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Flooding in Florida after Hurricane Ian
Photo by deskcube on Depositphotos

I’ve gotten used to a lot in my nearly two decades of incarceration with a natural life sentence. But there are some aspects of life inside that I just can’t get accustomed to.

One is never being there to help my family recover during times of crisis.

I first learned this bitter lesson at age 23 while awaiting trial. In August 2004, Hurricane Charley, a Category 4 storm, traveled up the west coast of Florida and was projected to hit the Tampa Bay area. The storm took a sudden and early turn into Charlotte Harbor, near where my family lived, and a short distance from Desoto County Adult Detention Facility where I was housed.

The Desoto County jail took a direct hit. I heard the wind howl through the cinder block structure, felt the pressure drop in the atmosphere, and saw the lights flicker before settling into pitch blackness. I feared the jail would crumble on top of me. About 24 hours later, an officer delivered a gallon jug of water to the 20 of us housed in a cell. With no windows to open for fresh air, no water pressure to flush toilets and no working phones, the environment was a breeding ground for bad attitudes and flaring tempers.

It took weeks to discover that my family home in Port Charlotte also took a direct hit and became part of the sea of blue tarps nailed to roofs. Despite the damage caused by the violent winds, I thankfully discovered my family was alive and physically unharmed.

Charley caused an estimated $16 billion in damages in Florida. But it was just the first of four hurricanes to crisscross the state that year. 2004 was Florida's most destructive hurricane season on record.

While neighbors pulled together to help each other, I was forced to stay on the sidelines. I wasn’t there to help clean up all the fallen tree limbs in the yard. I wasn’t there to stand in line for water rations. I wasn’t there to collect the meals ready to eat, military rations known as MRE, given out by the National Guard. At that time in my life, for more reasons than I care to admit, the sidelines were where I needed to be. But I badly wanted to help.

Eighteen years after Charley, in September 2022, I sat watching another hurricane threaten my family as Hurricane Ian gained steam.

We had come a long way technologically since the days of Charley. Advances of any kind usually arrive more slowly in the prison environment. But it is true that it is easier to stay connected to family today than ever before. On Sept. 29 of last year, as Hurricane Ian inched closer to the Florida coast, JPay, our prison e-communication platform, provided five free e-stamps to every resident of the Florida Department of Corrections.

The institution in Miami where I live was unaffected by the catastrophic devastation left by Ian. But it took one day of unanswered calls going straight to voicemail before I could reconnect with my family and learn what happened to them. Talking that night to my mom, Gloria, as the flood waters came in the back door of the house, I could hear the devastation in her voice. “It's heartbreaking,” she said. Like before, I yearned to help.

Yet again I wasn’t there to help sweep the floodwaters out of the house. I wasn’t there to clean up from the fallen oak tree in the backyard. I wasn’t there to go through the waterlogged boxes of family keepsakes that my mom can’t bear to throw away.

After every catastrophe people show that we can build something better than what was there before. In the weeks and months after Ian, communities pulled together and proved that a hurricane can’t destroy our will to get back up again.

This same resilience drives me day after day to rebuild my own life in the wake of the events that brought me to prison. Even if I'll never be able to help pick up the pieces after a storm blasts through my family's neighborhood, I can still build something in myself that is better than it was before.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Frank Morse is a self-taught portraitist, writer and public speaker who has been incarcerated since he was 23 years old. He is the president of the Draft Pick’s Gavel Club, an affiliate of Toastmasters International, staff writer for the Endeavor Newsletter, a prison publication at Everglades Correctional Institution, a peer facilitator in the Horizon Faith and Character Program dorm, and facilitator of the Art Expressions Program. He is incarcerated in Florida.