Islanders come together (as they always do) to help our Panhandle neighbors devastated by Hurricane Michael

Islanders come together (as they always do) to help our Panhandle neighbors devastated by Hurricane Michael

■ BY MARCY SHORTUSE

When Hurricane Michael came onshore on Wednesday, Oct. 10, he came with winds of 155 mph and driving, torrential rain. While he was quicker moving than some storms, the path of devastation he left has not even begun to be broached by national news. However, enough people from our area had family and friends up there – near Marianna, Chipley and Panama City – to know that help was needed … and fast.

You can be sure if Michael hit Miami, or Naples, even Southwest Florida where we live, the media would have given the damage more exposure. But northern Florida  is full of small towns and working people, without a lot of tourist destinations to be had. A week after the storm people who live way back in the woods were still trying to dig out of their driveways, just to get a drink or something to eat.

One man who named Keith Kramer, who was deployed to Panama City for disaster relief, said, “I’ve heard the word ‘devastation’ used a lot and it can’t fully be appreciated until observed first hand. There are areas here, like Mexico Beach, that are literally destroyed. The damage is unfathomable and short of a nuclear weapon, we couldn’t cause that much damage on purpose with military weaponry and bombing. The old ‘we will rebuild’ saying doesn’t really apply here. Imagine if your entire town was wiped out; your home, your place of work, your child’s school, the places you shopped, the places you liked to eat, the things you saw everyday … all gone. You can rebuild structures, but it’s not the same places or memories.”

Island real estate agent Kevin Hyde heard about what was going on and knew exactly what the people in the Panhandle were going through. He spent a lot of time down in the Florida Keys last year after Irma, swinging hammers and wielding chain saws with his wife, Nancy, to help the people who lost everything there. Kevin said he immediately started gathering supplies and equipment, and called his friends at Mormon Helping Hands to see what they could do to help. Then he called his friend, a fellow Realtor named Jim Benson.

“The night it hit the Panhandle I was attending a program for the leadership academy of Florida Realtors,” he said. “One of the people who was supposed to be there was stuck in Chipley, they couldn’t leave. From my experience last year in The Keys I knew I wanted to help. Remember, Chipley is 60 and 70 miles inland, and so is Marianna. We stayed in a friend’s office in Chipley, as there were a couple blocks of downtown that had power. We bunked on the floor, but we had power and because the office was in an old house we had a bathroom with a shower. That was pretty awesome.”

Kevin and Nancy went up there with supplies and stayed for three days the first time, two days on the second visit. They are also going back up next week.  In the mean time, there request for donations has become monetary.

“Needs change, we learned that in The Keys,” he said. “We have seen evidence of it. Now there are good roads to get supplies to people from large aid agencies so that’s just beginning. I think in a couple of weeks supplies won’t be an issue. Right now people still need simple things like water, particularly in the area we were working in as it was very rural. Out in the country people are on well systems, and those run on electricity.”

As Kevin said, sometimes when people have nothing they give the most. Nancy used to live in Chipley, and has family there. She is very familiar with the area, and knows the good people who live there. She was particularly excited to stop at a Mexican restaurant there, so when they made it into town and got their supplies dropped off they tried to go there.

“We pulled up and people were around but the door was locked. When we knocked a man answered and told us he couldn’t serve food because of the curfew (it was almost 9 p.m. when we got there). We started to walk away when he opened the door, and asked if we would want some burritos. Of course we did, so he made us a to-go box with drinks and food. When we tried to pay him he told us he wouldn’t take our money since we were there to help people.”

He described some of the devastation they saw in Marianna, the town they did a lot of work in while staying in Chipley.

“There was an old historic building in Marianna, and old brick building, and the whole front has fallen out onto the road. It just collapsed in the street. There are trees down everywhere, and even now – two weeks afterward – when the wind blows new ones just tip over. There are still power lines down everywhere, too.”

Kevin said the Mormon Helping Hands program directed them through work orders, and he said it was strange to drive through the demolished neighborhood where the church is located, and not stop there to help. But they do things by the books, and Kevin, Nancy and some others were sent to another house that didn’t appear to be too damaged.

