Hurricanes and Funerals

While most of the folks across the Gulf Coast were dealing with the larger forces of Hurricane Sally, one family was doing their best to handle the near impossible task of saying their last farewells to Uncle Bob. It’s hard enough to bury someone you love under normal circumstances. Pity the family that has to do it in the middle of a Hurricane.

Panama City. Wednesday, September 16. Six inches of rain have fallen in the last few hours. Sally hit the coast line about 150 miles east of PC, but when you’re dealing with a storm that is 250 miles across the mid-section, and you’re on the east side of the eye where relentless bands of warm air stream up out of the Gulf like a freight train, you feel it just the same.

PC knows what it’s like to be in the belly of the beast. Michael came to visit not so long ago and pretty much flattened everything in sight. Miles of crumpled houses in piles across what used to be neighborhoods. Tractor trailer loads of blue tarps shipped in and used for make-shift roofs. Debris and brokenness are still evident two years after the fury of Michael rolled over this coastal haven of clear blue water, white sand and palm trees.

The folks in PC are veteran hurricane survivors. And when the news channels started talking about Sally, the family prepared for the inevitable. They knew what they were facing. You might think that anyone with good sense would have held off. Postpone the service. But there is a certain kind of indigenous PC grit that makes a family forge ahead, even under gale force winds and torrential rain.

It’s 12:05 PM at Kent-Forest Funeral Home on Harrison Avenue. The road out front looks more like a swollen creek channel than a street. Guard rails and stop signs jut up above the rippled water. The curb at the front door has about 10 inches between it and the water’s edge. And the water is steady rising.

I texted my buddy, Hank, who’s a part-time funeral director at KFFH. “You got galoshes?” This is going to be a graveside service. “No”, he said. “But we might have to float the casket out on a rubber raft if the water gets up any higher.” Funeral home guys have developed their own sense of humor. If this was Biblical times, Noah would be closing the door about now and slapping tar on the last seam.

My first thought was about the grave itself. Seems pretty obvious to me that the grave digger would be having a hard time getting a dry hole in the ground. He’s sitting up on the backhoe. The crew is leaning on shovels. Rain suits are dripping water off the bill of their caps. It’s more like a small swimming pool than a final resting place.

I know this for sure, caskets float.

In the summer of 1994 tropical storm Alberto rolled up over Destin, FL and made its way into the west central section of GA. It was early July, and I was trying to make my way into Pine Mountain on Hwy 18. The bridge over the Flint River was closed. Water was piling up downstream like God was pouring water out of a bucket.

Farther south, the city of Albany, which is split in two by the waters of the Flint, had nearly 28 inches of rainfall over three days. Store fronts downtown had water marks up to the second floor. What I remember most is the grim pictures of over 400 caskets floating in the water.

So, I’m wondering how they are going to get Uncle Bob in the ground on a day like this. I’m picturing a small tent awning whipping in the wind like a dish rag at 50 mph. Small unstable little wooden chairs sitting on top of a fake green grass carpet. Water oozing up around ankles in high heel shoes. Uncle Bob bobbing up and down like a shrimp boat moored at the dock.

I called Hank today. “So, I’m dying to know. How’d it go yesterday with the graveside service.?”

“The family was 10 minutes late for their own service. They couldn’t get here on time because of the flooded streets and all the detours they had to take. Everybody’s shoes were a little squishy.”

“You really went outside to do the service?”

“Naw. Ain’t no way.”

It turns out that the images in my head were unfounded. They called it a graveside service because that’s what the family paid for, but under hurricane conditions you get an inside service in one of the parlor rooms. The preacher and four family members attended. It will take at least 4 or 5 days of dry weather before they can dig in the Florida sand without the sides caving in. The family will have to wait a little longer for final closure.

I’m betting that Uncle Bob, like most Panhandlers along the Gulf Coast, was a tough old bird. You’d have to be. PC has seen 60 direct hits since hurricanes have been tracked, going back to 1871. For someone who was born there and who has built a life there and who has no intention of ever going anywhere else, the response is always the same. The hurricane knocks you down, and you build it back. Never any doubt.

Kent-Forest Funeral Home was almost wiped out by Michael in 2018. The walls and roof of the embalming room and crematorium were left intact. Bruised but not lost. The offices, parlors, and chapel were scattered across the bayous up north toward the Alabama State line.

Hank says that there’s a lot of Funeral Homes in the PC area. Lots of business to be had in the senior demographic, I guess. Most of them, except Kent-Forest, were a total loss at the hands of Michael. Management quickly made arrangements with some of the local churches whose buildings survived to use their sanctuaries for services. The insurance claim was processed. Money moved mountains. And in a couple of months Kent-Forest was back up and taking care of business.

Right now, there are chain saws running all across the Panhandle of Florida. Tents are set up in yards and any vacant piece of ground that’s available. Church fellowship halls have pallets of water and fruit and basic staples to hand out for free. Cook stoves are feeding volunteers who are tired and worn out, but who are full of life and stories about the day. Linemen are rebuilding the grid. Trucks and frontend loaders are clearing debris.

Little by little they will come back. One day at a time, they will rise out of the devastation that floods their existence.

One family is back home in PC, grateful that Sally was 150 miles east when it hit. They had been waiting since late August to have services for Uncle Bob. At first, the preacher couldn’t make it. Then, family couldn’t get together on a date. Then another preacher couldn’t clear his calendar. Then, when a date was finally set, Sally came roaring down on them.

“Do you think we should wait? It’s gonna be pretty nasty out there.”

“Nope. Uncle Bob has waited long enough, already. What’s a little hurricane when we’ve got a funeral to go to?”

Carry on PC. Pensacola. Mobile. Carry on.

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