Panhandling: The Beaten Path
It’s never good to be wrong, especially when it comes to a hurricane
My sister Gina and I loaded up the car with presents and a homemade pound cake for a Sunday day trip to Lake City. We were going there to celebrate the 96th birthday of Mazelle, the saint who raised us. There was no way she was having a birthday without the two of us worming our way in. After all, she awaited us when we arrived home from the hospital as newborns. She also helped with our babies. Truth be told, she’s still working on all of us—even decades later. Bless her heart.
When we were growing up, my parents gave Mazelle free reign to discipline my sisters and me. And she did. She used a wet cloth to swat our legs and fannies if we sassed, fought or tattled. Deborah, the oldest, was bad and got the swats. “You were always the sweetest, Prissy,” she tells me often.
We pulled onto I-10 heading east for the 100-mile drive from Tallahassee. I turned on the radio and got comfortable as Gina drove my car. Unlike me, she enjoys driving on interstates.
“I’m driving, Miss Prissy, now turn on that weather station,” she said.
I should tell you: my sisters are weather nerds. Both can tell you when thunder and lightning are coming to town before the clouds even know it. And if that isn’t enough, we have first responders in our tribe, too. The band radios are always screeching weather, wrecks and havoc. “I’m not listening to weather,” I said.
“There’s a huge storm coming. Don’t you even watch the news?”
“Stop watching that stuff. Nothing’s coming.” I swatted her hand as she reached for my radio buttons. “I’ve been through two hurricanes in two years. There’s no way another one would come.”
That was my first mistake. Running my mouth saying that.
“I’m telling you, it’s coming,” she scolded.
My late husband worried about everything. But the weather was his most popular theme. More than once, he pulled me off a plane when he spied black clouds before takeoff.
After he died, I decided worrying contributed to his death. There is no scientific basis for my theory. But in the aftermath of his death, I seldom watch the weather or the news. It’s far too depressing for an optimistic person to listen to people talk doom and gloom. Besides, I stay plenty informed from my nervous kinfolk.
We arrived and found Mazelle sitting on the front porch reading her Bible. After a kiss and hug, Gina rushed to find the television and check the weather.
“Ridiculous,” I tell Mazelle.
“Six stations—that’s all you get. Where’s the weather station?” Gina was back out on the porch with a frown crowding her forehead.
“Why do I need more than that?” Mazelle asked.
“Exactly.” I patted her knee. “Gina, forget about it,” I said. That was my second big-mouth mistake.
We enjoyed our day sharing tales with all her family: daughter, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren and great-great-great-grandchild. It was an afternoon of greatness.
Five hours later, we were on the road heading west. By the time we arrived in Tallahassee, everything had changed. Hurricane Michael looked like a dangerous boyfriend with no restraining order. This optimist gal took notice as an eerie feeling took hold. The Weather Channel became my guiding light.
I reflected on Hurricane Kate, which hit in 1985. It left our family without power and water for weeks. Hurricane Dennis was another. It wreaked havoc on our lives and our property on St. George Island. Hermine came aboard in 2016. It littered our town with downed trees and power lines. Only then we had a sound house with concrete walls and a generator. We invited family and friends to stay with us, and they did. For days. It was like one big hurricane party.
Then Irma came in 2017. My second husband and I were in Jacksonville, where he was undergoing a complicated back surgery. The worst possible time to be operating. But who knew? Irma did, that’s who. She started moving towards Jacksonville as my husband lay on the table.
Everything went downhill from there. He had a dural puncture during the six-hour surgery. After that, he had to lie flat on his back for the next 24 hours without moving. I heard rumors of evacuation but ignored them and listened to headphones, meditating. I know. La la land. That’s me.
Irma cared little about what I was going through. Thirty hours after his surgery, we were evacuated from the hospital. His catheter was taken out 30 minutes before we slammed our car doors to flee, with me behind the wheel.
Not only the hospital but also the Hyatt Hotel where I was staying was evacuated. His scheduled hospital stay was nay. We fled back to Tallahassee as fast as my sporty car could go: 20 miles per hour. The interstate was a noodle nest, the highway from hell and on the road to hell. We didn’t know until it was too late. A 2.5-hour trip took 7.5 hours. My patient held his barf bag the entire trip. I came unglued.
I pondered that event as we watched Michael gaining momentum. It had become a Category 3 storm by the time I believed it was really coming. I flashed back to Hurricane Katrina crashing into New Orleans in 2005. It destroyed my grandparents’ house with my 82-year-old uncle inside. When the levee was breached, the water rushed in, filling the house in seconds. The floating television slammed his stomach, but he still managed to pull himself inside the attic with one bottle of water and a carton of Camel cigarettes. It was four days before he was rescued by a search boat. And that happened only after he kicked out the gable vent and someone saw his foot. Later, he was interviewed by a CNN crew member.
