'Just trying to get by 1 day at a time:' Many Hurricane Michael, Florence victims more focused on recovery than preparing for holidays

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer
November 21, 2018, 1:24:46 PM EST

Holiday plans are looking drastically different for many who were heavily impacted by Florence in the Carolinas and Michael in the Florida Panhandle.

2018 was meant to be the first year that Lauren Auton’s family gathered at her home to celebrate Christmas.

The western North Carolina native, who’s a graduate student and assistant for student conduct and community standards at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW), also anticipated having friends and family over to attend her December graduation.

Those plans have since changed. She and a smaller number of family members will now have a “pared-down Christmas” in her hometown. After Hurricane Florence ravaged North Carolina with severe flooding in September, the family now has no place near her to get everyone together, said Auton.

Hurricane Michael - AP Images

In this Oct. 23, 2018 photo, Ronald Lauricella cradles a kitten in his front yard in Bay County, Florida. The rural Bay County resident says some on the outskirts of the cities aren't getting needed services like electricity as fast as the populated areas. (AP Photo/Tamara Lush)

It’s a bit tricky to set up a Christmas tree in a camper van, and hosting a group of loved ones in such a cramped space would prove even more difficult.

That camper van is Auton and her partner’s temporary home on their property as their previously flooded and now gutted-out house awaits much-needed restoration.

They initially evacuated from the North Carolina coastline to the western part of the state before Florence hit. After seeing a Facebook video that showed the extent of the flooding on their street back home, Auton had to mentally prepare herself for the damage that awaited her upon her return a few weeks later.

“I’d never been to an area that flooded like this, so I didn’t know what to expect,” she told AccuWeather. “Basically, everything was gone. Never did we think it would flood as high as it did [in the house].”

For Auton and her partner, much of the usual Christmas spirit reserved for this time of year has all but evaporated.

“We’re trying to get back into it, but a lot of the money that we’ve used for gifts and other things for the holidays, we’re now worried about replacing things that have been destroyed and making sure we have enough to get the house fixed,” Auton said.

“The feel of it is very different,” she said, adding that the soon-approaching Thanksgiving holiday has crept up on her, as she and her family have been preoccupied with making plans with insurance companies and contractors.

The Autons aren’t alone in being taken aback by the seemingly swift arrival of the holiday season.

Natalie Buchholz, a photographer for the Cajun Navy who’s known for her frequent fruit and supply deliveries to Hurricane Michael victims, said that her most recent trip to Panama City, Florida, was especially “heartbreaking.”

Child walks down Michael-damaged street in Panama City, Florida

A child wanders down a street covered in debris from Hurricane Michael in Panama City, Florida. (Photo/Pam Hobbs)

“People are living in their cars in a parking lot, [as well as in] tents and RVs,” Buchholz said. “The tents are directly on the tarmac, and they told me how very cold the last few nights had been with the low temperatures.”

When she asked them what their holiday plans were, she said that most hadn’t even thought about it and didn’t realize they’d arrive so quickly. Recent wet and chilly weather has only helped to dampen holiday spirits.

“I mainly got the same answer from everyone: ‘We're just trying to get by one day at a time,’” Buchholz said.

Many people seemed to be more focused on housing and trying to find work, she said, noting that one man desired neither donations nor food – but rather a job so that he could earn money and get back into a normal routine.

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Panama City resident Pam Hobbs and her husband have no plans to celebrate Thanksgiving as they continue to recover from Michael’s devastation and help others do so as well.

“We’re not able to have Thanksgiving dinner at home this year,” said Hobbs, owner of Mr.Rooter Plumbing of Northwest Florida, a Neighborly Company.

“Our daughters are going with their spouses out of town to their in-laws,” she told AccuWeather. “My husband and I are just staying home and resting and as for Christmas, we really haven't even considered it — too much to contemplate at this time.”

While she and her family do intend to “rise above and overcome” this hurdle, Hobbs said she’s “just not in a holiday mood” this year.

Things that people experience on a daily basis are even more challenging when they’ve been displaced and are struggling to see past the devastation, Hobbs said.

“Our employees have to ride through it every day, knowing they can help some, but [not everyone],” she said. “One employee said he would need counseling before all this was done.”

Gloria McCracken Godwin, who runs social media accounts for the Cajun Navy Foundation, told AccuWeather that while the group doesn’t have the means to directly provide meals this year, they are working in Florida and the Carolinas to connect people with locations that are serving Thanksgiving meals in their areas.

Some Cajun Navy volunteers are also collecting food items to distribute to hurricane victims in need of a Thanksgiving dinner.

A list of locations where people can receive free Thanksgiving meals along the Florida Panhandle can be found here.

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