Home Again: Finding Hope After Hurricane Michael
How AAA Members Pat Wood and Jim Cotter rebuilt their lives after a historic storm.
This is the moment that tests your optimism:
You zigzag your way home, dodging downed power lines and trees that winds from Hurricane Michael tossed around your neighborhood. You’re hopeful when you first see your house: The pine and cedar trees toppled by winds had mostly spared it. But then you make your way around back, and the devastation is clear. Your roof is peeled away by the winds, rain had poured in and your ceiling is now your floor.
And still, somehow, you feel fortunate.
“We knew we were lucky to be alive and to have a house we could rebuild,” says Pat Wood, a longtime AAA Member with her husband, Jim Cotter. “So many people had nothing.”
Hurricane Michael—the strongest to ever hit the Florida Panhandle—packed winds of 155 mph when it came ashore near the couple’s Lynn Haven home in October 2018. They had planned to ride out the storm at home but evacuated shortly before it arrived to ensure their safety, packing only some clothing, important documents and little else.
When they returned home the next day and saw Hurricane Michael’s damage, Wood and Cotter knew they would do everything possible to make their house a home again. And they knew they weren’t alone. Their family and friends—some of whom had damage themselves—were there to help. And so was their insurance provider.
“At the end of the first day, it was a little overwhelming,” Wood recalls, months after the storm. “We knew that this was going to be a long-term recovery. The reassuring part was knowing that we had good coverage—that they would take care of us and that we’d be OK on the other side.”
Getting whole again
Inside the couple’s home, damage was extensive. Hurricane Michael’s winds had torn off parts of their roof, exposing the inside to the rain. Ceilings collapsed, leaving a thick layer of caked-on drywall and insulation strewn everywhere (they had added 6 inches of insultation to their attic shortly before the storm). Every room had several inches of rainwater—even the drawers in Jim’s bedroom bureau were filled.
Hurricane Michael also damaged their boathouse (they live on a canal), shed and pickup truck.
“We had photos from Jim’s father’s time in the service,” Pat says. “He was a World War II vet and a Purple Heart recipient. The Purple Heart survived, but a lot of photos and other memorabilia of his were lost.”
Also damaged were the collectibles that Cotter had acquired during his career as an auctioneer and antiques dealer. While his American art pottery was saved—“it was amazing,” he says—the chip-carved and Mission furniture sustained heavy damage (he hopes to repair some in the future). Antique books were also ruined.
Wood and Cotter quickly began sorting through their home, scheduling appointments with insurance adjusters and filing claims that would total more than $160,000. There were more claims after mold appeared and more damage was discovered. Working with their insurance company has been easy, they say.
“We’ve talked to a bunch of people who tell us their horror stories with their insurance companies,” Cotter says. “Then they expect us to tell ours, and we’re saying, ‘You got the wrong company.’”
Says Wood of the experience: “The follow-through, the trustworthiness, the compassion they’ve shown us—they clearly know what they’re doing.”
Wood and Cotter did much of the initial work themselves, putting a tarp over the roof, cleaning out the home and helping to take the inside down to the studs. A new metal roof went on in February before rebuilding began inside.
Since Hurricane Michael, they stayed in a hotel (the closest was over two hours away), with friends, in their backyard shed and finally in a rental a couple of miles from home.
“Thank goodness we have loss-of-use coverage,” Wood says. “That’s paying for our housing and for storage. What we could salvage from our house is in storage until our renovations are done.”
While uprooted from their home, the couple found strength in doing the things they enjoyed before Hurricane Michael: biking, kayaking and volunteering.
“That idea of normal was really important to me,” Wood says. “Otherwise, you just get too wrapped up in the devastation and how awful it is. Whatever we do that’s normal is what helps us keep going and keep that positive attitude.”
Behind the home, signs of that normalcy are sprouting to life. The garden that was ripped up by Hurricane Michael’s winds has been rebuilt even bigger, with raised beds of spinach, cabbage, beets and more. They are both a source of food and a symbol of Wood’s and Cotter’s optimism.
“It really is such a source of hope for me to be able to see things grow,” Wood says. “It lets me know that we’re going to get through everything here—life is going to be good on the other side.”
Building on trust
When Wood and Cotter retired to Florida from New Hampshire, they searched for insurance on their new home. They’d been AAA Members for decades and been pleased with roadside assistance. So Wood called AAA, discussed her options and ultimately got insurance.
AAA helped ensure they had the right amount of coverage on their home, boat and vehicles, including a motorcycle. They also purchased an umbrella policy through AAA.
“It was about that feeling of trust,” Wood says. “The combination of the price and trustworthiness really helped us make that decision.”
“Turns out they were the right decisions, too,” Cotter says.
Epilogue: going home
In June 2019, Wood and Cotter went home—their patience, hard work and perseverance finally paying off. And they were right: Life really is good on the other side.