“The first people we’ve seen here since the hurricane”
Service crews deliver water, food, hope
Panama City, Florida — They didn’t have much time. Rose and Perry Lane fled just hours before Hurricane Michael bowled into Panama City. They took Mary Lane, 92, Perry’s mother. Simbo the cat sat in a carrier on her lap.
The Lanes headed inland to an emergency shelter at a school where safety waited.
Or so they thought.
The fast-moving hurricane, trimming Panhandle pine forests like an immense lawn mower, got to the school not far behind the Lanes. Windows shook, then shattered. Stairwells vibrated with the force of 130 mph winds. The storm yanked at the double doors leading outside; only a few men who looped their belts in the doors’ handles kept everyone from getting dragged into the night.
The next morning: sunlight, a dazzling sky, a lovely early fall day. The Lanes made their cautious and slow way back to the lakefront home just east of Panama City that Perry’s dad had built three decades earlier. They arrived to find it without a deck, with holes in the kitchen roof, its contents scattered up and down the street.
A neighbor helped clear a walkway to the house, and carried Mary Lane back up the stairs.
With nothing else to do, they waited for help to arrive. Their wait ended Thursday, eight days after the category 4 hurricane hit Florida.
Their visitors: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) workers who began sawing away at an incalculably large number of fallen trees on the street outside their home.
“You people are the first people we’ve seen here since the hurricane,” said Perry Lane, sitting in the shade of a ground-floor garage.
“It’s exciting to see someone!” Rose Lane said.
The encounter was brief; their visitors, with chainsaws and heavy equipment, with pallets of water and boxes of U.S. Army ready-to-eat meals, had a lot to do.
The Service workers were among the first rescue workers to visit the Florida city after the storm passed. They’d knocked on doors, shared a smile and whatever news they had, then moved on.
Chris Nothstine, who left his regular duties at the Service’s Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge to man saws in a war against a tangle of toppled trees, put it succinctly.
“It’s all about the saws.”
It’s also all about providing that most crucial of commodities, hope.
‘You are helping people’
It was still early, the sun the color of butterscotch as it rose in the sky. It illuminated Rocky Chesser, a safety officer from the Okefenokee NWR, and a cluster of other Service workers.
“Stay focused on what you’re doing,” he said in their daily morning meeting. “You are helping people. Take pride in that.”
It’s pride built on blisters and sweat. The days begin at sunup and last until dark. By the time the Service’s team was done, it had cleared the equivalent of 32 blocks and made 200 resident checks.
Service crews, comprising workers from Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and other states, are working across the Florida Panhandle. Some are in Panama City, where police officers and utility trucks from across the Southeast are trying to get the city to stand again, if only unsteadily.
Others are east of here, near Tallahassee. Like their counterparts in Panama City, they’ve been cutting away trees, checking on people, assuring folks that better times will surely return.
The Service’s Sami Gray, an emergency response veteran overseeing operations in the Panhandle, is pleased with what they’ve done. Thursday morning, she told the Panama City workers as much.
“You’ve done a super job,” she said.
It’s a job that won’t be finished, not fully, for years to come. Amber Stinson and Deston Posey are sure of it. Thursday morning found them standing outside their small frame house along a street lined with homes nearly identical to theirs. Most had trees on their roofs or in the yards, including theirs.
With one hand Stinson reached for Dakota, their 10-month-old daughter. She sat in a high chair on the front porch, smiling. Stinson used her other hand to motion at Benjamin, 6. He’d run up the street.
“Come back here now!”
Born and raised in Panama City, Stinson thought she’d seen big storms, “but never something like this.” She looked up her street, then down. All she could see were trees — fallen, shattered, twisted, dying in the October sun. “It used to be so pretty here,” she said. “Not anymore.”
Then she smiled as Dave Moran, who works at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, handed her something unexpected — dog food.
Behind her, Batman, Joker and Hoss barked.
Drive along U.S. 98, one of a handful of large roads leading into Panama City, and you get an idea of the hell that occurred just days ago. There are the usual signs of storm mayhem — dented cars and twisted street signs, storefronts whose plywood-covered windows feature spray-painted warnings to any would-be looters.
But how many storms are strong enough to shear bricks from the side of a church? What tempest pushes a freighter across a bay until it rolls over in the shallows?
The force of the storm left Tyler Henderson stunned. A Service safety officer from southeastern Louisiana, he and his colleagues earlier this week came across 10 people sheltering in a dark, hot house. Four of them had special needs.
He jumped in his truck, determined to find them shelter. His search led to a facility that had already closed. He got directions for a second. On his way there, Henderson passed a Red Cross truck, crawling in traffic. Henderson did a U-turn; surely the guys in the Red Cross truck knew of a place.
They did. Henderson told the Red Cross workers about the 10 people, the dark house. Later, returning to the community where he’d come across them, Henderson saw a Red Cross truck leaving. The people were gone — taken, he is sure, somewhere safe.
“Those people were having a hard time,” Henderson said. “We had to help.”
Things have been no less challenging for Alan Skurzewski. He lives in “Millville,” a nickname given to a small community about three miles east of Panama City. It’s never been a rich place, and is even more impoverished now. Instead of fleeing the hurricane, he’d remained in his one-story rental house. Skurzewski stood in his carport and listened as the storm announced itself — first with the patter of rain, then the howling of wind, and finally with the crack and boom of century-old oaks that shook the earth as they fell.
The hurricane snatched an awning off the house. Skurzewski ran — just in time. The carport crashed where he had stood.
Days later, he straddled a Huffy bicycle, holding his stomach; he’d strained something running for his life. He was tired, said Skurzewski, and thirsty.
Robert Alonso, a Service EMT who works at Merritt Island NWR, gave him some water, flavored with advice.
“You need to ride that bike to the hospital, have a doctor look at you,” said Alonso, one of the first Service workers to make it to Panama City.
Skurzewski, 62, nodded. “I appreciate everything,” he said. He pedaled slowly up the street, twigs popping under his bike tires.
A dozen feet away, Toras Holmes sat in temporary shade — a collapsible canopy erected over a sagging tent put up in his front yard. Holmes’ house, barely 12 feet wide and not much deeper, was dark. An oak tree had crushed its bathroom.
Holmes, his 2-year-old daughter Rissa and her mother had ridden out Michael in the house. Thursday morning, he reached for a case of ready-to-eat meals unloaded from a Service truck. “To me,” he said, “these things are good!” Moments later, Holmes smiled and reached for an improbable gift — a bouquet of silk flowers. Alonso found them and asked Holmes to please give them to Rissa, whom he’d met the day before. Alonso and some other Service workers had signed its base.
Holmes beamed. “Y’all have done perfect,” he said. “God bless you guys!”
The guys waved and headed toward another fallen tree.
Moments later, a chainsaw popped and whined.
Mark Davis, Public Affairs Specialist