PERRY COUNTY — Last week, Hurricane Matthew dominated national headlines as it barreled over Haiti and threatened the eastern coast of the United States. By Thursday, most of Florida was under a hurricane warning with residents near the Atlantic receiving evacuation notices. Matthew held the potential to be one of the most devastating storms in Florida’s history.
A few Perry County natives were in Florida and witnessed Matthew’s wrath last week. Joey Hall Labonte grew up and spent most of his life in Perry County, but now lives in Ocklawaha, Florida. When asked how he prepared for Matthew, Labonte responded,
“We already keep flashlights, batteries, candles, bottled water and non-perishable (junk) food in a hurricane preparedness area of the house. We also went and got a big bottle of rum to calm the nerves, and it also works as an antiseptic had it been needed.”
Matthew was a category 4 hurricane, when it finally reached the waters adjacent to the Labonte farm. Joey said the treatment he received from neighbors throughout the experience reminded him of back-home hospitality.
“I live in a tiny community in the Ocala National Forest called Ocklawaha. It reminds me of living back home in Masons Creek. Everyone knows each other and looks out for each other. My husband Keith works at a local restaurant called Ducks Dam Diner because of it’s position next to the dam on the Ocklawaha River, and the owner lives in a concrete home that is pretty much hurricane proof. He and his wife Coleen offered for us and our two dogs to come stay with them, but we also have ducks, chickens, goats and a pig. We rode it out here at the house. Many people invited us over for hurricane parties and such but we have a duty to the farm.”
Life, or the strong possibility of death, for those living along Florida’s Atlantic Coast depended on the will of the storm. Labonte said all he could do was sit anxiously and wait.
“We watched the news continuously because that was all that was on from Thursday night until Saturday morning. Keith and I sat and talked out what we would do if it turned inland more towards us. It was a category 4 storm. We talked about what we would do with the animals, and so that’s when I started preparing.”
Although Florida was projected by experts to endure Matthew’s vicious fury, the state, for the most part, escaped devastation. Joey Hall Labonte said the passing of the storm was a joyous occasion for him and his neighbors.
“As the winds subsided here, we had a friend to come over and weather the storm with us, and we made chili and drank Captain and cokes. By the time it was over, we were so relieved we went to the diner that opened for late dinner that night and had some pie.”
You can take the boy out of the mountains. However, Labonte says the mountains never abandon the boy.
“My poor mother Dolly Hall was a mess because not only do I live here, but I also have an uncle in High Springs, Florida and my brother had left the day before the hurricane on a cruise. Thankfully, he was fine and his car they left at Port Canaveral was fine, but mom and my sister Katlan Hall was constantly calling me if they didn’t hear from me.”
For Misty Bellis and her family, the experience was slightly different. They were not weathering the storm as residents of Florida. Instead, they were simply visiting the Sunshine State on vacation.
“We went to Orlando, Florida and stayed in the Walt Disney World All-Star Movie Resort. My husband and mother-in-law and my nine-year-old son went with me. We flew Allegiant Air Wednesday night there. Some of our friends were supposed to meet us there the next day but their flight was canceled. My sister, brother-in-law and their kids drove down Friday from Hazard to Orlando. We made our plans to go about six months ago and we watched the weather last week and decided to go for it anyway, thinking we would be inland enough for the hurricane not to affect us. We were nervous about it but we were determined to stay our trip through, especially since Disney World had only closed two or three times ever during its history.”
As the storm approached, media reports painted the worst possible picture. However, Bellis said that the situation on location was not as panicked as many might have thought it seemed.
“We were at Disney Hollywood Studios when the rain began and they decided to shut the park down. We had mandatory curfew and were told not to get on the highway and to stay in our rooms. At first we were told not to come out at all on Friday. The curfew was originally said until 7:00 a.m. Saturday morning. To be honest, we barely had anything happen, just a few branches broken and wind gusts and on and off rain showers. They lifted the curfew at 2:00 p.m. on Friday and we were permitted to get out of our rooms and get on the highway.”
Everyone from top-level meteorologists to Florida’s governor projected the worst, as is wise in such a situation. Yet Bellis said she and her family tackled the storm with true Perry County toughness.
“We did not even know when the storm began because I slept through it the entire night. It was definitely not as significant as it was expected to be in our area, which is a good thing. We were not scared at all. The biggest issue we had was that all the gas stations, grocery stores and everything including the cafeteria at the hotel closed down for service. Several families with small children waited in line for hours to get something to eat before they decided to close the cafeteria. Luckily, we had the foresight Wednesday night to go and get some snacks and bring back to the room, and we have a vehicle to do so.”
Matthew’s eye skirted Florida at a distance that some Floridians believe to be miraculous, considering the damage that could have occurred. Even so, 12 people lost their lives in Florida because of the storm. Labonte and Bellis watched the hurricane pass unscathed. Others in the country were not so fortunate.
Matthew raged on past Florida toward the Carolinas, Georgia and Virginia. Overall, including countries such as Haiti and other islands near the Caribbean, Matthew claimed more than 1,000 lives. Here in the United States, the death toll continues to rise, with more than 40 fatalities occurring. In North Carolina alone, 26 deaths have been blamed on flooding caused by Hurricane Matthew.
Natural disasters are continual and dangerous; and that is the bottom line. Knowing where, when or how hard they will strike is impossible, even during modern-day times. The Labonte and Bellis families were spared. The people of Perry County can thank God for that, while also sending up prayers for those, who will be grieving the loss of loved ones tonight.
Sam Neace can be reached at 606-629-3243 or on Twitter @HazardHerald.