Column: Pagans Share Hurricane Stories and Struggles

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Hurricanes Harvey and Irma were two of the most devastating hurricanes ever to hit the mainland United States. Each storm carried its own unique brand of destruction. Harvey smacked into southern Texas, then stopped moving, flooding the Houston area with 51.88 inches of rain before it finally dissipated. Irma, which some news stations reported as being over 300 miles wide, scaled up the west coast of the Florida peninsula, devastating the length of the state with winds that topped out at 185 mph.

Soldiers with the Texas Army National Guard move through Houston streets as floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey continue to rise, on Aug. 28 [Wikimedia Commons].

Both storms ravaged local infrastructure, flooded residents’ homes, and caused misery to all who had to endure them. Pagans living in the area suffered along with their neighbors. The Pagan story is in many ways unique, as many in the community venerate nature and consider themselves magical people, which gives them a different perspective from those who experienced the storms from a more mainstream point of view.

Harvey made landfall in Texas on the weekend Houston Pagan Pride Day was scheduled. “We had planned Houston Pagan Pride Day for two years,” said the event’s organizer Virginia Villareal, who is also a high priestess with the Temple of Witchcraft. “This was supposed to to be the biggest one ever since Christopher Penczak was a guest speaker, and here comes Harvey.” Out of concern for the safety of the community, Villareal was forced to cancel the event the day before it was to be held. A note on the Houston Pagan Pride Day website announced the cancellation, stating that there will be a make-up pride day in November.

Penczak, who had traveled to Houston to speak at Pagan Pride Day, found himself stranded in the storm. In a Facebook post, he detailed his harrowing experience of having his hotel flooded, being evacuated to two other hotels as the waters rose, and finally escaping the area once the airports opened

Penczak described how the storm took on a more dangerous tone while he was traveling to Texas. Even with that, the first night of his engagement went well. “No one seemed deeply worried,” he said. “The first night was great and [he] met some really cool people.” The situation worsened that night. “By the next morning all events were cancelled and there were no flights available despite me trying.” He took his hotel manager’s advice and decided to shelter in place.

The experience of the storm itself was, in Penczak’s words, “shamanic.” Communing with Harvey in meditation, he said it was “big” but “not malevolent at all. . . . It was like being in a vortex,” wrote Penczak, “like a sacred site. . . while not personally malevolent it felt like an anti-magick circle. No balance, just raw and wild power.

Waters from Hurricane Harvey flood the streets of Porter, Texas [Virginia Villareal].

Personally, Villareal’s largest struggles with the storm were financial. “I didn’t lose my home or car,” she explains, “and my family were all safe,” but at the time of the interview, “I haven’t had income in two weeks, and my bills are piling up.” The financial struggle has taken an emotional toll on Villareal, who says, “I am stressing because my bills don’t stop coming and I have no means to pay them.”
“The second day things got scarier because the lobby flooded. To look out the window it appeared we were in the middle of a brown river. The parking lot was under water.” An attempt to evacuate the hotel failed because the new hotel was worse off than the original one, even though “water was coming through the hall windows even on the sixth floor.” At this time, Penczak says he no longer felt safe.

After walking through his flooded lobby with his suitcase over his head, Penczak did eventually make it to a new hotel, but that stay was short-lived. The water was rising at the new shelter, they had run out of food, and were going to close soon. At that point, Penczak turned to social media to get him out of the area. “Then a wonderful guardian angel offered to drive down, pick me up, and take me to a new hotel. She did, navigating flooded roads to find a route. [The] roads were a but Apocalypse Now.” Safe, and with access to a restaurant and “thankfully also a bar,” Penczak was able to find a flight home the Thursday night after the storm.

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Where Harvey focused in on one part of the large state of Texas, Hurricane Irma covered virtually all of Florida in its swath of destruction. Patheos blogger Heather Freysdottir, a Florida resident, explained the predicament faced by her state:

For the curious who wondered why so many Floridians stayed put, the answer is this: Florida is a peninsula, and there are only a few roads that head out of our state. If people like me – who don’t live on an island, in a floodplain, or a mobile home – decide to evacuate, traffic slows to the point that people get stranded on the road during the hurricane, which is far more dangerous than staying put. This puts those who are in legitimate danger at risk, and helps no one. That is why we stay put, or shelter with someone else locally.

“I live in a county where the eye of the storm went directly over us,” said Freysdottir. While she is used to these kinds of storms hitting Florida from time to time, she “had a feeling of unease” after Irma was announced. “Our local Pagan community did more preparation than we normally do,” and she had “plenty of disaster supplies.” After making all the physical preparations to shelter in her home, Freysdottir added magical protections as well. “I didn’t lose so much as a window screen,” she said. “Bless my spirits.”

