It’s been a few months since you heard from us last. Let me explain at 18:00 eastern Standard time on October 10th, Hurricane Michael made landfall on the Florida Panhandle around the town of Mexico Beach. That evening Hurricane Michael was a Category 4 storm and had sustained winds of 155 miles per hour. The result for the thousands of residents in the Florida Panhandle was nothing short of catastrophic.
All of the sudden for Charlene and I all bets were off. The third strongest hurricane in American history had just rolled over our State and come way to close to our home in Port St. Lucie.
Only hours after the storm had began it’s devastating run thru the Southern United States we got a call from our long time friend Dell Brewer. Dell was a FEMA reservist for 15 years and when he saw the horror that Michael was inflicting on Florida he knew he had to give us a call. Over the years we had talked about becoming reservists for FEMA.
We were sitting in our living room listening to the first media reports of Michael and sipping an evening glass of wine, when the phone rang.
Char answered Dell’s call which didn’t start with the standard, ” Hello” but instead started with, “You still interested in being a FEMA reservist?”
“Maybe” Char said looking at me and flipping her phone on speaker.
As I sat watching the phone and Char as she hit the speaker as Dell said, “Well if you want’a be reservists you better put on your boots and pack your bags because now’s the time to sign up.”
I have only had a few moments in my life when every thing got turned upside down, that moment with Dell’s voice booming thru the phone was one of those moments.
On the TV the storm was raging and stunned news commentators watched as Michael roared into the Panhandle with sustained 155 mile an hour winds and record storm surges. After about a 10 minute conversation with Dell the even include a few pleasantries like. “yea were OK” and “every one in South Dakota is OK,” we hung up.
With the back ground of the storm coverage on TV we both just kind of sat in silence. I took a long pull off my wine set for maybe a minute watching the TV but not really hearing anything. Finally, I said, “I want to apply”.
One of the things I love about Charlene is on any given day she can be as crazy as I am. “Me too”.
The next four days were a whirl wind. We had been scheduled to leave for Asia on a six week trip and now we were going to take our 60+ old bones into a government agency that only exists to deal with national disasters. It usually takes me longer then 30 seconds to make life changing decisions like that but sometimes I surprise my self.
I could have written a dozen articles on how to dismantle a six week trip to Asia, suffice it to say it wasn’t pretty, but it was a learning experience.
On the 18th of October we had put in dozens of applications to FEMA for different job. We had talked to about six friends we had that had been or were FEMA employees and in Dell’s words, “we had our boots on and our bags packed”, and were preparing to go the Panhandle to see the storm damage first hand and see if FEMA would hire us.
The simple truth was the storm had caused a swath of damage so large that you couldn’t find a motel in most of the Panhandle. Motels all the way into Georgia still had no power and were just starting to recover from the storm. Knowing we couldn’t find lodging we opted to rent a motor home from Cruise America.
We were lucky enough to find a motor home in the Tampa area and were able to pick it up on the 18th and head North to the Panhandle.
Our daughter Sara and her friend Jen had been working with a non-profit out of Tampa and flying disaster supplies into the Panhandle for about 5 days when we left for the Panhandle in our little rental motorhome. We used our contacts thru Sara and Jen to arrange to park our motorhome at the small airport in Port St. Joe, Florida.
Charlene and I have lived thru more then our share of hurricanes. Nothing could have prepared us for what we saw as we drove west on highway 98 thru little coastal towns like Medart, Lanark Village and Apalachicola. These little towns had been hit by the Eastern Edge of the storm but still showed chilling examples of the power of Michael. Trees snapped off, areas of road washed out by the storm surge, and blue tarps over roofs every where. As we drove east toward Port St. Joe things just got worse.
Around 4:00 we pulled into Port St. Joe. The damage in Port St. Joe made every other hurricane we had experienced seem small. One vision I will never forget is on Port St Joe’s main street just under the town center sight announcing “Welcome to St. Joe” was a small sail boat on a trailer that the winds had blown into the town center. Remember this is Six YES Six days after the storm and this sailboat is still wrecked in front of the City Center. Suffice it to say the locals had bigger fish to fry then a sailboat blown into the City Center.
First, Charlene and I went to North Port St. Lucie one of the poorer areas of town and delivered a bunch of food and supplies to a local church that we had gotten from Sol Relief when we passed thru St. Petersburg. When our friend Jenn found out we were headed to the Panhandle she arranged to fill our motorhome with relief supplies.
By Six P.M. we had made our first, eye opening, pass thru Port St. Joe and headed out to the local airport to meet with Bill the owner of the airport. Bill was kind enough to give us a spot to park right next to a house he owned that was vacant.
We spent 2 weeks in Port St. Joe and checked out the hurricane damage in Panama City and up and down the coast area. As a lay person by best way to describe what we see is: small diameter trees like 12 inch diameter pines broken off like match sticks from Apalachicola to Panama Ci ty (we didn’t go further west) but what we saw was a 50 mile swath East to west of complete deforestation of this areas pine forests; 80% of the homes we saw in the area showed damage and probably 60% had blue tarps on the roofs (keep in mind this is tens of thousands of homes); Huge, ancient trees just uprooted and crashing down on the homes they had protected for generations; Yachts in Marinas that were 60 or 70 feet in length pushed into pile s that looked like a child’s game of pickup sticks; and blocks of homes and commercial building destroyed by storm surge.
In the two weeks we were in the Panhandle we drove as far North as Tallahassee and as far West as Panama City and never escaped the damage of Michaels fury. Nature is not always nice.
I would be remise to paint too bleak a picture, there was bright side to this story. The devastation of Michael is real but the memories that will follow Charlene and to the grave are the people. Let’s start with our new friend Bill who generously gave us a spot to park our motorhome for free and helped us meet the local sheriff so we could get FEMA job leads.
When we pulled up to the church to drop off our supplies a representative of the church gathered up a rowdy band of twelve year old’s who where were playing soccer on the street and they helped us unload our relief supplies. Suffice it to say they were great kids making the best of a bad situation. Not a single roof on the street the kids were playing soccer on didn’t have a blue tarp on the roof. The reality is these helpful, happy, kids were living in the after math of natures worst devastation and still having fun. How about the thousands of free meals being handed out by the Red Cross and numerous other charities and the thousands of people who opened up their homes to neighbors who had seen their homes destroyed. Why do you have to drive into a massive disaster to rekindle your belief in humanity? Oh well.
All that being said Charlene I have become reservists with FEMA and so for a while we will be traveling for work. That of course doesn’t mean we won’t be still looking for the best deals. So Stay tuned