“How’d you fare in that hot attic all those days?” the interviewer asked, with his microphone shoved against Uncle Charles’s mouth.
“Well, it was bad, but got a lot worse when I was down to my last cigarette.”
Could Michael be another Katrina? I wondered, then worried.
Michael felt different to me, and I always follow my instincts. I knew we should be leaving town but didn’t want to leave without family. They all live in Tallahassee.
I started packing and stopped to call my daughters.
“We need to get out of here,” I said.
They insisted on staying and cranking up the generators. I hung up and was weighing options when the phone rang.
“Come to the DoubleTree—they have generators.” It was Gayle, my best friend. Everyone needs a Gayle in life. She and her husband Spider had booked rooms for three nights. I called the hotel and booked a room. I called my girls and begged them to come with us. No luck. Husbands!
We were living adrift in a rental house with no generator for the first time in years. Closing on our purchased house happened to be not happening the week Michael was coming to town.
Gina called first thing Monday morning. “I told you—didn’t I?” I could feel her smile through the phone. Both my sisters love to be right.
Come on, Prissy. She was right. She told you. Now she’s the one with the generator. Not you. No sir. Get your head out of the blue sky and look at the clouds occasionally.
Monday night, I broke out in shingles. Then it was Tuesday, only two days after our Lake City visit, and so much was happening. We were on the run and pulled out of our driveway. As my second husband drove to the DoubleTree, I counted the gorgeous, moss-draped live oak trees dotting both sides of Thomasville Road. They numbered in the hundreds. I shuddered with fear.
I was checking in at the registry as my husband unloaded the car. “I’m so thankful you had a room left. And you have the generators, thank heavens,” I said to the girl with two dimples working the desk.
“Generators? No, we don’t have those,” she said. “But we haven’t lost power.”
Her calm voice mattered little to me. A fresh shingle erupted on my waist within seconds.
Both my girls lost power hours after we checked in. One lost water, too. But, as life has it, there were no more rooms at the inn by then. Especially for nine folks with three dogs.
My husband and I stayed on the 12th floor of the DoubleTree for three days. When the worst of the storm passed through Tallahassee, I never knew. I was asleep with black-out drapes hung and my sound machine set to play white noise. The aftermath was my reality.
The hotel was filled with news teams from CBS, NBC and the Weather Channel. They were like hungry dogs waiting for a treat. Only later would they discover the treat wasn’t in Tallahassee but further west. They had followed the wrong scent and were still hungry for feed.
I eavesdropped as they talked on cell phones, trying to escape: Mexico Beach, Panama City … anywhere west of Tallahassee. Our news was gusty winds, downed trees and power loss. It was lame for them, though not for us.
After four days with no power, albeit lucky to have our homes and lives still intact, we fled Tallahassee for Jacksonville Beach. We were a party of 11, with three dogs. We stayed until we couldn’t be gone any longer. We needed to come back to clean up our mess: yards, freezers, refrigerators and more. We knew we were lucky compared to our friends to the west, but by then we were out of clothes, hope and energy.
As we traveled back to Tallahassee I witnessed the power of people helping people. It came in the form of, well … power trucks. They streamed down the interstate from all over the country to assist Panhandle victims. The sighting validated a truth—joy and sadness can share the same heartbeat.
The Florida Panhandle suffered catastrophic damage. I don’t need to quote statistics. Everyone around the world has seen, read and heard. The footage of Mexico Beach and Panama City is heart-wrenching. But I have also witnessed such benevolence, love and profound empathy bestowed by strangers to those who have lost everything.
There is no division in class, politics or color when despair is slammed on the innocent. We are called to give to those in need because we can, we should and we must. They need everything, so nothing is too small.
As I write this story, I am humbled by the goodness of so many. The temperatures are still record-high 90s daily. Many of my friends remain without power in this beautiful tree-lined city. But we are the lucky ones.
Line crews are working sunup to sundown. Tallahassee isn’t big news because it shouldn’t be. Smaller communities affected so viciously have become big news: Bristol, Blountstown and Quincy to name a few. So should our farmers who lost crops, machinery, homes and livelihood. They are big news.
Patience. Strength. Dedication. Funding. Personnel. Time. These are things that will resurrect the Florida Panhandle and bring it back to its majestic magnificence.
A tent city has been erected at the Tallahassee International Airport and will house close to a thousand soldiers from the National Guard, FEMA and other recovery agencies. They will be working tirelessly on the rebuild.
As it happened, Hurricane Irma drove us from Jacksonville to Tallahassee, then one year later Hurricane Michael drove us from Tallahassee to Jacksonville. That irony should be funny. Except it isn’t.
What happened to innocent beings after Hurricane Michael is unfathomable. There but by the grace of God go I. Rather, we.
I’ve learned my lesson. The saying “hope for the best but expect the worst” is my new mantra. Trust me, it beats hearing “I told you so” one more time.