“When it is dark, the light is always easier to see. Darkness helps our light shine brighter.”
This was a quote from our sermon this past Sunday (shout out to Mark Traylor, our pastor!) and it really seemed to fit the theme of my blog for this month so I’m using it. All month, I’ve been thinking about how to give a voice to the people who have and still are suffering from the storms that hit in Texas, Florida, the Caribbean and Mexico. I want people outside of the storm areas to understand what really happens when you are faced with the fact that you might lose everything (homes, jobs, friends, family and even your own life). It’s not like it is when you see it sensationalized on a movie screen. It’s not a big party where people get together and celebrate. It’s serious. It’s scary and it’s humbling. It brought me to a place where I realized what was really important in this world. It showed me how to use my light in the dark so others without one could see.
I might die. This thought briefly crossed my mind as I raced home from work to pack a few belongings, trying to outrun an incoming hurricane. The only family I had near me was my chocolate lab, Hershey. Everyone else lived in states far away. I wasn’t even sure if they were aware of what was happening along the coast. I didn’t have time to call; I needed to get on the road.
The sky was turning dark and I was becoming anxious. I have live in many places but have never been in a hurricane. What was I supposed to do? It was just Hershey and me, and I was scared. Come on, think! I said to myself. What do you actually need to survive? I quickly made a mental list of items that I would use if we got stranded on the road. Flashlights, batteries, water, packaged food items, dog food, blanket, first aid kit, phone, charger, tape…what else? Next, I thought about items that I might need later should my house be destroyed in the storm. I ran upstairs and grabbed files with my Social Security card, insurance papers, birth certificate, and several family photos. I threw in a few nostalgic items form memory’s sake and began packing my car.
My car wasn’t big. It was old and on its last legs, but it had four working wheels and was full of gas, so I loaded it up. I prayed it would keep us safe during our journey. Once the car was packed, I remembered I thought about moving my furniture upstairs to the highest point in the house so that if flooding occurred, I could save as much as possible. I guess I was lucky that I didn’t have any living room furniture at the time. My bedroom was on the first floor and there was no way that I could lift the bed and my dresser by myself, so I shrugged that off and walked away. I grabbed a sleeping bag and some camping stuff and thought that at least I could camp if I didn’t have a house.
My heart was beating quickly. It was an eerie feeling knowing that something huge and completely out of my control was about to happen. I didn’t know when or even where I was going to be when this act of God occurred. After the last hurricane, people shared stories of running out of gas on the highway, discovering out-of-town hotels that were too full to take more guests and waiting for weeks for help to arrive. During the last sweep of my house, I spotted one unopened bottle of wine sitting on my counter. I grabbed it along with an opener and two plastic glasses thinking, What the heck, if I get stranded on the highway I might as well make a friend and share some wine. Coping.
I got into the car with Hershey and started slowly driving away. I looked for my neighbors but couldn’t find any of them. The streets looked abandoned. I didn’t get to say goodbye. Without warning, my body started shaking. Deep breaths. Focus. Silent prayers filled my head asking for safety for my friends and myself, guidance, peace and knowledge to endure whatever lay ahead. I headed toward the highway in the direction of a neighborhood north of the city. The storm was slated to hit in the southern region where I lived and the news was promising that neighborhoods up north were safe. I was going to be staying with a couple and their children whom I had met one month before when they moved to town. Strangers in essence, but we were all we had.
When I arrived at their home, the children greeted me first. They were excited for my “visit” and couldn’t wait to show me around. Their mom and I went along holding their hands while they bounced around showing me their rooms, their backyard and their games. “What are we going to do first?” they squealed. They were so excited, completely unaware of what was about to happen. They were innocently living in the moment, trusting and without fear. Their mom stared at me with trepidation in her eyes. I quickly realized that I was the one who the family looked upon as the “leader.” They need me to set the tone for how this was going to play out.
I decided then and there that we all would make this into an “adventure,” with the thrill of the unexpected looming around us. Because we were new to this area, we didn’t have pre-made boards for the windows stored in our garages, We were dependent on tape so that if the windows shattered, the glass would at least be contained. We told the kids we needed to get some items for the big indoor camping trip we all were about to take. They were giddy as we drove to the closest store to stock up on water, dry food, propane, batteries and tape. People were everywhere and the shelves were almost bare. We managed to get one case of water and a few snack crackers. Propane, batteries and tape were nowhere to be found.
At home, I set the “expectations” for our campout. I asked the kids to make a play are in the crawl space underneath the stairs. This was one of the only rooms in the house that was windowless. They ran around gathering blankets and toys, setting then up for play. While they were busy doing that, the adults prepared flashlights, batteries, and chargers for the phones We filled the bathtubs with water in the case that we’d need it in the days to come.
We watched the news, which showed terrifying pictures of the quickly approaching force. The wind began to howl, shaking the windows and whistling around the doors. The noise was nothing like I had ever heard. It sounded like ghostly howls. It made the hairs stand up on your skin. Our anxiety increased as we saw lawn furniture and umbrellas flying across the neighbors’ yard. Thoughts whirled around my head. I was terrified; I didn’t know what we were doing. It was like the blind leading the blind yet I need to keep it together so that we all wouldn’t fall apart.
God was present every step of the way. He had to be. I knew this because as soon as a terrifying thought would enter my brain, it was replaced with peace. Instantly. Each time.
