Officials from Mexico Beach and Port Saint Joe say it will take many more months to clear debris from the once pristine shore. After Hurricane Michael, the priority is shifting from recovery to rebuilding, but some residents are still in need of assistance.
When the sun rises in Mexico Beach, it illuminates the storm-stricken landscape. There are cars wedged into the banks of canals and debris trucks patrol the neighborhoods. Often they pile up snapped wood, sheet rock, the soaked remains of homes. Amid the destruction is the familiar smell of barbeque.
“We’re out here feeding the victims, storm victims, the survivors if you will. They’re not victims these people are definitely survivors,” says Brian Padgett, co-founder of Jarheadz BBQ and a representative of Line in the Sand Foundation. It's a non-profit that helps prevent veteran suicide.
Padgett burns hickory and chestnut wood in the morning hours, the smoke making his eyes sting as he prepares free BBQ. He came from Alabama and after Hurricane Michael, he drove the company's food truck to the panhandle--serving hot meals to those who need it. Padgett travelled to the border of Mexico Beach and Port Saint Joe in October.
“There’s no aid. In matter of fact, shortly after we got here the people who were typically put in place for this, they did the unthinkable which is pull out,” he says.
There’s a variety of meals depending on the day. Padgett uses donations to buy fresh meat and produce. Often the supply distribution site next door will contribute to his menu. Residents call it the ‘White Tent.’
“They have lots of supplies. Cleaning supplies and things like that we occasionally need and it’s nice to have that,” says local resident Michael Hanson. He stopped in at Jarheadz while gathering supplies from the White Tent.
“A lot of people depend on these two places. These are the only two places like this for quite a ways.”
While restaurants have begun opening back up, their prices can be too high for some residents. Padgett has been offering free hot meals for almost four months now, a feat made possible in part through donations and volunteers. Volunteers like Saralyn Harder.
She was kicked out of her rental home by her landlord and now lives in a camper. It shakes and rocks when 30 mile an hour winds from rain storms pour down. She says storms often prevent her from a good night’s rest, but the weather does little to erode her spirit.
“It gives me something to do to come here and feed people and you hand them a plate and they’ll say ‘god bless you’ and I’ll tell them, you know, god bless you back so it makes you feel good to be able to give food to people that need it and some people you can tell that they really need it, it’s probably the only hot meal they get,” says Harder.
“What we’re doing here is not just normal but it brings back a touch of sanity," says Padgett.
“When you go through this type of disaster you’re not yourself. You become numb to a lot of things. You become emotionally void and when you finally get that first hot meal or even the first human interaction. Somebody you can share yourself with. It brings back more sanity than normalcy.”
Some residents wonder if they’ll ever be able to cook their own hot meals. Many fear surviving off donations will be their new normal.
You can find out more about how neighbors are helping neighbors and see more of Brian Padgett's story next Thursday, Feb. 14th on WFSU-TV's Local Routes at 8 p.m. eastern.