Mustang Sally

A hotel lobby. I am 951 miles from home, watching the news channels show hurricane footage taken from my hometown in Florida.

The video shows Hurricane Sally wrecking our villages, flooding our cities, and eating our shorelines. Some video looks to have been filmed a few miles behind my house. I’m sick to my stomach about it. I feel guilty for not being there.

Three businessmen sit in the lobby. I overhear them say they are from Washington D.C. They watch the lobby television, wearing surgical masks, sipping coffee, shaking their heads in mock amazement.

“Geez,” says one man, “you couldn’t pay me to live in Florida.”

“No kidding,” says the other. “There simply aren’t enough dollars in the world to make me live there.”

A piece of me wants to defend my homeland and tell these guys they are mistaken. After all, Washington D.C. is no day at Dollywood, either.

I’ve been to Washington. It’s full of high-powered young business professionals who wouldn’t hold the door open for the Queen of England toting an oxygen canister.

But I’m not here to throw darts. Right now I’m worried about my people. I’ve been texting with friends and family since last night.

My mother still has no electricity. My sister’s family spent the night in a walk-in closet. My cousin got so stressed he started smoking again. The highways are submerged. Commercial barges are floating in places where they shouldn’t be.

I saw videos of my own backyard this morning. You could reenact historic naval battles back there.

The lobby TV makes an announcement. The newsperson tells us that today is the 16-year anniversary of Hurricane Ivan. And I am carried backward in time. I have to sit down for a moment.

Sixteen years. Has it really been that long? Oh, boy. Do I remember Ivan.

My wife and I were living in a ratty upstairs apartment. Our unit was located above Okaloosa County’s most notorious cat lady. She must have had 3,699 cats.

I know this because we once got fleas from these cats. The fleas crawled through our adjoining walls and infested our things, causing my wife to start itching and me to start barking at the mail guy.

When Ivan hit it was a different world. Back then we had no social media, no ultra smart phones, and nobody had ever heard the word “pandemic” used in a sentence.

We had only word-of-mouth weather reports from old men who watched the Weather Channel twenty-four-seven. Guys like my uncle, who devoted his life to the Weather Channel the same way some men devote themselves to the Jesuit Order.

Then came the Ivan evacuations. If you’ve never evacuated for a hurricane, it’s a sickening event. You leave your whole life behind you and drive onward. Your family piles into vehicles, loaded with every cardboard box and cooler ever manufactured.

My wife’s family traveled to Brewton, Alabama, during Ivan. That night we all holed up in a family cabin in the woods while the entire world fell apart.

I’ll bet these Washington men have never even heard of Brewton.

As it turned out, Ivan hit Brewton dead on. After it waltzed across our Panhandle homes, the eye of the storm followed us straight into South Alabama and tore up everything.

It was a titanic mess. Rooflines detached. Hundred-year-old trees uprooted. Cars got smashed. Floodwaters invaded living rooms. I don’t think many died in the storm, but I know many who were braced for it.

It was one of the longest nights of my life, sitting through Ivan.

The following sunrise revealed bitter devastation. Trees lay splintered in residential streets. Shingles littered front yards as far away as Pensacola. And do you know what else I saw?

Men with chainsaws.

After the damage, Good Samaritans were everywhere. They were crawling out of the wallpaper, lugging gas powered lawn equipment, driving flatbed trailers, operating Caterpillars, steering Ford F-250s.

Meanwhile, their wives were cooking breakfast on propane barbecue grills, emptying their dead freezers, preparing thawed meat before it spoiled.

In the few hours after sunup, Brewton looked like the international barbecue competition headquarters. You couldn’t walk four feet without smelling short ribs or pork shoulders sizzling on someone’s back porch.

Even though destruction had visited our world, you would have never known it by the attitude of our people.

This is what happens during our hurricanes.

These are the people I come from. They are do-gooders with hard heads. They knock on neighbors’ doors, volunteering to dismember fallen trees, or tarp damaged roofs. And they offer to do it in exchange for nothing but iced tea.

