Riding in an old Army Humvee was the only way to get around in the town of Gordon along the Alabama-Georgia border. The small town was nearly demolished by Hurricane Michael, its widespread damage astounding.
Navigation was possible through a few streets. Others were covered with downed trees and debris. Some houses were destroyed; others had trees sticking out of the roofs. Cars looked like they had been through a giant blender.
Hurricane Michael was the strongest storm on record in the Florida Panhandle, and in terms of wind speed, the fourth strongest hurricane to hit the U.S.
When the hurricane hit, Houston County Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster went into action. Gary Griffin is chairman of the group better known as VOAD.
“After Hurricane Michael came through the area, Houston County VOAD took charge,” Griffin said. “We initially opened up six different shelters temporarily until the Red Cross could come. At the storm’s height, we had about 300 evacuees seeking shelter. Out of about 450 people who live in Gordon, that was a lot of people needing help.”
Until VOAD began about 40 years ago, there was little communication among the government organizations and nonprofits that helped in time of disaster. Now VOAD assists in consolidating the organizations and streamlining their efforts to be more effective.
Among those who helped the many old and retired residents of Gordon were Austin Sturdivant, lieutenant with the Salvation Army.
“Just the sheer amount of people who were in need right after the storm hit was overwhelming,” Sturdivant said. “We fed about 4,800 people from the entire county in a matter of 10 days.”
Many of the residents were in dire need during and after the hurricane. VOAD was there assisting.
“We are in the process of becoming a 501(c)(3). When that happens, our goal is to centralize and coordinate with churches, nonprofits and other businesses who want to work with VOAD,” Griffin said. “After Hurricane Irma hit last year, several churches in the area teamed up and we helped each other and took in a couple hundred people from Florida. We realized meals and other resources were being wasted because the organizations were not communicating.”
Among those who helped when Hurricane Michael hit was Gordon Chief of Police Jim Mock. He spoke of driving around in his Humvee during the storm and pulling people out of their collapsing homes. One family was stuck in a house after a tree fell on the roof.
“When the hurricane came through, it was very devastating here and in Houston County. It was almost like someone dropped an atomic bomb in this area,” Mock said. “We pulled so many folks out of their homes, it was a rough night.”
When rough nights come, it’s good to know there are those like Houston County VOAD ready to help.
Alabama Bright Lights captures the stories, through words, pictures and video, of some of our state’s brightest lights who are working to make Alabama an even better place to live, work and play. Award-winning journalist Karim Shamsi-Basha tells their inspiring stories. Email him comments, as well as suggestions on people to profile, at [email protected]