When oceans rise: A Florida CCLer reflects on Hurricane Michael
By Cara Fleischer
As I type this, Hurricane Michael is beating up the Florida Panhandle with 155 mph winds, destroying the places I love and perhaps even my home. On Monday, my husband and I packed up our two kids, my sister-in-law and our baby niece, and our dog and cat, and drove up to Atlanta to avoid the storm that at the very least would leave us without power, and at the worst, could leave us homeless. Stuffed into a one-bedroom condo, the stress is overwhelming as we try to act normal but are fixated on the storm back home.
Tallahassee is where I grew up and returned with my family because of our beautiful oak trees, the nearby Forgotten Coast beaches, and to be near my parents. Now our little part of the world is making national news as it gets chewed up and spit out by Hurricane Michael—the most dangerous storm ever to hit the Panhandle, and the strongest to make landfall anywhere in the U.S. in October. History is being made for all the wrong reasons.
We alternate between watching cable news hurricane coverage of the havoc happening back home, leaving us sick and in tears, and trying to entertain the kids. We chose the Georgia Aquarium today, of all places, and we walk around in a daze trying to distract ourselves with penguins and whale sharks, but the dread hangs over us as our phones keep pinging more bad news.
We are shocked at the videos that show Mexico Beach homes under water. The predicted 9-13 feet of storm surge has swamped the tiny beach town. Images from second-floor balconies capture one-story houses submerged up to their roofs into the Gulf of Mexico, with construction debris churning in the waves. One pundit calls it “wood soup.” It is a complete disaster, and this storm still has hours to go. Our favorite historic town of Apalachicola is on the Weather Channel as they show flooding in low lying areas. I wonder if more is on the way for them, and what is left of our beloved barrier island, St. George Island, right up the road.
These aren’t just places on the map to us. They are home. I grew up on the white sands of St. George Island, forming my love and spiritual connection with nature. As kids, Mom would make the hour plus drive every chance we got so we could swim in the clear blue waters, jump waves until our little legs ached, and dig coquinas up with our toes and watch them inch back across the sand like little jewels. Sometimes we would strap masks and snorkels over our faces and float on the St. Joe Bay, our eyes blinking wide at the nursery of baby sea creatures, from tiny seahorses to baby rays, with schools of little fish sparkling in the sun all around us. We knew we were lucky to live in the Florida Panhandle.
Fast forward to last August, when I was at Mexico Beach with around 20 women for our MOPS group (Mothers of Preschoolers) annual retreat, and I led a devotion on the beach. Under the shade of an umbrella, we held what could only be called church out on the sand that Sunday morning, as we felt God’s creation all around us. With the surf and breeze as a backdrop, we listened on my wireless speaker to the song “Oceans” by Hillsong United as we prayed. The lyrics “as oceans rise” stood out in my mind. As I took a swim in the warm water that morning, I was completely enveloped in God’s love, buoyed by my Creator, and felt a profound peace.
Seeing Hurricane Michael crush this beautiful beach town in real time has sent me into a dark place. I know that Florida is ground zero for the climate crisis with sunny day flooding already common in Miami beach and other parts of the state, and that warm waters fuel hurricanes to create super storms like Hurricane Michael. It isn’t a surprise that stronger storms will batter our beautiful state, but it still hurts to see it happen in my own backyard. We don’t know if our white frame farm house is holding up to the Category 4 hurricane winds, or if the ancient oak trees surrounding it are standing tall or have smashed to the ground. How are the countless friends who sheltered in place all over the city? We have more questions than answers as the bad news keeps flashing across our screens, shocking us all over again.
It is crushing to know that there are solutions to halt the climate crisis that is warming the planet and the Gulf of Mexico, but our leaders don’t seem to be interested in making the changes needed to solve the problem. As the co-leader of the Tallahassee chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, I have spent years encouraging my members of Congress to take climate action, and they are starting to show signs of engaging, but not fast enough to fix the problem. We cannot just keep cleaning up the mess of super storms that cost billions of dollars, writing off the destruction and human suffering as an unfortunate act of nature. We are causing these storms to be stronger by the carbon we are pumping into the sky, and we need leaders to be brave enough to enact changes like a Carbon Fee and Dividend and make dramatic updates in our energy system in order to halt climate change. We don’t have a moment to lose.
As I finish this article, my friend Julie tags me on a Facebook photo of a “before and after” of a restaurant called Toucan’s on Mexico Beach. We ate there during that trip in August. The “before” shows it just how I remember, with palm trees and a giant toucan painted on the front in green and yellow paint, and I think about my grouper sandwich and laughs we shared while looking out at the gulf. The “after” photo shows nothing left of the place. It was wiped clean off the map by 155 mile hour winds from the beachfront spot where it stood for years. I picture our friend’s home and am in tears again as I begin to grasp the magnitude of our loss.
We just had dinner at Toucan's a month ago. Complete devastation. This is hard to wrap your brain around. Pray for the survivors of Mexico Beach.
I reach for my earbuds and play “Oceans,” the song we listened to on Mexico Beach on that perfect August morning. It has become the song I listen to when I am brought low in the fight for climate action. “I will call upon your name, and keep my eyes above the waves, when oceans rise, my soul will rest in your embrace, for I am yours, and you are mine.” It gives me strength to continue on, even on days like this.
Our neighbor just texted us a photo of our yard, and it is a huge relief to see our giant oaks still standing, but trees are down and power is out across the city. When we are finally able to go back to Tallahassee, we will not be broken by this storm. We will keep fighting for what we love, our way of life, and our home in the Florida Panhandle.