One local family lost their home in April 2014 during a flood in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. This article originally appeared in the November / December 2015 issue of VIE Magazine under the title “The Modern Minimalist: Zen by the Bay.” It’s the first chapter in a five-part series of VIE articles about that family’s decision to rebuild on their bay-front lot. The family’s new home will be featured in VIE’s 2016 “Architecture and Design” issue (July / August) and in a series of articles on 30A.com.
By Mike Ragsdale
The thunder and lightning rolled across Choctawhatchee Bay in rapid-fire succession, just like the whitecaps that smashed against our seawall. It was well after midnight, and I couldn’t sleep. The house was pitch black, save for the blue strobe-light flashes that illuminated every window with each instantaneous boom. In my bathrobe, I propped my feet up on the coffee table and fired up the laptop.
By coincidence, all four of our kids were home that night. Our two older daughters were visiting from college, so this was the first time we’d all been together in quite a while.
Little did we know that this was the last night we’d ever spend in our home.
It seemed like it had been raining for days. But that night — April 30, 2014 — God pulled out the plug. The storm would later be described as a “200-year event” — the kind of catastrophe that seems to be occurring with greater and greater frequency. The historic storm reportedly dumped some 20 inches of rain in just 24 hours and caused major flooding throughout the panhandle.
After pecking away on my keyboard for an hour or so, I thought I felt a drop of water on my leg. Probably just my imagination. Then another. Uh-oh. Not my imagination.
In the darkness, I fumbled around for my iPhone and turned on the flashlight. I shined it up toward the ceiling and saw moisture collecting around one of the recessed ceiling lights.
“Probably just a little leak,” I thought. “It doesn’t look too bad.”
I leaned forward and shined the light downward, to see if any water had pooled up on the floor.
“Um, but that looks bad.”
What I saw was 1 to 2 inches of water; not in a contained puddle, but spread across our entire living room floor. And it seemed to be… moving. I clapped my laptop shut and splish-splashed my way down the hall to wake up Angela. The water wasn’t just coming in under the doors — it was also gurgling in under the walls. A quick look out the bedroom window confirmed my fear: Our home was now an island.
We knew we lived in a flood zone, and we’d always had water issues of one kind or another. Our brick ranch-style home was built in the 1970s, long before current codes were put into place. But this time was different. The water was flowing in from all sides of every room, and fast.
We woke up our groggy kids and quickly got dressed. We began moving as many things as possible up onto tables, chairs, beds, and countertops. We grabbed a select few possessions to take with us, but without really grasping the fate of those things we were leaving behind.
As the floodwater continued to rise, I knew we had to leave, and soon. But wading to our cars through a foot of water in a lightning storm with four kids and two dogs hardly seemed rational. The rapid-fire light show outside was at its crescendo. (According to Weather Channel, some 6,000 lightning strikes were tracked in just 15 minutes that night between Pensacola and Panama City.)
At some point though, I knew the risk of getting struck by lightning outside was less likely than being electrocuted inside while standing in ankle-deep water.
I knew we had no choice. It was time to abandon ship. Women and children and Maltese first.
There were too many of us to fit in one car, so we lined up at the front door and prepared everyone as best we could, barking last-minute instructions and letting everyone know where we would meet. When I opened the front door, a wave of water rushed past us and into the living room. We sloshed as quickly as we could through the water and made it to our cars.
Ironically, it wasn’t rising bay waters that got us — it was water that flowed in from the street. The ground was already super-saturated from days of sustained rainfall, and our local drainage ditches just couldn’t keep up with this latest intense downpour. Local streets were now rivers.
Around 4:30 a.m., we finally found a hotel that would accept pets. The hotel was without power, but at least we had a dry place to stay for the night. We all sat on the floor together in the dark, with absolutely no comprehension of the long road we now faced. Once the floodwaters receded, we returned to survey the damage.
What a mess. The waste. The garbage. How in the world did we accumulate so many stupid things? And while the flood water had certainly wreaked its havoc on our personal possessions, the real damage was later discovered behind the walls. Mold. Mildew. Rot. Concealed nastiness from decades of repeated and oftentimes invisible water intrusion.
As we threw contaminated item after item into the giant dumpster that was unceremoniously dropped in our driveway, I became sick to my stomach. And yet, as the days progressed, the more junk we tossed into the dumpster, the better we felt. When we found ourselves with almost nothing left, it was as though great weights had been lifted off us — weights that we didn’t even know we carried. The flood was a baptism, and we were awakening to a new chapter of possibility.
Today, with eighteen months of hand-to-hand insurance combat behind us, we’re finally building our new home. With some of the region’s best builders and designers and craftsmen as our allies, this 1-acre bay-front lot is a blank canvas.
But this time, we’re building a home with a fresh outlook on life. Simple. Modern. Minimalist. And of course, elevated. Perhaps in more ways than one.
Kitchen Appliances: Builder Specialties (BSI), Destin (850-650-9092)
Home Security: Planet Secure (850-278-6226)
Custom Window Treatments: Concept Blinds and Design (850-797-6819)
Custom Closet Design: Alpha Closets and Murphy Beds (850-516-8827)
Doors and Windows: Southern Windows and Doors (850-546-1773)
Pool Paver Installation: Flamingo Hardscapes (850-974-0819)
Insulation: Mid-America Insulation and Supply (850-312-8400)
Electrical: Xcell Electric Inc. (850-865-3254)
Plumbing / Gas: SSE Plumbing and Gas Contractors (850-441-3458)
Gutters: Architectural Gutter Systems (850-226-6207)