It’s hard not to be overwhelmed with news of terrible disasters around the world and the heartbreak and devastation caused from storms, earthquakes and other natural and accidental disasters. On occasion, these events strike closer to home and we find ourselves compelled to find ways to assist in the recovery.
Such was the case for us with the horrific Category Four Hurricane Michael that struck the northern Gulf Coast of the Florida Panhandle on October 10. It was the third strongest storm in recorded history to hit the U.S. with sustained winds exceeding 150 mph and a crushing storm surge that followed the eastern edge of the eyewall of the storm into the small coastal village of Mexico Beach, virtually destroying everything in its path.
In addition to an estimated $11 billion in storm damage, 60 lives were lost to this terrible storm. Countless thousands have been displaced from their homes and businesses. The large swath of destruction stretches from Panama City Beach to the west, across forty miles to Mexico Beach to the east and many hundreds of miles inland up into Alabama and Georgia.
Disaster relief organizations our volunteer efforts.
While we live in Michigan the majority of the year, our family has vacationed near Bay County for 25 years and we owned a home for many years just 10 miles to the west of where the storm damage really began to take its toll. As we watched the media coverage of the storm and its destructive aftermath, we felt compelled to help in some way. Money and food and supplies were coming in from around the country, but the call for volunteers to assist with the clean-up and recovery was also an urgent need.
We began researching the various agencies involved in mobilizing recovery and volunteer efforts. We registered on the website for VolunteerFlorida.org and several others before connecting with Operation Blessing out of Virginia Beach. OB is an international disaster relief organization founded by Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcast Network. They currently operate in 39 countries, providing disaster relief, health and medical care, hunger relief, vulnerable child and orphan care, safe water and community development.
Operation Blessing was partnering with the Lighthouse Church in Panama City Beach. Led by Senior Pastor Cole, the motto on the church’s website is “Love. Give. Serve.” They certainly lived up to their commitment.
We received a call from the volunteer coordinator for OB on Saturday, October 20, and made the commitment to get down to Florida as soon as we could. We were able to leave that next Tuesday and made the 1000-mile journey in 16 hours, arriving at the church on Wednesday afternoon.
Operation Blessing and Lighthouse Church provide an incredible welcoming hand.
We really had little idea of what to expect on arrival. We had filled out the necessary paperwork online and had been advised of the type of work the volunteers would be doing and what to bring. We knew OB had made arrangements for volunteers to stay at the church and that meals would be provided, but we were uncertain about what we were really getting into.
We couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome we received from the Operation Blessing staff and coordinating church members, as well as the extremely well-organized programming to mobilize volunteers every day to get out and help in the nearby communities.
We got to work almost immediately on arrival, helping to set up cots for volunteers in the parts of the church that had escaped storm damage. The large roof over the main sanctuary of the church completely collapsed during the storm but fortunately, no one had been injured.
The fury of Hurricane Michael and the unimaginable damage and despair left behind.
The next morning, we joined dozens of other volunteers who had come in from across the country, even some from Canada and a man living in Germany who had friends affected by the storm in the Bay County area. We were organized in small teams and given assignments for the day to go out to help homeowners who had reached out for help.
With little idea of what we would find as we drove further into the areas most heavily hit by the storm, we were still overwhelmed by the damage inflicted on the area. Just two weeks after the storm swept through, the cleanup and recovery was still in its very early stages. Damage and destruction to homes and businesses was impossible to comprehend or describe. Virtually every tree in some areas was either completely blown over or broken off at mid-height. We saw a mobile home blown up into what was left of a large live oak tree. To describe it as a “war zone” would not be an exaggeration.
But, we also saw people everywhere working to help… utility workers still trying to restore power, first responders, relief agencies, volunteers and neighbors, all coming together to assist in the long recovery process.
Making personal connections with community members and volunteers.
Over the next six days we came in contact with many homeowners trying to put their lives back together, some with much more dire circumstances to deal with than others. Our work was primarily to help clear trees and debris, so homeowners could get back in their homes and start the process of hopefully making them livable again. Some were much more fortunate than others.
We met a woman named Mary who chose to stay in her house through the storm. She had nowhere to go and had four small dogs making relocation even more difficult. As we pulled up to her house, we were shocked that she had survived. She described the horror of watching the roof tear away at the height of the storm and blow completely away. As she tried to keep her dogs safe around her, the wind and rain rushed through the exposed house. Walls began crashing in around her and a giant tree in her backyard finally succumbed to the onslaught of the wind and came down just a few feet from the back of her house.
In the two weeks since the storm’s passing, she had been living alone with her dogs in a small tent in her debris-strewn front yard. Looters had been coming through the neighborhood at night. She suffers from several health issues and was unable to even begin sifting through the wreckage of what had been her home and belongings.
Over two days, our team was able to clear the house and yard of all that had been damaged in the storm. Everything needed to be piled within ten feet of the street so that it could all eventually be hauled away. Mary lost virtually everything to the wind and water destruction. Fortunately, we were able to salvage a few valuables and keepsakes from the wreckage. We also erected a small area with tarps to protect what little she had left from further rain damage.
We’ve also been working with Operation Blessing to secure shelter for Mary for temporary lodging until relief efforts are able to provide livable accommodations on her property. Several new shelters have opened that also allow for pets. As we left Florida for our trip back to Michigan, it appeared Mary would have several options to take safer refuge from the storm’s aftermath.
Giving hearts aid disaster relief for Hurricane Michael.
We were truly amazed at the care and consideration and ceaseless energy of the relief workers and volunteers we met during our stay. The staff from Operation Blessing brought a positive and energetic outlook to every new day and helped us all to push aside the exhaustion and overwhelming sadness of the devastation and personal loss we were seeing out in the field.
The volunteers came from all walks of life but shared a common desire to want to help and make at least a small difference in the lives of the people hit hardest by the storm. We were so impressed by a large contingent of students from the University of Alabama who had taken their fall break time to come down to help with the relief effort. The school has a program called BeyondBama that organizes relief efforts around the world for students to participate in. They were some of the hardest workers among us.
There is so much more work to be done. It will take years to get these towns and neighborhoods back to anywhere near normal, but each day a little more progress is being made.
Reaching out to volunteer for Hurricane Michael relief efforts.
If you feel compelled to help, reach out to Operation Blessing, or any of the many agencies now onsite to help the people of North Florida. Here are a few of the contact links.
Operation Blessing 800-730-2537 http://www.ob.org
Team Rubicon http://www.teamrubiconusa.org
Bay County Florida Emergency Services http://www.baycountyfl.gov
This was our first experience working in a true disaster recovery effort. It made us want to do even more. Karen is already at work considering a return trip to the storm disaster area in December, recruiting friends and family to go as well.
It’s not just a sense of personal satisfaction in helping to make even a small difference in an overwhelmingly difficult situation, but also the feeling of connection with those we worked with and helped. I’m sure we’ve made friends and contacts that will last for years to come. It’s about discovering the true meaning of “being purposeful.”