You will see my people in heavy Chevys, wrapping chains around collapsed live oak limbs. You’ll see policemen delivering groceries to shut-ins. You’ll pass local preachers making housecalls to widows, orphans, and drunks. You’ll run into old women who cook ribeyes on Coleman camp stoves for an entire neighborhood.

Yards will be lit with tiki torches. Kids will be playing tag. Guitars will be picked. People will become frighteningly upbeat. Because this is who we are.

You can flood our towns, knock down our houses, kill our magnolias, and blow our rooftops to hell. But you cannot drown our hearts. Because we are Panhandle people and South Alabamians. And no matter how high the water gets, we will always float.

There simply aren’t enough dollars in the world to make me live anywhere else.


  1. Rebecca Kinard - September 17, 2020 7:01 am


  2. Linda Weeks - September 17, 2020 7:58 am

    Wonderful piece Sean. You are so right about Ivan.
    Neighbors helping neighbors. All the cooking & sharing with others. You may knock us down,but we will always rise up & conquer.
    Enjoy your trip & thanks for the reminders.

  3. Lori Klein - September 17, 2020 8:06 am

    Thank you Sean. There are a lot of folks who are going to need this. I’m going to send it to my people. I hope your house is ok.

  4. Penny Bass Lovke - September 17, 2020 8:07 am

    Sounds about right to me.

  5. Erica Rauzin - September 17, 2020 8:44 am

    As a Miami Beach resident for 40 years, that’s how I remember Hurricane Andrew. We all pulled together. Beautiful column, Sean.

  6. MJ Breaux - September 17, 2020 9:24 am

    My sweet sister almost lost her life to Ivan, they rebuilt on their land on the Sound in Gulf Breeze. I’m praying all is well. That area holds my heart, something so special about the people of the Panhandle. ❤️ Thank you Sean for your beautiful mind and words.

  7. Lucretia Jones - September 17, 2020 10:17 am

    May God continue to bless all of the”Panhandlers and South Alabamaians” and “like people of heart throughout the world; because of His Grace, we will float!

  8. Leslie - September 17, 2020 10:42 am

    This has taken me back to my childhood and through the course of my life. I’m a Mobile girl, and have lived through many storms, including Frederick, Ivan, and more. I laugh when people ask, “is your family leaving?”. To us, that is a foreign concept. The answer is No, we don’t leave, we hunker down, and face whatever These oddly named storms bring in their wake. My home on Mobile Bay continues to get hit, but my 88 year old dad rebuilds his childhood. He may have finally met his match yesterday. I pray not.

  9. Karen Erwin-Brown - September 17, 2020 10:44 am

    prayers for recovery yet again.

  10. Linnea Johnson - September 17, 2020 11:07 am

    I pulled up my roots in East Tennessee and planted myself beside my husband on eight acres in Southeast Alabama. It was almost like a different country, especially since my parents were transplanted Yankees. James and I weathered a lot of storms blowing up from the Gulf.

    One time the wind blew so hard, he had to hold onto a pole at the barn to keep from being blown into the woods.

    I grew to love and appreciate this part of the world but never more than 2020. I leaned on friends, neighbors and my husband’s family like never before, especially after James died in June.

    The outpouring of pure love means more to me than I can say. I made friends with neighbors I hadn’t talked to in years. I don’t know why I wasn’t more neighborly. I told myself I was too busy to socialize, first with my career and then as a caregiver as my husband’s health failed. Boy, did I miss out.

    People called and texted me as Sally thrashed us. I know they would have dropped everything to help me if I needed it.

    The main lesson I learned in 2020 is that America is great, just open your eyes and heart. Reach out to help someone else. There are many isolated people who need your kindness. Even loners need to know someone cares. Don’t wait for a disaster to find out what really matters in life.

  11. Nancy Hall - September 17, 2020 11:15 am

    So proud I live in the South and would have it no other way…. thank you for letting others know how lucky we are. Safe travels!

  12. Jean - September 17, 2020 11:22 am

    We live in a great country. The media would have you think differently. Our south is a special part of these great United States and I am proud to have been born and raised here. There is no where finer. Sean I hope your house, your folks and friends houses and things ok!

