Here in South Florida, many of us still bear the emotional scars of Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 killer that came ashore near Homestead and decimated the area. That pummeling still feels fresh – even though it was 28 years ago. South Florida wouldn’t have made it through that traumatic event without the sustained support of our entire region, the state, and the nation.
Now imagine if the world had quickly moved on once the daily headlines started focusing on other things. Unfortunately, we don’t really have to imagine it – just look at our neighbors to the north still desperately struggling in the Florida Panhandle. The even more powerful Hurricane Michael tore through some of the state’s poorest counties two years ago, and sadly the world HAS moved on, leaving residents there still trying to pick up the pieces.
To South Floridians, the Panhandle can seem like a foreign land, one populated by more rolling hills, pine trees, and farms than people. But they’re part of the same Florida as those of us who call 305 our home, and their forests have been replaced by trees shorn in half and debris still piled up from two years ago. The region’s economic base has crumbled, and they can’t even get rid of the remains of Michael as they try to build a new future.
Fortunately, there are some individuals, organizations, and companies that haven’t forgotten about them and are working hard to make sure no else does. The group Rebuild 850 was formed just three weeks after Hurricane Michael hit, with two conservative former Florida House Speakers – Allan Bense and Will Weatherford – at the helm. Their goal is to keep North Florida’s recovery front-and-center and to keep support flowing. Along with partner organizations, they’re urging citizens everywhere to visit, volunteer, donate, and invest in the region.
As former legislative leaders, Speakers Bense and Weatherford know government can’t do it alone – and since COVID, state resources have been even more strained. That’s where the private sector steps in, as it has throughout this nation’s proud history. At a Rebuild 850 press conference for the two-year anniversary, they pointed to the outstanding example of AshBritt Environmental, a nationally renowned rapid-response disaster recovery contractor based in Deerfield Beach.
Ashbritt has done much of the debris removal in the region, and during the press conference company CEO Brittany Perkins Castillo said Hurricane Michael represents the largest and longest debris removal mission they’ve ever had. She compared the two-year-and-counting cleanup after Michael to the process after Hurricane Katrina, which took only one year even though it covered a much larger area. She said Hurricane Michael “was as devastating a debris generating event as any we have seen.”
Showing their true spirit as a caring neighbor, AshBritt did more than just handle debris removal. They also invested $750,000 to rebuild the Gulf Coast Children’s Advocacy Center in Panama City, a 20-year-old support center that offers a refuge to help victims and their families cope with the terrible crimes of child abuse and sexual assault. Thanks to the support of AshBritt and partners like State Sen. Lauren Book and her Lauren’s Kids organization, and companies like GAC Contractors, the facility will be fully operational again by the end of the year.
That’s what stepping up looks like. With so much division in our state and nation, we should all look to the Florida Panhandle for an opportunity to come together for the common good. The residents of that region still require so much, and shame on us if we forget them in their time of need.