Hurricane Michael smashed into the Florida Panhandle on October 10, 2018. I originally wrote the short pieces below to keep some wonderful folks posted on my efforts to help my family in its aftermath.
October 19, 2020
Mission critical: get to Panama City
I’m in Houston right now on my way to Panama City. I’m feeling both anxious and grateful to all the people who are helping me help my family. Because Hurricane Michael just punched them and their whole community down to the ground last week.
My dad and one of my brothers have been texting me to prepare myself. “This place is ruined.”
Von Miller said it right
I caught the end of the Broncos game with my husband Kevin last night. And I happened to hear Von Miller say they’d been relentless. That feels right.
Because right now my brother Michael, who works overseas, has arrived home. His wife and three kids had ridden out the storm in my local brother’s basement. Now this one’s relentlessly trying to find a new place for his family to live. Their apartment building is damaged. They have to leave.
My 82 year-old dad is relentlessly trying to get somebody, anybody, to patch a hole in his roof before it rains yet again. Meanwhile, he neeeeeds tarps! In fact, he painted “NEED TARPS” in big black letters on what’s left of his pretty white fence.
He’s also relentlessly trying to get my very ill mother—in a hospital bed in the living room—to eat something. Anything. And my local brother, Ken, is out relentlessly clearing debris from all kinds of wrecked properties.
It took Ken three separate tries to get to our parents just 17 miles from him. He brought water, and gas for their generator. Water and gas. That’s what matters right now. None of them knew how the others had fared until he managed to get to and then through their mangled yard.
I’ve been relentless this week, too, finally finding a rare place on the beach with power where we can stay—and I can cook—for the next ten days. On the ground in Panama City, the couple who will host us is updating me hour by hour on their volunteer work at the local command center.
They’ve been amazing. “Let’s get you some help.”
This is life
Meanwhile, as I prepare to leave Los Angeles again, my clients and students to whom I’ve been apologizing have said, “hey, this is life!” Over and over.
And that’s because I was just in Panama City for weeks for my mother’s awful surgery and worse complications afterward. We thought we’d lose her more than once. Hurricane Michael hit just five days after I got home.
In fact, when Michael struck and I freaked out and started a GoFundMe campaign to get back there with funds to make a difference, most of my amazing clients and students contributed.
So thank you to all you angels whose help has me on my way back there right now. I’ll never forget it.
October 22, 2020
On a puddle jumper from Houston to Panama City a few days ago, I soaked in the incredible views. I usually pick the aisle seat so I’m not often a window-gazer. But this time, in that tiny plane, 6A was both aisle and window.
Pale blue skies and soft clouds felt like pure gift. Like, here you go, girl, here’s some inspiration for you, an energy jolt in the midst of adversity and fear. Rest your eyes here. Store this 3D reminder of just how crazy-beautiful our little planet is.
Way better than the scene in my head
The view was a perfect match for my gratitude to be heading home to help my family. My parents were my overriding concern, with no power, water, or phones. Though a few texts to and from my dad had gotten through. No internet to find out how to get help.
With my elderly mom just home from weeks in the hospital. And my elderly dad—with wrecked left knee—as her sole caregiver. They were right at the start of scheduling essential home health care services for her. But Hurricane Michael stopped everything.
While still in L.A. preparing to leave, I’d lie in bed at night imagining my dad out in the backyard keeping his generator going. Trying to feed my mom. Changing her bandages. Imagining her getting back and forth to the bathroom with a walker. Extension cords everywhere. With a hole in the roof, an upstairs window blown out, and more rain coming. An impossible situation.
And grateful for so much
Now, four days later, on the ground here, I’m done trying to take photos and video that show the devastation all around us. And it’s dangerous to do so given thread-the-needle road conditions. It’s time to focus on what inspires me instead. Time to focus again on what I’m grateful for.
I’m feeling all that as I drive the clogged streets and highways between Panama City and my place at the beach, where there’s power and water. And speaking of power…
October 23, 2020
Generating power here
I’ve never seen so many workers up on power poles at the same time across so many lanes of traffic. And on a Sunday yet. And this is going on all over Panama City.
