How many years have you been with UF/IFAS and what is your current role?
I hit 22 years as of August. I wear many hats. I am the UF/IFAS Extension director for Bay County and a regional specialized agent for Florida Sea Grant, specifically in the areas of artificial reefs and recreational fishing. I also help on various county projects related to marine science, including, more recently, derelict vessels.
What hurricanes have you dealt with in your work over the years?
Bay County, of course, is where Hurricane Michael came to visit in October 2018. It passed right over Mexico Beach, which is about 20 miles from our office in Panama City.
The main ones that have impacted Northwest Florida over the years that I’ve dealt with have been Ivan in 2004, Dennis in 2005 and Michael in 2018. In between, I helped other areas – Sally in 2020, Irma in 2017, and even back to Katrina – I was in Walton County at the time, and we had evacuees come to us during that storm. I also volunteered later to help rebuild some of their communities and work with local churches. That was an eye-opener to go there and see just how much destruction there was. I felt that same way when I went to Mexico Beach right after Michael. It was quiet – no noise, no normal sounds of life. That was the same way it was after Katrina.
How did Hurricane Michael impact your community?
The number of trees that fell and the amount of debris we had – the tree loss, just in our county, exceeded what Irma had. In North Florida, the amount of trees lost would fill up 6.29 million trailer trucks.
We’re finally concluding a huge project to remove the derelict vessels, although not all of those were from Michael. We’ve experienced more delays because of COVID than what would be normal, though. We even removed a few that had been completely submerged underwater. This was also a race against the clock. These vessels could cause damage if another storm was to come through the area.
And now, what we didn’t anticipate was the compounding factors of double disasters, back-to-back. Recovering from a hurricane and then adding COVID on top of that – it’s really starting to cause havoc with people’s mental ability to cope.
One of my volunteers deals with bereavement. He was telling me that deaths can be a faster grief process than some of the things we deal with in hurricane recovery – insurance companies, trying to get your house rebuilt when there’s no contractor available – some of those prolonged stressors can persist longer than after someone you love dies. That’s pretty tough to hear from somebody that deals with grief professionally every day, but it puts it in perspective. It gives you a better way to be compassionate and listen and take care of each other. We need to understand that people are not always doing well.
For Hurricane Michael, what were your responsibilities?
Our first responsibility was to take care of our office. At that time, I was the Sea Grant agent, not the county Extension director. We had a continuity of operation plan in place that outlined what we were to be doing, and we took care of our equipment in our office and prepared before the storm.
We made sure after the storm that we took care of our faculty, so they could assist our clientele as quickly as possible and then do assessments of the damage.
And then we turned our attention to our community. This was in October, so we had already started to collect peanut butter for the Peanut Butter Challenge. We had hundreds of pounds of peanut butter at that point, so we just started distributing that as we did our post-storm assessments.
We also discovered during that process other needs; for example, there was a church that we brought peanut butter to that was looking for ice. We were able to bring that back to them. We also did some assessments of commercial fishing boats, and for the ones that didn’t have damage, we were able to get them items so they could get back to fishing and making money for their households. Responding to those immediate needs was something we tried to work on and work with other partners like FWC. It may not be our usual job, but we listened and filled in the gaps as we did our assessments.
Hurricanes often require a team effort. Who was a part of the team you worked with for Hurricane Michael and what did they do?
We had help from all over – Ray Bodrey in Gulf County; Erik Lovestrand in Franklin County; Laura Tiu, from Okaloosa, was our point person in putting together the rapid assessment final report; Chris Verlinde in Santa Rosa; and Rick O’Connor in Escambia. The shoe was on the other foot, of course, after Sally, so I was more than happy to repay them and help them when they needed it. That’s what we do.
What is something you will always remember about your experience with Hurricane Michael?
There were a couple of things. I went to Mission Barbecue the day before Michael hit, and I had been planning to stay. I saw the FWC law enforcement officers at the table, and I was just talking with them and knowing that the next time I saw them, it was not going to be the same pretty picture. I didn’t know then, either, that I would be working so closely with them two years later. I like being able to work with them on the derelict boats and provide something for my community and help relieve the stress of what they do. If we didn’t work together, it wouldn’t get done. That was kind of eye-opening, coming back to the same restaurant afterward and seeing the whole street just torn up.
I got a phone call before the storm, as I was securing my house, asking me, “What are you worried about the most?” At the time, we had red tide present, and I was worried we were going to have red tide up in the bay. I didn’t know it was going to be something more devastating than that.
When I think of the aftermath, it’s the trees. How green and pretty it was, and how quickly all that, especially the iconic longleaf pines, just were gone.
The morning of the storm, I saw it was going to be 147-mile-an-hour winds on top of my house, so we packed up at 5 a.m. and drove west. I returned to [4-H Camp] Timpoochee the next day, and we stayed there for almost two weeks. And then we didn’t know for days whether our house was okay. We just worked every day. Fortunately, as it turned out, the damage at home was minimal.