PANAMA CITY — Pam Overmyer was firmly a real-tree person.
She still is, even if she didn’t have it in her this year to trek out to a Christmas tree farm and pick one out with her wife, Angie Cooey.
Hurricane Michael swept over her house outside Panama City and her six-acre farm in rural Fountain, Fla., wiping out a barn where she kept her tree ornaments, including a vast collection of Disney characters.
So Overmyer, 49, got creative.
“I think I’m going to make a tree,” she told Cooey, also 49.
Out of the rubble rose a Christmas tree made from two-by-fours. Roof shingles and vinyl siding cut into shapes of trees, candy canes and even Mickey Mouse made up the ornaments. Unraveled carpet hung from the wood in a curly garland, and a red “danger do not enter” tape tumbled over the “branches” as a version of tinsel.
A Ford emblem hung prominently, a relic of Overmyer’s old F-150, which took a tree in the cab during the storm. Icicles and ornament hooks were bent into shape from the aluminum inside high-voltage power lines. A blue tarp bunched at the bottom formed the tree skirt. And at the top, Overmyer used roofing nails to attach a silver star, cut out of a chunk of metal roof from God knows where. Overmyer and her neighbors didn’t have metal roofs.
“You’ve got to survive somehow,” Overmyer said. “If you can make the best of a bad situation, do what you can do.”
She wasn’t the only one to make lemonade out of Michael’s sour, sour lemons. About 12 miles away, closer to the city center, Michael Overend, 36, had gained some local notoriety for his family of snow people and reindeer made from chopped-up pine, oak and cedar trees that toppled in the storm.
One snowman adorned with a visor and running medals represented Overend. A snow woman with a scarf and hat was his girlfriend. And a smaller one in front of them was her 8-year-old son.
But the real show-stopper was a giant Menorah, lit up at night with light bulbs on each wooden candlestick.
“It kind of helps me relax from all the stress,” Overend said in his front yard one recent evening.
His home was gutted as contractors worked on repairs. Meantime, the family of three was living in a camper in the driveway — a common sight among the rows and rows of houses damaged or destroyed across Bay County.
Overmyer experienced a similar catharsis with her tree venture, she said. Nothing like pounding nails to take out post-hurricane stress.
Her house, too, was undergoing repairs. On a recent morning this month, the back patio where she kept the tree smelled of plaster as crews worked to fix her pool. Her ceiling was dotted with holes to alleviate water damage. White baseboards were piled on the front porch, next to a small miracle — pink camellias that not only survived the storm but had bloomed to full vibrancy.
Overmyer rode out the storm with her wife and their four small dogs — Beanie, Maddie, Toby and Izzy. They worked for hours with beach towels and buckets to catch the water seeping in openings everywhere in the house.
They lost both their cars to downed trees from a neighbor’s yard. But the cars and home were insured. Relatively speaking, they came out okay.
"We kind of feel lucky. Even though it was bad enough, it wasn't as bad as it could've been,” Overmyer said. “That's been the whole emotional roller coaster through all of this. You feel devastated, then lucky, then guilty for feeling devastated in the first place.”
The farm in Fountain took the brunt of their damage. The barn and most of the outbuildings were wiped out, none of them insured. Fallen trees missed their 1973 double-wide by just 10 feet. The first time they saw it after the storm, Overmyer threw up.
She and Cooey were planning to move there for good, downsizing now that Cooey’s sons have gone to college. They’re putting off those plans for at least another year.
But, like the blooming camellias, Overmyer has found little miracles in the months since the storm. Her garlic crop was untouched amid the wreckage of the barn, as were a few bottles of wine in a refrigerator. She found a favorite pair of gloves in the yard. She learned that the thorns on her lemon tree made it a great drying rack for socks.
She shared photos of her tree on Facebook that went unexpectedly but pleasantly viral. On Friday, it had almost 2,000 reactions and 1,200 shares. Overmyer is glad other hurricane survivors have found solace in her project.
“I think it hit a nerve with a lot of people,” she said.
She’ll probably go back to the tree farm next year, but she’ll keep the ornaments.
“A new tradition.”
Contact Kathryn Varn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.