We are in a world of hurt: Reflections on Hurricane Michael

On October 8, 2018, Hurricane Michael was mustering strength as it took direct aim at the panhandle of Florida. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired a spectacular true-color image of the large storm as it strengthened in the Gulf of Mexico. (Photo credit: Stuart Rankin, CC 2.0)

Guest commentary by Pam McVety

My family survived another hurricane — but not just any hurricane.   Michael was a monster —the strongest hurricane on record to hit the Florida Panhandle.  It slammed the shore with 155 mph winds, shattering the small community of Mexico Beach, devastating Panama City Beach and causing a world of hurt to my community of Tallahassee. For the record, it was a Category 4 hurricane, just one mile per hour short of Category 5.  I am in tears as I write this from hearing the personal accounts of my friends who are dealing with trees that crashed into their homes or have lost their homes altogether.  Destruction by a hurricane is personal and painful and is never forgotten.

Urban search and rescue at Mexico Beach (Photo credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife, CC 2.0)

Hurricane Michael seemed to come out of nowhere on a Sunday and slammed into the Panhandle on Wednesday, heated by above average warm Gulf of Mexico waters. More than a hundred thousand people in our community lost their electricity.  Trees are down everywhere, blocking roads and breaking homes open to the sky and rain.  Mexico Beach looks as if a bomb was dropped on it.  The waters of the Gulf washed ashore and scrambled the community with an estimated 9- to 13-foot storm surge.  One survivor said he looked out his window and saw cars floating by, then whole houses, and then nothing but blackness.  He lost everything.  He had never imagined such destruction or violence and can hardly grasp what happened. Both of the hospitals of Panama City Beach were heavily damaged and many homes and businesses were lost. Eight Presbyterian churches were damaged.

Survivors say the destruction is unimaginable. Cleanup will go on for weeks and months, long after the press loses interest.

Photo credit: Margaret Thompson for Florida Fish and Wildlife, CC 2.)

Statistics don’t convey the personal experience of going through a disaster like this.  It begins with the wait and anticipation which are inflamed as the media talks about the dangers of the coming storm. The stress is palpable. Sleep is difficult and food loses its taste.  You are glued to the TV, internet and Facebook hour after hour, desperately seeking a tidbit of comforting information about your community to counter the stress-inducing media reports.  You become an amateur meteorologist, convincing yourself that you can interpret the National Hurricane Center reports and what they mean to you and your family.

If you’ve grown up in Florida, when the storm hits, you hold your breath for hours and each loud crash and shake of your home seems to herald that your house will crash on top of you.  You hide in an inner hallway, closet or bathroom with no windows, and as the noise and power of the storm increase, you put your children in the bathtub with their bicycle helmets on and pray that they survive.  They cry.  You want to cry. The lights go out and the house starts to warm and warm until you are hot and sweaty. Your ears hurt as the pressure drops. The noise is unbearable.

When it is over, you realize you and your children have survived, but you don’t know about your house.  You look out the window and you are shocked by what you see.  You have no electricity for days and days while the hard, hot work of clearing shattered possessions and repairing your home begins. Debris piles up on the street so high that your home seems about to disappear beneath it. Your nights are sweaty and cold showers are miserable. Yet you must call yourself lucky, because you are still alive. This is the experience in a Category 1 or 2 storm, not a Category 4 storm, which Michael was when it hit land.

Photo credit: Chad Weber for Florida Fish and Wildlife, CC 2.0

I experienced Michael from 1,200 miles away, worried sick about our children and grandchildren and our homes. My family evacuated at the last minute and drove north in the wind and rain, having to travel hours north to find a place to stay. We are OK, but many people are not.  As I write this, first responders are going through the rubble, searching for survivors and victims.  Hurricane Michael killed 29 people in Florida, most of them along the coast. There are at least 10 more deaths elsewhere across the south.

Two days before Hurricane Michael roared ashore, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued yet another report making it clear that the world would have to curb its carbon emissions by at least 49 percent of 2017 levels by 2030 and then achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 to limit the predicted global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C. Do the math. We are talking about dropping our rising carbon emissions by almost 50 percent in 12 years. It is possible, but requires a dramatic shift in where and how we get our energy, not to mention a president and Congress committed to this change. Given that our president says climate change is a hoax and given that Congress is heavily funded by the fossil fuel industry, our future looks grim.

Photo credit: Chad Weber for Florida Fish and Wildlife, CC 2.0

I will never forget the uplifting hope I felt in 2015, when the Pope issued his encyclical, “On Care for Our Common Home.”  It was the same year that virtually all the world leaders came together and signed the Paris Climate Accord agreeing to lower carbon emissions.  The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) the following year, and then again this year, dashed my hopes that our church would respond in a manner that reflected the urgency and dangerousness of the situation. While so many suffer over and over – including my family, friends and neighbors – from extreme climate, our church continues to financially support the fossil fuel industry. To me, this can mean only one thing.  Our denomination’s focus on making money overshadows its concern for preventing the suffering and pain of its flock from extreme weather.

Command Chief Master Sgt. Reginald McPherson, state command chief master sergeant, Georgia Air Guard, met with representatives from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and Georgia Department of Transportation during Hurricane Michael relief efforts. During the trip, McPherson visited locations where airmen are handing out supplies and conducting route clearance. (Photo credit: Sgt. Amy King for Georgia National Guard, CC 2.0)

As people of faith, we have a responsibility to manage our money for our members and institutions and we claim the moral (and legal) high ground in doing this.  But call me crazy, thinking that we as Christians are in the right, by assuring maximum financial profit while ignoring the destruction and suffering directly related to our investments, isn’t right and certainly is not moral.

I need hope.  I need a church that can connect the dots between its investments and the harm I and others are experiencing with monster hurricanes.  I need a church that puts God’s love and concern for me and my family into action — real action.  The church cannot continue its current relationship with the fossil fuel industry and pretend that it is fully engaged in responding to the greatest moral challenge humanity has ever faced with climate change, while its members and creation are being harmed.

Struggling with the terror and stress of three climate change-fueled hurricanes in three years hitting my community, sweating through yet another long back-breaking cleanup and reading the latest IPCC report, I grieve that my church is so voiceless in the midst of an intensifying crisis that is overwhelming God’s creation. But I want to remain hopeful that we will find our voice and help lead the transformation to climate justice for all. We just need to hurry.

For more on how people in Florida are reacting, see this article from a Tallahassee newspaper describing the emotional toll and physical conditions.

The author’s friend took this video along I-10 as a way to share how devastating the hurricane damage is.