When Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle Oct. 10, 2018, decimating Mexico Beach and other nearby towns, it didn’t stop there. It continued into South Georgia, leaving massive destruction in its path.
When the skies had cleared, local grocers in the region provided water, food and other needs to their neighbors. The Georgia Food Industry Association shared some of those stories with The Shelby Report.
The small southwest Georgia town of Edison, located 200 miles inland, had never experienced anything like Michael, according to John West, owner of the town’s West Foods IGA. He said everyone in the area was without power for four days.
Lacking a backup generator or other power source and beginning to lose product, he and some employees fired up some gas stoves, fryers and a rotisserie pit and each day prepared lunch for 250-275 people.
In the rural community, West Foods is the only grocery store for many within a 20-mile radius.
“It was a humbling and rewarding experience,” West said. “…It was certainly a challenge, but our community persevered.”
Kevin McDaniel had six stores affected by Hurricane Michael, four in Florida and two in Georgia. Following the storm, he said his employees at the Donalsonville, Georgia, Piggly Wiggly first asked about their Florida co-workers, then told him not to worry about them, they had things covered. While the city was devastated, the grocery store had experienced minor damage.
Once the store reopened, only one of seven registers would work, but by the fifth day, everything was running on generators. McDaniel said he arrived Oct. 13, returning from Panama City, Florida. He discovered Seminole County had been “hit as bad as anything I’d seen south of the 231/I-10 exit all the way to south of U.S. Highway 20.”
Many employees had lost everything, most had experienced some damage to their homes, but they were at work.
Employees had strung lights and brought in a generator in order to operate the deli, frying chicken for the community. Store management “literally lived at that store unselfishly for 15 days,” McDaniel said. They ordered two semi-trucks of water to give away along with pallets of peanut butter. They also sold generators at their cost.
“I love the people there and I have the best group of employees anyone could ever dream of at that location (in Donalsonville),” McDaniel said. “This storm proved to me what ‘South Georgia Strong’ means.”
Katie Higdon, VP of Ira Higdon Grocery Co. in Cairo, said her company got involved after her friend Tiffany Theriot, who helps globally with disaster relief, arrived at Mexico Beach and Panama City. Higdon said Theriot told her “having refrigeration would be a godsend.”
With approval from her father Larry, she made arrangements to deliver a “reefer” trailer to the Bay County Government Center, where a disaster relief site had been set up. She also learned from Theriot of an extended family, with about 100 members, who had lost their homes. Employees at Ira Higdon Grocery and community members came together to donate various items for the family, with the store pitching in, too.
“Everyone was beyond grateful and so happy to have refrigeration for the cook teams to use,” Higdon said, adding that Theriot got some of the family members to come and collect their supplies. “They were so happy and couldn’t thank us enough.”
Higdon said it was a great feeling to be able to help out. She said the devastation she saw was almost impossible to describe.
“But what I also witnessed were people coming together and helping one another and spirits so strong and hopeful that ‘this too shall pass,’” Higdon said.