As soon as we absorbed the full impact of how Hurricane Ivan in 2004 had derailed our lives, the words, ‘I can’t wait for my life to get back to normal,’ spilled from our lips, repeatedly.

Everyone was muttering those words as they dragged wet carpet and Sheetrock from their flooded homes, salvaged belongings from tree-crushed rooms, and waited in long lines for food, water, gasoline or interviews for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance.

Free ice being giving away at the Walmart in Callaway, Florida to those impacted by Hurricane Michael
Free ice being giving away at the Walmart in Callaway, Florida to those impacted by Hurricane Michael

I’ve heard many people repeating this refrain on the streets of the Florida Panhandle, post Hurricane Michael. As a Hurricane Ivan survivor and a former reporter — whose post-Ivan beat became all things “recovery” — I’m here to say: You will recover, but for some, your life may not return to the normal you knew before Michael.

Chasing normal may only cause more stress. Instead — and this is what a mental health professional I interviewed for a story after Ivan advised — “Strive for a new normal.”

Those were magical words to me at that time. The idea helped me shift my own mental gears from “hurricane victim” to “hurricane survivor.” It also gave me a new perspective on how to cover the Ivan recovery story.

Finding a new normal does not necessarily mean your life will be worse off. But for some, it means accepting that you may have to re-chart your future plans, which can translate to new beginnings, a fresh start and making some hard decisions.

Century 21 assisting those impacted by Hurricane Michael in Callaway, Florida
Century 21 assisting those impacted by Hurricane Michael in Callaway, Florida

Many Ivan survivors who were driven by that desire to “get back to normal,” rushed to make decisions that would lead to financial ruin and major setbacks. Quickly hiring sketchy contractors who didn’t deliver quality work or overcharged for work, compounded an already difficult recovery process.

There will be challenging and frustrating days ahead, especially for those who lost loved ones, lost their homes or are displaced renters. Some people will recover faster.

Over the months I covered the post-Ivan recovery, it became clear that for many others in some of the hardest hit areas recovery took longer. And many discovered they didn’t have adequate insurance coverage or lacked insurance to help with the recovery process. People cashed-in savings, retirement nest-eggs, borrowed money from family and maxed out credit cards in a rush to rebuild and repair their homes and get back to normal.

If there’s one lesson-learned from Ivan – this came from disaster recovery experts — it’s to think through your financial decisions carefully. Make a repair or recovery plan and a financial plan as insurance money and FEMA dollars come in. Think through those plans carefully and chart a course that will help you get on the road to recovery without facing financial hardships. I heard plenty of people post-Ivan recovery lament, “I wish I had planned better.”

Student volunteers from Heritage Academy in Monterey, Tenn. and members of Ocala’s 2/124th Florida Army National Guard unit load water, ice, Meals Ready to Eat and tarps into the cars of those affected by Hurricane Michael at an aid distribution center at Panama City’s Rosenwald High School.

And embrace grieving your losses. Things can be replaced, but the loss of family photos, heirlooms and even a favorite personal item, is hard. We lost about 75 percent of our belongings during Ivan, including my childhood photos and keepsakes, but those losses fade with time.

Despite the struggles, in some ways, we recovered in a better place after having to make some really tough decisions — including doing much of the repair work ourselves, a choice that took much longer but cost much less.

One of the best things that came out of the derailment-thanks-to-Ivan is that many Pensacola-area residents forged stronger relationships with their neighbors as they made the best of living in RVs in their driveways, having neighborhood cookouts, potlucks and sharing rebuilding tips and power tools.

Even though we were all happy to get out of the temporary trailers in our driveways and back into our homes, and move on, we missed that old-fashioned front-porch camaraderie with our neighbors.

In many ways, I’m happy our lives did not return to normal. Despite the hardships along the way, we landed in a much stronger place with stronger bonds our neighbors and a community that was made stronger as we united in the recovery process.

In the wake of Ivan, the people and community found a new, more resilient normal. This is what I hope for those who are rebuilding from Hurricane Michael.