The aftermath of a hurricane is no place for a grandma — even if Jean Carter has lived through four of these terrifying storms.
The most recent one was Hurricane Michael, which happened while she was in Chipley, Florida visiting her daughter Lynn Jackson last October. The town sits about 45 miles north of Panama City, and about that same distance from the devastated Mexico Beach.
When they heard the storm was coming, Carter’s family prepared for two or three days, filling a tub with water, making ice and stocking up on a few supplies. They had lived through hurricanes before and figured they knew what challenges lay before them, and how to handle them.
Then Michael hit, Oct. 11. National attention soon turned to the destruction levied by the gigantic storm. It has been called the worst hurricane to hit the panhandle of Florida and the third worst in U.S. history.
“Five miles from where I was, was totally destroyed,” said Carter. In her daughter’s neighborhood, five trees fell next to Jackson’s home and a chicken coop imploded. One neighbor lost a shed, another part of a roof and two neighbors lost their homes entirely.
“It was a mess, a total mess, but we lived through it,” she said. She credits her son-in-law’s decision to open the front and back doors to help equalize the pressure from the storm so it wouldn’t blow the house apart.
“We listened to the terrific wind and seeing things crash down around us, then all of the sudden it quieted down for 15 minutes.” The eye of the storm had just passed over them.
“Then the wind howled twice as bad,” said Carter. For about six hours she and her daughter’s family huddled, praying, in a dining room in the center of the home, away from windows and doors.
When the storm finally passed, the damage between Chipley and Atlanta, Georgia, was terrible, said Carter. There was no way out. Trees across the roads made driving impossible for a couple of days, and there was no power, no cellphone service. When the roads were opened enough for traffic to arrive, Carter’s son arrived from a neighboring town with a generator so the family could have warm water.
They didn’t expect the power to be restored for two weeks. It actually took just a few days. But even today, five months later, there are still people without cellphone service. Still, a lot of debris and destruction can be found along the road in Jackson’s neighborhood.
The community’s residents “still haven’t recovered. But as far as living and going back to life, everybody is back to everyday routine,” she said.
“Southern Alabama and northern Florida were so wiped out that it is going to be a long time before everything is back where it should be. It’s the same with all the floods and fires, and everything that’s going on (around the country),” she said.
Carter said the experience taught her the importance of cash in a credit/debit card-centered economy. “If you don’t have cash you can’t do anything. With all the power out, nothing is working,” she said.
The airport in Panama City, where Carter was to catch a flight home on Oct. 19, was shut down. Her kids found a flight out of Atlanta, Georgia, on Oct. 15, to get her home and out of the disaster.
“The captain and the stewardesses just went out of their way to help me. I must have looked like a dying old rat,” she said. “I was so tired and bedraggled. I hadn’t showered or eaten much for four days,” she said.
Carter said she was hugely impressed with the service she saw in the storm’s aftermath.
The first time she experienced a hurricane was over half a century ago, when she was 17 years old, and living in Homestead, Florida.
Carter was single, having just moved from California, and living with a roommate in a duplex.
“Hurricane Donna came in during the late evening. Homestead Air Force Base had flown all their aircraft out, and the base had locked down. ...Our landlord came over and told us we had to hold the window awning tight so it wouldn’t blow away.
“Well, what do two teenage girls know? I didn’t even know what a hurricane was. But there we were, in a storm with 165 mph winds and 185 mph gusts holding a stupid window awning. We watched a golf cart being picked up and sent across the parking lot.
“A police patrol stopped and sent us inside. Talk about a problem for the landlord. He got in trouble, and Carol and I had to move.”
Two years later, Carter was living in Orlando, FL, with a co-worker in an apartment over a garage. Hurricane Cleo had winds of 130 MPH.
“I told Judy (my roommate) that I wanted to walk in the storm. I didn’t get very far before the police patrol stopped me. I got in trouble for being out in the storm. While I was out, a tree landed on our roof, came through the bathroom ceiling and took out the hot water heater, and knocked the foundation off 1/4 of an inch.
“The third one was in 1975. I was living in Westville, FL,. which is only 30 miles west of where Michael hit this past October. My husband put me and our five children in the car to go to his brother’s house, where we would be safe. He lived in a wooded area in the country. Well, that one was scary.
“Jack’s house had a lot of damage. All we could do was sit in the middle of the house and wait it out. A huge pecan tree fell into his living room, knocking out his fireplace; another pecan tree took out the side of his wrap-around porch, and the China Berry tree took out his wall of kitchen windows (four in all). After it was over, we had to drive through a field to get to the highway, and use a chain saw frequently to cut-up trees that had fallen. I think that was the most frightening one of the four.
Carter said despite the tragedy a hurricane brings with it, it also brings the best of people.
“People are amazing. The morning after the storm (Michael), with all the damage, with no power, no lights, no telephone, major damage ... tree limbs, power lines and debris everywhere, neighbors were out checking on neighbors.
“We should be grateful for volunteers. They put their life on the line to help — and there was such a quick response. The volunteers, the community — they all come together.
From pouring a cup of coffee to putting a roof on the home of an elderly man, Carter said there were “no questions are asked. They just say ‘We’re here, what can we do?’”
Carter said she has seen the same kind of kindness shown here at home.
“The people that come together in this community are amazing. I am truly humbled at the way people come together to do what needs to be done. It has really changed my thinking on the way things are done,” she said. “People need to know that community makes the difference.”