11 days post Hurricane Michael hit our little town is when this epic wedding took place. Cori and Bryon had their big day planned for months. Until all of this disaster and heartache. They had to cancel their wedding, but last minute changed their minds. A police office and a fire fighter who fell in love. Their love is stronger than a hurricane, so they decided to keep their wedding date and location. We were surrounded by their fellow officers and fire fighters as they said I do among the debris and on the backdrop of a stunning sky. This is just the kind of story our little town needs. A story of heroes and love that has overcome all and triumphed. I'm so blessed to have been a part of their special day and I know their story will encourage so many others to love stronger than any storm ever could.
That's what I wrote 11 days post hurricane Michael after I photographed the wedding of the century.
Here's the rest of the story.
I decided to stay in Panama City for the hurricane. I wasn't in an evacuation zone and my husband is a police officer, so he had to stay. I felt safer with him, so decided to take my 3 year old daughter to the police station with him. Since then everyone has asked me why I didn't evacuate. Well because I've been through SO many hurricanes being born and raised in Panama City. It rains, lots of wind, possible storm surge by the water, power out for a week at most. No one expected our town to be leveled by the 3rd worst storm to hit the US ever.
We started off just hanging out at the conference room at the police station. Watching movies and group texting my family. We had the weather streaming, so we could keep track of the storm. It started to intensify. My brother in law texted that their back doors were flying open, the windows might go and they thought maybe they should get out their house. I responded NO, it looks like the eye wall is about to hit. Don't leave. It's not safe. Then nothing... Literally nothing for days because that's when communication was completely lost. Then shit hit the fan (literally and figuratively) and my world was worn upside down.
It was by far the MOST terrifying experience of my life. Running from room to room as the ceiling gave way. The air conditioners ripped from the roof. We could hear every groan from the winds above. Screaming at my husband to hold on to my 3 year old daughter as we ran from room to room. Ceiling tiles falling, rain coming down. I ended up under the desk with my daughter and another police officer's little girl in my lap. I kept telling them to keep their heads down and that it would be okay. I prayed like I have never prayed before. Another police officer said he didn't think we were going to make it. That the roof was about to go. I prayed harder. I'm not going to lie I have never been more in fear for my life than I was under that table. It was freezing and I was wrapped in a blanket with these two babies. I was trying really hard to be the adult, but all I wanted to do was be wrapped up too. My husband was trying to secure things around us and make sure nothing fell on us. Then there was a pause and we moved to the back room. The only room left in the station that hadn't been ruined. No communication and no idea if we were in the eye wall or if it was over. I knew if it was the eye wall and we were going to get hit again; we wouldn't make it. I kept praying.
Fast forward the 3 hours after we sat waiting in prayer for it to end... and it did. We only had a moment to breathe and rejoice in being alive, when my husband had to go because people were looting the stores. I waited in the room with all the other kids and a few dispatchers that were just trying to sleep.... That was the longest few hours of my life. I had no idea if my husband was okay, if my dog who was at home was okay (he has anxiety and I knew he would be better at home than in a crate in the back of the station), if my family was okay, if my home was okay, my friends, my town, my life. I was trying to do what I do best. Take care of the babies.... Another officer came up to me to tell me my house was gone. Done. I walked outside and just laid on the concrete under the purple sky. I didn't cry. I just laid there in disbelief.
Fast forward a bit more and finally my husband came back. I was able to break finally. I don't think I have ever cried that hard; except the few days following. He said our house was fine, minus a hole in Lena's room, the dog was fine, my parents and sisters were okay. Literally the first sign of relief since the storm hit.
Shortly after all of this excitement, I saw Cori. We chatted in shock about what had just happened. A brief conversation about her wedding that was only days away. We weren't even sure what was left of our town.
A few days later while we were busy cleaning debris, taking pool baths (brown pool water was better than anything at this point), and just trying to process it all, Cori posted on Facebook that they were going to have to cancel their wedding. With no roads driveable, no electricity, no buildings, no water, nothing... it was an understandable choice.
Friday morning Cori messaged me and asked what I was doing Sunday (Her wedding day). Nothing... hopefully photographing your wedding again was my response. With little communication because our burner phones were barely working and there was so much to be done, we decided to meet at the original time and place of the previously planned wedding. I had my husband drive me to Mexico Beach and there was no break in destruction from my neighborhood to Mexico Beach. The little beach town I grew up at and love was gone. I walked down the debris filled streets and met a nice lady (I didn't catch her name). She was in good spirits and explained that she was trying to figure out which house was hers. I thought... we have all lost so much and yet we are still smiling because we are grateful to be alive. Cori messaged me that she had decided to wear one of her dresses instead of her police uniform. Bryon didn't know.
The rest was a fairytale. Hugs between Cori and her father as he gave her away. Tears, love, applause from their fellow fire fighters and police officers that made the trip to support them. Truly one, if not the most, breathtaking sunset I have ever witnessed. The light was gorgeous, even and golden. It sounds crazy to think that the sunset, the love, the light could outshine all of that devastation, but somehow it did. It was overwhelming and gorgeous. So many emotions wrapped up together. The couple was happy and in love and go married against all odds. Having just survived the hurricane myself and seeing all of it's devastation to photographing this loving and gorgeous wedding was a wave of emotions. Emotions that I still don't think I have processes a month later.
I knew this wedding was going to be forever one of my favorites and difficult to top, but I had no idea how much love it would inspire. I posted a small gallery around 1 am. Just so the bride and groom had a sneak peek. I wasn't prepared to wake up to 4k likes and messages from EVERY news station, blog and paper. Later it grew to 49K likes and 23K shares. Not just locally, but everywhere. Being shared on CBS, Fox News, CNN. I was grateful and amazed. I started photography to help spread positivity and celebrate in life's happiest memories and that is exactly what this wedding did. It was a glimmer of light in an otherwise hopeless dark little town of devastation.
Our town still needs SO much help. So many people are homeless, forced to relocate or sleep in tents. Debris towering over our yards. Rooms emptied into the trash. The sound of chainsaws doesn't stop. Mold growing through everyone's homes. Everyone is scrambling to save what they can and fix what they can; while praying their insurance company comes or at the least calls them back. It's been 4 weeks and I have never seen SO much devastation. I also have never seen so much love, kindness, neighbors helping, sharing, giving. Strangers lending a helping hand. Everyone coming together and trying to rebuild. Don't get me wrong, it will take a while. But we will rebuild. We will be better than ever. #850strong