  13. Jane Elder - September 17, 2020 11:43 am

    Wow. And yes. Our country is full of people who definitely rise to the occasion. We are so used to the press ballyhooing the negative that we in the fly over zone sometimes forget just how we re-act to tough times. We are better people than we are portrayed.

  14. Sharon Brock - September 17, 2020 11:51 am

    So glad you and Jamie are safe. I rode out Hurricane Eloise in a Red Cross shelter with my two week old son in 1975 in Fort Walton Beach. Within two months we were back in Kentucky. I like the seasons and I needed my family. But I remember the very kind Panhandle folks who kept eagle eyes out for the single mother with a newborn.

  15. Christopher Spencer - September 17, 2020 12:01 pm

    Sean I was worried about your Florida and Alabama homes and kinfolk when I heard where the storm was headed. I am so sorry to hear of the damage.
    Prayers for everyone who sustained damage from Hurricane Sally. One death and one missing in Orange Beach, AL. Prayers there are no more anywhere else.

  16. Denise Walker - September 17, 2020 12:26 pm

    Panhandle people and South Alabamians are a different breed, for sure! I came within an inch of buying a place on Gulf Shores this spring…..don’t know that I have the heart to be a Panhandle person. But, kudos to all that are!

  17. Pam - September 17, 2020 12:32 pm


  18. Marcia Lynn MacLean - September 17, 2020 12:36 pm

    I guess my claim to fame is I have lived through, and survived, two Cat 5 hurricanes. You described “my people” very well. Prayers today for my neighbors to the west (of Panama City).

  19. Russ Letson - September 17, 2020 12:42 pm

    ??mustang sally??

  20. Leigh Amiot - September 17, 2020 12:46 pm

    Southern Georgia here, and while we don’t get the full brunt of the hurricanes, we often get the tropical storm version with the occasional spinoff tornado. I love the south, too, been here 57 years, and only the good Lord knows how many more I’ll be here. The generosity of the people you describe exists here, too. I pray all is well at your household and the back yard waters quickly recede. Sunshine is on its way!

  21. Jan - September 17, 2020 12:51 pm

    Amen! People from Alabama … or anywhere in the south are tough as nails on the outside and soft as marshmallows on the inside. They work hard and love big. You are an excellent representative of “our people”!

  22. Dr. Paula E. Griffith - September 17, 2020 12:55 pm

    Sounds just like my people, but we’re in Texas. Same difference. We are all coastal people.

  23. allane - September 17, 2020 12:55 pm

    You , as usual, hit this dead on- thanks!

  24. Linda - September 17, 2020 1:10 pm

    I just “met” you through one of your articles a neighbor shared – now from reading your articles everyday and “Stars of the South” and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” I feel like I have a new friend. I look forward to more reading!

  25. Jsckye Thompson - September 17, 2020 1:20 pm

    Thank you ,Sean from Niceville . Good folks in The Florida Panhsndle .

  26. Teresa Tindle - September 17, 2020 1:28 pm

    I may not live on the Alabama coast, but being born and raised by the Grace of God in the South you and they are all my people. I love the South. I would not live anywhere else. We don’t have much, but then we don’t need much. Our land, our coast, our love and strength for each other.

  27. Lauren D Ulrich - September 17, 2020 1:29 pm

    And I hear tell Sally’s headed Brewton way today, too. Thank you for this–it brought me tears of joy, made my heart full. Even as we face the devastation and weeks of repair and replace, you made me smile.

  28. walter buehler - September 17, 2020 1:32 pm

    A great inspirational message in a time of need.

  29. Salmonfish - September 17, 2020 1:36 pm

    Definitely rather live here!!

  30. Mary in Tallytown - September 17, 2020 1:40 pm

    EXACTLY! I would rather live here and face these crazy storms with my sweet neighbors than breathe air in D.C. Those men don’t know what they’re missing.

