Seven months later… Florida is still surviving

Last weekend, I made a trip over to Marianna, Fla. For a vast portion of my growing-up years, I lived with my parents in the Marianna, Blountstown and Altha trio of towns; for many years, those three towns were my home and even today, I remain very fond of the people and places from that area. Right after Hurricane Michael hit the panhandle, I saw pictures flooding my Facebook news feed of the towns that had once been my home; the bowling alley's roof and front walls had been shorn off as neatly as if someone had handed Michael a pair of scissors, places where my mother had shopped had their roofs peeled back like banana peels, the massive old oak that had stood in front of the courthouse was decimated. Only five days after Hurricane Michael, I was invited to travel alongside a disaster response group in order to document and photograph their efforts at bringing food, water and living materials to the people of Port St. Joe whose homes had been gutted by flood waters or crushed by category five winds. I saw, firsthand, the damage that one little town can sustain and the dampened spirits of the survivors of Florida's historic hurricane. I saw more human kindness, as strangers shared food, water and experiences with one another, in one day than I think I have observed in all the other days of my life. But seeing Marianna last weekend was an experience in and of itself. It has been almost seven months since Hurricane Michael blew through North Florida – and yet, the little corner building in downtown Marianna, the one that once housed a musky little used bookshop, has a shop front that is crumbled down. Bricks from that shop are piled up on the street corner, almost neatly. Only a block or so away, the insurance office has no roof and most of the business front has been torn off; it looks like a bomb exploded within the office, destroying the rafters, the brick walls and the once-sturdy roof - strangely, the sign is still hanging. House after house that I passed while driving still carries that bright blue tarp that so many homes around the Hurricane Michael damage zones still wear like bandages. Only 17 or so miles from Marianna, I have a friend whose family is just now able to move back into their home. The hurricane tore off their roof, the wind and rain caving their ceiling in, soaking the walls and destroying their belongings and keepsakes. For the past six months, my friend has lived in rentals or an RV, waiting for the insurance company, waiting for their home to be rebuilt. Another acquaintance lost her home entirely, and now that their home and livelihood have been taken away, she and her husband are venturing into a new lifestyle with their children; everything they had built for themselves is gone. Seven months later, life is still far from what it once was for many of the people who live in those areas. Seven months later, across rural North Florida, there are people still living in the tents they pitched after their homes were washed out, gutted and destroyed by wind and water. According to Vice News, rental costs have gone up 14 percent for those who can still find a home to live in. Many businesses and employers are suffering their own losses due to the hurricane; job hunting and retention is just one more thing that hurricane survivors struggle with. While access to gasoline, food and water is no longer an immediate concern, life is far from normal for the Floridians who survived the strongest recorded hurricane in Florida's history. Seven months later, it is easy to forget that our neighbors only a few hours west are still trying to patch together their homes, jobs and lives or figure out where to go from here. Survivors have called this strange aftermath a “constant fight” that will take years for the residents and business owners of the panhandle counties to recover from. Seven months later, millions of dollars of cotton, peanut, timber and nursery crops have been lost, homes still need to be rebuilt and businesses are still struggling to keep their doors open. Seven months later, Florida is still recovering from Hurricane Michael, and as resilient as North Floridians are, the struggle to recover has not been and will not be an easy emotional, physical and mental turmoil to bear.