Although that picture of Michaels finally being open might inspire thoughts of craft supplies (most importantly, yarn), I am not here to tell you of my newest purchase. I'm here because I'm sad, angry, and begging for help from the rest of the world. No... Not help just for me, but help for the entire county where I live. Please share this story. We are damaged after Hurricane Irma and we have been forgotten.
Before the storm: September 9th. The emptiest I've ever seen a Walmart in my life. That's because it was closed as Irma began to roll through Florida...
September 10th: Irma begins rolling through central Florida in earnest, and we watch the water rise from Dad's back porch in the last chances to be outside before it really got serious.
September 11th: A day when many Americans were remembering those lost in the terror attacks. In Highlands County, it was forgotten by most as we emerged from our safety zones to view a world that was once again changed forever.
99% of the county without power, and no FEMA in sight. Why? They tell us it's because FEMA was never scheduled to be here... The hurricane wasn't predicted to hit the area so hard.
And while the news talked of Tampa, the Florida Keys, Miami, and other lesser-hit areas, Highlands County sat glued to radios in hopes of getting some information. Cleanup began without help from the government, but signs can be seen hung in places around town: "FEMA, where are you?"
A week later, and still many without power. The famous Harder Hall sits abandoned and now damaged, but is still a favorite view of mine. (I just love abandoned buildings.) The streetlights on the main highway are still out. I do my best to snap as many pictures as possible while helping Rip keep an eye out for debris and dumb drivers.
Highlands County gets brief mentions on the news stations, like with this area. A group of horses had to be rescued from chest-deep water. The stables are off to the left, behind those trees. But what's across the highway that got no mention whatsoever?...
Oh, it's just a trailer park where every house is under water. No big story for the Tampa news, right? I mean, people that live in one-bedroom trailers in a tiny little park probably have plenty of resources and money to rebuild, right???
I'm not asking you to make donations. I want you to help share their stories. These are the people that have been forgotten when they need help the most. These are the people the news doesn't want to cover, because maybe their homes aren't pretty enough for the evening highlights.
They are the people that can look across the highway and know that the water still isn't going away fast enough...
And with flood levels still being so high, they're probably praying for their lives with each passing rain cloud.
Closer to civilization and on the main highway, things are getting back to something-like-normal. Taco Bell is finally open for those who can get there...
And the waves on Lake Jackson have calmed to gentle ripples. Some might drive down the main road through town and see it as a beautiful sight.
But if you take the time to get off the highway (unlike the local news), you'll still find high waters and the people who are living in them.
There are places that are getting better...
And then there are places where rivers have formed in drainage ditches.
Some spots have obviously been a problem for a while. I'm not sure if the local residents have taken to dumping material here to keep the water out, or if it was a poor attempt by the county itself...
But as you drive by, you can see that the attempts have failed.
The water has been rushing over the rubble and biting at the banks. The erosion is getting dangerously close to washing out the road.
Near that road, more houses can be found. Homes with no electricity. No power to cool refrigerators to keep food. No way to run an air conditioner in the humid, 90+ degree heat of Florida. Perhaps they can run a fan if they're luck to have a generator, but not all do.
Crews may be at work, but there are still trees down on power lines. There are lines down in roads. And still people are living in their homes, cleaning up what they can in the hot Florida sun.
Evidence of cleanup is all over the county. Piles of brush and debris line the sides of roads every direction you turn. Yet still, the garbage company refuses to pick up more than once a week. Locals are able to make extra money if they have a truck and trailer, subcontracting for the county by doing part of the cleanup.
Some places look fine at first, until you turn a corner to find another tree on a line...
And other places are cleaned up and repaired, but still have no power due to damage in nearby locations.
What once were big, beautiful trees have now become hazards on the side of the road. One could think "it's just a tree", but we see more than that... Limbs close to the road are causing drivers to swerve into oncoming traffic. Debris gets flung up by tires to land on the windshield of the vehicle behind. It's not "just a tree". It's a danger.
In middle-class neighborhoods, tarps cover roofs and ruined belongings sit out for the trash...