  31. Anne Arthur - September 17, 2020 1:45 pm

    That it. Bring it on .Definitively a great bunch of Floridian people. It’s good to read your piece.
    Praying for a swift recovery of the damage.

  32. Teresa Blankenship - September 17, 2020 1:57 pm

    God bless you ❤️

  33. Carol mcrae - September 17, 2020 2:12 pm

    One of your best yet.

  34. Nedra Tucker - September 17, 2020 2:14 pm

    Amen! God’s country.

  35. Betty McManus - September 17, 2020 2:15 pm

    My people are Panhandle people too and they’re out putting life back together this morning once again. God bless them.
    Betty in San Diego

  36. johnnybracey - September 17, 2020 2:21 pm

    No truer words ever spoken!! Thanks Sean! We endured Kate, 100 miles inland in South Georgia. No power for ten days. Folks in the south take care of one another.

  37. Kathy Miser - September 17, 2020 2:29 pm

    I live in Jewett, Ohio and in 2004 I had just moved into my brand new manufactured home. Two months later, along came Hurricane Ivan with all the rain and it flooded my home. The insurance deemed it totalled so I was homeless for about 5 months while waiting for a new home. My brother and his family lived next door. He invited me to stay, thinking it might be a weekend. 5 months later I got to move back home. I will never forget Ivan.

  38. Patricia Gibson - September 17, 2020 2:39 pm

    Well said

  39. Sandra Grooms - September 17, 2020 2:56 pm

    Hoping you can get back home soon and start the rebuilding process. I love the panhandle and hope to move there someday. The South is the only place I ever want to live.

  40. Buddy Whatley - September 17, 2020 3:55 pm

    And when the hurricane is gone and the power is off and the freezer is thawing out… we eat better than at any other time!

  41. Gene - September 17, 2020 3:58 pm

    Been wondering how your folks made it. Your home one of this part of Tennessee’s folks favorite places to visit. It always seems to bounce back from these storms and sure it will this one too.

  42. Carol Howard - September 17, 2020 3:59 pm

    Way to go! From Monroeville, AL. 😊

  43. Christina - September 17, 2020 4:00 pm

    I’m so proud of your people’s resilience and kindness, Sean!

  44. Johnnie Blackburn - September 17, 2020 4:01 pm

    And we’ve got your back up here in Tornado Alley, Sean! #ttownneverdown

  45. Sue, a Florida Farm Girl - September 17, 2020 4:04 pm

    We bugged out of town for Ivan, headed across the river from Mississippi into Arkansas. After sitting through Eloise in 1975, no way am I sitting through another one. Hope things at home are as good as you can expect considering the circumstances. Stay safe.

  46. Phyllis Belanger Mata - September 17, 2020 4:08 pm

    I’m from SW Louisiana and we do the same. Loved this article. I love us.

  47. Wanda - September 17, 2020 4:08 pm

    I live in NE Florida not the Panhandle, but I agree with you. No where else would I want to live.

  48. Katherine - September 17, 2020 4:12 pm

    Sean, I am a new fan of yours and a life long Mobilian. I am sitting on my back porch reading your column while my nextdoor neighbor cuts up the tree that fell in my backyard. Mississippi and Georgia Power trucks are on my street helping to restore power. This is what we do in the south. You can’t tell people from other places about us. They just don’t know. I’ll be that you will find your yard cleaned up when you get back. I pray you don’t have major damage. Please keep telling our stories and be careful on that trail!

  49. MAM - September 17, 2020 4:43 pm

    Prayers for you! People in general are good folks, no matter where they live. Stay safe! Stay dry if you can! And know that this, too, shall pass. Happy you are safe!

  50. Linda Moon - September 17, 2020 4:51 pm

    I’ve been wondering about the hurricanes in your Florida hometown. You’ve told us about several of them since Spring. About Washington….true story: my mother was there visiting a V.I.P. in our family. My mother very much resembled The Queen and was escorted to an event where The Queen was appearing because the escorts thought she WAS The Queen! All mothers deserve queenly attention at times, like yours does during storms. And, you’re right, Sean, Some things like souvenirs, memories, and home places just can’t be boughten!

