Renee Johnson grew up just outside of Nashville and spent 17 years living in Music City before moving to the charming beach town of Santa Rosa Beach, FL, on 30A. But she and many others in her neighborhood are now living with survivor’s guilt after Hurricane Michael literally wiped out several of the towns just a short drive from Santa Rosa Beach.
“The destruction starts in Panama City just 18 miles from us, and it’s devastated. I know somebody who served twice in active wars who says it’s truly like a war zone,” Renee says. “Mexico Beach was wiped out. It’s almost non-existent at this point as far as building structures. There are communities of people living in tents in parking lots so they can be near where their homes once were. It’s really sad and there is so much guilt for those of us over here. We’re fine, and they’re not at all.”
That’s why the 45-year -old mother of three has spent every day since the category 4 storm blew ashore helping wherever she can. “Even my 7-year- old has been helping. We were buying basic supplies one day, and Emi wanted to get stuffed animals for the kids,” Renee says of her daughter’s desire to help out. She says she initially told her daughter toys weren’t a priority, but changed her mind and bought a few dozen for the family to give out. “Every time she saw a little child she would give them one, and she noticed some of the children walking around squeezing the stuffed animals tightly and she said, ‘Mommy, see? They did need that.’ It was really sweet to see through her eyes and to see how thankful the kids were.”
People there are thankful for the basics right now because a month after the deadly storm made landfall in Mexico Beach, hundreds of people are still living in shelters, thousands more are displaced, and most businesses remain closed. Some schools just started re-opening this week, but many are completely destroyed.
Renee says while her family has spent a lot of time helping at organized distribution centers, some days they just drive around, stopping where they see an immediate need. One day she was out with her two daughters. “We saw an older lady cleaning her yard. Part of her roof was ripped off, and she was living in the part of the house where the roof was still in-tact. We stopped and asked if we could help. She just looked at me ? she didn’t even know what she needed.” The girls cleaned her yard and helped straighten the house as well. But it was something less tangible that the hurricane survivor truly needed. “She just needed someone to have a cry with, and we did. I don’t even know her name.”
Renee has also done work with HOPE Panhandle, an official nonprofit that grew out of a grassroots effort of neighbors helping neighbors. Jen Carter is now HOPE Panhandle’s director and says the work started just a few hours after the storm came through.
“Mara and Reese Harrison owned a dental practice in Lynn Haven that was completely blown apart. Their own home was untouched but they were devastated when they realized the entire town of Lynn Haven had collapsed, and they decided they had to do something,” explains Jen. “Right after the storm, they started pulling trees off of houses ? people were walking around like zombies, so the Harrisons started making calls saying, ‘We need sandwiches, gloves, work boots. We need people.'” Within days the couple and a few other friends formed HOPE Panhandle.
Jen, a single mother of two who had left behind a successful career in private equity and was about to start work in her dream field as an interior designer when Hurricane Michael hit, has now taken on the recovery efforts full time.
“From day one, the whole community stopped what they were doing and started helping. Everyone from our area of 30A went down there just hours after it hit,” Jen explains. “Once we realized what was going on, everybody just jumped in. It became this huge thing where people were bringing supplies, just doing whatever was needed.”
They set up a warehouse to collect and distribute supplies, and volunteers were feeding 10,000 people a day. “It was just peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the beginning, trying to bring hope and make people happy,” Jen continues, “but then we started fixing roofs, tarping houses, and now we’re adopting families, finding their needs and meeting them ? going to their homes and doing whatever they need.”
Their efforts now are focused on the Helping Hands program, Job Connect and Hope Homes. Storm victims can get everything from supplies, to food, hope, hugs and conversation while they fill out a form describing their needs. The Helping Hands program then has teams that go back to the warehouse to pack up and deliver supplies. They also send out people to help with tarping, tree removal and more. Job Connect is connecting businesses that are up and running again to people who need jobs, and Hope Homes is working to find places for displaced survivors to stay.
In addition to HOPE Panhandle, most of the churches in the area have partnered with relief organizations to help.
Emily Proctor is a community chaplain in the area and says each church has a different focus ? from sorting through donations to clearing debris ? and they all need help. Emily says this is a great way for visitors to lend a helping hand.
‘If you’re just here on a short-term basis, the best thing to do is get connected to a local church. They’ll have teams going out every weekend, and they have established relationships and know the need.’
She says it’s been incredible to see so many people pitching in. ‘It’s great. It is so inspiring to see everybody working together and doing what they can. At first it was pretty disorganized, but as time has passed it’s become more organized and easier for everyone to give and get help.’
Jennifer McGuigan lives in Nashville but has vacationed at her family home on 30A in Rosemary Beach several times a year for the last decade. ‘It’s our special place. It’s only a seven-hour drive from Nashville.’ Her family was supposed to spend fall break there when Matthew hit. Their town was spared so they ended up only delaying their trip a day and immediately started helping ? including her kids.
Jennifer says, ‘I think it opened their eyes to how bad the destruction was and the need to help people and how lucky we are to have a home that’s safe and how quickly that all can change. The destruction is just unbelievable. It is so sad, and it’s going to take years and years to build back.’
Renee agrees and says the only thing she can think to compare it to are the Nashville floods from eight years ago. ‘If people can remember those areas that were damaged and picture that on a huge scale ? all of Nashville looking like that ? that’s what we’re dealing with.’
That’s why HOPE Panhandle’s director is so thankful for all the help that continues to pour in. ‘It is neighbor for neighbor. If we don’t help, no one will. This is a beautiful place to live. It’s just the right thing to do.’