Cleanup crew

Removing a tree toppled over a building was a daily routine for a group of Clearwater city employees that went to the Florida Panhandle to help with Hurricane Michael cleanup.

CLEARWATER – They may not have been Storm Chasers per se, but you can certainly call them Cleanup Crusaders.

A group of four city of Clearwater employees with its Parks and Recreation Department made a trip to the areas impacted by Oct. 10th’s Hurricane Michael, arriving near Mexico Beach on Nov. 4 for a nine-day stay. Matt Anderson, John McDowell, Chancee Anderson and Chad Paukert provided mostly tree and brush removal from dawn until dusk for residents of overwhelmed and understaffed Calhoun County, answering the call for 34 property owners.

“It was a great experience as far as the number of people we helped get water, power and the basic necessities of life,” said Matt Anderson, the department’s landscape maintenance coordinator., upon his team’s return to Clearwater. “But we just scratched the tip of the iceberg. It’s still very devastated up there. Everywhere you look there’s a lot of devastation and people struggling to just get through the day.

“I just hope people don’t forget about the folks in the Panhandle. There are still so many people who need cleanup work and restoration to be done. There’s just so much need and it’s going to be years before they get that place back.”

The team consisted of a variety of roles crucial for the task at hand – beyond being heavy equipment operators, Matt Anderson and Paukert are certified arborists while Chancee Anderson and McDowell are CDL drivers. The resources were a 5-yard dump truck, a Bobcat, a pickup truck, a track lift, chainsaws and hand tools. 

Furthermore, the daunting work was brought to life through a daily blog generated by Matt Anderson. You can experience the team’s daily challenges by visiting www.myclearwaterparks.com/programs/clearwater-parks-recreation-hurricane-michael-deployment-cleanup-blog.

He set the stage by describing the county, which is made up of less than 15,000 residents and suffers from a high poverty rate. Meanwhile, the county has only 34 employees.

They cut to the chase, so to speak, by taking on a challenging Day 2. Here’s how Anderson described it, in part, in his blog:

“We started at 6 a.m. and ended at 8:30 p.m. We started the day at an elderly woman’s house who lived alone. She had numerous large trees covering her entire driveway, trees in and through her well house, and two extremely large hazardous pine trees hanging over her entry to her house. She got power restored today because of our efforts and the efforts of a power company from Mississippi. She had gone 26 days without power. She was so thankful that the city would send us all the way to Calhoun County to help her and her community.

“The second part of the day was spent removing 30-plus-inch oak trees off an elderly couple’s house and driveway. They now have full access to the county road. The gentleman was so thankful he began to cry and told us he couldn’t thank us enough. We battled rain storms and equipment issues to accomplish our work today, which was no small task. We assisted with the tarping of an elderly disabled couple’s house … and was able to assist before it got too dark to see.”

That was the routine for the next few days, and Day 6 was no different. Anderson wrote, in part:

“Today marks 30 days since Hurricane Michael hit the Panhandle. We pulled up to the second house of the day to find a 6-year-old little boy playing amongst tree debris and hazardous trees. We started removing the trees closest to the house and worked our way to the property line. The family was extremely happy that the tree debris was removed but most importantly that the yard was safe for their son to play again. 

“We assisted four properties and evaluated one that had trees on the structure beyond the capabilities of our equipment. The first homeowner was a lady that moved to the Panhandle from Miami who had survived Hurricane Andrew. We assisted her with property-access issues and she was very thankful that someone came out to help her. 

“The second homeowner was a 98-year-old women who lived alone. I talked with her about what it was like being home alone and watching Hurricane Michael roll through and she said she just watched it out of her living room window and she wasn’t that scared because she had lived through the 1926 Miami hurricane when she was younger. She told me, “That hurricane was scarier because there was no communication, unlike now you know when they are coming.”

“The third house of the day was (owned by) an elderly woman who lived by herself. She had several large branches that had fallen off a neighbor's tree and the limbs were still attached. We were able to successfully remove all limbs. She hadn’t been staying in the house because of the tree limbs. In talking with her she retired to the Panhandle from Dunedin about two-and-a-half weeks prior to Hurricane Michael’s landfall. She said she couldn’t wait to call her family down south and tell them that the city of Clearwater was all the way up in the Panhandle helping residents.”

The team’s return to Clearwater’s public works area was met with cheering co-workers and family members. 

Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos praised the workers’ commitment to help others.

“These efforts brought comfort and relief to many – some of whom had lost everything,” he said. “Clearwater can be proud of its employees who have been on site in north Florida and is pleased that their work is helping those in the Panhandle get their lives put back in order.”