I pulled onto my country road early this morning for an eight a.m. appointment across town. But I found myself in a nightmare situation. Hundreds if not thousands of people who had left the area were now returning to their homes and businesses and jobs and schools. Fortunately northwest Florida did not get a direct hit from Hurricane Michael. We only received some minor winds and rain. Unfortunately, everyone seemed to return back to this area at the same time.
I’ve never lived through a bad hurricane. I’ve never had to flee in the night, not knowing if my home and possessions would be there upon my return. Why would I even think of leaving the familiar, comfortable day-to-day life I’m used to living? But for thousands of people in this area who have lived through a hurricane such as category three Ivan in 2004, it was an easy decision. There is nothing more important than life and family. Consequently, many people in this area drove north or west before yesterday’s storm in an attempt to survive an even worse category four hurricane.
This morning the sky dawned clear and blue and sunny. But all roads were bumper to bumper, with people driving occasionally on the wrong side of the road in an attempt to bypass the long line of traffic and turn onto an equally stalled side road. Although there were no accidents or beeping horns or road rage incidents, there was the possibility of tempers flaring as we all tried to get to our destinations. After an hour of driving two to five miles per hour I had only progressed about two miles from my home. In frustration I turned around to return home but not before witnessing a school bus do a complete 180 turn in the middle of an intersection in front of me. It was becoming dangerous and I worried that the crush of traffic would not allow room for emergency vehicles should the occasion arise.
I called my appointment and cancelled, the receptionist already sounding stressed at eight in the morning. I had never thought of the consequences of everyone returning at the same time, only the terror of everyone leaving the area before the storm in a panic, bumper to bumper, moving slowly if at all, using precious gasoline.
As today progressed I tried not to become fixated on the news reports of almost complete devastation around the Panama City area and into Georgia. Sadly, my favorite bead store, LH Beads in Panama City may be gone, the owner reporting on Facebook that she had to leave at three in the morning. She is not allowed to return to the city and at the time of the posting did not know if her store survived or if her coworkers were okay.
The restaurant in Mexico Beach east of Panama City where I have stopped for dinner several times appears to have vanished, ravaged by the 150 mph winds. Small coastal towns like St Joseph and Apalachicola, places I’ve visited, won’t be the same for years as they rebuild.
As the day progressed the pictures online and on TV were sad and sobering. Had the storm not turned when it did Pensacola would have taken a direct hit. Were we all prepared for the worst? Where would I go with three dogs and a cat? What would I take? Besides my animals what are my most important possessions in an emergency? Nothing, really.
By a twist of fate the decision will not have to occur this time. I breathed a sigh of relief but then felt despondent. Is this what survivor’s guilt is like, feeling helpless and relieved and scared? There but for the grace of God, go I…this time.