‘I wasn’t going anywhere’: On land of former slaves, a sturdy home gives shelter from the storm

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The modest one-story brick house on Old U.S. Road meant more to Leroy Wilson and his family than a roof over their heads.

Their ancestors lived on this land as slaves before Wilson’s grandfather acquired five acres here in 1874, right after emancipation. Over the next five generations, the family bought more acres, multiplying that small allotment of land into a huge stretch of property.

So as Hurricane Michael ripped the top off a 50-year-old dwelling next door, brought a tree down on Leroy’s daughter’s home and snapped nearby pine trees like pencils, the Wilsons stayed put in their brick house on Wednesday, opening the doors to neighbors whose homes were succumbing under Michael’s powerful winds.

“I wasn’t going anywhere,” said Wilson, 74.

“We live on the land where our ancestors were once chattel,” said his son, Lamar, who has traced their ancestry to the 1840s . “That’s why they won’t leave. They elected to stay largely because of that lineage.”

Sixty miles from the coast in Jackson County, this city of about 10,000 rarely suffers through hurricanes. Known as “The City of Southern Charm,” Marianna has experienced storms that have taken down trees and power lines, but it has been largely spared the devastation regularly wrought in coastal towns.

Hurricane Michael was different.

“It hit everybody hard,” said Annell Wilson, Leroy’s wife. “We prayed a lot.”

Lamar, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, said he dismissed class around 5 p.m. Wednesday after getting a text from his sister describing the devastation in his hometown and he began making frantic telephone calls to his relatives. He knew they would not leave their land.

“To be able to own several homes you built with your hands, to protect the home your mother built, that your grandfather toiled for, it’s noble,” Lamar said.

And in this case, dangerously noble.

His sister lost her home; his brother’s house is barely habitable.

But the little brick house protected the Wilsons and the people they took in. It lost its water pump and its shutters, and the wind drove water in under the window panes. But the structure stayed intact — and by the end of the evening, more than a dozen members of five families were seeking shelter there.

“That’s what we do. We all help each other,” said Annell Wilson, 73, Lamar’s mother and Leroy’s wife, describing how she settled her unexpected visitors and got them fed, and then stuffed towels along the windows to mop up the water that seeped in.

The damage has transformed downtown Marianna, which consists of about three blocks centered by a courthouse, with memorials to a Civil War battle and the dead of World War II. Two giant oak trees, with leaves and limbs partly stripped by the storm, shade the front door of the courthouse. One of them is known as the hanging tree from the days of slavery. It still stands.

But across the main street, US 90, the stores are devastated. Bricks from one building tumbled to the street and its roof is gone. Glass windows shattered and shards littered the sidewalk and street. Away from downtown, the bowling alley lost its roof as did many other businesses.

“They said it was going to be fast moving, but it seemed liked it went on forever,” Annell said. “That wind was coming, knocking down trees all around us.”

Few people were out on the streets Thursday afternoon. A heavy stream of traffic, including many big trucks bearing portable toilets, emergency supplies and motorized tools such as backhoes, streamed by. Few, if any, stopped in Marianna.

Mindy Offhaus, 22, sat with a friend on a bench along one side street. Her family’s trailer was crushed by a tree during the storm, so all five family members, including her 3-year-old daughter, are moving south to Orlando to stay with relatives while they wait for the power to come back on.

“I work three jobs,” she said, at Baskin Robbins, Big Lots and a sports equipment store. “But without power, those businesses won’t open.”

“I don’t even know how to describe how different the landscape looks,” said Angie Cook, looking across at her 1992 black Jeep Cherokee pinned under a cinder-block barn, along with a couple of other cars.

Cook, 48, sought refuge during the storm with her mother and stepfather in one of the rare houses in Marianna that has a basement. Her sister also has a basement, and her husband’s father, uncle and cousin all stayed with them.

“I’ve lived in Florida most of my life, my mom’s lived here all her life,” she said. “None of us seen anything like this ever.”

Among the downed trees and tangled power lines were sudden pockets that had escaped the storm — “miracles, like flowers in a war zone,” Cook said as she surveyed her unfamiliar new surroundings Thursday afternoon.

Robert Forester, the maintenance man at Marianna’s bowling alley, still looked stunned more than 24 hours after the hurricane struck. He and five others, including owner Jeff Kindelspire, had taken shelter in the business during the storm and were playing a hand of canasta when the roof suddenly peeled away.

“My first instinct was to dive under the table,” Forester said. The group moved to what they thought was a safer spot, they thought, between two concrete pillars and eventually to the women’s bathroom. Forester hasn’t left the site since.

“It’s just demolished everything — it was just mind blowing,” said Paula Kindelspire, daughter-in-law of Jeff Kindelspire, who rode out the storm at home with her two teenagers. “Downtown Marianna was just brick buildings that are totally rubble. It’s just heart-wrenching.”

Jeff Kindelspire said that he invited mobile home residents to ride out the storm with him, as he has been doing in hurricanes since the 1980s.

Pink insulation dripped from the ceiling, nails from the tin roof were scattered everywhere and electrical wires hung threateningly over the lanes. Bowling balls remained stacked neatly in rows.

“My place is probably gone,” Forester told another employee who stopped in Thursday afternoon. “I’m not staying for another one. I’m not. I rolled my last ball down lane five.”

The Wilsons, on the other hand, knew they were going nowhere. Cherise Wilson, Lamar’s sister, lost her home, but said she had money to stay in a hotel if she needed to for the time being.

“There are some worse off than us,” she said, “We are blessed.”

But she still wondered where the power company was, and who they were supposed to ask for help, even as her brother calling in long distance, speculated that a predominantly white development about a mile from his parents house would get power first.

Their mother, Annell, chose to take the long view.

“We can wait a minute,” she said. “It just happened yesterday.”

Sellers reported from Washington. Emily Wax in Washington contributed to this report.



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