  51. Ann Mills - September 17, 2020 5:15 pm

    Praying for y’all. Hard.

  52. Ruth - September 17, 2020 6:02 pm

    I’ve been fortunate to have been helped by “Panhandle People” in IL and IN. Sending prayers that you and your loved ones will all make it through the storm and cleanup safely.

  53. Barbara - September 17, 2020 6:31 pm

    Sean, your description of a hurricane was right on the money. I remember evacuating from some in the past with all the sentimental items I owned that couldn’t be replaced with insurance in the trunk of my car. Orange Beach, as well as the Panhandle will all come together to rebuild. The Cajun Navy was there showing video of some of the damage. The sound of chain saws and generators can be lovely. So glad your family is safe.

  54. Susan B. - September 17, 2020 7:44 pm


  55. susy - September 17, 2020 7:57 pm


  56. Pete Smith - September 17, 2020 9:07 pm

    I’ve lived in the Panhandle most of my life and can identify with your passion for living here. We just inherited 14” of water from Ms. Sally, but Still consider us to be far more blessed than anybody living in Washington D.C. Pedal on pal. All is well here.

  57. Paramore - September 17, 2020 9:53 pm

    Thank you for your writings. No matter what has happened in my life, good or bad, after reading your takes on life, I’m ready for what comes next. I only discovered you about a month ago which proves good things will eventually come to you. You truly make my days!

  58. Bkr - September 17, 2020 10:29 pm

    Amen!! We happened to be “vacationing” in Perdido Key this past week. Watched the weather. Figured it could be kinda fun to watch a tropical storm roll in as we sat on the balcony overlooking the beautiful Gulf of Mexico. Weatherman predicted what they predicted. We felt safe and adventurous. Until Tuesday about 9:00 PM. Found out water was going to be shut off at 11:00 PM 😳. Hmmm. Not so adventurous feeling now. Filled the tub and every available container with water for toilet flushing. We already had gallons of wine and water to drink. So we still felt ok. Then the power went off at 2:30 AM and the wind was howling like several freight trains intersecting. Really not feeling so adventurous. Felt the condo building swaying – put on shoes. Woke husband up who apparently can sleep through a train. Told him to put clothes on (he might sleep au naturel-(French for nekkid). And if the building slid off into the beach he was not gonna be nekkid and embarrass me! So an already too long story short. We survived just fine. Didn’t get embarrassed. Appreciated just having food and water. And you are absolutely spot on about people’s spirit and heart. Love the Deep South!!!

  59. Bob Barnett - September 17, 2020 11:04 pm

    Love it. No place like the panhandle! Good peoples!

  60. Paula - September 17, 2020 11:45 pm

    I have lived in the panhandle of Florida or in South Alabama for most of my 7 decades. You nailed it, Sean!

  61. Jenny Luttrell - September 18, 2020 2:36 am

    My husband grew up in Brewton. His mama was one of those folks cooking everything she could on the grill, while he, dad, brothers, and assorted neighbors started getting the pines off the house. People came from everywhere, with chain saws, wheel barrows, and food. Even the kids dragged snacks from person to person in their wagons. I like to think that’s who we are. I’m going to hold onto that.

  62. Elizabeth - September 18, 2020 7:53 am

    that is hard but you describe the spirit of the care and valiant nature of those in FL (and Alabama!) with much grace and love. I will be praying about this….

  63. Melanie - September 18, 2020 8:47 am

    Amen! My prayers to everyone affected. And I hope the doggies are OK.

  64. Melissa Claunch - September 18, 2020 2:28 pm

    I live in Beauregard, where on March 3, 2019 we were struck by two ef 4 tornadoes about 30 minutes apart. Twenty three people, including 4 children lost their lives. You story brings tears to my eyes as I remember that tragedy. In the same way that your community came together, our community came together to heal and rebuild. Meals were available to all workers and victims for a full month. Chain saws, back hoes, manual labor were unceasing for weeks! Love, support and hugs abounded. I’m proud to live in an area where people care!

