On October 10, 2018, hurricane Michael, one of the most powerful storms to ever make landfall in the United States, ripped through the Florida Panhandle. A violent Category 4 storm, Michael pounded Panama City, Fla., and surrounding areas. The eye was 105 kilometres wide, winds were at 225 km/h and 1,000 tornadoes peeled back the landscape of what was once known as the Emerald Coast. The result was utter devastation and an estimated loss of $414 billion. It could take 15 years for the area to return to “normal.”
“So many lives have been changed forever,” says Florida Governor Rick Scott. “So many families have lost everything. This hurricane was an absolute monster.” Tens of thousands of homes were unlivable, businesses were turned into piles of splintered lumber, and gas stations and strip malls were crumpled. Entire roofs were torn away, trees were severed in two, and the widespread and catastrophic damage made the city unrecognizable to local residents.
Three weeks after Michael ripped through the Florida Panhandle, I was deployed for 14 days to Panama City with a 12-member incident management team from the Canada and Bermuda Territory’s emergency disaster services. While residents coped with destruction and devastation, we oversaw operations, communicated with media outlets and ensured the delivery of hot meals, cleaning supplies, hygiene kits, tarps, and emotional and spiritual care. At the height of deployment, 20 canteens were feeding 12,000 people a day.
As our team’s public information officer, my role was to communicate to the public and to The Salvation Army about the state of operations and how we were supporting those affected by the storm. As I travelled to canteen locations that were serving hot meals, delivered backpacks to children and teachers at a local school, and made home visits to check on peoples’ well-being, I heard frightening stories of riding out the storm, saw so much of what people had lost, and watched in awe as they persevered in the midst of immense destruction. But even in the midst of their pain and extreme heartache, their warmth, resilience and positivity was incredible. They had lost homes, livelihoods and their lives were literally turned upside down, yet they greeted me with friendly smiles and grateful words.
“We were seven huddled together in the bathroom―the best safe room with one door and no windows,” says Jolynn, whose home was severely damaged by the hurricane. “When we heard the wind pull up the roof and drop it down many times we thought we were going to die. We heard trees cracking. Then suddenly three quarters of the roof ripped away from the house. We were under one big skylight.”
“When the eye of the storm came through, I held tight to my husband in a hallway,” explains Sherri as she tells me about her experience with Michael. “We felt the walls of our home breathe like lungs. A 6,000-pound maple tree crashed down on the side of our house. We were trapped in our collapsing home and convinced we wouldn’t get out alive.” Sherri and her husband, Rick, are now living in their camper in the driveway in front of their destroyed home.
A Tiny Light
“What can we do?” asked Lieutenant Stefan Reid, corps officer at Vernon Community Church in the British Columbia Division and our team’s planning chief, when he stumbled upon a little white church that was only half standing. “We need food. I can’t keep going,” replied Karen, the pastor’s wife. In the three weeks since the hurricane, she and her husband, Eddie, and two volunteers, had been serving 100 people a day out of four crockpots.
“There were tarps over the building and no electricity,” Lieutenant Reid explains. “In the back of the fellowship hall, with insulation falling and wires exposed, people affected by the hurricane were getting non-perishables, simple supplies, bedding, clothing and blankets.”
Calloway is a low-income neighbourhood located nine kilometres from Panama City. Most of the 150 residents couldn’t evacuate due to lack of transportation and all were left with significant damage or mobile homes that were completely destroyed. The only shelter for many were the tarps that hung everywhere.
While our team was initially overwhelmed by the extent of destruction and the demand for services, it was a privilege to bring relief and a glimmer of hope to those we were called to serve.
“We all wanted to stay and keep giving until we couldn’t give any more,” concludes Lieutenant Reid. “The Salvation Army was a tiny light in the midst of the storm.”
Article contributed by Linda Leigh is the staff writer in the territorial public relations and development department.