What is It Like to Have Your Life Displaced by a Hurricane?



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What is it like to have your life turned upside down after a hurricane? What is it like to deal with the aftermath of a storm’s fury? It’s something we’re thinking about now, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, and have thought about before with Sandy, Katrina, Andrew – and the many, many, other storms that have hit this country and this state over the years.

Some of us, especially in Florida, can be a bit blasé about the whole thing. We’ve all been through storms where we lost power or trees because of storms, been kept out of work or school because of storms, or bought supplies and generators and gas in anticipation of a storm. But life goes on. Nothing really changes in any meaningful way.

But let me tell you my own, small scale experience with hurricane devastation. It can take a long – and exhausting- time to get your life back together after a disaster.

During the 2004 hurricane season, I was a junior at Cocoa Beach High School. I was in the International Baccalaureate program, which was only offered in one high school in my 72 mile-long county. This meant that on top of the accelerated coursework, I also had about a two hour daily commute. Becoming homeless was the last thing on my mind.

But that’s what happened to my family when Hurricane Frances hit Florida, right at the start of the school year.

Frances was forecast to be a direct hit on the east coast of Florida, so we evacuated. As the hurricane slowed and stalled and continued dumping buckets of rain on the state, we eventually decided to return home before it was all over.

Slowing making our way back across a sodden state, we had to veer south and go on back roads to avoid closures and continuing fallout from the storm. The anticipation of getting home and safe, as we saw the devastation around us, kept building the entire drive. What we found when we got there was a flooded yard, no electricity, and (most importantly) no roof.

In my neighborhood not everyone’s home was damaged. Some people had no damage, and some was worse than ours; losing not just a roof but an entire floor. (Which just goes to show that not everyone’s hurricane experience is the same.)

Luckily we were able to retreat to my grandmother’s currently unoccupied winter house in a nearby town. There, we rode out the duration of Hurricane Jeanne, which came only a few days Frances’s heels. We never even lost power.

But then comes the long slow work of recovery:

Finding food to eat and water to drink when everyone else is looking for the same.

Standing in line in a Winn-Dixie parking lot receiving shipments straight out of the back of a truck of pallets of bottled water, bags of ice, bars of soap, and MREs. (Oh the MREs…that’s Meals, Ready-to-Eat, a.k.a. Army field rations in case you didn’t know. [They’re self-heating!] When you’re 16 years old and you know which ones are the “good” MREs, you know you’ve been through some stuff.)

Finding a place to live (because you can’t stay at grandma’s indefinitely). Applying for a FEMA trailer, dealing with the logistics of getting that FEMA trailer delivered, set up, and then taken away. We lived in that thing for months. That (generously) 30 foot long trailer.

Gutting the contents of your childhood home. Removing heavy, wet carpets, drywall that’s already gone to mold, most of your furniture, and far too many of your personal possessions. For much of the time, still without power.

Getting up on the second story roof to roll out and nail down sheets of tar paper because it’s impossible to find tarps. (At 16!)

Finding a crew to put a blue roof on the house. (Thank goodness for roving bands of volunteer/mission groups.)

Finding another crew to put a real roof on the house. (Thank goodness for roving bands of roofers from all over North America.)

Yes, there are a surprising number of steps to having a roof replaced in a disaster zone.

Finding another crew to replace the interior. (Thank goodness for friends in construction who can make sure you don’t get stuck with Chinese drywall.)

Dealing with your homeowner’s insurance company to make sure all this gets paid for. (And then, of course, getting dropped.)

All the while dealing with jobs, and school, and all the usual hassles of life. It was well into the next year before we got back into our house. Four or five months of displacement and turmoil from a one week event.

And again, compared to Harvey, Sandy, Katrina, or Andrew, this was small scale disaster and the damage was sporadic. Our entire neighborhood (or city) wasn’t completely underwater. We were safe and had someplace to go. But it was awful and upsetting and has definitely changed the way I think about hurricane season -and how I respond to other people who have suffered personal tragedies.

Don’t forget about Harvey victims. Don’t forget about the importance of FEMA; the importance of relief groups. Help out where you can and celebrate the people who offered up their homes, their businesses, their boats in the service of their neighbors. No matter when you’re reading this, some of these people still no doubt have a long way to go before their lives feel normal again.