Gulf Power is trying hard to restore power to all areas of Panama City and larger Bay County by October 24th, two weeks after Hurricane Michael ploughed through here. That’s tomorrow. Fingers crossed.
Meanwhile, in a sweet moment yesterday on a bumper-to-bumper highway, three state troopers were standing around keeping an eye on things. Someone in a car ahead of me reached out and handed them a big bag of sandwiches.
They dug right in. Power, indeed.
Once on the ground here, I started playing Pandora’s ‘70s rock station when I could get a signal during long drives in my rental car. I decided on ’70s tunes to evoke my pre-teen years here. They feel right.
Like yesterday, on the way to my parents’ house from the beach in heavy traffic. Cat Stephens’ Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world couldn’t have been more perfect.
My brother’s family is staying with me after getting most of their stuff out of their damaged apartment. My mother is too weak to move, so I’m taking hot meals to my parents daily.
Because in a bizarre twist that weather pundits didn’t have time to predict, Panama City Beach fared better than adjacent inland areas. It’s the only nearby municipality with power. I’d found a place there before I left L.A., thinking my parents would come stay with me, too. But they won’t leave their home. And I get it.
After several hours with them yesterday, James Taylor’s Shower the People kicked in just as I pulled out onto their ravaged street again. It got me past the shock my dad and I feel every time we open his garage door to the ruin around us.
I gave him his own private daily pep talk as we stood next to my car. Shower the People is definitely what I’m doing here.
Sketchy new routines
We’re managing a routine of sorts while waiting for power and more ease of movement. That’s both indoors at my parents’ place, where extension cords to the generator and all around the ground floor are exactly as I’d imagined, and outdoors.
Streets and neighborhoods have become mazes of downed trees and mountains of debris, with tangled, suspicious-looking cables as thick as my arms winding around everything. Hordes of workers are descending on the area, with orange cones popping up all around heavy-duty vehicles parked precariously. They’ve got to get their jobs done somehow.
And a news flash: yesterday I saw a convoy of FEMA trucks roll into town with “Potable Water” emblazened on them in block letters as tall as a man. Their presence is growing.
Fueled by gratitude
The shock has worn off a bit now, and I’ve starting telling my parents how I got here this time. About all the aid we received. They get wide-eyed and quiet while I get choked up.
And they’ve been telling me what really happened that night. I thought they were holed up in a special closet under the stairs. But during the height of the storm, as it plowed a path of devastation right through their neighborhood with what must have been accompanying tornadoes, my father was trying to keep a set of French doors from being sucked open in the raging wind.
My mother, asleep in her hospital bed, woke up, saw what my father was doing, and got up to do the same with the other set of French doors. The doors held, my parents weren’t sucked out of their home, and it wasn’t destroyed.
Now we’re re-living and feeling so much at once. Gratitude is the saving grace on the list.
October 30, 2020
For one thing, I’m experiencing firsthand how natural disasters are in the news for a week or two and then fade from view. The truth is, the recovery process in and around Panama City is barely underway. The shock everybody is in is still descending.
I’ve heard dark threads of conversation all over town that I’ve tried to counter with encouragement. The stages of grief are just beginning.
Blossoming in hardship
But one inspiring result of all this heartbreak has been my family coming together. And that’s big. Because the fact is, this left coast liberal and those long-time Republicans have re-connected in ways we haven’t been capable of in years.
My local brother Ken is kind of my twin on the planet, born 364 days after me. One day a year, on his birthday, we’re officially the same age. He’s former Coast Guard, and about the time I started my own business he started his. These days the ace helicopter mechanic runs his own tractor company while managing his 40-acre homestead.
So he had the tools and the talent to begin clearing our parents’ ruined property himself. This was quite a fete, since any kind of expert help was impossible to find yet. FEMA was still setting up. And contractors of all kinds—and the communication mechanisms through which to find them—were in very short supply.
Before I got there, Ken had already cut our parents out of a house-high barrier of once magnificent old oaks. On his second pass he worked to get tangles of trees and all kinds of debris like siding, roofing, front porch overhead fan parts, and their shattered mailbox to the side of the road.
