Fire, Wind, Water. Can Disaster Change Your Life for the Better?
June 25, 2012
In the midst of what will likely be the worst forest fire in the history of Colorado, The High Park Fire, I think of Hurricane Ivan in Pensacola, the disaster that brought us here, and my first post on this blog.
Those suffering from this fire: These are times that will not only test you, but can break you.
Don’t let it.
Can disaster change your life for the better?
September 16, 2004 I awoke at two a.m. to pitch black, wind howling outside, and a curious sound in the bedroom: my dog lapping water. But our wonderful blond lab, Maggie, lay at our feet, sleeping. The sound was swamp water percolating under the baseboards. Rolling off the mattress, my wife and I waded into stinky water, floating Purina Dog Chow and paper shredder confetti–welcome to the parade.
I’d had a great year: both daughters got married, I caught a 150 lb. tarpon on a fly rod, started a promising practice with great docs, and my son had orchestrated a surprise fiftieth birthday party. I was writing my first novel, a horror, techno-thriller about fictional events after 9/11, sure to outsell Steven King.
The day before the water came, the news said it was a monster: Hurricane Ivan, Cat 5 in the Gulf. I smashed one thumb and nearly fell off the ladder boarding up the second story windows. This made the inside a tomb of darkness, the garage door the only exit. Lynn and I discussed leaving the state. We filled the bathtubs, organized canned food and peanut butter (I could live off peanut butter and honey sandwiches for weeks), then moved the computer upstairs along with the important papers, dog food, fresh batteries in flashlights, etc.
At 7 p.m., in purple-olive twilight and paltry wind and misty rain, I played fetch outside with Maggie. No big deal. The news announced Ivan would weaken to Cat 3 at landfall. We decided to stay. Yes! No waiting for a week after the storm to get back over the bridge while looters had a field day, or water leaks went from tiny to disastrous.
We hunkered down—that’s hurricane talk—in our upstairs bedroom. The wind howled, trying to tear off the roof … right over our heads. No thank you. We trundled everything back downstairs, including a mattress, to the bedroom our son vacated last week. After all, our neighborhood had never flooded in recorded history. Who needed flood insurance? Our house had survived two other Cat 3’s with piddling damage. No prob.
Right. We’d never been in the northeast quadrant. Apparently we forgot.
For weeks afterwards we survived in a post-flood environment that reminded me of Sarajevo: feral dogs, fetid piles of rubbish, no water or AC, roving, camouflaged National Guard Humvees, and Red Cross water and food tents. I nearly lopped off a leg chain-sawing shattered trees, screwed up a knee replacing wallboard, and continued to work forty-hour weeks, sitting in rubbish-removal traffic jams for hours.
It shook our hearts and souls like a dirty rug. But we couldn’t get clean. The neighbors had the first, and last, Tiger Point trailer-trash party in their camper on their driveway next to the POD that held all their worldly goods. Their home was unlivable.
We sang, we drank, but we all knew: Never again.
The biggest lessons we learned? Things can be replaced. Loved ones cannot. Go after your dreams. Now.
My wife and I moved to Colorado, closer to roots and family. I wrote and guided fly fishing. She became a hooker—wool art hooking, okay. We camped in Yellowstone with Maggie. Then I realized I was not Steven King; gas prices skyrocketed; the adult kids moved back; guiding fly fishing made no money.
Time to go back to what I knew best, doctoring. I went to work for the VA.
Hurricanes and fire are nothing compared to war. War crippled our best, their bodies and minds. But not their souls.
Veterans taught me disaster can change your life for the better.