HENDERSON, Ky. -- When the strongest hurricane to hit the Florida Panhandle devastated cities like Mexico Beach, Panama City and even inland municipalities like Tallahassee in early October, City Manager Buzzy Newman could have watched how relief efforts played out from the comfort of his office at the Henderson Municipal Building.
Instead, he hit the road to experience first-hand how cities are impacted when natural disaster strikes.
For a good while, going back to the 2009 ice storm that disrupted our own community services and challenged emergency response, Newman (who was assistant city manager during that episode) has felt that Henderson needs to work at fine-tuning its own disaster preparedness plan.
Because of Newman’s volunteer work, October’s high-end Category 4 Hurricane Michael may have jump-started that initiative.
Referred by the “Feed the Gulf” organization that was set up alongside the Red Cross Command Center, Newman reported to St. Andrews Church in Panama City. The church was roofless, thanks to the storm, and the interior was saturated by storm surge from a nearby canal.
But that didn’t prevent the church from being a staging area for food distribution on one side of the parking lot and hot meal delivery on the other.
The only one of 30 volunteers on site who wasn’t from either Panama City or the church itself, Newman worked in the parking lot unloading tractor trailers and cargo trailers of donated items that arrived from Connecticut, Texas and all points in between.
When he arrived, the donated items were stored in the parking lot, partially covered with tarps and exposed to the weather.
“Nothing was organized and you had to figure out what was under the tarps,” Newman said, explaining that he and three elderly men from the church got everything organized and tarped. One of them acquired a forklift from a contractor working down the street to assist with unloading the next tractor-trailers that arrived with supplies.
“What was unique to me was there was a large tent (40-foot by 100-foot) that was set up like a grocery store,” he said. “Those in need came each day and were assigned a host from the volunteer pool of church members. Each host would take the family on a shopping trip utilizing portable wagons.”
Supplies that were available consisted of canned good, dry cereal, bread products, high-protein drinks and bars, cleaning supplies, personal hygiene products, diapers and baby items (but no baby food in jars), paper products and over-the-counter medical supplies (controlled by a health professional). There was very little peanut butter available, he noted, and too much bottled water.
Newman said that people who arrived each day to gather supplies arrived on foot, on bicycles and in cars from “junkers” to Mercedes and BMW.
“Disaster doesn’t discriminate,” Newman said. “It effects all races, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.”
One of the people Newman met was a trucker from Central America.
“He spoke very little English, and was amazed by the generosity of Americans,” Newman said. “He said that he travels quite often from Mexico to the U.S. hauling goods. He was headed back to Mexico with an empty trailer, so he opted to swing by with a load of supplies at his own expense.”
Another person Newman met was a young man – a member of St. Andrews Church – whose job was to sort and stack canned goods.
“He was autistic, but to watch him work was amazing and good to learn that people with disabilities can help anywhere if you find them the right job,” the city manager said.
A couple of things Newman learned through this week-long experience:
Since his return from the Gulf he has already talked with Chris Heimgartner, general manager of Henderson Municipal Power & Light, and Kenny Garrett, director of Henderson Emergency Management, about the need to begin meeting and working on disaster planning.
He said Fire Chief Scott Foreman has taken the task of working with the City’s department heads to look at their disaster planning and “how it relates to our community at large.”
“Being prepared is one thing I have brought back with me,” Newman said. “I intend to follow through with City department heads and community organizations to become better prepared.”