The hours passed and then it grew dark. We lost electricity and all was still. What is this? What’s going to happen next? We all sat in the living room, mindlessly playing games with the kids. Hershey was there, too, clam and without concern. I used him as my gauge. Animals have a keen sense of what is happening around them and I thought, as long as he is calm, I’ll be calm too. I figured he’d let me know when all mayhem was about to break lose.
The storm wasn’t supposed to reach the neighborhood where we were. That was the theory at least. Reality was that it had moved, and we were centered directly beneath the force of the storm.
Even though our phones had been charged, we were unable to send or receive any messages. We couldn’t contact anyone, and we didn’t know if anyone had tried to contact us. Did our friends and relatives even know what was happening?
After two full days, it became clear that we had no timeline for the duration of what we’d endure. We set a schedule for opening the refrigerator and planned what we’d take out during our rationed time. We ate the food that would spoil first, along with the milk, saving the packaged items for last.
The wind was so strong it sent the rain into the house through the air vents and windows. It literally was raining sideways, inside of the house. We kept towels rolled along the doors and windows, hoping this was all we would need to keep the house dry. It was hard to decipher day from night, as there was no sense of time. The noises were unbearable. Wind vibrated against tree limbs as they banged into windows. Doors shook as if they were about to explode. Windows bowed in and out, withstanding forces that at any moment could send them shattering. The noise didn’t stop for three straight 24 hour days.
For safety, we all slept in the walk-in closets on the first floor. Each night, I prayed diligently for safety for all of us, for clarity and for peace. Amazingly, the kids and Hershey acted as if none of this was fazing them. They were on an adventure, after all, and it was fun! It was as if my prayers were being answered before I even asked.
On the third day of the storm, all became still. The rain and wind had stopped and the sky was a yellowish orange with shadows of black all around. I had never seen anything like it. There were no birds, no squirrels, no wind, no sounds. The silence was disturbing and surreal.
People started peeking outside and walking around their driveways, not wanting to go too far. We brought camping chairs onto the porch. Neighbors gathered and we decided to grill the meat that we were going to lose from the freezers. We kept close, none of us knowing when the wind and rain might start up again. Kids ran and giggled, playing as if nothing was going on. I felt a sense of freedom from the days of being trapped inside. Hershey never left my side. He was my calming force, gently walking beside me offering wordless reassurance.
What we didn’t know at the time was that we were in the “eye” of the storm. For those of you who don’t know what that means, it’s the calm part of the storm before the worst part happens. The back end of a hurricane can bring even more force than the beginning. Sometimes, it is a blessing to be unaware.
After the cookout, we all separated and went back into our shelters. It was another three days of storm before the rained and wind stopped again. This time, things looked different. The sky was gray and white and there was a slight breeze blowing. Inside, we heard beeps emerging from one of our phones; there were messages waiting for us.
Relief washed over me as I heard voices from friends, family and the neighbors I had been so worried about. I knew where they were and that they were O.K. but they didn’t know where I was. They were worried, I wanted so badly to contact them, but my phone wouldn’t allow me to make calls. We walked outside to see if any of the neighbors had service. Most were like us, receiving stored messages but unable to send any out. One neighbor had a generator that powered a radio. He was able to tell us that the storm had passed and were were in the clear. We survived. Thank God! We still had no power but were were still alive. There were so many emotions and thoughts running through my mind. I just wanted to settle down so I could focus on returning to my home across the city.
We organized the “camping” site and I repacked my car with my belongings. I took some of the water, a few rations of food and my flashlight, phone and half of the batteries. None of us knew how long it would be until power was restored. I said goodbye to the kids and to my new friends. We started as strangers and grew to be family.
Leaving was terrifying. I wanted to stay in the secure nest we had built, yet I needed to find out if my own house still stood. I drove away, looking back only once to see my “family” standing on their porch, waving goodbye.
As I approached the highway, I was met with absolute desolation. Signposts were gone, lights vanished, storefronts demolished. Trees and branches were everywhere, twisted and piled in all directions. All I could see was a long procession of cars inching slowly in cadence down a vast open road.
Tears willed in my eyes and I started to sob uncontrollably. What if I can’t make it home? I made it through the storm surrounded by God’s presence, peace and friends. But now I felt more alone that I’d ever felt in my life.
I actually stopped my car, right there on the highway. There was no one behind me and I didn’t care. I stopped, grabbing the steering wheel while I lowered my heard, resting it on my hands. I prayed again for peace, for safety and for guidance. Again, I felt it immediately. This time, however, was different. It was as if I could see and feel Jesus sitting in the passenger seat beside me. He was smiling, reassuring me that I wasn’t alone and that He would be with me the whole way home.
What should have been a 45-minute drive home took me almost three hours to complete. I have no idea how I had enough gas to make it, bit I wasn’t worried, I knew I was being protected.
As I rounded the corner to my street I saw it: my house, still standing. I didn’t see much damage. It, too, had survived the storm. There is nothing like an act of God (natural disaster) to show us the meaning behind living, sharing, compassion, grace, joy, gratefulness, His power, His protection and His love.
I witnessed this firsthand and in the months to come would be able to testify more confidently to His awesomeness. The devastation of this hurricane lasted for over a year. Some neighborhoods were without power for several months and didn’t receive help for weeks. This was not covered on the news, so most people were unaware that the suffering continued.
In my upcoming blog, you will read what happened next in the recovery stages after the hurricane. This is the best part of my experience. It changed me forever. I ask you to keep those who have been impacted by these storms in your hearts, your prayers, your love and your light.