This familiar date in U.S. history stirs up painful memories for everyone on American soil. The numbers echo inside our heads as the ultimate emergency coding. It was sixteen years ago this morning that our nation fell under attack by Islamic terrorists. Today, the entire state of Florida entered another battle as we were forced to surrender to treacherous winds and catastrophic waters. Yet even so, we fought back with a faithful vision of the aftermath from hurricane Irma—“the largest storm in history.” Both days, as gruesome as they played out to be, marked a new chance at resiliency.
The decision to stay put in our hometown and “hunker down” with the rest of the overly-loyal city was a decision that was not taken lightly. Our family went back and forth discussing possible alternatives for evacuation, but the route along crowded highways toward Atlanta appeared more daunting than the approaching storm. The media continued to shove petrifying video footage and warnings down our throats. With the gut-wrenching news from Houston’s recent hurricane, the bulk of Jacksonville civilians began to rush around in panic.
Gas stations had the life sucked out of them, grocery store aisles were immediately cleared, and not a single pack of water could be found anywhere within city linits. The chaos of anticipation as the monster creeped along the Caribbean was rising as quickly as the potential storm-surge.
South Florida was hit head-on by Irma, as she continued to throw everyone for a spin. The original path was projected to head west, to then be bounced northeast by a front heading towards the middle of the state. The width of the storm was so wide it would eventually cover the entirety of Florida, and Jacksonville was right in the direct path of destruction. Still, numerous natives decided to sit and ride this bad girl out.
Suddenly, the scheming Irma changed her mind. Instead of aggressively veering east, she continued to crawl west. Cities near Tampa and Fort Myers were issued a state of evacuation. While our prayers for a change of direction were answered, the wishful winds blew in the opposite direction towards our innocent West-Florida neighbors. Irma was still creeping along strong.
As she made her way busting through neighborhoods upon landfall, the wind speed decreased and rate of travel diminished. Everyone in Jacksonville expected a mere category 1 or tropical storm to finally reach our territory. Sunday night was a rough one as Irma made her visit: winds howled and whistled through the waving trees. The rain smacked houses every which way, limbs falling all over the place. The forces were strong enough to split trees in half, and uproot them entirely. Trees fell on power lines blowing electric power transformers. Waking up to ghostly winds and explosive bangs did not make for a peaceful sleep.
I’m sure everyone in Jax lost sleep that night. Probably even the entire week. With continuous praying for our brothers and sisters south of us and for our own families and friends, we had finally come to the moment of anxious dreading. The morning following our weather attack was no doubt an alarming one. But a thankful one nonetheless.
For those of us who rose out of bed that morning, hopefully we said a prayer gratefulness before we opened the curtains to the storm-stricken streets. Though alive and well, lots of homes and landmarks were not. The category 1 storm experience had blasted its way right on through… but the massive category 3 storm surge had only begun. The “River City” upheld its title that day, with gushing waters from the St. Johns streaming into the roads and yards in near proximity. Downtown was unrecognizable and undistinguishable from the river itself; the river that now resembled the ocean. Evacuation flood zones kept their reputation, with the shops of San Marco becoming comparable to the streets of Venice. First responders worked diligently with rescue missions, pulling people out of cars and water with boats and rafts. Local churches became Red Cross relief stations and JSO command centers. We had witnessed an impeccable natural disaster. Now it was time for the clean-up.
Hand-in-hand, the city of Jacksonville fought back. Neighbors helped, families scrambled, and strangers shared amenities. Just like 9/11 in 2001, Americans jumped right out of the rubble and survivors began emerging from the dust. People flocked the streets, some forced to leave their flooded homes. Others remained trapped in condo’s and flood-crafted islands. Those with power breathed a sigh of relief. Those less fortunate busted out the flashlights and ripped open the snack stash.
It is in times like these that we are forced to draw together. In times of devastation, all we can cling to is hope. We have perishable resources here on this planet, and man-made resources to help us bounce back into civilized society. But what is so easy to forget sometimes is the ultimate source of life that has always been and will always will be. God loves his people just as much as He loves the rest of His creation. I bet it hurt Him to watch all that He made huddle in fear and brace such a beating. But His mercy is greater than any form of destruction. His love is more powerful than any monstrous storm.
In this time of trial we had a chance at creating more than compatible community. Sharing food and water; opening up homes to family; clearing debris from front lawns; checking in on relatives; lending a working hand; bonding over candlelight; bearing the image of Christ.
We can, and will, get through this recovery together. We can, and will, walk out of these deep waters as stronger swimmers than when we began. We can, and will, grow closer to one another as a nation and as a city. We can, and will, with God’s help.