Mike Peroni knows what it’s like to live through a disaster. In 2007, a massive flood wiped out his home and farm in Curtis, Wash., about 40 miles south of Olympia.
For him, stories from the tragic landslide near Oso, Wash., on March 22 have hit an emotional scar.
“I’m not able to look at pictures without crying," Peroni said. "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.”
But Peroni also knows what it’s like to lose more than you could ever imagine and then somehow recover.
‘A War Zone’
On a recent morning, Peroni showed a visitor around his farm where he has grown organic produce for more than 25 years. He lives here with his wife and their 7-year-old daughter.
Off the 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, traces remain of the floodwaters that ravaged this area, submerging nearby towns under 10 feet of water and closing a stretch of I-5 for days.
The flood's high-water mark is still evident in Peroni's greenhouse: It topped out at 7 feet.
Peroni said this lush valley was unrecognizable after the flood. “It was a war zone," he said. "It was total devastation.”
Dead horses washed into his yard. Mud filled his house. It was “otherworldly,” he said.
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.
“Downtown Curtis has changed a little bit," he said. "The post office is still open, but I don’t think you can drive past that corner without being reminded.”
‘You Go Right Back To That Place’
Peroni’s property borders the Chehalis River. Looking out at this now-calm river, Peroni described how the water destroyed his home and most everything inside. It took years to rebuild. He thought about packing it in nearly 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 said they stepped in and told him that he wasn’t able to cope with the disaster alone.
"I was turning help away,” he said, his voice cracking. “I was, like, no, there’s definitely somebody who needs your help more than we do. At one point, someone took me aside and said, ‘That’s not true. That’s not true.’"
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 said it's changed him forever; made him feel vulnerable. The emotions from that time are still just below the surface.
"Experiencing that type of loss is going to show up in ways in your life in terms of anxiety," he said. "In our case, it’s hard when it rains. It’s just tough when it rains hard. You go right back to that place."
‘It’s Going To Be OK’
The flood prompted a few changes to Peroni’s business. He now stores important files high and dry. His family created an evacuation plan, and has used it twice already. Every year, he and his wife 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 and the ground that was lost. He wanted his wife and baby daughter to have their home and stability back.
Reflecting on that time, he cautions anyone going through something similar to keep perspective on what’s most valuable: the relationships around them.
"These strong relationships, especially with family and community, are enormously important throughout this process," he said.
Ask people what they need to feel they're making progress, he said. "Because sometimes those things are awfully small, that can make a big difference.”
Peroni said his 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: "It’s going to be OK. It doesn’t feel like it, but it’s going to be OK."