The signs of Hurricane Michael start in Pensacola. Red gas tanks and cases of water packed on trailers and yellow “out of service bags” wrapped around pumps at gas stations. Vans for recovery teams and an 18 wheeler for Feeding the Gulf Coast drive east on I-10.
Closer to Panama City, trees bent by the wind lean south pointing towards forests of pines snapped in half on October 10 by winds of 130 miles per hour. Awnings from gas stations and metal roofs from warehouses are still wrapped around oak trees now broken, brown and bare.
Piles of mattresses, lampshades, and tree limbs grow along neighborhood roads. Houses are covered by tarps as blue as the October sky. Generators run traffic lights as power lines hang from trees or stretch across the ground beside fallen utility poles and transformers. Crews in white trucks from Indiana, Michigan, Texas and Alabama work from dawn to dark putting them up again.
An 82-year old man uses a handsaw to clear the road in front of his house because someone has to do it. Stepping over fallen walls, Eddie stands next to his aquarium — the only thing left in the living room of the house he grew up in. From his bed, he can see where his father used to work at the firehouse across the street.
A couple asks how they can donate 1,000 meals to first responders.
Scott, a deputy in the Hernando County, Florida sheriff’s department, is here for a week through the department’s mutual aid program. He says local law enforcement is so busy they have no time to care for their families or recover their own houses buried under trees.
“We are watching out for the local officers and just saved one’s truck because it was the only thing his dad left to him,” he says.
There are the signs. “No fuel for the next 65 miles.” “Free tacos on Monday.” “You Loot We Shoot” and “You Steal We Kill” are spray painted on plywood propped up in front of houses and at the entrances to neighborhoods. “Help us Trump” is painted on a roof, and “Free Hot Meals” is written on a bedroom door on the side of Boat Race Road.
No power means hot meals must come from charcoal and fire. A boy, almost an Eagle Scout, feeds his neighbors with the skills he earned badges for. Churches and groups from out of town set up camps in parking lots with barbecue grills and propane burners, giving out burgers, jambalaya, and spaghetti as fast as they can make it. After a week of sandwiches, Pop-Tarts and food from the pantry, victims and workers say noodles and marinara sauce never tasted so good.
Standing in line, they share their stories of survival. Waiting in line six hours at a gas station. The cross she held while taking cover in the hall is the only thing she has left, but it kept her alive. The hurricane sounded like a train as it sucked the water from the bathtub and knocked down every tree in his yard. Her husband listened to her for once and they took their kids to Disney World that week; warning them that when they returned home nothing would be the same. With no cell service and blocked roads, he waited three days to find out his father is still alive.
Mike owns a welding company and planned the day of work around a hot meal for his crew– the first they have had since the storm. Using his trucks and equipment to clear trees or “jack up a building that was collapsing,” he does anything he can to help clients and friends. Several of his guys lost their homes, but helping others keeps their minds off their own problems a little while longer.
The destruction is overwhelming but Mike says it is surprising to watch the reaction of his community. “Everyone has been nice to each other and there is no meanness or bullying. I guess it takes something like this to bring us together,” he said. “Families are spending time together without electronics. After two days, my nine-year-old daughter got out her coloring books. This has made her a kid again.”
The largest hurricane to hit Florida brought together neighbors divided by politics. Cecile is the president of the local League of Women Voters and was preparing for “parties at the polls” on election day a few weeks away.
“People coming here to help us has been an uplifting reminder of the good sides of human nature. Neighbors are helping and feeding each other,” she says. “My husband is a big Democrat and we live in a neighborhood of staunch Republicans, but it hasn’t mattered since the hurricane. He is a civil rights lawyer and many of the people he works with are at the short ends of a lot of sticks. They show up to help and work on our roof with neighbors wearing Confederate flag hats. We have a motley Peter Pan group of people who are oppressed and blessed and I think this is life changing for many of us. People can be bigger than politics.”
In front of a trailer park, an American flag waves over a sign painted with silver letters that reads, “Free food and ice water for all workers.” Down a dirt road, past a trailer smashed by trees, chicken wings cook on a grill and to-go plates are covered in tinfoil.
Marcus invites anyone to break bread as his way of giving back. In less than two weeks, the taxi driver who has lived here for three years without knowing his neighbors is now a leader of his small community. After the hurricane passed, he cut away the trees blocking the road and brought in help. He also found diapers and wipes for the families with babies.
“Before Michael, you were on your own in this neighborhood. Now we know everyone and help each other,” Marcus says. “It has been amazing to see God’s presence in this trailer park over the last week compared to how it used to be. We think we don’t have to ask for help, that we can take care of ourselves. But a disaster humbles you to the point that you can’t do it alone. As you seek help, more people come together.”
Marcus has dreamed of having a community like this since he moved here.
“One hand at a time passing to the next person can save a life,” he says. “Providing a meal and something to drink to someone who hasn’t eaten in days gives them hope because someone cares about them.”
Sometimes it takes a disaster to bring out our best and bring us together. In losing everything we admit that we need help and show we care.
There has to be a better way.