I’m sorry for not updating you sooner. I haven’t been able to process all that has happened in the last couple of unrelenting weeks, so bear with me as I pour it all out! A hurricane slammed into our city, going directly over our house and has changed us in unforeseen ways. Every Floridian has a Hurricane Irma story. Here is mine:
Should I stay or should I go now?
The week leading up to the hurricane people in southern Florida were plagued with “do I stay or do I go?” It sounds like a simple decision, but 1) where do you go when a storm as wide as the state keeps changing course?; 2) we didn’t know if we could find gas to get to our destination as demand skyrocketed; 3) not all of us had a destination or could afford it. Hotels were booked past Georgia. Flights were cancelled. The questions we manically tossed around were: How can we make it out? Will our house stand? Am I abandoning this friend or family member?
We all stared at the National Hurricane Center’s flood maps, which predicted a 10 to 15-foot surge following the storm. Are we in it? Do we have flood insurance? As time grew closer to landfall, our lives revolved around three-hour increments: 5 o’clock, 8 o’clock, 11 o’clock, 2 o’clock … This is when the NHC would update their forecast models. It’s going east, wait it is turning back west.
We boarded up our houses. We helped neighbors. We talked to people in our neighborhood we’ve never acknowledged before. The sounds of drills were ongoing as the shutters went up. Friends and family overloaded our cell phones with reminders that a Cat 4 or 5 was headed our way, just in case we might have forgotten. All the bottled water was gone. Gas stations were depleted. And grocery stores emptied as people prepared for the worst.
I personally went back and forth between resting in God’s peace and resorting back into my own panic. I walked around my house and prayed. I walked around my neighborhood and prayed for each house and family. I started off my walk praying for their safety and protection of their homes, but as my walk continued I found myself praying for their salvation and God’s glory throughout this. I prayed this experience might bring some to their knees before the Lord who have never humbled themselves before.
Marcello and I held a prayer meeting for our neighborhood in our front yard. At first it looked as if no one was coming, but then slowly we saw families walking toward our house. Together we prayed for our neighborhood, city and state. It was beautiful. I doubt I would have ever prayed with this group together had it not been for this hurricane.
Our family was planning on staying home during this giant storm, but before landfall the National Hurricane Center had the eye of the storm moving directly over our house. I panicked. I also saw Marcello put a few floaties out in the guest room. That put me over the edge. Did he think the water would come in and our kids would need them? Also, it’s overwhelming to sit in a shuttered-in cave and wait for days. It felt like a bomb shelter.
After a sleepless night, Marcello and I decided to leave last minute. What sentimental things do I take? We ran around, packing our things, tossing everything in the minivan and left 25 minutes later. We were headed to my grandpa’s condo, near Orlando. We did not leave with a full tank of gas, which was a risk. I’m not going to downplay it, Marcello and I were frantic and stressed. The storm followed behind us by less than 24 hours and we felt as if we were running for our lives. We could not be left roadside without gas at this point. There weren’t many people on the road because there was no gas available here.
At a half tank I prayed aloud to Jesus for favor and to help us find gas. I kid you not, less than two minutes later (after driving by a couple dozen of closed stations) we saw a long line outside a tiny, no-name gas station and did a crazy U-turn! It was pre-pay only and Marcello got out of the car and organized the gas line. That’s kind of a jerk move, I thought, but then people yelled “Thank you!” as they pulled away. My hat is off to him, because we got to the pump quicker and filled it to the top! I cried for the first time. From relief. We would be okay.
By the way, every girlfriend I’ve talked to after the storm has told me about that final moment when she broke down, the last straw. We all tried to be brave for our families, but pressure builds after five days of waiting and trying to make life-saving preparations. One day I want to have them all over and go around and tell that one moment. We all have one. Never mind, that sounds like a terrible party! We’ll skip that one.
In the eye of the storm, You remain in control.
For those who stayed on the southwest coast and weathered the 140 mph winds, it was “terrifying.” Windows bowed, water squeezed its way in sliding doors, trees snapped, structures buckled, cars and houses flooded and an eerie howling sound erupted as the back wall approached before the eye. “The whole house shook and that wall shifted,” my neighbor said, pointing to a wall in his living room. “You made the right decision to go,” he told me solemnly.
Then the eye came. It went right over our house. It was calm. The hours of ravaging winds stopped for a half hour or so. But our friends knew this was only half time. The second half was coming with — what all the meteorologists told us — a 10 to 15-foot water surge. Most of them had no power, internet or cell service. As the winds started picking back up, they waited in their uninformed dark closets, wondering if the water would come in. It didn’t.
