Hurricane Michael has been a storm like no other. Within only 72 hours, it strengthened from a tropical depression in the Gulf of Mexico to making landfall as the strongest hurricane to hit Florida’s Panhandle in a century. We mourn the loss of life caused by Hurricane Michael, and struggle to deal with the destruction left in its wake. Last week, along with Dr. Pete Vergot and Mary Ann Gosa Hooks, I was able to visit the counties that were most affected by the hurricane. I can attest that I have never seen the level of destruction that I did over these past couple of days. As I think about all of what I saw, it is a major wonder, and a major blessing, that there was not more loss of life in these affected counties.
Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Holmes, Jackson, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty, Wakulla and Washington counties were all affected. While all UF/IFAS Extension faculty and staff emerged safe and sound, many suffered damage to their homes and some UF/IFAS facilities suffered damage, including the North Florida REC in Marianna.
The agriculture and timber industries have been badly affected by Hurricane Michael. It’s estimated that nearly 1 million acres of agricultural crops were impacted, andthat growers lost $158 million for this year’s growing season. Cotton, peanuts, corn, oats and hay were especially hard hit; specialty crops also suffered significant losses, and the Florida Forest Service estimated timber losses at $1.29 billion. In addition, damage to fencing and enclosures caused beef cattle, deer, horses and hogs to wander off land and go missing, and getting enough food and water to livestock animals has been a challenge. Damage estimates have been forwarded to state and federal agencies to facilitate relief efforts, but it’s clear that Panhandle agriculture is going to be recovering from the effects of Hurricane Michael for quite some time.
What I also witnessed was the great spirit of our people, many of whom told me that “things could have been much worse” and that they were glad to be able to move on. It is also heartening to see how our Extension faculty and staff are rallying around one another and helping each other. We all care deeply about one another, and this is clearly evident to me.
We also care a great deal for the people that we serve, and there are many stories about our Extension folks calling and reaching out to communities to provide help throughout this great time of need. From the stakeholders who spoke with me, you need to know how much they appreciate and value this aspect of Extension. The strong collaborative relationships we have with our stakeholders and clientele go a very long way and make a significant impact, both immediate and long-term.
Even before Michael made landfall, UF/IFAS Extension was in place to help. Dr. Vergot and Dr. Angie Lindsey coordinated with county offices to get faculty and staff safely evacuated and facilities prepared for the storm. Extension directors and faculty began staffing emergency operations centers and shelters. Extension offices throughout the Panhandle and Big Bend began disseminating information through social media and other outlets about how residents could make last-minute preparations for the storm.
After the storm, the outpouring of help and the swiftness with which we were able to organize on the ground were amazing. Here are just a few of the relief efforts UF/IFAS Extension organized in the first days after the hurricane:
- 4-H Camp Timpoochee in Okaloosa County has been repurposed as the headquarters for the Global Surgical and Medical Support Group, which has been sending teams out daily to administer medical care and supplies.
- Pledging their “hands to larger service”, teens from the Jefferson County 4-H Teen Council spent the entire day in Panama City piling and moving debris left by Hurricane Michael.
- Rachel Pienta in Wakula County has been working with a network of volunteers to collect and distribute thousands of cases of water, meals ready-to-eat, personal care kits, diapers and other items. She has also partnered with the Florida Peanut Federation to distribute 36,000 jars of peanut butter donated by Peanut Proud to families impacted by Michael.
- Doug Mayo in Jackson County has been working with the State Agricultural Response Team, the Florida Cattlemen’s Association and many others to distribute livestock supplies, water and feed to ranchers affected by the storm.
There are literally hundreds of stories like this of Extension folk rushing in to help where it’s been needed. More details about damage assessments and relief efforts will emerge in the coming weeks, and we’ll keep you posted on those as they occur.
Hurricane Michael has dealt a devastating blow to Florida’s Panhandle and taxed the resources of UF/IFAS Extension, but in our response, we’ve discovered once again the qualities that make our organization so strong internally, and so vital to the communities we serve.
For one thing, we’ve shown the resilience and strength of our faculty and staff. Those directly affected have been dealing with their own issues—damage to their facilities and their own homes, loss of power, closed roads, lack of supplies, long hours and hard work. Yet they’ve still been there to help at emergency operations centers, gathering damage assessment data, providing assistance to clientele who have lost significant parts of their businesses, answering questions from the public, running warehouses of FEMA supplies, handing out supplies and juggling multiple other tasks.
For another, we’ve shown our unity and sense of purpose. Faculty and staff in counties not directly affected by Hurricane Michael have immediately jumped in to help those that were in need. We’ve been taking in donations from throughout the state. This truly shows the we’re a close network of caring professionals who are always ready to support each other.
Recovery from Hurricane Michael is going to take a long time, and our agents and staff and their communities still need help. Please consider making donations of needed supplies and financial assistance which goes toward recovery efforts of our colleagues whose homes and communities have been personally affected. To learn more about what you can do to help, visit www.ifashurricanerelief.com.
Finally, I just want to again thank you greatly for all that you are doing and for your perseverance. Seeing and meeting with many of you was inspirational for me, and it reminds me of the strength and resilience of our UF/IFAS Extension family. Please continue to take care of yourselves, and know that we are all in this for the long haul.