Merry Christmas from Orange Beach, Alabama

Last night, with Christmas only a few days away, my wife, Polly, and I found ourselves explaining to our sons (now 18 and 15) what people in Houston, South Florida, and Puerto Rico are actually experiencing.

They were shocked and a bit skeptical.

“This is happening right now?” they asked.

“Yes,” we assured them. “Right now.”

“Dad…” our youngest ventured, “don’t take this the wrong way…but if that’s true, why doesn’t anyone seem to know?”  

It’s great question with an easy answer. Quite simply, because the national media is gone. Though honestly, even if the networks were still there, a world of reality exists well beyond what the media is ever able to present. And unless you’ve experienced it yourself, it is almost impossible to describe. We, the long-time residents of Orange Beach, Alabama know this to be a fact.

In 2004, Hurricane Ivan killed 123 people and did 23.3 billion dollars in damage.

When the storm made landfall in Orange Beach on September 16, Ivan was a Category Three. Our boys, only 2 and 5 years old at the time, were obviously shielded from as much of the almost constant anguish and uncertainty as we could manage. Therefore, today, they are like most of the teenagers from this area and don’t remember much of what their parents endured.

Our family lived in 3 different rental houses during the two years following the storm and were fortunate to:

  1. Be able to afford them.
  2. Find anything available in the first place.

To the boys, of course, it was an adventure… They do remember the big, square-shaped bathtub in one of the houses.

Last night, I dug out some photos that were taken during that time. Austin and Adam were a bit shocked at what they did not remember. One picture was of all the boats and jet skis tumbled across our yard.  Our oldest asked to whom they belonged. We never did find out, but none of them were ours.

Most of the vessels were not removed for months, but it was no big deal. Heck, at that point, it wasn’t even a curiosity. Almost everyone we knew had boats in their yard! In any case, whether you owned the boat or owned the property upon which Ivan deposited the boat, there were more pressing concerns…

I will spare you the specifics, but we still think about that time in our lives every day.  Especially now. For while Hurricane Ivan is in our past, we are all too aware that Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria are in some other family’s present.

As the conversation with our sons revealed, there are a few situations facing victims of a major hurricane about which most people are unaware. For instance:

Tornados, fires, and mudslides—while tragic and terrifying—are almost always confined to a neighborhood or a part of a town. The damage is local in scope. After an event of this type, help is usually close and abundant. Obviously, in these cases, there are more people nearby to give help than there are people who need help.

The destruction from a hurricane, however, can span more than a hundred miles. There is no one nearby to help. Entire cities, town after town, every neighborhood, everyone and everything has been dealt a massive blow.

A tornado is a hammer. A hurricane is a steamroller.

After a major hurricane, those who need help are in effect, stuck in a third world country with no electricity. That means no air-conditioning for the elderly (and no heat right now), no refrigeration to insure safe food, and sketchy people everywhere. It is flat out dangerous.

Curiously, however, while cognizant of last summer’s crisis mode in south Texas, south Florida, and Puerto Rico, the majority of people around the country are totally unaware of the specific challenges being faced right now—at Christmas—by those in the disaster area.

Few are wise to the fact that after the initial “clean-up” was completed and homeowners turned to the task of rebuilding, the competition for construction crews began. Oh, there are plenty of construction companies. But in this situation, it is tougher than one might suspect to secure competent, honest, crews who will continue to actually work on your house until it’s completed. Then, there’s the question of “fair price”.

After a hurricane, there is a scent of money in the air and even the companies who agree to work for somewhere close to normal wage rates, usually sign contracts to rebuild or repair twenty, sometimes thirty or more homes at a time.

Individual homeowners are rarely clued into this gambit, however, never knowing they are merely a “ball” to be kept in the air by a skillful juggler. Best-case scenario for a hurricane victim needing extensive home repair? If a partial crew is working on your house one day out of ten, consider yourself fortunate and keep your mouth shut.  Seriously.

Remember, the lure of more and easier money is everywhere and there are any number of homeowners willing to offer your construction crew two or three times the dollar amount you are already NOT getting from your insurance company.

After Hurricane Ivan, there were thousands of homes and businesses in desperate need of rebuild or repair. Thousands. And even with the flood of labor that came in from out of state, there were less than two hundred small and large construction companies working in the area…and not nearly all of them were legitimate.

Fourteen years ago, when we were in that situation, why do you think it took us more than two years to get back in our house?

My point? It takes very little imagination for those of us in Orange Beach to “do the math” on the length of time it will take last summer’s hurricane victims to rebuild. Theirs will be a long haul.

It certainly was for us after Hurricane Ivan. It’s also interesting to note that after a couple of months, the national media had packed up and headed for more disastrous pastures. “Rebuilding” doesn’t make for thrilling video, therefore, there were no longer reports about “All Things Ivan!” Or, for that matter, about anything Ivan…

Several months later, most people around the country assumed all was well on the Gulf Coast. (“If they were still having problems, we’d have heard, right?”)

