Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Hurricanes and Resilience, Part 3

I often marvel at how resilient human beings are in the face of adversity. When we are hit unexpectedly by an act of nature, we discover just how good our coping skills are. Sometimes we learn just the opposite. Such was the case for me in July 2005. We got hit smack dab in the face with reality. My husband handled it very well, but I did not. It still affects me today. And just when I should have been writing in this blog as an outlet, I quit.

A number of years ago we purchased a small cottage on St. George Island of the North Florida Gulf coast near the town of Apalachicola. Apalachicola has been described as what Key West was before anyone discovered it. Like many barrier islands, St. George Island (SGI) is about 27 miles long, but very narrow and is located about 90 miles from Tallahassee. Given the narrow, winding, two lane roads, it becomes an approximate two hour drive. Some close friends of ours had the house for years, using it as a weekend retreat. When all their kids were out of their house in Tallahassee, they decided to move to this very small house. After one year there, they decided to become permanent residents there and build a larger home on the Bay side of the island.

At the time we purchased our little house about 11 years ago, SGI was mostly undeveloped and populated by a combination of old time residents and weekenders plus a growing number of rental houses, most of which were along the Gulf or across the road from the Gulf. This little house was three blocks inland and on a dirt road with no cable available. Most of the permanent residents lived on these inland roads and the area was so undesirable for investment and rental purposes, that our house and area in which it was located were valued similar to mainland property.

We decided that our goal would be to spend two weekends a month down there. What happened was that we ended up spending nearly every weekend down there plus our vacation time. There were only two houses nearby, both of which were occupied by full time residents. Nearly all the vacant lots around us were also owned by one of the permanent residents. We came to love the quiet and solitude of our little place and would leave immediately from work on Friday afternoon and not return until Monday morning. I would bring my work clothes into the office on Friday and we would leave SGI at about 5:15 am so that I would arrive to my office by 7 am which was my usual time of work.

After I retired in 2001, I began spending more and more time there and eventually we made it our permanent residence. About this time, prices began to rise and more and more huge rental houses were being constructed. Still we felt secure because the lots around us were owned by our neighbor. We had told him that if he ever wanted to sell any of the lots adjacent to us, to let us know. Well, that did not happen and our neighbor sold a block of 12 lots to a developer which included lots in front of us and on both sides. It was only when a "sold" sign went up that we were aware of the sale.

Within one year, the lot to the west of us which had been lower than ours was filled in to a height of more than five feet above our property. Later that year, a huge rental house with a swimming pool was constructed on that lot. Not only did we lose our privacy, but we gained the noise associated with a rental home and parties out by the pool at night. Still the worst was yet to come.

In July 2005, hurricane Dennis threatened the north Florida Gulf coast. Dennis was a relatively weak hurricane (Cat.1 or 2) and its track took it to about 125 miles west of SGI. Apalachee Bay, where SGI is located, is very shallow and therefore vulnerable to storm surges. Forecasters had predicted a storm surge for our area of Apalachee Bay of between 5-8 feet. Most residents of the island remained, but several friends who lived in lower areas went to a rental located in higher area in the center of the island. They brought their boat and a trailer to our house for safe keeping since the base elevation of our lot was 9 feet. And because our house was three blocks inland, it was relatively safe from the predicted surge.

The storm surge from Dennis hit on a Saturday night. The next morning we received a call from our friends telling us to get down to the island right away because our property had sustained major storm surge damage. My husband went down there immediately.

Most of our end of the island from the Gulf to the main road was under water. Our property is another block inland from the main road, but my husband could not get to it because the storm surge had washed away our driveway and left an eight foot deep gully where it once was and along the side of our house next to the big rental house. The front of the property toward the Gulf was fine because the water ran naturally over the land and under the house like it should. However due to the filling in of the lot next door, the water funneled along the side with such a force that it destroyed a natural dune and our bulkhead walls, and created the gulch where our driveway once was. Since the water had to cross the main road which is approximately at an elevation of 12 feet, my estimate is that the storm surge was somewhere between 13 and 15 feet.

I have tried but it is hard to express in words what I felt when I saw this and how deeply it affected me to this day. Everything changed.

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