The calls started a couple of weeks ago. Most were from television stations and newspapers in large metro areas close enough to remember the storm of a lifetime that hit the Florida panhandle before moving into Georgia.
Their question was all the same. They wanted to ask how our community was doing a year after Hurricane Michael. It is a natural, almost required inquiry of any regional journalistic source. They want a snippet of life and recovery a year later.
It is a fair question though hard for many to truly understand unless they have some connection to the area. You had to be here to appreciate the devastation at the time. The long, hard story of this year of recovery is one of pride and pain, success and sorrow, sometimes moving forward and backward at the same time.
As Mayor of Donalsonville, I look back on this time and it seems like years since the Category 3 storm came roaring over Lake Seminole. Patience was the first advice I received from the FEMA operatives that arrived just days after October 10th. I have never received any better advice as recovery from a natural disaster of any kind is a slow, plodding process.
How have we done in the past year? Have we fully recovered? Will we ever recover? Depending on who you talk to the answer is both yes and no.
The city is just finishing up on the collection, removal and disposal of the enormous amounts of debris left in the aftermath of the 150+ mph winds. The county and city disposed of over a million cubic yards of vegetative debris and that does not count the rubble from the buildings.
The large scale effort organized by FEMA and GEMA and carried out by the Army Corps of Engineers was nothing short of heroic. There were other heroes like the linemen that restored power. The volunteers that fed the hungry and sheltered friends and strangers alike. The first responders that worked for days with little sleep or relief. The list of champions, both local and unknown, that rose to the occasion is long. We can never repay those that responded in so many ways.
The FEMA response to the individuals impacted by the storm is less stellar. So many people still live in homes that have not been repaired. Scores of homes were destroyed, with little or no insurance to cover the damage. Much of the funding to cover the obvious needs of families and individuals remains tied up in governmental red tape.
Over 250 roofs in the county still have blue tarps keeping out the elements. A local effort is slowly working to replace these tarps one at a time. Unfortunately, that effort does not begin to repair the damage that might exist inside the home from water, mold and exposure. One step at a time.
Progress is being made. Blue tarps are being replaced. Lawns are being restored. Every road is open and power goes to every home and business in a place where none existed a year ago. Businesses that were hit the hardest are gradually reopening, one gas station, restaurant and motel at a time.
In some ways it is like seeing a friend that has been in a bad accident. You rejoice in seeing them walk again, but the scars of their trauma are visible even as the improvement is obvious.
Donalsonville is not the same. We are embracing a new normal that we are only now fully beginning to understand. As a community we were bruised, but not broken. We have worked hard to make the amazing recovery that has occurred in the past year. Make no mistake about it, the distance we have come in the past year seemed impossible in the immediate aftermath of Michael.
There are new leaders that walk among us, quietly helping those still in need. There are friends and strangers among us that still struggle mightily, often in silence. Their pride often hides their despair. We must carefully seek them out realizing that the effects of the storm still linger with many whether it is mentally, emotionally, physically or financially. Sometimes it is all of the above.
Donalsonville is moving forward, walking before it can run again. The sounds of hammers and saws are still heard everywhere you go. Our county is enjoying its first harvest since last year’s disruption.
When I look back on the past year, I feel proud of our journey back. I am humbled by the selfless work of so many. I am encouraged by the tenacity and determination of those literally knocked down by this monster and now standing again. I am hopeful that the future will bring us renewed prosperity and a measure of peace.
Our road is long but we have come quite a distance in the past year. I believe we will eventually be back better and stronger than ever. As I have learned over and over this past year, all it takes is prayer, persistence and a lot of patience.
Dan Ponder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org