I had anxious anticipations heading into the weekend, but for different reasons than those which gradually arose mid-week. I was supposed to travel to Tallahassee with the high-school cross-country team that I coach, to attend the annual FSU invite (one of my absolute favorite races by far.) I was extremely excited to return to my home turf, reminisce in the heart of Nole nation, see my girls race on my favorite cross country-course in the state, and bunk with my little brother. Yet after some scary news about a category 4 hurricane creeping along Florida’s east coast, my plans for an exhilarating weekend quickly changed–though the anxious anticipation and exhilaration remained.
It was an extremely difficult decision to not travel to Tallahassee with my team. I hated the fact that I wouldn’t be there to see my runners break personal records on the beautiful intricately-designed cross-country course which sported the logo of my alma mater. But deep inside something was pulling me to stay put…I simply couldn’t just leave my family behind knowing a monster was about to reek havoc. Yes, I would have been safe in my little college town, but the thought of being separated from loved ones amidst the turmoil, and watching the news from a distance seemed worst than the alternative. So, without knowing what exactly to expect, I began preparing myself for the utmost worst. Hurricane Matthew was well on his way, and my precious city was lying in its menacing path.
After I received a peace of mind about my decision to wait out the storm with my family, the next step was deciding where we were going to “hunker down.” We received many phone calls from concerned family and friends, offering up their homes in outside cities and states to accommodate our safety. As the bulk of Jacksonville watched and waited, our timeline for escape continued to shrink by the minute. Within the chaos of last minute Publix raids, and frantic news castors screaming about “catastrophic” and “life-threatening” conditions, the westbound interstate was already flooding with cars. Not quite sure about our destination, I attempted to pack up all of my most valued belongings, planning as if this was a moment of no return. I suddenly realized the effect that such a wonderful childhood had on me and my already-shaken emotions; things which had held a special place on my bookshelf and in my heart since I was merely two years old; childhood books, cherished photos, hand-stitched emblems and a drawer full of my personal journals. All these things which represented so many memories in this cozy little house and beyond; things which I hoped of bringing into my own home someday; things which cannot be replaced. I realized how truly sentimental materialistic things can be, as I attempted to save these precious gems. These were pieces of the past that I held so dear, yet even still, I recognized my own shameful attachment to tangible things. The memories are, and always will be, safe within my heart. I had my family beside me and God inside me, and that was all I really needed.
Despite this minor revelation during my ambition to literally pack up my life, I still managed to haul along as many personal belongings as I could–with the backpack full of hand-written journals being a top priority on my list. After minimally preparing our house (which was now in a designated mandatory evacuation flood zone ), we set out for Nana’s house to ride out this bad boy. The first 24 hours were probably the worst, mostly because this period was all about waiting, while nervously watching the horror stories and tragic disaster scenes on the news. Though I tried my best to stay faithful, there were times when the unknown circumstances were indeed scary. I admittedly had my moments upstairs in my bedroom, with hidden tears in between prayers. I don’t think I have prayed so hard since my mission trip to Nicaragua this past summer. Once again, I was frustrated that I was letting fear trickle in. I knew my God well, and I knew that after all this was over, we were going to be ok. I just didn’t know exactly what that “ok” description looked like…
Ok without power? Ok with minimal flooding?
Ok with a tree in the roof? Ok in water up to our knees?
Ok even without a home to return to? Ok in heaven?
…The uncertainty of our situation and the safety of my loved ones was overpowering, but I fought to drown out these thoughts. I prayed for protection and safety, that God would place his hands of protection around us, and this city that I have called home for the past 25 years. I prayed that His arms would surround all of us like a shield. I prayed for our house, which had withstood hundreds of storms in its lifetime; the house I grew up in from days after I was born. I prayed for my cross country team and their safe travels, and the safety for all of those souls who were brave enough to risk the hectic roads to try and flee town. I prayed that The Lord would calm this storm, and that He would bring peace and comfort to his people. In talking to God, my prayer continued that God would again use this for His glory; that it would cause others to pause and reflect, and turn to Him while believing in something greater; believing in a God of hope. I knew my God was larger than this storm, but I also had to calmly accept His will.
