INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — It has been five months since Hurricane Michael slammed into the Panhandle, creating destruction over miles and miles of beachfront property and beyond.
The damage is still evident as individuals and entire towns work to regain their lives and bring things back to the way they were. By some accounts that will take years.
One of those accounts is from Pinellas Suncoast Fire & Rescue Chief Mike Burton.
Burton and others from around Pinellas County were dispatched to the Panhandle just a few days after the hurricane struck.
He remembers clearly arriving in the towns of Callaway and Springfield just before noon.
“Some homes were totally destroyed,” he said. “Power lines were down, the water system was down, there was no running water and there was nothing for fire protection.”
That fact, to a lifelong firefighter like Burton, was astounding and not acceptable.
“You take some things for granted and running water is one of those,” he said. “Our reality there was that we could not go to a fire hydrant and turn it on; we had to find a lake to get our water.”
If that weren’t an impediment enough, there was more. There was no communication.
“For several days there was no cell phone service from Verizon and that was a problem for us because we could not communicate with each other,” said Burton. “No cell service also meant we had no access to maps and that made our lives even more difficult.”
What brought Burton and the other Pinellas firefighters to the Panhandle was a statewide agreement set up after Hurricane Andrew in South Florida back in the early 1990s. It shares resources within the state for any type of disaster.
That Category 4 Hurricane Michael certainly qualified as a disaster. It was the strongest hurricane ever to hit the Panhandle.
“When it became clear that the Pinellas Region could help we set up a strike team,” said Burton. “It consisted of fire engines from Safety Harbor, Palm Harbor, Lealman, Largo, St. Petersburg and Eastlake and a Technical Rescue truck from Pinellas Park.”
Burton said the first thing they had to do was set up a fire department.
“The Springfield Fire Department was destroyed,” he said. “There were no doors, no windows, no roof and it was full of water.”
Finding accommodation to set up the fire station was job number one.
“We commandeered a nearby building, got a generator and some security lights and turned it into a makeshift station. We had to make sure they had somewhere to operate from when we left,” said Burton.
“It was like turning back the clock,” he said.
In all Burton and the Pinellas contingent spent 16 days in the Panhandle. Their mission, he said, was to help in any way that they could.
“We were to support the local fire agencies in whatever assistance they needed,” he said. “We did virtually everything that the normal fire department did; we took fire calls, EMS calls and helped out in the community as we could. We were all over.”
And it was all over that Burton and his people saw the devastation, all around them and in the face of the people who lived there.
“In many people it was the face of despair,” he said. “Many had nowhere to go. For those who lived in rental properties they were subject to the fact that the owners were in no rush to make repairs.”
“Businesses were severely damaged or destroyed. I was feeling bad for the people who not only lost their homes but also their jobs, all at the same time. That is kind of a tough pill to swallow.”
Burton said he was struck by the fact that many people didn’t have the means to help themselves. They couldn’t afford to stay in a hotel and it was tough even when it came time to evacuate.
“There are people who don’t have vehicles or the economic means to get a taxi or rent a car,” he said. “Every time I hear the word hurricane I realize how fortunate I was. My experience was only 11 days; they are still experiencing it every day of their life.”
There is still a tremendous amount of work to be done.
“On the beach here I see how active our spring break is; up there that must hurt. Their tourist industry has to be hurt,” Burton said. “When you go to one of those disasters you realize that we are all going to go back home and the local people will be left with the problem,” Burton said.