West Virginian shares perspective on hurricane

March 10, 2019

My wife, Charlotte, and I were having dinner recently at a restaurant in Port St. Joe, Florida, and our waitress was a friend of mine that I had not seen since Hurricane Michael struck the panhandle two months before in October. I asked her how she had fared with the storm and as she poured me a refill of sweet tea she said, “It destroyed my mother’s house in Mexico Beach and they found her body three days later in the debris.” I paused to reflect on how blessed I was in the aftermath of the storm.

After spending most of our lives in the hills and hollows of West Virginia, we decided to move to the Forgotten Coast of Florida. We moved to the small town of Apalachicola close to the beaches of St. George Island. When I told friends that we were moving south, each of them warned us of one or more of the following: snakes, insects, heat and hurricanes. From 2013 until last fall we experienced the snakes, bugs and heat, but on Oct.10, 2018, we experienced our first hurricane.

Hurricane Michael came out of the Gulf quickly and with mixed warnings. The day before landfall we heard that it would strike as a Category 2 storm and decided to close our storm shutters, get gas for our generator and, remembering snowstorm warnings in West Virginia, we made sure we had plenty of bread and milk. We live a few blocks from the Gulf of Mexico and didn’t anticipate storm surge since we were 12 feet above sea level.

The eye of the hurricane made landfall 40 miles west of us at Tyndall Air Force Base. It was a strong Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 155 mph, just 2 mph shy of being a Category 5, the most vicious on the scale.

I could share facts and figures relating to Michael including the following: Tyndall Air Force Base will take three to five years to recover at a cost of $3 billion, charitable contributions funneled to the affected areas are half of the amount given during any previous storm during the past 20 years, the Bay County school system lost 5,000 students and is “mothballing” some schools until the population returns to pre-storm numbers. The list goes on.

Apalachicola was 40 miles from the hurricane’s eye and there was not a street in town that wasn’t blocked by trees. I had a 100-foot water oak tree take out part of my garage and total one of our cars. We were without power, water and cellphone service for days. Our small town was cut off, and relief could not get through until highways were cleared. People of the Forgotten Coast rallied. Neighbors with chainsaws cut my downed tree so that we could move our still functioning cars and then moved around town trying to make a clear path for each house to be reached. We were blessed.

A friend and local restauranteur, Danny Itskovitz, set up cookers and grills in the street beside his restaurant to cook food that was going to spoil. Word spread and people brought food that would rot in their freezers downtown to his restaurant, Tamara’s Cafe, where volunteers gathered and fed hundreds of people three meals a day for a week or more free of charge. Someone set up a refrigerated truck to preserve the food, and gas was found to run generators and the grills. One cellphone provider set up temporary towers and people with that one company let others use their phones to contact friends and loved ones to let them know they were okay.

Our town was blessed.

After four months, we could follow the coast road to Panama City. While Panama City Beach was spared and able to accommodate tourists and travelers, other areas will be scarred for years. Mexico Beach is devastated. Waterfront homes and businesses are damaged or gone. The beachfront is scoured clean and remaining houses are pushed from foundations and uninhabitable.

Port St. Joe had a storm surge race in from the bay that put countless homes under eight feet of water. Initially there were piles of furniture, carpeting, cabinets and personal items piled high along every road and street awaiting pickup. Piles of debris that was formerly houses are still piled higher than your head as cleanup continues. Each pile is a person’s life laid bare by tragedy. From Port St. Joe into Panama City there are still countless homes and businesses with blue-tarped roofs waiting for repair.

I now have a much greater understanding of the plight of the American citizens in Puerto Rico who are still suffering. We are out of the news cycle, and our story will be brought out and dusted off periodically to argue an environmental point or be placed in a grouping of statistics, but we are rebuilding — and we are blessed.

Jerry Hurley is a retired elementary school principal from the Cabell and Putnam County school systems. He is the author of “Wildcrafting and Other Stories I Share Only With My Friends,” a collection of short stories based on true family tales from the coal mining town of Mammoth, West Virginia.