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Hope in four colors: Rediscovering my heroes after Hurricane Michael

A thank-you to the heroes that have kept me going.

I have loved superheroes my entire life. Even before I began reading comics, they were an inescapable passion. As I’ve mentioned before, I was born the year before Tim Burton’s first Batman was released, a film that still means the world to me, even when I can see its bounty o’flaws as an adult.

I recently told actor John Wesley Shipp at a convention about the time when I was three years old and punched someone while dressed as his version of the Flash. (To be fair, it was Halloween and this evil clown jumped out at me, so I did what any red-blooded superhero would.) Shipp’s response was to tell me that even toddlers can access the Speed Force. In that moment, I loved him as much as I did when I was little. I love my heroes entirely.

I grew up with X-Men, Spider-Man, and Batman the Animated Series on Fox, Static Shock and The Zeta Project on Kids’ WB, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on CBS. When I discovered I could go to a local shop and pick up new Batman and Superman stories (from bins that had them for a quarter each!), I was irrevocably hooked.

As a shy kid who had trouble making friends, I spent a lot of time daydreaming, playing with action figures, and eventually drawing my own three or four-panel comics in class. Superheroes activated my imagination, made me want to be creative. They’ve always been a fixture in my life, even when I was a theater major in college with zero free time and even less money to pick up new comics.

 

But comic books have never been more important to me than they’ve been over the last six months. On October 10, 2018, my hometown of Panama City, Florida was hit by one of the worst hurricanes to ever make landfall in the United States. Hurricane Michael, we had been assured, would be a Category 2 at worst. On the evening prior, my fiancé and I bought a case of water and some snacks, preparing to have a couple of impromptu days off from work. In an experience shared by so many people in our area, we woke the next morning to discover that Michael had gained strength overnight and was now a Category 4. We were told it was too late to leave.

Over the next few hours, we watched the elements invade our home. Water seeped in under the doors and through the baseboards, the window in our bedroom exploded from the wind pressure, and the awnings over our windows were ripped from their screws, slamming repeatedly into the walls of our duplex. I ran into our bedroom to save some of our belongings, not realizing the wind would suck the door closed, forcing me to wait until it changed direction and I could get back to safety. We sat under a mattress, our phones utterly useless (as they would be for weeks after), water pooling around our feet and glass blowing around us, praying for a moment of calm.

When the storm finally settled, we stepped outside and could no longer recognize our own neighborhood. A concrete fountain from some other street now sat in our yard. Every power line was down, and cars were overturned. We looked at some of the other houses on our street and realized we were, in fact, the lucky ones. We couldn’t call our families or even get to them with all of the debris. There was no power and no running water, but we were alive and whole and we would be able to figure it out eventually. That night, we fell asleep on our damp futon next to the glow of a lemon-scented candle, waking up every 15 minutes or so to see if our quickly-dying phones had a signal yet.

The next morning, when my parents came to find us, I knew two things for sure: One, the damage to our apartment meant that we would have to move out. And two, I wanted to be anywhere other than where I was.

Like I said, I’ve pretty much always been into comic books. When I was a bullied kid in elementary and middle school, Jim Shooter’s The Good Guys and Chuck Dixon’s Robin made me feel smart and powerful, even if no one else could see it. When I lost my best friend in college and was constantly told that it was all part of some kind of master plan, Preacher gave me the balls to be mad at God, and Sandman reminded me of the beauty and comfort that comes with keeping the faith.

Though I had started a regular pull list at my local comics shop (shout-out to New Force Comics, who really became a lifeline), I was finding myself to be less passionate about the stories I was reading. It was no fault of the writers or the books themselves; comics were just becoming another responsibility for me, a waning hobby that gave me an excuse to get out of the house and talk to fellow nerds.

When the hurricane happened, all I wanted to do was dive back into comics and find some kind of hope waiting for me in those panels. If there is one thing I can thank Michael for, it’s reinstilling that love for superheroes in me.

Eventually we left. We grabbed some of our dry clothes and a few books, we nailed a blanket over the window that had burst, and we left with my parents, who had likewise evacuated to stay with my aunt. There were no working traffic lights in Bay County. No radio stations for the first day or so. The newspaper that my father works for had debris in the printing press, the main office area (which I’m told was built to withstand a Category 4 hurricane) lay crumpled under the fallen ceiling. There was a mandatory curfew and we were unable to cross the Hathaway Bridge to see if my parents’ house was still standing. We stayed at my aunt’s house for a few days.

