As the sun is still rising into a warm fall day, I pile into a large pickup with four folks I met only five minutes before, prepared for a 12 hour day of hurricane relief work. Onboard is an architect, interior designer, audio-visual installer, and a nonprofit consultant. As the chatter begins, I’m pretty sure I’m the quietest of the bunch.
We head east from Walton County, Florida, and into areas affected by Hurricane Michael. We’re packed to the brim with supplies--chainsaws, tools, ice cold beverages, food, and everything from pet food to formula to leave behind with those in need.
First we head to Chipley, 50 miles north of the coast and a rural area forgotten by many in the focus on waterfront areas. We help an older man clear away fallen pine trees around his home, with him out there with us helping every bit of the way. From there it was onto Panama City, with damage getting progressively worse the closer we got to the coast.
The rural piney woods of north Florida show their scars, with trees broken off ten feet or so above ground and scattered across the forest by the thousands. Trees fell to the south, indicating that the most intense winds here blew from the north. That means that these areas were clearly on the west side of the storm, which incredibly is the less intense side.
We arrive in Panama City and it looks awful. Debris is everywhere along roadsides, and most buildings are in varying stages of damage—from collapsed walls and peeled-away roofs to complete destruction. The bays and bayous are murky, still churned from the storm. There’s a tent city at the old airport site, with hundreds of people made homeless by the storm camping in an open field.
About half or more of the trees have been felled, and the hardwood trees are all defoliated—bare of any leaves—their twisting limbs offering stark contrast against the blue sky. A map of hurricane damage says that what we’re seeing is merely categorized as moderate, versus the higher levels of severe and catastrophic.
The rest of the day is spent going to several homes from a list of those in-need. At each property the chain saws whir (and sometimes sputter under duress), and we create massive piles of sawed limbs along the roadside. People thank us profusely, and we leave cold drinks for residents who have had no electricity and ice for the past ten days. Too busy and motivated to stop to eat, we finally pause long enough to make sandwiches on the tailgate of the truck.
Driving around the city offers lessons taught by the condition of buildings. A building completely destroyed sits next to one with hardly a scratch. Adjacent homes are also in varying conditions--one has every roof shingle intact, one is missing half of its shingles, while on another the shingles are completely gone.
Many of the damaged structures looked like they were built from the 1970s through 1990s, a low point of construction in America in which speed was valued far above quality. As for those structures that were mostly unscathed, there is a simple answer as to why: better building codes.
Yes—while some rail against regulations, in this case they are directly responsible for saving thousands of newer structures from damage or even destruction. Seeing it with my own eyes shows the value of reasonable, common sense regulations. They work.
It makes me think of the sensible, science-based regulations that GRN advocates for to protect water quality, marine life, and the environment. They work.
There is a very long road to recovery ahead for the people and communities ravaged by Hurricane Michael. GRN will be there to help inform and advocate for a recovery that protects our natural environment while accounting for the needs of those harmed by the storm, and ultimately creates a community that is healthier, stronger, and more resilient.