Rebuilding After Losing Everything: One Man's Story
By Liz Jones
Mike Peroni knows what it’s like to live through a disaster. In 2007, a flood wiped out his home and farm near Chehalis, Washington. For him, stories from the tragic landslide near Oso hit an emotional scar.
Peroni: “I’m not able to look at pictures without crying. I’m not able to hear the reports about what’s happened up there and what these people are going through without being torn apart.”
Peroni knows what it’s like to lose more than you could ever imagine, then somehow recover.
Reporter: So how do you pronounce the…?
Reporter: Boistfort Valley.
Peroni: Which is bastardized French for Boistfort.
Off Mike Peroni’s back porch, chickens graze and flowers are blooming. His 50 acres of fields stand ready for spring vegetables. In the morning fog, it’s like a painting. Yet, in big and small ways, you still find traces of the flood waters that ravaged this area. Ten feet of water buried nearby towns, and closed a stretch of I-5 for days.
We walk toward a greenhouse that shows the flood’s high water mark. Peroni says "You can see it’s over our heads here, and so that finished out probably about seven feet."
Peroni’s grown organic produce for more than 25 years here in Curtis, Washington. It’s about 40 miles south of Olympia. He lives here with his wife and their 7-year-old daughter. Peroni says this lush valley was unrecognizable after the flood.
Peroni: “It was a war zone. It was, yeah, total devastation.”
Dead horses washed into his yard. Mud filled his house. It says it was ‘otherworldly’. Longtime residents moved out, including the horse breeder across the road whose animals drowned. Owners of the town’s general store also left, and the business is now closed.
Peroni: “So downtown Curtis has changed a little bit. The post office is still open. But I don’t think you can drive past that corner without being reminded.”
Peroni’s property borders the Chehalis River.
Looking out at this now-calm river, Peroni describes how the water destroyed his home and most everything inside. It took years to rebuild. I ask if he ever wanted to just pack it in…
Peroni: Only every day. Yeah, only every day.
Part of what kept him going was the family, friends and customers who banded together to help. Especially in those early days..
Peroni: They just stepped in. You know, they were like ‘you aren’t able to cope with this.’ You know, I was turning help away. I was like, no there’s definitely somebody who needs your help more that we do. At one point, someone took me aside and said, ‘That’s not true. That’s not true.’ (voice cracks)
With his black knit hat, tattooed forearms and gray stubble, Peroni gives off a tough exterior. Yet it’s still difficult for him to talk about this crisis. He says it changed him forever; made him feel vulnerable. The emotions from that time are still just below the surface.
Peroni: Experiencing that type of loss is going to show up in ways in your life in terms of anxiety. You know, in our case, it’s hard when it rains. (chokes up) It’s just tough when it rains hard. You go right back to that place.
Back inside, Peroni retrieves a waterproof box from the garage.
Reporter: What’s this here?
Peroni: All records of insurance, payouts, contractor information, receipts…
The flood prompted a few changes to Peroni’s business. He now stores important files high and dry. They created an evacuation plan, and have used it twice already. Every year, they also donate to a local farm hit by disaster.
In the months after the flood, Peroni poured his energy into restoring the buildings, the tractors, the ground that was lost. He wanted his wife and baby daughter to have their home back, and stability.
Reflecting on that time, he cautions anyone going through something similar, to keep perspective on what’s most valuable……and that’s the relationships around you.
Peroni: And these strong relationships especially with family and community are enormously important throughout this process.
Peroni: For example, asking, “what do you need to feel as though we’re making progress.” Because sometimes those things are awfully small, that can make a big difference.”
Peroni’s heart goes out to the people who lost so much near Oso. In their sorrow, he hopes they can find a thread of optimism…and believe the same words someone once told him.
Peroni: It’s going to be ok. It is going to be OK. It doesn’t feel like it, but it’s going to be OK.