'I Survived Two Hurricanes Like Ian, I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now'

While watching the coverage of Hurricane Ian, my stomach sank as I thought about what the Florida residents caught in its path of destruction faced. My greatest fear was them having to not only fight and struggle to salvage the things that they cherish but also have to defend and prove facts to the insurance and mortgage companies to get their lives back, long after Ian would be a distant memory.

It transported me back to August of 2020, when my family and I were fleeing Hurricane Laura in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

When I first heard reports of the approaching storm, I honestly wasn't that concerned because I didn't think it was going to be as bad as it turned out to be. It was my first major hurricane. I had just released my first song on my record label, and I was on a high. Then just like a record, my life scratched when reality set in that Laura would be no ordinary storm. Local forecasters said it would be at least a Category 4 and was headed straight for us.

Shayla Priest Lived Through 2 Louisiana Hurricanes
Shayla Priest and her family lived through two hurricanes in Louisiana in 2020. Hurricane Laura and Hurricane Delta hit Louisiana in 2020. Shayla Priest

Hurricane Laura was the most intense storm since the Last Island Hurricane of 1856 and the strongest land-falling hurricane in Louisiana history and, at the time, tied as the fifth-strongest hurricane on record to make a continental U.S. landfall. My first thought: My mother who was in hospice in the area and could not travel long distances. The long ride would be too much for her. The agency assured me that they would be with her and relocate her to a partner hospice elsewhere in the state.

Still, I did not consider evacuating until a mandatory order was issued for Calcasieu Parish, where I live. I was not fearful enough. Then, reality set in. I had to prepare and make sure my husband, my children, grandkids, myself and even my dog were safe. I scurried to find documents that proved that we existed: birth certificates, social security cards and other important papers. All things of material value were left behind.

I loaded up ice chests with bread, sandwich meats and frozen meat that we thought would spoil. Looking back on Laura, my advice for those caught in Hurricane Ian's path is to take more memories: Your pictures and keepsakes may be washed away.
But keep the material things to a minimum. Take extra clothes, cash and make sure you have a credit card with a good balance for hotels and essentials that you will need for your evacuation. Take your electronics. Help may be provided, but don't be left unguarded. What you may think is just a couple of days away from home may turn into weeks or even months.

Shayla Priests Home After Hurricane Laura
Shayla Priests Home After Hurricane Laura
Shayla Priests Home After Hurricane Laura
Shayla Priests Home After Hurricane Laura

The first night of our evacuation was the worst. We stopped in a small town in Louisiana and no hotel would let us stay because our dog, Lux, is a pitbull. I made the tough choice of getting a room for our kids and grandkids, while my husband and I slept in our truck with our fur baby. Neither of us got much sleep that night. When the sun rose, we hit the road and went to St. Francisville, Louisiana, keeping tabs on our hometown we left behind. I got a phone call. My mom was not evacuated. The hospice failed to keep their promise. We immediately returned to get her. We prayed and drove nine hours to Macon, Georgia so that she would be with her sister. Mom made it through the rough trip.

When my family and I got back to Lake Charles on September 4, we returned to utter destruction. It was devastating. A tree was on my vehicle and my backyard looked as if a bomb had gone off. Things were scattered everywhere from toys to my barbeque pit and trash. I did not know where to start. When I opened the door, you could see where Laura's brutal rain had been. Everything was still wet. The studio where I recorded my first song weeks early was completely damp, dank and mold had begun to set in. The ceiling fans were dangling by their wires. The smell was rancid. There was no electricity. I remember thinking: What am I going to do? Where am I going to begin?

I immediately called my insurance company, which I had been talking to before the storm even hit. They were no help. First, they went to the wrong address. Then, they accused me of not being who I said I was even after emailing them my ID and Power of Attorney paperwork for my mother. They forced me to put my dying mother on the phone even with the POA paperwork. I felt so small and like I was letting my mom down. I had to sleep in a wet, moldy home for four days with three children, five adults, and two dogs.

Two weeks later, my aunt called. My mother had taken a turn for the worse. She died on the phone with me that night. I felt selfish because I told her she could not leave me yet because I needed her more now than ever.

Shayla Priests Home in 2022
Shayla Priests Home in 2022
Shayla Priests Home in 2022
Shayla Priests Home in 2022

My family would be hit by another storm less than a month later, Hurricane Delta. I was already mentally exhausted by that point. We still had generators powering our home. I could not fathom another evacuation. I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, shedding tears when I thought no one was looking. I took my grandchildren and my husband stayed in Ragley, Louisiana with my brother-in-law for about a week. When I returned, everything that Laura did not destroy was ravished by Hurricane Delta.

Approximately four feet of water had entered my home. Everything was gone.
It has been two years since back-to-back hurricanes pushed me to the brink. I have still not fully recovered, and neither has Lake Charles. I am still living in a home with no walls or ceilings awaiting payment from an insurance company that went bankrupt. Seeing these warnings in Florida is even more upsetting now that I know what the result can be.

I would say the most important thing for anyone in the path of Hurricane Ian to know is that if evacuation is made mandatory or even optional, leave if you can. Ideally have a plan in place before you leave and definitely evacuate immediately. I recommend leaving because it is a possibility the area that was hit will be without electricity for at least two weeks; Lake Charles electricity was out for about three months.

Keep in mind the destination you are evacuating to may be booked, full, and we heard of people who had their reservation claimed because they hadn't paid in full. Cellphone service may be interrupted in some areas, especially where the storm hit.
I would also say not to return until the state gives the OK, the area will likely be dangerous due to debris and fallen powerlines and trees. Prepare yourself that when you return, some homes will be intact while others may be destroyed.

Finally, there are resources available, but I recommend calling your insurance company first. I also learned that you can call your mortgage company; they may be able to postpone your mortgage payments for several months. This might also be true of your car payment, if you have one. Other resources for support I came across include the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Red Cross, and the Small Business Administration (SBA).

I have considered moving away, but I promised my mother I would take care of her home; she worked very hard to accomplish owning a home by herself and I plan to keep my promise.

Shayla Priest Johnwell is a disabled veteran and educator of eight years. She owns and operates record label S.O.L.O Entertainment, LLC which was established in Nov. 2019. She has been married for twenty years and has two daughters and two grandsons.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.