Neighbors worked on enormous piles in tandem, assisted by anyone they could beg or hire. We heard FEMA would take it all away at some point. Watching my bro work that time, it seemed to me he was doing what he was into from the time he was pint-size, pushing all his great trucks around in the yard and being his upbeat, can-do self in the world.
A few days in the life
In the midst of it all, my two brothers and I managed to have some beers and a party-planning session for our dad’s 83rd birthday. We met at a favorite bar of theirs. It had just opened back up, running cash only and standing room only.
Then my brother Michael, a former-Navy security pro on loan from his work overseas, trekked back to our AirBnB townhouse out on the beach. (Traffic around here rivals L.A.’s right now.) Ken headed to his place in nearby Chipley. I went back to our parents’ house. They and most folks have power now.
While still looking for my rental car, I had to smile at the sheer weirdness of it all. And I watched Ken already rolling out onto the highway in his 50-foot rig, sporting one of several Caterpillar contraptions that he uses daily.
Then, as he was clearing our parents’ lot further yesterday, they suddenly lost water to the house again. Amazingly in this resource-strained situation, a guy from the Water Department came right out and diagnosed an issue underground. It wasn’t at the street so it wasn’t his problem, and he hightailed it on out of there.
The next thing I knew, Ken was waist-deep in a hole that wasn’t there before, gluing something with something Michael had just snagged from the now re-opened hardware store. And our parents had water again.
Michael had already rigged up an antenna that our dad bought years ago and managed to find. So now our parents could watch some TV. And I fed everybody. That’s been my thing.
Best birthday ever
And we had our dad’s 83rd birthday party. Despite our depressed parents’ protests, it went down. And Dad loved it. Two little girls next door even brought over homemade cookies, an impressive fete given the mess at hand! Mom couldn’t get out of bed to join us, but she proclaimed it Dad’s best birthday ever.
Tough stuff and temporary opportunities
Panama City and larger Bay County have had two hospitals for decades. Hurricane Michael pummeled them both. They’re still closed right now except for emergency services. So long convoys of troopers and sheriffs roll through town at least once daily, sirens blazing, getting people to hospitals sixty or more miles away.
And on my drive to Destin to buy my dad’s phone, I heard urgent requests on the radio for more hospital personnel, and public service announcements about emergency nursing certifications. Announcements like these were yet another brand new, incredibly weird life experience for me.
And a note on the satellite image of Hurricane Michael here:
Just before I left, Ken heard that emergency responders had finally found one of nearby Mexico Beach’s weather station recorders. They learned that it had measured sustained 160 mph winds with gusts of up to 201 mph.
So it’s a good thing this storm moved fast. Otherwise its impact would have been even more devastating.
Now back to LaLaLand
For now I’m grateful that I’ve been able to be literally present for a time as my family grapples with this crisis. And for everything I’m learning about natural disasters.
For instance, I know now that west coast folks need generators to complete earthquake prep. Oh, and landlines really will be useless.
And now it’s time to get back to my own work. And I’ll keep going to Panama City. My parents will need ongoing help prepping for immense changes, like getting their 2-story house repaired and ready to sell.
My dad’s health has suffered while caring for my mother pre- and post-surgery, then post-hurricane. Anybody who has been through their own parents’ increasingly tough times knows where I am with them now, in heart-wrenching new territory.
Because some kind of real change is at hand. Is it time for assisted living? Can they agree on what comes next? It’s no longer a someday situation. One thing they do agree on is that they won’t be moving to La-La Land. Believe me, I’ve tried.
Meanwhile, thank you again and always to everyone who helped us. As my niece Kyla says, “You have done something great.”
We’ll never forget it, as we all move on into who knows what strange new country. That’s the gig we’re all on, right? Never a dull moment on life’s wild, wonderful journey.
Addendum: These writings will forever remind me of how hardship brought my family together dramatically during what turned out to be an even more critical season than we knew. Because my mother died just three months later, in part due to lack of aggressive medical care in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. RIP, mama. We love you so.