Ray Romanowicz, who had a frightening experience saving his child from 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, decided to evacuate to Georgia in advance of Irma. “The ride that should have lasted six to seven hours lasted 10½ hours.” Finding fuel was difficult along the way, which added to the duration of the trip. Romanowicz’s home escaped the worst of the storm. “The area where we live in had some flooding, but only in the streets.”

Miami Springs resident Canu also evacuated, and he encountered “early shortages of water, gas, propane and dry goods.” Heeding early reports, Canu headed to Port Charlotte, on Florida’s west coast. However, after arriving there reports came that his new location was in greater danger than expected, and “we drove back southeast toward Irma.” There, he took shelter with a “band of six.” His home lost power and, “it’s still very hot in Florida to be without power.” Canu did have a generator, though, and he used it to power his refrigerator and some fans.

After the storm, Canu “found many roads to be impassable due to downed trees and power lines” and “most gas stations without gas or ice.” Using his generator, Canu was able to power his electric chainsaw and begin the cleanup effort. His local Pagan community came together and “stayed in close touch. . . . Physically and emotionally, many are exhausted from the many days of uncertainty about our safety and homes, the lack of power and water, the heat, and, for some, normal clean water.”

A resident of Miami-Dade County, Shaylee, the first officer of Everglades Moon Local Council, had an experience that was “long and tiring” as she took shelter in her home with her family. “During the storm,” she said, “there were moments of worry as we waited to see if the next band would bring more tornado warnings.” Although she was spared too much damage, Shaylee said that Irma “reminded me more of Hurricane Andrew than any other storm we had experienced so far.”

In the aftermath, Shaylee found the experience to be a one of bonding. “It always truly amazes me how our community can come together,” she stated. “In the days before the storm, during, and after the storm the flow of information, personal contact, and emotional support that came from our EMLC family was inspiring . . . . Emotionally tiring as she was, Irma has only served to strengthen our ties.”

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In the wake of disasters, people often want to help right away. While immediate help is necessary, those affected by these storms are going to need assistance for a very long time. “Many residents in the Florida Keys,” says Canu, “will have years and lots of money put into restoring the damage just south of us, including basic water and wastewater services.”

The Florida residents spoken to by The Wild Hunt have many suggestions for those who wish to donate funds to help in the recovery effort. Shaylee directs locals who would like to help to VolunteerFlorida. She also notes that the ASPCA and South Florida Wildlife Center also are in need of help and donations. United, Miami Foundation, and Office of Emergency Management are working together and conducting an emergency fund drive. For those who would like to help affected islands in the Caribbean, Shaylee suggests UNICEF, GlobalGiving, and Convoy of Hope.

Canu also recommends helping the Miami Foundation. Their website lists a number of local nonprofits who are helping recovery in the area. In addition, he gives a special recognition to the Islamorada Beer Company, which already runs a scholarship fund but has now added a Hurricane Irma relief fund. The beer company “stopped new production to conserve water and supplies, transitioned their bottling plant to bottle water for residents, and have have been collecting a variety of supplies . . . . Donations go entirely to their relief effort,” says Canu, and he lists supplies such as chainsaws, water, food, bleach, hand sanitizer, clothes, diapers, feminine products, toiletries, excavators, and dump trucks. Canu directs those who wish to help the heavily damaged Florida Keys to the Florida Keys Relief Fund.

Freysdottir says that the normal large charities “have been invisible here,” so she suggests the Pagan-run charity Hands of the Goddess. Romanowicz agrees about the lack of larger charities, but does recommend the American Red Cross, because of his experience with them after Hurricane Andrew, and the Wounded Warrior Project, because his family was helped through Andrew by soldiers from the 82nd Airborne.

Villareal is similarly unimpressed with most of the larger agencies’ efforts in Houston. National Public Radio has a large list of charities and organizations that are working to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Texas. Donations or volunteering to one of these, not just now but in the future, will help in the long term relief of the Houston and southern Texas areas.

The need has only intensified. Shortly after hurricanes Harvey and Irma came Maria, which devastated the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. CNN described the damage done to the island as “apocalyptic,” and [at this writing] much of the territory is still without power and dealing with severe shortages of fuel and water. Terence P. Ward’s October 3 article describes early Pagan response to this disaster, including the coordinated efforts of Solar Cross Temple and Black Flag Search and Rescue, to provide immediate assistance to victims of Hurricane Maria. In a plea for help, Puerto Rican rapper-actor-singer-songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda, author of “Hamilton,” wrote an impassioned account of his own family’s struggles. Miranda advises those who wish to help the U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico do so by donating to the Hispanic Federation.

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.