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I told myself it would be better than I imagined.

The drive from Atlanta took 14 hours, the last six of them between Tampa and Fort Myers. That’s a long time to worry. A long time to hope. I’d heard from a friend who weathered the storm in my neighborhood that there’d been flooding, but I didn’t understand the extent of it. I told myself that a lot of my little cottage could be saved. Not the rugs, of course. Not the couch. Not the mattresses. But most of my furniture, surely. And definitely the pieces that were precious to me.

But as we got closer and word came in about the state of my neighborhood near downtown Fort Myers, I began to cross things off the list. My books probably couldn’t be saved, or my desk where I did my writing, or the pretty nightstand beside my bed shaped like a peacock.

And still, I didn’t understand the full extent of it.

Even as I pulled into my driveway and saw the watermark ringing the outside of my house, as high as my shoulders, I didn’t understand. I stepped out of the car and walked to my front door, shaking. I pulled open the door and stepped inside. It was only then, standing in my little historic bungalow—the first house I ever owned, a house that is mine alone, a house filled with my taste and my treasures—that I understood.

None of it could be saved.

The house was still standing. That was a blessing. But inside everything was ruined. Not just the books and rugs and furniture, the peacock-shaped nightstand and the writing desk by the window, but the walls, the floors, the kitchen. Everything.

Over the next two days, we frantically ripped out wet drywall and insulation. We mopped mud and river water off the floors. We put everything I owned in my front yard. Then there was nothing to do but wait. Wait for the power to come back on. Wait for the wood framing in the walls to dry out. Wait to see if the original hardwood floors could be saved.

During that long space of waiting, I began to take inventory. Not just of what was sitting in my yard—the ruined photos, the warped furniture, the broken pieces of pottery—but what was in my heart. Here’s what I learned.

Use the Good Stuff

It came to me when I was standing with a soaked box of incense in my hand. It was the good kind of incense, bought from Remedies Parlor near downtown Fort Myers. It had been pricey. It smelled beautiful, luxurious and cool, like Remedies itself. The box had originally held 20 sticks of incense, and in the last two years I’d burned two of them. I was, I’d rationalized, saving them for the right moment.

And there they were, a wet paste in my hand.

Here’s the truth: The right moment will never come. Or, said another way, the right moment is now. Use the good dishes. Wear the special perfume. Burn the pricey incense. There are no guarantees for the future.

The Fabric of Community Is All Around Us

In the first chaotic days after I returned to Fort Myers, I discovered the strength and depth of the community that surrounded me. Friends texted to ask if they could help.

“Yes,” I said. “But it’s shit work.”

It was shit work. Terrible, hot, dirty work. They responded, every one of them, “On my way.”

In less than 24 hours, I had a generator borrowed from photographer friend Brian Tietz chugging on my front porch. Inside my house, one friend cut drywall while another ripped out the kitchen cabinets. Strangers showed up. A woman named Angel helped me pile my books in a soggy mountain by the road. Another group of women offered to empty my shed.

“It’s gross in there,” I warned them.

They shrugged. “We’ve seen worse.”

A woman and her son moved every piece of furniture to a safe place beside my house. The hot sun beat down on them while they worked for hours.

I didn’t stop to cry. If I let the hurt take over, I wouldn’t be able to do the work I needed to do. Instead, I was grateful to these people who came from Naples, from San Carlos, from Lehigh and North Fort Myers. Even in the middle of disaster, the Southwest Florida community knit together beautifully.

Take Nothing for Granted

As I worked to save my own house, I thought about Fort Myers Beach. I grew up on the beach. Its tide pools and sea oats and shorebirds formed the backdrop of my childhood. No matter where in the world I ventured, I always came home to Bonita Bill’s, to Times Square, to my mom’s house mid-island. The beach had weathered countless storms—unnamed summer storms that sent the tides raging, hurricanes such as Charley and Irma that dumped sand in driveways and peeled off siding.

I stood in my yard and remembered the last day I was on the beach. It was an early afternoon in August. The sky was a deep, cloudless blue. The beach daisies in my mom’s yard were in full bloom from the summer rains, and their yellow petals stood out against the green leaves. A pair of monarch butterflies flitted across the driveway, past the gumbo limbo trees and the milkweed.

My mom’s neighbors, Bobbi and Jerry, called out from next door. I waved hello. Bobbi’s orchids were blooming. Jerry had just put on a new deck. Renters were pulling into the cottage on the other side, a house that used to belong to my grandma. I still remember the smell of the heart pine paneling on its walls. I’d been in and out of the houses in this neighborhood all my life. Wood-frame houses, stilt houses, most of them dating back to the 1950s. These houses had made it through Hurricane Donna in 1960. They’d been lashed with rain and sun and salt air for decades. They’d survived and survived and survived. I never imagined, not once, that in less than a month all of it would be gone.

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