PANAMA CITY, Fla. — As the midday Florida sun beat down on St. Andrew Baptist Church, Joseph Crumes relaxed in the shadow of the building, looking out over its bustling parking lot and enjoying the hot meal he came for.
Just in front of Crumes, a carefully executed operation unfolded. Tables, trucks, uniformed volunteers, pallets of water bottles and styrofoam containers of hot food all fell into place to feed people like Crumes, who’s been relying on setups like this one for his meals since last week.
Crumes and the dozens of other Floridians who walked and drove through the food lines in the lot Thursday just weathered Hurricane Michael, the category four storm that swept through Panama City, Florida on Oct. 10.
Crumes, a Panama City resident of 30 years, said he waited out the storm from his home, holding a mattress over himself as the hurricane swept through. He’s seen storms before, but none like Michael.
“It got quiet, and then the roof was off my house and I had two foot of water all around me,” Crumes said.
Despite the damage to his home, Crumes is staying in it until he can afford to move on. He won’t weather another hurricane from Panama City, he said. For now, he can find food thanks to crews like the ones camped out at St. Andrew, which happen to include a team of Oklahomans.
The Oklahoma Baptist Disaster Relief team, dressed in bright yellow and vibrant blue, has been set up in the church’s parking lot since Monday, prepping food for residents in need and for other volunteers. At lunchtime, they placed countless hamburgers and scoops of baked beans in styrofoam boxes and handed them to families and couples that drove by their table, or to residents on foot, like Crumes, who made their way into the lot.
The Baptist relief crew, which also supplies Red Cross trucks with food to hand out in the community, is mostly made up of retired adults, many of whom make themselves available to serve at any disaster scene. Metal pins depicting Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Florida, Colorado and beyond adorn the bright yellow hats of some of the volunteers, representing their travels to past disaster zones.
Wanda McLaughlin has served alongside the organization, which receives deployment orders from the Southern Baptist Convention, during most disasters since Katrina struck in 2005. Volunteers can work on chainsaw crews, mud out crews or kitchen teams; McLaughlin’s been handling the food since the beginning, calling her work “a labor of love.”
“I knew that this was God’s place for me — I’d found my niche,” McLaughlin said. “I wasn’t searching for something else to fill my needs.”
McLaughlin’s learned to be more understanding in her 15 years with the program, she said. The Choctaw, Oklahoma resident has seen everything from Katrina to Harvey; whatever people’s motivations or situation, she’s there for them with a fresh meal, driven by what she and the other Oklahoma Baptist relief volunteers say is God’s calling for them.
“I’m more compassionate than I used to be,” McLaughlin said. “I used to see people down and out and I’d say ‘get a job.’ But it’s not that way — you just see people that, either way they’re down and out, they still need people to feed them and love them, and we have to. I mean if we don’t love them and point them in the right direction, we shouldn’t be there.”
For Panama City residents like Pam Camp, the Oklahoma volunteers represent the best of a situation like the one the storm left behind.
“This is what’s good about people right here,” Camp said, gesturing to the volunteers lined up to serve her lunch. “The news wants you to think things are really bad, worse than they are, and they’re not. These people came from Oklahoma. I mean, that’s a long way away — you came to help me? That’s pretty great.”
Camp made her way to St. Andrew’s parking lot to find food for the crew cleaning trees out of her in-laws’ yard. Camp and her family are staying with her in-laws for now; their house will eventually be habitable again, but sustained slight tree and water damage, and still contains a broken refrigerator with food inside. Her husband’s car was crushed by a tree, but hers survived.
Her situation isn’t as bad as others’, Camp said.
“We’ve had hurricanes, but not this,” Camp said. “A (category) one or a two will be ok, but not this — we’ve never had that.”
In the miles around St. Andrew, tin roofs and pine tree debris are strewn indiscriminately across battered houses and businesses. Roofs are gone or caved in from the force of the wind or a fallen tree, some of which were snapped in half or uprooted. Some Panama City residents have signs in their yards or businesses warning would-be looters that they’re armed. 30 miles down the coast, Mexico City is partially flattened, the small town’s business and homes leveled by the storm.
Water and power are slowly coming back to Panama City as utility crews from adjacent states — and even some from Oklahoma — work 16-hour days to restore power lines and transformers. Some homes, like Crumes’, have sustained too much damage to receive power.
Camp said the progress in the week since the storm has already been huge, and she’s hopeful for the future. For now, she’s hopeful because of the Alabamans, Louisianans, Oklahomans and more who met Panama City at its worst.
“We were coming in from Louisiana, and just (saw) power company after power company and tree services out of Louisiana, and you thought, ‘wow, they’re going to my town,’” Camp said. “Nobody had to ask, they just came. It’s kind of pretty special… this is what America is.”