Saturday, January 29, 2022

ONE-YEAR POST IRMA | Looking Back & Looking Ahead

Growing Up in Everglades City

September 10, 2017 felt like the day the Earth stood still.

It had been 57 years to the day since Hurricane Donna made landfall and devastated Florida, and Hurricane Irma was on the path to do the same.

Its now easy for me to talk about what happened on that day and the ones following, but I’ll admit when I start remembering what this town went through I cry every time. I never would have guessed as I was going back up to the University of Florida after a weekend at home that I would come back to next to nothing. When the news got around to evacuate, my parents scooped me up from school and we headed over to Old Town to stay at my cousins’ place. My parents and I were nervous wrecks waiting for Irma to pass Everglades City, and looking at Facebook posts from the people who stayed behind made it even worse.

When we knew the hurricane had passed my parents wanted to take me back to college, but I begged them to let me go back home. I felt that I had to see the damage that was done, but I was not mentally prepared for it. Irma’s Category 4 winds and deadly 10-foot storm surge destroyed the town, causing almost 90% of the locals to lose everything they own. Pulling up to our home there was a few feet of water still in the yard and the water line came up past our window. I jumped the fence and ran to open the door, only to find the house looking like a tornado tore through it. Inches of thick toxic sewage mud covered all of our belongings, and the water line on the walls were waist high. It did not register in my mind that this was my home, that those were our things.

My dad, who is on City Council, met up with the City Clerk to discuss what the next step would be and to get help. So, we drove out to the water plant, the only place there was service, and stayed until nightfall making phone calls. The next day was filled with trying to salvage anything we could find in our home. The locals of Everglades were struggling to find places to sleep and stay, and many did not eat for days. I don’t even remember eating anything, I was so sick to my stomach trying to comprehend this nightmare.

The bridge to Chokoloskee had washed away and people who stayed behind were stranded. The National Guard had to drop packages of water to them by helicopter and was setting up by the fire station with water and food. The people who stayed behind were brave and admitted how terrifying it was to watch the storm surge rush in and fill the homes of people they knew or were related to. When the bridge got temporarily patched we headed down to get our other vehicles and my car. We stored our other vehicles in a friend’s garage on Chokoloskee because it was higher ground than Everglades City. My car got salt water and mud in it up to the seats but was still drivable.

The days following were a blur.

Scraping mud out of the house with shovels, throwing all of our belongings on the side of the road to take to the dump, temperatures over 100 degrees, and waiting in line for lunch/dinner at the Salvation Army bus. To take my mind off of everything I helped out at the supply tents, giving people things they needed and unloading trucks filled with the supplies that people were donating. People would walk down the streets, aimlessly trying to get in their right minds as to what had happened. Our school was also a supply base and the principal, teachers and staff were doing everything they could to help the community. I remember having but one pair of shoes left, which ended up breaking; I walked barefoot for a day or two until someone gave my parents and I crab boots to wade through the mud. One thing needed most at that time was boots for people to wear so they could walk in their homes. It was hard to believe this was all real.

Scraping the mud out of the bathroom.

Walking through my home was heartbreaking. Seeing the people of Everglades, friends and family struggling and grieving was a nightmare in itself. The town favored a third world country. I lost so many things that I cherished that day and unfortunately, I took it all for granted. I had everything I could have ever wanted, and I lost it all in one day. Being homeless and losing everything made me realize that materialistic things don’t matter in the end. Being kind, loving, reaching out and helping others is what really matters.

This devastating event that happened in my small town of 400 people created a closer bond between the locals than ever before. We couldn’t wait for anyone to come help us, we stayed strong and began working to rebuild our lives. Everyone in the community was out helping with whatever they could and for whoever was in need. People were putting others before themselves and it was incredible.

It has been a year, but the town of Everglades City is still not fully recovered. My family and I are still rebuilding our home along with many other locals. A lot of people packed up and moved, or didn’t want to rebuild their businesses, making this place almost like a ghost town. But let me tell you this, we have made it this far and we will not stop now. We have grown resilient and courageous; nothing could tear this town apart or the people in it.

I wanted to take time and thank everyone who helped us when we were so vulnerable. All the supplies, prayers and the people who came down to help were so appreciated. So beyond blessed and thankful to live where I do and to have the people down here that we do. It is hard to put what happened to us into words, but this is just a small part of what I saw through my eyes during that time.

University of Florida student Savannah Oglesby has lived in Everglades City her entire life. A lover of nature; some of her favorite things are sunsets, night lightning and mountains. She enjoys adventures and spending time with family, friends and two orange tabby cats. She also enjoys travelling, taking photos of nature, learning about extreme weather and seeing the world in different perspectives. Savannah’s love for Everglades City, and its history, is endless.

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