The first day is still mostly a blur. My dad cried when he finally got his phone to play a voicemail I’d left in the middle of the storm, begging him for advice as the wind howled around me. By candlelight, I read a short story I’d written to my family, occasionally stuttering over the words when the flame would flicker in the wrong way. We went outside and marveled at how many stars we’d been missing in a city with power.

That night, unable to sleep in the heat and with the memory of the day before playing over and over in my head, I began reading Batgirl again. I had digital copies saved on my tablet, which I had luckily remembered to charge the day before the storm. Why not? I needed to catch up, and I needed the escape. And once I started reading, I couldn’t stop.

I needed my heroes. I needed Barbara Gordon to show me that the darkness can always be overcome, that my body is not all that there is to who I am. I needed Princess Amethyst to give me permission to transform and surprise everyone with how capable I could be. I needed Buddy Baker, Animal Man, to remind me that everything is connected, that my community needed me just as much as I needed them. I needed John Constantine to give me a wink and say it was alright to be bitter; I’d get the bastards in the end.

They saw me through a lot in those days: finally returning to my parents’ home and seeing the old house was worn, but standing. Washing off in the pool and meeting my parents’ neighbors. Grilling all of our meat before it spoiled. Crying when I finally found Wi-Fi because the folks at Publix had set up a massive generator and were allowing people to come inside; immediately calling my sister to tell her we were OK and that she shouldn’t try to come down here. Finally getting my fiancé through hours of the worst traffic and destruction I’ve ever seen so we could exchange sweaty hugs with her parents. Arguing abruptly because everyone’s nerves were worn down. Making up that same day. Hearing my community coming together through the one radio station still standing.

Oh, yeah. Here’s the cool thing about heroes that I discovered after the hurricane: they’re real. They were the men and women who were out in the streets with their own chainsaws, removing the debris from their neighbors’ homes before rescue workers could even get into town. The electricians and contractors and firemen and police officers who came from all over the country to help check for survivors and pass out supplies. The local restaurants and food trucks who gave away food for free to families who couldn’t even find a place to shower. The woman who flagged down an ambulance when the elderly lady passed out in front of us on the hot concrete while waiting for a meal. In every horror, there was a light.

My love for superheroes will never overshadow the very real heroism I saw after Hurricane Michael. I am so unbelievably grateful for every single one of them, fictional or not.

Olive Silverlock and the Gotham Academy Mystery Club hammered the importance of friendship home for me, so I’ll never forget to reach out to the people who love me. Jem and the Holograms and the Misfits (their songs are way better, FYI) reminded me that staying true to myself and owning my pain could yield better art. I felt so bitter about the reset button that had been pressed upon my life, I just wanted to shut my bedroom door and isolate myself, but Midnighter and Apollo showed me that real strength comes with holding onto love, not running from it. Miles Morales taught me that it’s OK to fear failure, but you always gotta try. Hellboy could find the beauty in ugliness, and so I set out to do that, too.

When I finally had internet service back, I applied to be a contributing writer at AiPT! I had rediscovered my love for superheroes and suddenly had much more time on my hands, as I was one of many, many people who lost their job due to Hurricane Michael. Three weeks to the day after the hurricane hit, my first comic book review was published. I had my heroes back and I was writing again, two things that used to be so important to me, but that I had let fall by the wayside before the storm.

AiPT! ended up being an outlet when I needed one most. I feel so lucky to be able to share my enjoyment of comics and entertainment with the readers of this site and the other contributors.

We’re six months out from Hurricane Michael, with Governor Ron DeSantis having just extended the state of emergency for another two months. Despite the devastation, we are told that it is unlikely the hurricane will be re-categorized as a Category 5, as its 155 mph winds falling 2 mph under the required speed. Many of our trees are gone and our roads are hard to recognize, even for someone who’s lived here most of their life.

But we’re still here. My fiancé and I were lucky enough to have family take us in, while so many people are still living in tents. So many of our friends have left the town or the state entirely, since there’s nothing left for them here. Meanwhile, spring breakers are arriving in Panama City Beach, seemingly unaware that anything happened (other than all of the clubs have “mysteriously” closed). It’s easy to be bitter.

It’s going to be a long time before things feel “normal” again. Until then, though, I have my heroes back. I have my hope back. And for that, I am so grateful.

Thank you for reading and thanks to AiPT! for letting me share my story. If you’d like to help with Hurricane Michael relief in any way, here is a list of charity organizations currently involved with the relief effort. I’m okay, but there are so many here who still are not.

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