'Community means something to me:' Florida residents rally together to get supplies, donations to Michael survivors

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer
November 01, 2018, 10:15:52 AM EDT

Nearly a month since Category 4 Hurricane Michael wreaked havoc on the Florida Panhandle, residents continue piecing their lives back together in an aftermath described as resembling a war zone.

The unprecedented storm, which killed at least 35 people in Florida alone, made landfall near Mexico Beach and Panama City on Oct. 10 with powerful storm surge and 155-mph winds just short of Category 5 strength.

For the survivors, the return to a life of normalcy still seems a long way off.

“People think, ‘Oh, the hurricane was weeks ago',” said life coach Denise Levy, a resident of Navarre, Florida, and survivor of four hurricanes, including the Category 4 Opal that struck the Gulf Coast in 1995.

“People are going to have months and months of recovery time,” said Levy, whose town is located about 81 miles from Panama City.

Hurricane Michael damage

A Florida neighborhood is left decimated by Hurricane Michael. (Photo/Natalie Jennifer Buchholz)

Communities rally together

Navarre is one of the local communities collecting resources to assist those impacted by Michael’s devastation.

“People are taking time off jobs and away from their family, making daily trips, bringing over fruit, cleaning supplies, water, tarps, everything,” Levy told AccuWeather.

The extraordinary efforts of tight-knit communities like Navarre are what’s helping many Michael survivors get through this challenging time.

After Michael, local relief efforts appeared to start with area restaurants and businesses that began setting up donation drop-off points around town, according to Levy. Other businesses followed suit.

“On Facebook, every other post was a local business telling everyone [about the] drop-off locations,” Levy said. “The whole community has pitched in. It makes me proud of my community.”

The East River Smokehouse is one of the Navarre businesses that has collected truckloads of donations for impacted small communities and rural areas including Marianna, Bonifay and Chipley.

“We’ve all been in that situation where, before FEMA and the government can get there, we couldn’t get supplies to us quickly enough,” said East River Smokehouse owner James Dabney.

“In the outlying communities, the little areas, some of those people don’t have the ability to get gas or their cars are destroyed,” Dabney said. “They don’t have the ability to get that stuff, so that’s why we did what we did.”

Hometown help from afar

Even Florida natives not directly impacted are helping out back home. Kennedy Mullins, a student and women’s soccer player at Nashville-based Trevecca Nazarene University, hasn’t been home to Lynn Haven since August. The community is located 20 minutes north of Panama City.

Hurricane Michael damage in Lynn Haven, Florida

Kennedy Mullins' hometown church, Lynn Haven United Methodist, was left in shambles after Hurricane Michael ripped through the town. (Photo/Ross Clemons)

“Seeing the aftermath hit me hard,” said Mullins, who had lost contact with her parents as the storm made landfall, not hearing from them until two days later. “It’s hard going back to your day-to-day life knowing the people you love at home are hurting and suffering, and you can’t be there to go through it with them.”

Mullins decided to do what she could from where she was.

“I reached out to friends and the community here and they responded with so much love, prayers and donations,” Mullins told AccuWeather.

With the help of her university, she was able to gather supplies and necessities for her boyfriend to pick up and drop off in her ailing hometown.

“It’s home, it’s where I grew up and the people I know, love and care about,” Mullins said. “Even if I don’t know every single one that was affected, they mean something to me, and community means something to me.”

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Cajun Navy to the rescue

The Cajun Navy has been on the ground helping residents along the Florida Panhandle in areas ravaged by Michael. Levy’s friend, photographer Natalie Buchholz, has made it her personal mission to assist in Panama City and the forgotten surrounding areas in whichever way she can.

“I packed my car down with 150 peanut butter sandwiches my children made, 20 loaves of bread, 10 cases of water and snacks and juice,” Buchholz said. “I took to social media to let my friends and family know what I was doing and one friend brought me 10 bunches of bananas along with other food items to help hand out as I was driving through neighborhoods doing wellness checks.”

It’s how she became known as the Fruit Lady.

“[A store manager] saw me buying large amounts of fruit, and I told them what I was doing, so they donated $100 worth of fresh fruit,” Buchholz said. In addition to dropping off fruit to those who have been surviving off of MREs, she checks in on survivors a couple of times weekly to offer support in the form of hugs, supplies or an uplifting smile.

The disaster inspired her to join the Cajun Navy as an official photographer.

“When she’s not putting the time in on the ground in Panama City and the other areas that were devastated, she is sitting at home doing dispatch for the Cajun Navy,” Levy said. “Her commitment is unbelievable.”

The importance of helping local communities

“It’s really neighbors helping neighbors, and that’s the most uplifting thing that we see when we go into these disaster areas,” said American Red Cross spokesperson Estefania Garcia. “Communities are resilient because people just want to help each other out.”

Levy aims to support Natalie and the devastated areas through a webpage dedicated to collecting donations to be sent to survivors.

“There are so many things that we leave up to the emergency officials to come and take care of, but when you’re right there and you see it and it’s close and you can actually do something, I think people just naturally want to help,” she said.

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