I travel during the course of my work and three years after Hurricane Ivan, everywhere I went, from Maine to California, people were stunned to hear we still looked out at night to see several miles of neighborhoods without electricity and in total darkness. They couldn’t believe that roads continued to be closed and that a significant number of residents were not back in their homes.

To this day, most haven’t considered the fact that a large number of small businesses in our area closed because of the storm and were never able to reopen.

My dad used to say, “Everyone shows up when a family member dies, but the toughest time is a week or so later—after the last casserole dish is returned.”

I have no doubt that this is true. As the nightmares continue to unfold in Houston, Key West, and San Juan, you and I should keep in mind that the people we watched on television months ago still need our help. The national media left after the funerals. Today, there are many families facing Christmas with a despair they didn’t expect and can’t explain to their children.

The current situational statistics for Puerto Rico and south Florida are easily accessed.  Rest assured that what is happening in Texas right now—less than a week before Christmas—is happening in all three places:

According to a recent edition of the Houston Chronicle, almost 900,000 people applied for assistance from FEMA since September. At this time, FEMA has approved an average of $4,000 in assistance per family for less than half of the applicants.

Of the hurricane victims approved for FEMA’s long-term housing assistance program, almost none have been resettled.

As put by the Chronicle: “Although more than 9,500 Texas families had qualified for some form of additional temporary housing assistance as of Tuesday, just one had been able to move back into a home repaired through FEMA’s program, though 223 were living in a trailer or mobile home.”

Will there be people in these hard hit areas who look back on this time as “the worst in their lives”? Probably. I know Hurricane Ivan and its aftermath was for me.

Personally though, I figured, Well…if this really is the worst that will ever happen, life’s gotta be uphill from here, right? And so far, that has proven true for most of us…we, the former victims of Hurricane Ivan.

And so, with love, to the hurricane victims of last summer, here is a bit of unsolicited Christmas advice from “someone who has been there”…

First, I am so sorry this has happened. My wife and I know the numbness you feel.

There will be opportunities to cry and you probably should…but don’t cry too much in front of your kids. You are establishing now how they will measure up in the future when they experience the worst time in their lives. After all, everybody has a ‘worst time’…

If you haven’t already, you will soon be presented with daily opportunities to quit. Don’t. Things will get better. Not ‘back to normal’. Better.

And to a large degree, you will make things better by how you “see” your life even as it continues to unfold. That, of course, is known as “your perspective”, but be aware that your perspective is not merely how you view your circumstances. Your perspective is how you choose to view your circumstances.

Does your perspective make a difference? Really?

Yes. Really. To you and everyone who comes in contact with you.

Consider the following…

Who receives more help, advice, and opportunities…people we like to be around? Or people we would rather not be around?

Who would you rather be around…a “glass half-full person”? Or a “glass half-empty person”?

Does it make sense then, that over time, the “glass half-full person” receives more help, has access to more good advice, and is presented with greater opportunities?

Of course it does.

But one must remember that in reality, the glass is

neither half-full nor half-empty.

As the old saying goes, the glass simply “is what it is”. Anything else is perspective.

In the same light, how you choose to see your current situation—how you celebrate Christmas this year with your family—will determine much about the direction of your future. Your life has a lot in common with that glass. Right now, your life “is what it is.”

In other words, you cannot change what has happened. But because you can choose how you think, you can choose the direction of your future.

So, all your possessions are destroyed? That means that at some point, most of the stuff you own will be brand new.

Living in a shelter with a bunch of strangers? You will make friends during this time who will become so important—for whom you will become so grateful—you will one day laugh when you find yourself thanking God for this storm.

There will be business opportunities that will come about because of changes you’d have never made on your own in a million years.

And—trust me on this—you will have employment and financial opportunities in the future based solely on how people see you act during this awful time. (Of course, for some, the opposite of this will be true as well…)

Yes, for you, things will be better. In many ways. I often wish I had a dollar for every time I have heard someone in our area say, “You know, if it weren’t for the hurricane…” Then they go on to to describe something for which they are incredibly grateful.

Grateful, you ask? Andy, are you saying I should be grateful that this has happened?

No, I suppose not. However…

If you wish to be a blessing to those around you instead of a burden… If you want to live in the solution instead of the problem…

If you’d like to keep your sanity…

Then it is okay to be grateful that you are safe and alive and able to lead your family through this relatively short period of time. So, no, you don’t have to be grateful it happened. But it did happen. You can’t change that.

Therefore, you can choose to be grateful for the opportunity to shape not only how your family sees the future, but indeed their actual future!

We, the people of Orange Beach, Alabama will help. There are others all across America who will also help. We will mourn with you. We will sacrifice for you with our money and our time. We will risk our health for you.

But we cannot stand up for you. We cannot smile for you. We cannot plan or dream or think for you.

Only you can do these things. And if you can do these things…you can do anything.

Merry Christmas!

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