That monster forecasted surge didn’t come. Why? The New York Times said, “That bit of good fortune was the product of some meteorological luck.” The storm veered last minute and the eye began to crumble, avoiding catastrophic flooding.
Here me when I say this had nothing to do with luck. This was the hand of God, who is always in control. He answered our prayers during this storm. There is massive damage, but it is not the devastation that could have been. And if that comment has you wondering why he allows these things at all, it’s because we don’t live in heaven yet. This is a broken world that doesn’t work the way it was meant to. His reasons are his and too numerous to count, but sometimes they are:
- to shake life as we know it so we will come to him
- to bring change
- to teach us we are not in control like we think
- to show the Lord’s sovereignty
- to teach us we can take refuge in him
- so we will begin or deepen our relationship with him
- to teach us thankfulness and show us our blessings
These natural events are predicted in the Bible to only get worse in the end of days. You can read about it in Matthew 24. All the recent storms and earthquakes have my antenna up. But we can rejoice in the fact that the Father is in control. He is loving and good, no matter how you perceive things in the moment of crisis.
When we were inviting people to our front lawn prayer meeting, I was surprised by some of the responses. Most were happy, but a few people — though polite — clearly did not think it would help. “What will happen will happen,” one neighbor told me as he stood there with a cross around his neck. But it’s not true. It matters if we cry out to him. It matters if we acknowledge him. Read this:
1 Those who live in the shelter of the Most High
will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
2 This I declare about the Lord:
He alone is my refuge, my place of safety;
he is my God, and I trust him.
3 For he will rescue you from every trap
and protect you from deadly disease.
4 He will cover you with his feathers.
He will shelter you with his wings.
His faithful promises are your armor and protection.
5 Do not be afraid of the terrors of the night,
nor the arrow that flies in the day.
6 Do not dread the disease that stalks in darkness,
nor the disaster that strikes at midday.
7 Though a thousand fall at your side,
though ten thousand are dying around you,
these evils will not touch you.
8 Just open your eyes,
and see how the wicked are punished.
9 If you make the Lord your refuge,
if you make the Most High your shelter,
10 no evil will conquer you;
no plague will come near your home.
11 For he will order his angels
to protect you wherever you go.
12 They will hold you up with their hands
so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone.
13 You will trample upon lions and cobras;
you will crush fierce lions and serpents under your feet!
14 The Lord says, “I will rescue those who love me.
I will protect those who trust in my name.
15 When they call on me, I will answer;
I will be with them in trouble.
I will rescue and honor them.
16 I will reward them with a long life
and give them my salvation.”
Psalm 91 brings peace and comfort during trials like this. Wouldn’t it be amazing to memorize the whole thing? He says he will cover us with his feathers and shelter us under his wing!
And then it was our turn.
Marcello and I were glued to the news that night, watching for the flooding, waiting to hear from friends. When the stormed had moved on from our hometown and mostly good news started to emerge, we relaxed a little — only to remember that we were still in Florida too, and we were up next!
As Marcello pulled in things from the small lanai, I saw a creepy green-blue flash in the distance. It was a transformer blowing right off the bat and the electricity went out. We only got the outermost bands on the other coast and half the wind force (70 mph), but it was enough to whip against us all night, knock down power poles, trees and leave most without power. In fact, there was a power pole down in front of the condominium entrance where we were staying, blocking us in without power.
We had no power for our two nights in the small condo and no way out. I quickly learned that the only way to make the situation bearable was to have a good attitude. Marcello and I made an unspoken decision not to complain and to try to have a sense of humor with our three wild kids in the midst of an older community. Not easy, not easy. But it made a big difference in our experience.
The nights were hot and made it hard to sleep. It’s amazing how quickly you miss cold things, hot food and coffee! Some people are still without power and struggling in this 90 degree weather.
Let’s go home.
When we heard it was safe to come back home, we left the next morning. This time we had back up gas, but God took it one step further. I ran back in the condo because I forgot the kids’ DVDs. When I got back in the minivan I tossed them in the center console and the corner of one hit the economy gas button. Oh yeah! I had forgotten all about that feature. Seeing God in the details makes life beautiful. There is no such thing as a coincidence.
