GULF COUNTY — Bo Vinson had never been to Gulf County before. But when he saw the devastation left by Hurricane Michael, he wanted to help.
On Friday morning, he set up tents in front of the White City First Baptist Church with enough food to feed 800 people hot meals, along with nonperishable items, water and toiletries.
Last week, Vinson took to social media to gather as many supplies as possible. He took donations from family, friends and even complete strangers in Georgia, and made his way down to the Panhandle ready to give back.
“I just want to get everybody back on their feet,” Vinson said as he spooned hot stew into a bowl for a local man.
Just after 11 a.m., Maria Naegele and her teenage daughter pulled up to Vinson’s tent to get 30 cups of stew. They were traveling back to Wewahitchka, about 20 north, to deliver meals to people without electricity or food at their homes.
Naegele volunteers for Heaven Sent, a thrift store in downtown Wewahitchka, that raises money for the elderly in the community.
Naegele has stage-four cancer and spina bifida. Her daughter has seizure disorder and was discharged from the hospital the day before the storm. Hurricane Michael put a tree in their house, but they have spent nearly all their time since the storm helping others.
Heaven Sent hasn’t had power in the nine days since the hurricane, but the employees and volunteers have kept working. Volunteers worked Friday to clear out merchandise from the shelves to make room for supplies.
The store has become a haven for those needing food, clothes and generators. Cups of hot food, bottles of water, toilet paper, tooth brushes and other supplies sit on a table in the middle of the store. A rack filled with all the store’s clothes stands outside with a cardboard sign reading “FREE.”
Janet Wood, the store’s owner, greets everyone with a smile, a hug and words of encouragement.
Wood cries off and on throughout the day as she thinks of the tragedy she’s seen in the last week. One of her friends was trapped in his home since the storm and was finally set free on Friday.
Throughout Wewa, buildings are destroyed and trees are snapped in half. Nearly all the town is without power, and Wood said she has yet to see any linemen in their area.
“No one here has ever lived, that is alive today, through this kind of disaster,” Wood said. “None of us were prepared for it… How can our country send billions… to other countries and not get it to their own people?”
Wewa has a large elderly population, Wood said. Many of them are now without necessary medication or oxygen. Wood has spent thousands of dollars of her own money to buy people generators so they can survive.
Now, she’s unsure how she will be able to stay in business after this.
Wood has let people take showers in the back of her store. Friday afternoon, woman left the shower with a big smile on her face, thanking Wood for the blessing. Although it was cold, she called it a “gift from God.”
A few minutes later, another woman came in looking for clothes. Her uncle was killed Thursday night, she said, and she needed something to wear to his funeral, but she couldn’t find anything in her size.
Wood embraced her, then brought her to the back of the store and gave the woman clothes from her own closet.
“Black, white — everyone has been devastated,” Wood said. “We have been forgotten out here.”