“I told my wife if we left on Friday morning, we could probably get back before all the roads were flooded.”
It wasn’t the best idea that John Gomez has ever had. After spending three days with some relatives in Winston-Salem, he thought there was an opportunity, a window really, to return home. His plan was to get on the road, just as the eye of Hurricane Florence was making landfall.
He’ll tell you that it was all strategy. If he waited, if he didn’t leave at the precious moment, he’d likely get stranded for several days. But on some level, it was also a concern, or maybe even fear, that prompted John to get back. His home is off of River Road, with 8 large oak trees in the front yard. Plus he has an oceanfront investment property in Kure Beach.
He knew he could nothing to stop the storm… but if he could just get back, somehow he would feel more in control.
“We hit Raleigh and that’s when the first band of rain started to come down. We were on I-40 going 20 miles an hour and it was just like a wall of water. You couldn’t see two feet in front of you. My wife made me stop. We pulled over and started to call hotels.”
This is a story of the battles we fight in life, it’s about our desire to stay in charge. And because there is so much, like the weather, that is beyond our own authority, it is also a story about surrender and finding peace in letting go. This is John’s Hurricane Florence story.
“Of course by that time everything was booked. Plus we had the dogs with us, so we needed a place that would take pets. Eventually, we found a La Quinta that had room, but it was 20 miles up the road.”
Distance is a relative thing. In one sense, John and his family were only about 150 miles away from their home. In another sense, it was like they were on the other side of the world. Information was impossible to come by.
They tried to keep track of the storm from their hotel room. The television stations had crews in New Bern, Wrightsville Beach, and downtown Wilmington. But no one was talking about the areas that mattered to John. He tried to call some neighbors, get online, find anyone who knew anything but with each passing our John started to assume the worst.
“I felt I was screwed, I kept saying, ‘My insurance better come through.’ ”
You can live in that state of fear and frustration for quite some time. You can worry yourself sick and get all caught up with everything that is beyond your reach. Or… you can look around.
There was a moment that Friday when John started to think of his son in Afghanistan. There was another boy off in college. And two youngest sons were here with them now. He knew that his family was safe.
“That’s when my priorities changed. Everything that mattered to me was right there. It was all in God’s hands. If He wanted to destroy the house, He was going to destroy the house. I was still concerned, but I knew then that whatever was going to happen, was going to happen.”
Storms have a way of changing our perspective. They can change what we consider important, change our levels of endurance or compassion. And in some cases, a storm can be the precise thing that causes you to see the world through someone else’s point of view.
“It didn’t take too long for the rumors to start. Everyone in our motel was an evacuee, and they all had friends in other hotels trying to get back. Someone’s phone would ring with rumors that a route had opened up and there may be a way home.”
It wasn’t until Tuesday, at least John thinks it was Tuesday, all the days have run together in his mind, that he finally was able to get back on the road. The rumor mill told him to take I-40 to highway 70, and then cut over to route 285 which would converge with 24, eventually, he could hop on highway 17 in Jacksonville and then head towards Wilmington.
Five hours! That’s how long it took. A trip that normally is around 2 hours, more than doubled in length. And which each mile, with his own eyes and not video on a television screen, John saw the damage.
“It just looked, I don’t know… like one of those zombie movies. Everywhere you went, you could tell that people once lived here, because their stuff was still there, but you never saw a person. It was like holy crap, what happened here.”
They say there are stages in a storm like Florence. John had already gone from control to surrender. And then after you realize that it’s all out of your hands, that there’s nothing you can do, you face the reality that some people had it worse, way worse, than others. And that’s when you move from gratitude to guilt.
When he did finally make it home, John saw all of his oak trees still standing, they lost several branches, and his yard was a mess. Meanwhile, some water got into the rental property down at Kure Beach, but it in no way did it compare to everything John had witnessed on the road
Even though he had dodged the bullet, that’s the moment it somehow got real for John. That’s the moment that his personal storm turned into compassion for others, that’s the moment when he started to process everything that he saw.
“We were so lucky. It was like, who am I to complain. I hated to even call the insurance company. People lost everything, and it will never be the same for them. And all at once I am filled with gratitude, but also sorrow. Man, it could have been so much worse.