Volunteers still helping Panhandle businesses 6 months after Michael

Heartland Rescue Ranch powers on despite being hit hard by October hurricane

By Jennifer Ready - Reporter

BAY COUNTY, Fla. - Wednesday marks exactly six months since Hurricane Michael made landfall Oct. 10 in the Florida Panhandle.

The Category 4 storm leveled homes and businesses, and people there still have a long road to recovery. With so much rebuilding to be done, volunteers are still on the ground, helping people get back on their feet. A lot of people say they couldn’t do it without the help they are receiving from volunteers who have planted themselves in the Panhandle for the last six months.

Trees falling to the ground at Heartland Rescue Ranch were the latest sign of recovery. The animal rescue was hit by the hurricane, which damaged buildings, downed dozens of trees and toppled animal fences. Yet, the rescue has powered on, continuing to take in hundreds of animals despite the damage. In fact, a whole new litter of puppies arrived Wednesday.

"It’s amazing to have people that you don’t know call and just show up and say, 'What can we do?'" said Misty Barton, with Heartland Rescue Ranch. 

Those people Barton referred to are volunteers with All Hands and Hearts Smart Response. Together, they’ve helped nearly 500 people by clearing debris, getting rid of mold and sawing down trees.

"A lot of times, our homeowners feel forgotten. It’s been six months since the storm and our homeowners still need help," said Jerianna Shaw, director of All Hands and Hearts Smart Response in the Panhandle. 

There are several volunteer organizations still here in the Panhandle, but several others have left. All Hands and Hearts Smart Response says it needs volunteers from anywhere in the country to assist as the organization continues to help people recover here. 

Although the road to recovery is long, businesses like Heartland Rescue Ranch say help from complete strangers makes the road a little less bumpy.

News4Jax has been speaking with people in the Panhandle since Monday. They say it’s hard to believe they’re still dealing with this level of destruction, but they are determined and resilient. There are some businesses that were destroyed, but businesses that can find a way to open are doing so -- whether they are using a tent to serve customers or finding other ways, like the animal rescue that's housing animals. 

WATCH: Sky 4 drone video of Mexico Beach 6 months after Michael

In front of several businesses in Panama City and Mexico Beach, there are "open" signs to remind people they are back in business. Although some businesses have been able to reopen, they are having problems finding people to hire. 

David Kiser’s coffee shop, Caribbean Coffee, is one of four eateries in Mexico Beach back open after Michael crashed ashore. The shop sits across the street from a now-vacant lot, where homes were destroyed or ripped off their foundations in the storm. Fortunately, his shop survived with minor damage.

"A week after the storm, we had started cleaning this place up. I started serving coffee," Kiser told News4Jax. "I brought in a gas burner from the house, sat on the deck and we started serving first responders and policemen."

Since fully reopening after the storm, Kiser says his customer base has changed from seasonal tourists to just locals and workers in town to rebuild. On top of that, he says some businesses are having trouble hiring.

"I have the same employees I had before, thank goodness, because there’s nobody here to hire," Kiser said. "We lost a large part of our population."

It's a large part of the population that the town of Mexico Beach hopes to bring back in the coming years. 

Residents and businesses feel forgotten, and although they are still rebuilding, they want people to know that they are still here and some of the stores are back open for business.

Couple opens up their property to those who lost homes

As businesses work to recover six months after Hurricane Michael made landfall in the Florida Panhandle, hundreds of people are still without permanent homes, with some even living in tents. 

News4Jax visited what locals call "tent city" and met Tresa Estes and her husband, whose lives changed six months ago.

"We lost our home," Estes said. "It’s horrible. We’ve been married 32 years. We never experienced this. We’ve always had a home."

Their home was demolished after Michael and they are now living in a tent. Estes said the most challenging part of finding a place to live in the area is the price gouging.

"We cannot afford any place in Bay County," Estes said.

She and her family are among nearly a dozen families living in a backyard. Before, the families were strangers. Now, they say they are family.

Shelly Summers and her husband opened their property shortly after the hurricane to people who lost their homes and have no other place to go. There are tents, along with access to food, hot showers and company. 

"We’re not doing anything amazing. We’re not doing anything biblical," Summers said. "We’re doing what’s in our heart and it should be the way that everybody is."

And that way is giving those like Estes a place to call home.

"This is our community," Estes said. "This is our life now."

Summers says she and her husband are expecting more families in the next few days, and they will continue housing people as long as they have room in their yard.

Copyright 2019 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.