Zen by the Bay
By Mike Ragsdale Architecture and renderings by Rolen Studio
The thunder and lightning rolled across Choctawhatchee Bay in rapid-fire succession, just like the waves that crashed against our seawall in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. It was well after midnight, and I couldn’t sleep. The house was pitch-black except for the blue strobe-like flashes that illuminated every window simultaneously with each boom. Dressed in my bathrobe, I propped my feet up on the coffee table and fired up my laptop.
By coincidence, all four of our kids were home that night. Our two eldest daughters were visiting from college, so this was the first time we’d all been together in quite a while. Little did we know that this was the last night we’d ever spend in our home.
It seemed like it had been raining for days. But that night—April 30, 2014—God pulled out the plug. The storm would later be described as a two-hundred-year event—the kind of catastrophe that seems to be occurring with greater and greater frequency. The historic storm reportedly dumped some twenty inches of rain in just twenty-four hours and caused major flooding throughout the Florida Panhandle.
After pecking away on my keyboard for an hour or so, I thought I felt a drop of water on my leg. Probably just my imagination. Then another. Uh-oh. Not my imagination.
In the dark, I fumbled around for my iPhone and turned on the flashlight. I shined it upward and saw moisture collecting around one of the recessed ceiling lights.
“Probably just a little leak,” I thought. “It doesn’t look too bad.”
I leaned forward and shined the light downward to see if any water had pooled on the floor.
“Um, but that looks bad.”
What I saw was one or two inches of water, not in a contained puddle, but spread across our entire living room floor. And it seemed to be moving. I clapped my laptop shut and splashed my way down the hall to wake up my wife, Angela. The water wasn’t just coming in under the doors—it was also gurgling in under the walls. A quick look out the bedroom window confirmed my fear: our home was now an island.
We knew we lived in a flood zone, and we’d always had water issues of one kind or another. (Our brick ranch-style home was built in the 1970s, long before current codes were put into place.) But this time was different. The water was flowing in from all sides of every room—and fast.
We grabbed a select few possessions to take with us, but without really grasping the fate of those things we were leaving behind.
We woke up our groggy kids and quickly got dressed. We began moving as many things as possible up onto tables, chairs, beds, and countertops. We grabbed a select few possessions to take with us, but without really grasping the fate of those things we were leaving behind.
As the floodwater continued to rise, I knew we had to leave—soon. But wading to our cars through a foot of water in a lightning storm with four kids and two dogs hardly seemed rational. The rapid-fire light show outside was at its crescendo. According to the Weather Channel, about six thousand lightning strikes were tracked in just fifteen minutes that night between Pensacola and Panama City.
At some point, I knew the chance of getting struck by lightning outside was less likely than being electrocuted while standing in ankle-deep water inside.
We had no choice. It was time to abandon ship. Women and children and Maltese first.
The hotel was without power, but at least we had a dry place to stay for the night. We all sat on the floor together in the dark with absolutely no comprehension of the long road we would face ahead.
There were too many of us to fit in one car, so we lined up at the front door and prepared everyone as best we could, barking last-minute instructions and letting everyone know where we would meet. When I opened the front door, a wave of water rushed past us into the living room. We sloshed as quickly as we could through the water and made it to our vehicles.
Ironically, it wasn’t rising bay waters that got us—it was water that flowed in from the street. The ground was already supersaturated from days of sustained rainfall, and our local drainage ditches couldn’t keep up with the intense downpour. Local streets had become rivers.
Around 4:30 a.m., we finally found a hotel that would accept pets. The hotel was without power, but at least we had a dry place to stay for the night. We all sat on the floor together in the dark with absolutely no comprehension of the long road we would face ahead.
Once the floodwater receded, we returned to survey the damage. What a mess. The waste. The garbage. How in the world did we accumulate so many stupid things? And while the flood had certainly wreaked havoc on our personal possessions, the real damage was later discovered behind the walls. Mold, mildew, and rot—concealed nastiness from decades of repeated, often-invisible water intrusion.
As we threw contaminated items into the giant dumpster that had been unceremoniously dropped in our driveway, I became sick to my stomach. And yet, as the days progressed, the more junk we tossed into the dumpster, the better we felt. When we found ourselves with almost nothing left, it was as though great weights had been lifted off us—weights we didn’t even know we had carried. The flood was a baptism of sorts, and we were awakening to a new chapter of possibility.
Today, eighteen months of hand-to-hand insurance combat behind us, we’re finally building our new home with some of the region’s best builders, designers, and craftsmen as our allies. This one-acre bayfront lot is a blank canvas.
But this time, we’re building a home with a fresh outlook on life. Simple. Modern. Minimalist. And, of course, elevated. Perhaps in more ways than one.
— V —