Hurricane Ivan struck Pensacola at 2 a.m. on September 16, 2004, with a force that varied between a Category 3 and 5. You don’t hear much about it because it was overshadowed by Katrina the following year. Katrina was a milder hurricane, but more damaging to an especially vulnerable city.
My son, an emergency room physician, was on duty through that night at Pensacola’s Sacred Heart Hospital. His wife, three daughters, and the family dog had earlier fled to safety in Jacksonville, Florida. During that night at the hospital, one wall blew down and the electricity quickly went off. The backup generators broke down and the emergency room went dark. Even the toilets would not work without the pumps to maintain the water pressure. But it didn’t matter. Almost everyone had evacuated and no emergency vehicles could get through to bring in patients even if there were any. The real rush began days later as returning people fell over wreckage and stepped on glass and nails.
When he was finally allowed to see his home, he was at first encouraged. The damage did not look too bad as he drove from the main highway along a smaller road to his development. His home, typical of the McMansions in the area, was only a few years old and built on a solid block of concrete ten feet above sea level. But when the road curved to run along the coast, he was blocked by a house that had washed off of its foundations and collapsed in the middle of it. Continuing on foot among the debris, his neighborhood was unrecognizable. All familiar landmarks were gone. Many homes were completely swept away, leaving only the foundation or stone steps leading to nowhere. Others were damaged beyond recognition. And these had been showcase homes, many representing a retiree’s lifetime of earnings. His house seemed to have survived, but the front door was gone. Looking inside, he could see right through to the back yard as most of the walls had been knocked out. He could see the high-water mark at about five feet, and this was above the ten foot high foundation. Below that, the water had taken out almost everything, leaving mud, debris and pieces of furniture. His refrigerator was lying in his yard. (Refrigerators, as heavy as they seem, float in a flood, and can end up far away.) A heavy armoire, his sofa, and several other pieces of his furniture were later found on an adjoining golf course, along with many dried fish stranded by the receding water.
So, where do you begin when your house is destroyed along with many thousands of others? Call a repairman? Sure, you’re 928 on the list and we have no workmen, they tell you. One man who spoke Spanish drove into downtown Pensacola to pick up a few migrant workers, but this did not solve the problem.
My son was lucky. His wife’s family had a friend with a vacation cottage about eighty miles away that they could use for a month, and this relieved the immediate problem of keeping the family together. As the month was ending, his wife on their computer saw a rental offer pop up and took it within seconds. It was a house on the other side of the same golf course his house was on, only this one was spared by a hill on the course that freakishly channeled the water around it while all others were destroyed. It was not ideal—it was partially damaged—but with a few pieces of donated furniture, was at least livable. This is where we found them about a month later when services were slowly restored enough for us to visit without being more of a hindrance than a help.
Basically, everyone had to scramble to help themselves, but government aid through FEMA was a big help. They provided livable trailers that were often set up on individual properties so people could at least live beside their damaged house and be available for what needed to be done. Other trailers were grouped into small cities on public property such as school athletic fields. The government helped mitigate the damage by providing crews who nailed blue tarps over damaged roofs. (Flying into the Pensacola airport we could see nothing but blue tarps in all directions.) Finally, FEMA eventually trucked away the huge mountains of trash that grew in front of every home.
In my son’s area (actually, the town of Gulf Breeze on the other side of Pensacola Bay) there are only two big stores—Walmart and Lowe’s, side-by-side. Both of these did an outstanding job of opening their parking lots to distribute emergency supplies such as water and ice, and providing the necessities at the normal prices. For example, Lowe’s brought in huge supplies of plywood and thousands of portable generators. These two stores formed the center of the relief effort.
I saw his neighbor, also a doctor, but nearer to my age, pulling a wide garage door to the front of his property by a rope tied to his car’s bumper, and I was struck by the futility of it. He could not possibly make even a dent in the task ahead. I think even he realized this, but felt he had to do something. He eventually abandoned the house and never returned. His wife had collected over many years dozens of small outdoor statues that she carefully placed among the shrubbery. These were all gone without a trace.
My son and daughter-in-law also quickly gave up trying to salvage anything. We found several stainless steel mixing bowls that could be cleaned up, but they did not want them. Everything touched by the hurricane was forever tainted. Besides, their immediate problems were too large to give even the slightest attention to saving a few dollars on mixing bowels.
One of my strongest impressions on our visit was the eerie nights. My son’s rental house was the only livable house at the very end of the street. During the day, people were around salvaging whatever could be saved and hauling trash to the front yard, but at night they all left. Without electricity (except for their one rental house) the entire neighborhood was completely dark and silent.
The other impression was of the signs. Most houses were spray-painted with their owner’s names, phone numbers and insurance companies in large, red, letters across the front siding, such as “Smith 555-1234 Allstate”. There were also very serious spray-painted plywood signs warning of dire harm to any looters found in the area.
Pensacola Beach (different than Pensacola) is a town on a long sandbar island like Ocean City, NJ, except the island is longer and thinner with only one road leading from the town along the full length. The road was protected by fenced-off, high dunes planted with grass, but they were swept away as if by one swipe of a giant hand. At first, the inspectors thought the road had somehow shifted about six feet, but they later realized the road had remained fixed and the island had shifted under it. By the time we were there, the roads around the town had been plowed and the mounds of the very white sand (quite different than New Jersey’s gray sand) looked exactly like a New England snow scene.
My son and his family were pretty depressed when they visited us in Delaware the following July, almost a year later. Nothing had been done on their house. If the damage to their house was more than 50% of its value, it had to be totally rebuilt on a twelve-foot high foundation to meet the new code, and there was no one to make this determination. It was impossible to find workers, anyway. Their insurance company was an unknown company on the Internet, and they were vague on what proof of damage was needed. Every call to them was with a different person who gave them different instructions. Their rental house was deteriorating, and they had to abandon the master bedroom because of growing mold. Their landlord was not making any repairs, realizing he could get a much higher rent if he could force them to move.
But a week later, back in Florida, everything turned around. Out of the blue, their insurance company sent them a check for the full amount of the policy, which was more than the loss. At the same time, a developer bought their property for $350,000. With that money, they were able to buy an even better house on high ground facing the protected bay, rather than on the exposed gulf. None of the homes in that area were more than superficially damaged by the hurricane.
In the end, almost no one had their own house repaired. Developers bought up the properties, brought in their own crews to repair or rebuild them, and resold them. The original owners used their insurance money and property sales to buy another house in the area, exactly as my son did, or just moved on. I found out later that Dave Hall had an aunt and uncle in their late 70s who had retired to that area, and, at their age, they were among those who just moved on.
(When viewing the album, sort them by name and they will be in proper order.)