by Ellen Livingston
I met a real monster, face to face. Hurricane Ian’s north eye-wall raged over my little home for nearly an unbearable seven hours. With sustained wind speeds in our community clocked at 176mph, gusts at 208mph, and multiple tornadoes, this monster was not kidding around. People under Ian’s south eye-wall were deluged with at least a 12-foot high surge of sea-water rushing onshore with radically destructive force. And all of us were flooded with unimaginable amounts of torrential rain. A month later, the wake of all this bigger-than-life wind and water power is still incredible, unbelievable, and devastating. Life is different around here now.
After an anxious week of storm preparation and guesswork, deciding whether to stay or when to go turned out to be a really tough process for most of us! Ian’s swath was huge, and its path was unpredictable nearly until landfall. I found out that most humans do not abandon their homes and belongings easily, especially when those very things are being threatened and might need our quick attention. Many who waited to evacuate endured harrowing middle-of-the-night journeys to unknown destinations through quickly worsening conditions. And many could not return easily to mend their homes due to roads rendered impassable by the storm. Those of us who chose to stay (often by default) met the relentless fury of Ian head-on. Early on, hours before the intensity really picked up, a tree fell VERY LOUDLY on the edge of our roof when we were standing right under that section, and as I jumped and ran from the room I heard myself shout, “This is why I wanted to evacuate!!” My nerves badly jangled by that beginning, I spent most of the storm hunkered down in the ‘safe zone’ in the center of our small-house-surrounded-by-very-big-trees.
I could feel the gusts before they hit, and with the horrific rush of each one, I would cross my arms over my head and moan out loud, praying for the trees that were falling all around us not to hit the house, with me inside. At one point, my partner found me rocking rhythmically back and forth with my knees tucked up under my chin, engrossed in sending text communication to frantically worried family members far away and checking in with fellow storm-facers in my community. Then suddenly we lost cell tower connection (electricity and internet were long gone already). That was 3 pm, and we had no further communication with the outer world until the next morning, and some people for much longer. It was still daytime, but you wouldn’t know it, and the next hours were extra edgy, knowing we could no longer reach out. Like all the talking heads, including our good governor, had warned us: “If you choose to stay, you will be on your own.” It was a profound invitation to laser-focus inward and to connect with a higher power.
The day after this monster storm is the other day I will never forget. That morning people everywhere were like zombies crawling out from under rocks, unable to process our exhaustion or the extent of the destruction around us, but simply giving little nods and grunts of “you okay?” to fellow survivors (ever since Ian, there are no strangers here). Like a miracle, the air was cool, crisp, and so fresh, and the sun emerged slowly as the clouds dissipated and revealed a brilliant clear blue sky. It stayed this way for two blessed weeks, a welcome helping hand from above aiding in the urgent restoration work (and for the fact that no one had power for air conditioning or water to shower with!). Quick smiles and hugs tentatively returned. All available energy was suddenly directed toward the monumental and urgent task at hand: get all people accounted for and safe and all danger zones stabilized. It was good to have a clear purpose with which to mobilize in our daze. I watched this entire community turn into an incredibly busy beehive, bodies running on sheer adrenaline, and acts of compassion and kindness overflowing with a more beautiful power than that cruel monster storm.
I realized with a new layer of urgency that I needed to reach my friend Helen, my one close community member whose home is too far to walk to. We had been cut off from each other shortly after she had texted that a tree had demolished a portion of her house, water was flooding in, and it was too dangerous to run to the neighbor’s house through the storm. She is 76 years old and stayed to face the storm alone in her home. People here are like that. Helen was just a little further south, in an area where we knew the damage would be even worse. My efforts to get an emergency team to check on her all failed, and finally, on day three, with no word from her (all cell towers out in her area), my partner and I decided to take a chance on driving down there ourselves. We were able to get there, and we found her alone in her house, sweeping up the ceilings from the floor into a great pile of rubble, fences, sheds, trees, and roofs scattered all about…and she was very glad to see us!
Our little town is now plastered with blue roof-tarps and covered in unfathomable heaps of debris of all kinds. Endlessly noisy chainsaws and clean-up trucks are embraced as heroic rescue tools in our recovery process. Even once-annoying generators are readily tolerated out of compassion for those who are still without power. Every day I hear another amazing or miraculous story or see yet another incredible sight. It’s odd to be in conversations where catastrophic damage to homes is almost handily dismissed with comments like, “well, it could have been worse!” Our bar for what matters has at least temporarily made a radical shift.
I know that I have passed a true test of my own courage and resilience, and also gained wisdom from a grand opportunity to face BIG fear and find ways to navigate it. I hope I haven’t scared anyone away from coming down for a warm winter retreat! We lost a lot of beautiful trees, but our Living Heart Sanctuary was protected from any significant damage. I sat up on the roof the day before the great storm and spoke with my friends the tall pine trees surrounding our home, telling them how much I trusted them to do their very best, and humbly asking if they might miss our buildings if they just couldn’t hold on. It must have helped! By December, we’ll be in good shape to welcome guests. There will still be evidence of ongoing restoration efforts in this special little town, but our friendly community and beautiful beaches will welcome you as always. Life goes on.