Hurricane Michael left behind hard lessons, sense of community

Monday marked the four year anniversary of Hurricane MichaelÂ’s destruction across Holmes and Washington Counties.

A day that had first responders on high alert showed they can truly count on each other and those in their community.

“After the wind subsided, our main objective was to get Highway 177A cleared to Dogwood Lakes because that’s where we have our highest population of elderly,” said Bonifay Fire Chief Larry Cook.

Hurricane Michael was the first Category 5 hurricane to wreak havoc in the panhandle. It struck mid-day leaving about 400,000 Floridians without power in addition to homes, lives and livelihoods also taken.

At the first signs of the stormÂ’s passage, first responders were quickly at work clearing roads and checking on local residents.

Cook said one reason Bonifay first responders were able to work like a well-oiled machine after the hurricane was because of the generosity of Chuck and Penny Dockery, owners of the former DocÂ’s Market grocery store.

“Chuck brought me the key to the store and said to get anything we need to feed the first responders,” Cook said, adding that the state sends food but there is usually a delay.

Fire, law enforcement and emergency medical crews were fueled by perishable groceries that would have spoiled.

Cook said two of the main operations going for at least 10 days after the storm were a large crew to cook breakfast, lunch and dinner and others running chainsaws.

First responders from outside the region also arrived to help. Miami-Dade Fire Rescue showed up with four engines and 30 firemen doing search and rescue for two days locally before going to help out in Bay County.

“It was like an angel showed up,” Cook said.

Polk County SheriffÂ’s Office also sent deputies to handle calls while local officers took care of their own homes and families.

The initial response to Michael is an experience thatÂ’s still fresh in the minds of those who sprung into action. Four years later, both counties are still feeling the effects.

Washington County was awarded $180 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding after Michael, of which $160 million will be used to pave roads. The remaining $20 million is being used to repair buildings, parks and other places that sustained damage.

Washington County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Tray Hawkins said they learned invaluable lessons from Hurricane Michael.

“As tragic as Michael was, he taught so much,” Hawkins said. “We are now better suited for whatever Mother Nature wants to throw at us, more than we ever have been before.”

The county is working with federal and state partners to build a state of the art storm shelter, as well as upgrading to a 911 system that can be linked into from anywhere in the state.

“When we get the new 911 system, it won’t matter if the disaster is in Collier County; they will be able to link into our system and never miss a beat,” Hawkins said.

Washington County is also working with FEMA on funding to clean out ditches and with Resilient Florida for a grant to clean waterways, ditches and basins.

“We are getting stronger everyday,” Hawkins said. “We knew it would be a long-term recovery, but we will make Washington County more resilient than it has ever been both financially and through infrastructure.”