I noticed a dramatic difference in damage as we drove farther south. We drove alongside a military caravan coming into town. Everything that was once lush and green looked brown, battered and worn. Huge trees were down. Sides of gas stations were ripped off. Some houses were visibly flooded. The sound of generators and chainsaws going through downed trees replaced the sound of drills putting shutters up.
Our house was fine. There was some debris and pool cage screens missing, but that was all. We still had power and wifi even though many of our neighbors and most of the city did not. I don’t know why we were untouched, but I knew this was a call from God to help others. In this situation, he shielded us from distraction and financial strain so we could share his love with people who need it. And we are delightfully burdened to do so.
The week after Irmageddon felt apocalyptic. About 65 percent of Florida was without power. Gas station lines were 2 hours long. Tankers came down the interstate with a police escort and often police monitored gas lines to prevent fights. Most of the grocery stores were about a quarter stocked and without full power.
There was a curfew at 9 p.m. to prevent looting and make sure intersections without power were safe in the dark. Cell service was spotty. Most could only sent texts, but not make phone calls. I couldn’t send group texts or pictures for days afterward. It made it frustrating to those who were worried about loved ones and getting news if it was safe to go home. At this point we didn’t even know what day it was.
We are still on a boil-water notice for bacteria because flood waters may have contaminated the water supply. We are also on restricted water usage because not all the lifts for the sewers have power. Raw sewage is backing up onto streets and possibly into homes. Things are literally starting to stink.
We are not supposed to use “dishwashers, clothes washers, or otherwise putting water into the sewer system,” the county says. The many floodwaters that still stand may not be safe and pose a health risk.
And school has been cancelled indefinitely. Just kidding, so far it’s cancelled for two and half weeks, but it seems like forever! We have all spent a lot of time together. Normally family time is a good thing, but this was stressed family time. Loss of money and worry zapped for most people what would have normally been a fun time together.
Families spent unplanned money on travel and hotels in order to evacuate. Many have come home to find they will be out of work until power, water and other circumstances change. This is on top of damage to their homes and property they need to pay. This storm has cost everyone money.
The intensity of lack of gas and food has brought out the best and worst in people, but mostly the best.
Thank you to our neighbors, Jim and Anita, who gave us some of their own gas to leave. Thank you to the people who opened up their homes. Thank you to people who prayed for Florida. Thank you to the people who kept their gas station open. Thank you to the truck drivers delivering gas. Thank you to the men who came from across the nation and Canada to work on power lines. Thank you to the men who worked 16-hour days and slept in their trucks. Thank you to everyone who has gone above and beyond to help people you may or may not know. May Heaven bless you!
How can I help?
Seeing that my house is essentially unscathed has me open, willing and ready to hear God’s call for how I can serve. But I have three little kids! I can’t serve food or stack boxes, I have to watch them. That is no matter for God. He has already given me missions I have been doing from home — connecting people, collecting donations, running to Costco and dropoffs.
I also realized that sometimes helping after a natural disaster doesn’t look like organized outreach, sometimes it means reaching out to the person right in front of you. Marcello and I helped an elderly man at the condo. He felt abandoned by his family and his cell phone was dead. When we went in to his powerless condo to give him food, his windows weren’t all the way open and he had one flashlight. We were able to give him a lantern, food, money and call his son on my phone. I know that our love meant more to him than any of that. I sadly feel this is a common story of the elderly.
We went into a restaurant to escape the heat and maybe have a drink with ice in it. Our waitress was visibly frazzled and when asked she said her roof had leaks, was missing shingles and she is a widow. I asked her name and told her I would pray for her. It meant something to her that someone cared. We also left her an unexpected tip with our emergency cash stash.
We can make hot coffee and boil water for our neighbors who don’t have electricity. We can open our home, offer our extra bedroom, let people sit in the AC and use wifi. We can offer our weird snacks and canned food dinners! Haha. There are actually a lot of things I can do with three kids and teach them to serve others in the process.
He doesn’t need me for his plan, but he sure does love to involve me. And you too.
Texas and Florida are fading from national news, but don’t forget us! The storms are over, but the aftermath is far from over.
If you want to help Florida, here are just a few groups I’ve seen in action here:
- Red Cross
- Habitat for Humanity
- Amigos Center: If you want to get super local and pour directly into a low-income community in desperate need, donate to Immokalee. I have two close friends who have worked for this church and they are extremely respected and well-established in the community. “We’re in it for the long haul,” the social service director told me.
Are you a Floridian? What is your story?