In my prayers, I thanked God for my family. I thanked him for community, bountiful blessings, and merciful love. In crying out to God in search of peace, He turned my attention to a beautiful colored illustration I had come across when flipping though my mother’s old bible, which I had discovered when searching through our ancient book collection back home. The gorgeous picture that had caught my eye, was the captivating moment of Noah and the Ark–with beaming rainbow and all. Remembering this image in my foggy mind, I found the verse in Genesis from the picture’s tiny caption. Refreshing my memory on the well-known bible tale, God sent me comfort in the words of his promise.
“And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.”
Genesis 9:12-13, 15 ESV
As the hours pressed on, our electricity did not. Expecting this premature power outage, we were more than prepared. Our coolers were filled with ice, bottled waters piled high, lanterns lining up on the mantel, and bathtubs and washers filled to the rim as backup. The dark wasn’t as intimidating with others to share flashlights with, and without the negativity of the broadcasts on television, distractions from the treacherous winds were more feasible. The down time was nice in a way, as I curled up in the corner of the closet and relived my college days, immersed in my journals by flashlight. Thank goodness for smart phones and cellular connections which the world relies on these days. Technology often demotes personal intimidate interaction but it served its purpose for important storm tracking updates, including the uplifting announcement that the storm had downgraded to a category 2 hurricane. Bit by bit, Matthew was slowing down. But even as the weather forces were weakening, the prayers were overflowing.
Also, thanks to the luxuries of technology, I was able to keep up with the majority of my friends throughout the climactic events. Family members and friends would check in constantly, communicating about each other’s safety. I liked being at Nana’s house too, which has served as the family hub ever since I was a little girl. It was sweetly comforting to have my cousins, aunts and uncles all calling in to check on Nana, and to hear the scoop on everyone else’s well-being. It was nice to see the family all caring and looking out for one another, still interconnected despite time and distance. I am so grateful for my family connection, which has made up such a huge part of who I am. This is something I wish to carry on and instill in my own children and grandchildren someday…a dedication and loyalty, an unshakable support, all out of love.
As tragic as natural disasters like this can be, I love how such events bring communities together. Seeing all of the survivors emerging from their shelters, awed by the destruction and visible sunshine; Strangers helping strangers clear fallen limbs and debris; phone calls from long lost friends to check on the status of individuals they care about; churches offering space for air conditioning and water; parents strolling the streets with their young children pedaling on bikes close behind, everyone simply happy to be outdoors. I think that resilience in times like these is often difficult, especially returning to everyday work. Something as catastrophic as a hurricane really does shake up a city from its monotonous struggle to keep up with life. I think sometimes we need little hurricanes every now and then to break our dependence on the things of this world, and to help remind us of what’s most important.
Today I stand hand in hand with thousands of survivors from what was projected to be the storm of the century. Our little house on the corner appears untouched, and does not appear to have even lost power. Everyone of whom I am aware, who stayed in town is walking out unscratched. My papa’s condo at Jax beach which was said to have not been realistically capable of withstanding the humongous storm surge, is still standing thanks to the sand dunes. As I lay tonight in my own bed, back in my home which I thought I may never see again, my heart is full. Praying for those areas which did receive more of a direct hit, and the restoration of those dear landmarks. But with knowledge of the manner in which Jacksonville handled this frightening occurrence, I’m not worried. So many officers and laborers whose work often gets taken for granted, are finally appreciated and respected. This whirling weather may have shaken up some emotions, but our community knot of trust is now tighter than ever.
“In the eye of the storm
You remain in control
And in the middle of the war
You guard my soul
You alone are the anchor
When my sails are torn
Your love surrounds me
In the eye of the storm”