But in lower income areas, trees are on houses. Five days later, there are no tarps here... Only neighbors helping as much as they can to clean up while taking turns cooling off in the shade. It may be true that some of them are on government benefits. Certain people say they don't deserve more help because of it. But I'd like to know how they're supposed to fix this on their own when they're already low income and can't afford generators, cleanup equipment, or the expense of having to buy prepared food in a pinch. Yet they are out there cleaning up as much as they can with their bare hands, waiting for help that still hasn't come.
Gas is still in short supply in certain areas. Fuel pumps have been damaged, and some places don't have electricity to run the station. Those who live in these locations away from the main highway aren't out of the woods yet... Some don't have enough gas to drive to an open station, and it's miles (and miles) to walk to fill a can.
This is an area that has been known to flood for a long time. We were all under the impression that the county was working on a solution. I suppose they haven't found it yet.
But around the corner, somebody is working on another problem. The road home is closed. I have to go the long way around. So, let's look at some more of how Highlands County is "recovering"...
Homes with water up to their doors...
Water still over roads and in yards...
And places that are a little scary to drive through because you can't see if there is still a road under that water until you drive through it.
Some places are getting better...
But the whole town stinks like stagnant water and rotting garbage.
Cleanup efforts are stronger in higher-income neighborhoods.
And some places almost look normal again despite the piles of brush waiting to be collected.
On the new way "home", bright skies and sunny fields could almost make me smile.
Turning a corner on a back road, you could barely tell a hurricane ever went through here. Nothing but a few piles of pine needles gathering along the edges of the street...
But that is not the way to my house, because this is what my ceiling looks like after Hurricane Irma destroyed my home.
With the first quick inspection, we saw a roof still on the house and standing walls - More than we expected to find when we returned.
As I return every day to feed the stray cats that are left behind, I find more damage we missed in our excitement of seeing the mobile home still standing.
Every day, the mold gets darker and creeps farther across the ceiling. As I was loading the photos for this post, my dad was watching the news. They were featuring a story about how homeowners were returning to the Florida Keys to find mold in their homes... I can sympathize. But I can't understand why the news isn't concerned about covering the same story in an area closer to home. The same thing is happening to homeowners here, but nobody seems to care.
Hidden behind a storage cabinet in the bathroom, Irma's winds pushed in my walls. Sure, they were ugly walls in an old mobile home, but they were my ugly walls in my home. I'm lucky the wall is still there and my things aren't blown across the neighborhood. There are people in this town that can't say the same. Yet we only get a short mention during the news... Power is expected to be restored... Soon.
The bedroom wall that we never got to finish... Mold.
The ceiling in the kitchen that is falling in: Mold.
The window I used to love to look out of to watch the birds: Mold. And what's left of my greenhouse, destroyed.
You're probably starting to get the point by now, right? My floors that were supposed to be finished next month: Mold.
And mold. More mold. As the "local" news is covering a few sights that can be seen from the highway and moving on to the more-important Florida Keys' mold problem, I wonder why they act like we don't have the same problem in Highlands County. It makes me angry.
I still count myself lucky that my house doesn't look like the travel trailer at the back of our yard. It didn't make it, just like our shed. But, hey! We did find part of that shed after all. The door landed about 400 feet away from the house, and part of three walls - Or maybe it's the roof and two walls, we can't even tell because it's just a pile of flattened metal - Is about 100 feet away from that. We think the rest might be in the neighbor's pond.
We can't live in our home due to contamination. We don't even know how much of our things we can salvage from it without getting sick. And with the foundation blocks skewed, I'm not sure if it's safe to try. Still today, eight days later, there is no power in the neighborhood. But we have a place to stay at Dad's, and hot food to eat.
There are people camping in their cars in parking lots here. We need FEMA, just like the signs around town say. We need the news to acknowledge we exist with more than a brief mention of when electricity will be restored. WE NEED HELP. And I don't mean me, I mean the whole area and all the people in it that were affected by Irma. Please share this story any way you can, as many ways as you can to get the word out. With not much money left and no home to return to myself, this is the only thing I can do to get help for those that need it.