“She really didn’t have much wrong with her house,” Kevin said, “but she was in a lot of distress over the storm. The Mormon program directors have told us to talk to the people we’re helping, to make sure if they need mental assistance they will get it to them. The lady at that house was in a lot of distress, she was very distraught, but I didn’t have time to stop and tell the church about her before we were sent to our next destination.”

The next stop was a small church, literally in the middle of nowhere. The pastor had tracked them down and explained there was a tree leaning on the building, and wondered if they could check it out.

“We had to clear trees out of the road just to get there,” Kevin said. “When we did get there we found this little church was crushed by a giant oak tree. It was way more than our little group could handle, so we told the pastor we would get a bigger crew and machinery out there as soon as we could. After we told him that he asked us what he could do to help. I remembered the lady who seemed so distressed, and told him about her. So in the end we could help him, and he helped her.

“What was so amazing about the experience was a mirror image of what happened in The Keys. You would talk to someone who would point out a neighbor who they would claim had it ‘much worse than them,’ but you’d look at the person saying it and wonder how they felt that way when their car was upside down and there was a tree in their roof. All this political disparity amongst one another, it doesn’t matter when things like this happen.”

Part of the supplies Kevin and Nancy and their helpers took up to Marianna and Chipley came from a large donation drive organized by Jim Benson at Paradise Exclusive Real Estate. When Kevin called Jim he immediately started getting the word out to his clients, co-workers and friends in the South Gulf Cove, Rotonda and Boca Grande area.

“We had more donations than we anticipated, so we donated the use of our trailer for him to haul everything,” Jim said. “Then Katrina Towns from Abel’s Marine let us use her truck to pull our trailer. We had a few drop-off points, eventually got everything loaded, then Rick O’Neal from Nothing Missed Inspections helped them drive up there to meet with the Mormon group. We ended up receiving several thousand dollars worth of donations, including equipment, supplies and money. DM Dean Homes made a big donation, and Charles from Tailored Inspections of Englewood brought a whole pallet of water.”

He continued. “It just seems like yesterday I was helping load boats of supplies to take to The Keys after Hurricane Irma. I think this area really has a knack for when a storm like this comes around, everyone pitches in and don’t ask twice. They just do it. That’s a true testament to our community. It’s nice to live here.”

Bob Melvin of Gulf Coast International Properties and his family helped out in the Panhandle as well. They have family and friends there, and his stepson Michael Foster and Rob Domke made the trip with a donated West Coast trailer, and they loaded up their trucks as well. They were bringing fuel to the people who needed it, for generators and for their vehicles, as well as other supplies. The Charlotte County Builder’s Association, the Englewood Area Chamber of Commerce, Gasparilla Vacations and Gulf Coast International Properties, along with several Boca Grande residents, donated everything from money to tools to food.

“This will be a long haul in the Panhandle,” Bob said. “It will take months for many to get power and downed trees to be cleared, not to mention the massive rebuilding and renovating that will take years.

Capt. Frank Davis also made the trip to Chipley, to help out family and friends. He documented his journey through photos.

“It is unbelievable what I am seeing,” he said. “All family members made it out safely, but they will be without power for weeks, possibly months. If you know of anyone sending up supplies, especially gas and diesel, please send what you can. It will be greatly appreciated. Please pray for the families up here. It is horrible.”

Frank’s wife Dondi works at Tarpon Real Estate in Cape Haze, and she said they donated gas cans and fuel and gathered together generators, which Bob Melvin’s son Michael drove up there.

Ironically, it was Chipley that Frank and Dondi evacuated to when Hurricane Irma threatened this area.

“There are so many people around the Chipley area living on acreages far from the main roads, and they couldn’t dig themselves out … no one was talking about them. A lot of road clearing needed to be done and people needed to be checked on.”

To help you can call Kevin Hyde at (941) 628-4730 or go to feedingthegulfcoast.org.