Picture of Taylor Williams with a photograph of destruction caused by Hurricane Michael
Taylor Williams stands at The Joe with a photograph of Hurricane Michael’s destruction. [ David Adlerstein | The Star ]
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A five-year journey of resilience: Community looks back on Hurricane Michael

In the beauty of a room adorned with art, adjacent to a table laden with appetizers, members of the Gulf County community reflected on the five-year journey from Hurricane Michael’s devastation.

In a program Friday night at The Joe Center for the Arts, a handful of speakers spoke about both their experiences of those terrifying days back the second week of October 2018, as well as how far the community has come since.

“Today we’re not here to dwell on the past nor are we here to mourn our losses,” said event organizer Taylor Williams, regional vice president for Setco Services who oversees the company’s work in Gulf County.

“We’re here to celebrate the incredible journey we’ve been through as a community and undertaken over the last five years,” she said. “Our journey is one of resilience, unity and unwavering determination. The hurricane was something that brought our communities together like nothing else could.

“What was one of our biggest tragedies has now become one of our biggest blessings,” Williams said. “Our communities are rising stronger and more united than ever before.”

A native of Bay County, whose family lost their home to the Category 5 hurricane, Williams closed the program with a presentation that included a stark photo of the devastation as well as a reference to lyrics from Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” that sing of exquisite images in the world around him.

“But in the picture in October 2018, there was no trees of greens or red roses too,” she said. “Our entire geographic landscape, and landscape of our hearts had literally been blown away. But amidst chaos there is beauty waiting to be discovered, and this has been a troubling time of growth and learning.”

Williams said that with all the ravaging of Gulf County, many people had put the county at arm’s length so as not to take in all the heartache. But in April 2022, after she landed her dream job with Setco and had to make the trip each week from Bay County services

No longer did she have “silent tears streaming down at the lack of beautiful trees of green. Now I cross into Gulf County weekly and it is my favorite day of the week,” she said.

‘The little art center that could and did’

Marcy Trahan, director of The Joe Center of Arts, opened the remarks by recounting how thanks to support from the Forgotten Coast Cultural Coalition of the Arts, which puts on the annual plein air painting event, the art center opened in 2018.

Marcy Trahan, director of The Joe Center for the Arts [ David Adlerstein | The Star ]

‘We were off to a really good start, with a years’ worth of events planned,” she said. “We were just preparing for a fiber show and $70,000 worth of material. So we piled everything up on tables, and covered it the best we could.”

The fear was that the exhibit would be damaged by flood water coming, but that as it turned out, the fiber displays were spared after the center turned into a “three-week sauna.”

“It was a miracle as far as we were concerned that none of the artwork was damaged,” said Trahan.

As the center remained closed, The Joe hosted a series of sidewalk events, and turned the outside windows into an art gallery.

“We asked people to tell us ‘one good thing,’” she said. “Overwhelmingly it was the connection people were making with their neighbors and the community. Within all the destruction there were things people could point to that were a good thing.

“People are resilient; you can find some joy and some light even within the darkness of all that happened,” Trahan said.

It took eight months for renovation, including getting rid of carpet that had become “a moldy sponge,” she said.

“Now we’re at five years after and some of us are still rebuilding,” Trahan said. “Are we better now? In many respects, yes. We were determined that this little art center was not going to disappear because of a hurricane. We’re the little art center that could, and did.”

‘They got new hope’

Joe Whitmer, director of the Gulf County Chamber of Commerce, said he and his wife were living in the county just a few months before Michael hit.

“The biggest tears we had were tears of joy when our house was still standing, when friends sent us pictures back that we were OK,” Whitmer said. “But our hearts broke for our neighbors.

“What we did find out is that people did come back, they did rebuild,” he said. “They got something new, they got new hope.”

Joe Whitmer, director of the Gulf County Chamber of Commerce [ David Adlerstein | The Star ]

Whitmer described his first experience living in Florida as “a baptism in disaster,” but that he soon learned about the strength of the community.

“This is the most resilient group of people I have ever witnessed in my life,” he said. “Each of you who came through Michael should give yourselves a pat on the back and you should be proud of yourselves for coming through this.”

