageable consisted of just my step-dad and uncle. My mom and I stayed home with my brothers, but it was too overwhelming for them so the trip was short lived. They sent us pictures of the house, and it was in worse condition then when we left it. Insulation littered the floor and black mold covered the walls. Our fence in the backyard was almost completely gone, and almost all the trees surrounding our neighborhood had disappeared. They gathered up some household items that survived, more clothes, and a few more essentials, but failed to think of some of the irreplaceable items. So, a few days later my mom and I decided to take the trip out there ourselves. We picked up my brothers’ baby albums, some pictures laying around the house, and whatever else we could find. We took a look in the backyard to see the damage for ourselves and as we glanced around, my mom found something miraculous. I hadn’t seen it in years, but wedged under a plank of wood was a painting I made for Mother’s Day in the fifth grade. The edges were bent but other than that my piece of art was perfectly intact. It was almost like a sign that things were going to be ok, at least that is how my mom chose to see it.
Since the hurricane, there has been a massive hole in my heart and a constant feeling of emptiness, but we are slowly picking up the pieces. We have already started cleaning up our house and looking toward the future. Simba, Nala, and Toby have come down for a visit and I have never seen three happier or healthier pups. My brothers are still rambunctious toddlers going through their “terrible 2s,” and my mom and I are making the best we can out of the situation, we even made pancakes last Sunday. What is in store for my family and I is a mystery. All I know for sure is I consider myself incredibly blessed to still be here with all of my family, including my dogs, unharmed. Though Michael seemingly took everything from us, I now know through this heart ache that family is stronger than anything and we can survive anything as long as we are together, as for our house, it’s just a house, the family inside it is what matters the most.