STILL KICKIN HERO NOVEMBER 2019
Every month, we provide financial support to an awesome person or family going through something awful.
Raise your hand if you remember Hurricane Andrew, the hurricane that ripped through Florida in 1992? (If you're, ahem, of a younger generation, we recommend asking someone a decade or two older than you.)
How about Hurricane Katrina, the storm that destroyed New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana and Florida in 2005? (Okay, we see some more hands.)
Now, how many of you remember Hurricane Michael?
It happened only a year ago.
Leslie Fambro, our November 2019 Hero, isn't surprised by that.
"Our storm was bigger than Andrew," she told us. "But people don't understand. Schools here were demolished. Lots of insurance companies still haven't paid out. So when everyone was talking about that hurricane hitting the Bahamas last month, we were like, 'Wait. What about us?'"
Hurricane Michael wiped out several counties in the Florida panhandle in October 2018, causing an estimated $25 billion in damages. Months later, analysis from the National Hurricane Center would reveal that Michael was a category 5 hurricane when it made landfall in the U.S. — the first of its kind since the infamous Andrew in 1992.
When the storm hit, Leslie was at her job at the county jail; she's been working in corrections for 23 years. "When you work in corrections and see a hurricane's coming, you have to go to work — it's business as usual," she said. "We didn't know how bad it was going to be."
Michael's winds reached speeds of 160 miles per hour and took countless roofs and buildings with it. And it all happened quickly; Leslie estimates the worst of it lasted only about three hours. "My saving grace was that I had phone service for the first hour, so I knew my kids were okay," she said.
Leslie is a single mom of two daughters: a recent college graduate, who lives about an hour away, and a high schooler. She told us her older daughter drove into town as the hurricane approached to pick up her sister and bring her to their grandma's house, so they'd be safe(ish) together. "I didn't even get to see them until the next day at like 4PM," she told us. "No one could get around because of the debris. It was a maze trying to get to them. Once I saw them, I thought, 'Okay, I'm good. They're fine.' But then, reality kicks in. What are we going to do now?"
Leslie's house was technically still standing, but it'd been overtaken by water and mold. A year later, it's still uninhabitable. And that's how it's been for many Floridians affected by Hurricane Michael. Some still haven't received the money they're owed from their insurance companies to pay for repairs. And even if Leslie did have the money, she'd still be on an endlessly long wait list for a contractor to do the work. There simply aren't enough people to fix everything that needs to be fixed. It's no wonder Leslie and others in her situation feel like they've been forgotten — like few people outside of the panhandle even remember Michael ever happened.
For six months, Leslie and her now 10th grade daughter stayed at Grandma's with a half dozen other family members, sleeping on the floor or on air mattresses. Over their heads? A blue tarp covering up the holes in the damaged, leaking roof. Leslie told us they were without power for 22 days; cell phone service didn't come back for about a month. For another month after that, Leslie's daughter didn't know if her friends and classmates were okay. To this day, the sound of thunder sends her into a panic.
Leslie and her daughter moved into a rental house this past March while they wait for their house to be repaired. But with so many homes destroyed, the prices on rental properties have skyrocketed. (You know, that whole law of supply and demand thing?) This means Leslie has been working overtime six or seven days a week since Michael just to make ends meet.
"The rent is so astronomical," Leslie told us. "My whole first paycheck of the month goes to rent and rent alone. And mine is on the lower end of the spectrum."
Leslie has a used mattress, now, but no bed. Her daughter is back at school, but most of her friends have left town. The few friends that remain are "the only thing keeping me from leaving," Leslie told us. "We're all trying to give our kids normalcy." She told us that some stores and restaurants in the area have reopened but have to close by 7PM due to a lack of employees.
Still, Leslie considers herself lucky. She knows plenty of people who are living outside in tents while they wait for their homes to be repaired. Who can't afford the extreme rental prices. But it hasn't been easy. Not one bit. She still sees those telltale blue tarps everywhere she goes.
"You try to get up every day and not think about it, so that you can look forward," she said. "The more you look back, the more power the past has on you. But we're not living. We're just surviving."
With help from your merch purchases and donations, Still Kickin is giving Leslie an unrestricted financial grant to #HelpAHumanOut. To make the waiting game until she can move back into her house a bit more bearable.