‘Many don’t have that level of resiliency’

Nancy Stuart, a former executive director, and now on the board, of the Citizens of Gulf County recovery team, said the team started in 2019, and the community was extremely supportive “but the only problem was we had no idea what we were doing.”

A resident of Indian Pass, Stuart said she had “made the mistake of staying,” but because she was living in new construction it held up well.

Nancy Stuart, with the Citizens of Gulf County Recovery team [ David Adlerstein | The Star ] 

She soon learned that many of her neighbors were willing to pitch in to help others by sharing generators and cleaning supplies and much more. “I cleaned out several refrigerators which is a big deal not coming back to a stench,” Stuart said. “People were generously offering food and tools. Our house became a central point to grill and share food after tears and sweat.”

But, she stressed, “there are many in the community who don’t have that level of resiliency, whether they’re elderly, disabled, single-parent households, grandparents raising children. Their homes were already badly in need of repair.

“They’re living on $800 a month and they have choices to make,” Stuart said. “Do I buy groceries or do I fix my roof?”

As a member of the recovery team, which stepped in after the first wave of help from the Red Cross and FEMA, Stuart said everyone soon learned what they had to do to sustain the help the community urgently needed.

“We were able to get grant funding and volunteers,” she said. “We kept thinking ‘We’re going to run out of money, but we just kept chipping away at it with donations from the community.

“We have put in directly $1.6 million back in repairs and rebuilding, thanks to a lot of people,” Stuart said, to applause.

She said the First United Methodist Church of Port St. Joe helped with lots of rent-free space, just one of several organizations with which the recovery team collaborated.

Stuart said the multi-year trickle down of funds from the federal government meant the team had to reach out, and so Kathy Gilbert, a part-time case manager, offered help in securing referrals and resources as a central coordinating agency.

The recovery team aligned with the county to find help for people in need of low and moderate income housing, and was able to secure a $50,000 assistance package for people looking to buy a mobile home.

Those homes cost more in the neighborhood of $80,000, and so the recovery got additional help from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, with an initial infusion of $50,000, and later another $250,000, all from a church “without any connections to this community.”

The monies helped get seven families into mobile homes, as well as stick-built housing for a family of six, a single mom and five school-aged children, with help from Square Foot Ministry.

“They were living in a house where they all had to sleep in a bedroom, as the rest was badly damaged,” Stuart said.

She said that in round two people will be getting $75,000 towards a mobile home, and that Pastor Rob, from the Evangelical Lutheran Church was able to secure another $300,000 for the effort.

Stuart said thanks to the work of the president of the recovery team’s board, Loretta Costin and contacts in Tallahassee, along with State Sen. Corey Simon and State Rep. Jason Shoaf, another $500,000 will be forthcoming in state aid, and with it an opportunity to find families new homes.

“We’re hoping to help a minimum of 11 and as many as 20,” she said. “We’re very, very excited to have all that happen.”

‘This thing was different’

 In his remark, Port St. Joe City Manager Jim Anderson recalled how he had gone to church as normal on Oct. 7, but that when he got home from church, he soon learned that “this thing was different. We knew we had to prepare for the storm of the century for us.

“We spent the whole night trying to get what we could out of our town,” Anderson said. “The city employees knew we had to stay. We knew we had to do everything we could to help the community.”

Jim Anderson, city manager of Port St. Joe [ David Adlerstein | The Star ] 

He said he and his fellow city staffers went to stay at the water plant, only to emerge to see whitecaps in front of City Hall, and three feet of water in front.

“We had people trapped in houses, we had houses on fire,” Anderson said.

Meet the Editor

David Adlerstein, The Apalachicola Times’ digital editor, started with the news outlet in January 2002 as a reporter.

Prior to then, David Adlerstein began as a newspaperman with a small Boston weekly, after graduating magna cum laude from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He later edited the weekly Bellville Times, and as business reporter for the daily Marion Star, both not far from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1995, he moved to South Florida, and worked as a business reporter and editor of Medical Business newspaper. In Jan. 2002, he began with the Apalachicola Times, first as reporter and later as editor, and in Oct. 2020, also began editing the Port St. Joe Star.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

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