  65. Suzanne Cahill - September 18, 2020 5:27 pm

    I’ve lived in many places. The biggest lesson I’ve learned from my experiences is that human beings are at their best when things are at their worst.

  66. Joy Taylor-Lane - September 19, 2020 1:47 am

    It’s a mess, but we will be alright.

  67. Paul Albert - September 19, 2020 10:19 am

    Thank you for writing about our southern heritage, People from the South respond to any emergency – especially during hurricane season. As a Mobilian, you can ride around and see neighbors with chain saws cutting trees, sharing generator power to keep freezers and refrigerators charged. Just good neighbors helping each other in a time of need, Sean an article from you about the CAJUN Navy is in order. Saw where they were rescuing personnel in flooded areas on Wednesday around Pensacola. They have helped so many people on the Gulf Coast during hurricanes rescuing families in flooded areas. Great group of people that volunteer every time – another example of Southern neighbors helping each other in a time of need.

  68. Peggy Thompson - September 19, 2020 1:35 pm

    Amen…prayers for all effected from Sally & prayers for all who are helping with the clean up.
    The south is the best place to live so I consider myself blessed …God bless all.

  69. Terrie Streed - September 19, 2020 3:28 pm

    I am a Mobile native and I have been through numerous hurricanes in my 65 years. You perfectly described what follows a hurricane. I can’t imagine living anywhere else – and wouldn’t want to!

  70. Sage smith - September 19, 2020 3:36 pm

    You get it Sean . The word neighbor has a deep caring and compassionate meaning that is being lost in this selfish time . America is great because the people are good .When we cease to be good we will no longer be great. God please help us to be good neighbors with enough compassion and courage to help people in need . Let’s all remember what president John Kennedy told us 55 years ago. “Ask not what the country can do for you ,but what you can do for your country “. Sage Smith monroeville Alabama

  71. Dawn Bratcher - September 19, 2020 4:38 pm

    Right on! This is home & we know all about hurricanes. Our area is so incredibly lush & beautiful, I have not found another place I like better!

  72. Angie Farruggia - September 19, 2020 8:49 pm

    We are new to Pensacola ( one year ) we CHOSE to live here . We could have moved anywhere in the USA but we chose Pensacola, for the beaches and the warm sun , for Pensacola’s down town area and more . We moved from the Wisconsin boarder, with everything we own and 7 animals! We are trying to start our business again we are not retirees. Yup this was our first hurricane and I was terrified and NO I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else . Proud to call Pensacola our home now . We still don’t know a soul but we will 🙏🙏

  73. Maryrose Reeder - September 20, 2020 9:47 pm

    I hope all down south are well and getting through another hit from 2020

  74. Dennis Swann - September 22, 2020 1:54 am

    I saw this hand. I was an Alabama Power Co volunteer. We stayed in a flooded motel with no electricity or hot water, and we didn’t care. Being hot, sweaty, dirty and smelly, we just wanted to help. It was hard and long days, but there have been few experiences in my 72 years that I had as much fun. We started each day with a prayer asking God to help us help others and maintain a sense of humor for those hurting so much. I met so many grateful people and hugged so many necks. I also cried a little. The human spirit is strong, loving, stubborn, resilient, dedicated and determined. God bless those effected by Sally.

  75. Dora Huelsbeck - October 20, 2020 12:11 pm

    I’ve lived in the Pensacola/Cantonmwnt area all my life and for the past 34 years worked in healthcare. Running from a hurricane was not an option because you had to go to work to take care of sick or hurt people. I’ve always made sure I had batteries and candles. After Ivan I bought a generator and it was the Best investment ever. My neighborhood comes together and help each other. Smokers come to life with some of the best food ever. You got to eat stuff out of freezers so it won’t go bad. Houses can be fixed or rebuilt but love of family and neighbors will always be with you. There are many good people that volunteer to help and you live in with memories and stories to tell later of the roof lifting up and then coming back down, etc. LIFE IS GOOD in the Panhandle. Keep up the writing and love to you and Jamiee. .


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