Like most of you in Southwest Georgia and Northwest Florida, I still deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. Our community is slowly recovering from what seemed to be insurmountable odds last October. We are still trying to find that new normal that everyone talks about, but at the same time things for our city and county are better, much better.
For me personally, I reached a cathartic milestone last week. Eleven months after the storm, we moved back into our lake house at Compass Lake, Florida.
Our family has had a place at Compass Lake since before World War I. I had two sets of great-grandparents that built cottages on the spring fed lake. My own grandmother grew up as a child there, as did my mother, my siblings, my children and now my grandchildren.
Compass Lake is not a cabin. It is not a pretty spot with a nice view. It is not a place to ski, make homemade ice cream or snooze in a hammock. It is all that and more. It is where multiple generations have learned from their grandparents and taught their own children about life and family.
My brother and I had a total of 47 separate insurance claims due to Hurricane Michael. We had 30 restaurants closed at one time. Ernest had three enormous pines crash into his house. I had 40 trees topple into my yard. It was the perfect storm that managed to spread out to everywhere our company had a restaurant.
As I traveled back from Washington, D.C. where we were caught during the storm, I was obviously concerned about our home, our business, our employees and all the things that had happened to our community.
It was not until I saw the devastation at Compass Lake several days later that I allowed the emotion of the devastation to grab ahold of me. It ripped my heart out in ways I could not understand. As the final steward of this long family legacy, I somehow felt I had let everyone down.
Our massive dock, the location of so many generational discussions, was gone. Disappeared. The boat house was destroyed. The boat and jet-ski were crushed beyond recognition.
The magnificent live oak trees were mangled but the wonderful cypress trees along the shore stood tall, giving a testament as to why their particular design by Mother Nature made them so resilient.
Our first decision was to rebuild rather than tear down the house. Time will tell if that was a smart move, but the concrete block walls were sturdy and sound. We gutted the house down to the block.
In its place came new wiring, plumbing, sheetrock, LED lighting. Everything was designed to code, a first to any house we have owned at the lake in the past 106 years.
I drove the 60 miles to Compass Lake every single week in the past eleven months. Doing so was an emotional challenge. I had to pass through Marianna, Florida which was crushed by the storm. I would try different routes to try to minimize the depressing views, but each new direction was worse than the previous way. My heart still aches for that community, as it does for our own.
Ever so slowly, the transformation began. New siding, roof, deck, flooring, lighting, appliances, windows, and on and on. As we progressed I began to believe we made the right decision. It is a modern version of an old cabin. Michael did not rob us of our treasured lake house, it only made it better.
This week, we will finalize the plans on what will hopefully be an improved dock, designed to foster even better conversations between generations yet to come.
I remember asking my parents if we could go to the lake to see our grandparents. I expect my own mother did the same thing since at the age of 87 she will tell you that Compass Lake is her favorite place in the whole world.
But the words that make my heart sing are when I hear my own grandchildren ask to come to the lake. It is when I hear them cry when it is time to leave. It is the joy in hearing them arrive and the nap on the hammock when they finally depart.
I have written many times about Compass Lake, but it took almost losing it for me to truly understand all that it means to me. Family. Past. Present. Future.
Dan Ponder can be reached at [email protected]