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While most people were fleeing the Florida Panhandle the day before Hurricane Michael roared ashore last Wednesday with 155 mph winds, Jeff Hall was headed toward the strongest storm to hit the continental U.S. since 2004.

He is part of a team of 11 people from the Red Cross of Massachusetts to join relief efforts in Florida, where the death toll now stands at 20. And although he  responded to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, he told the Herald’s Marie Szaniszlo the devastation he’s witnessed in Michael’s wake haunts him:

 

“On Thursday morning, we  headed from Tallahassee to Bay County to bring food, water and supplies to shelters in Mexico Beach and Panama City, two of the places hardest hit.

As we drove along, the damage got worse and worse, until we saw millions of trees snapped off like a giant hand had reached down and snapped them in two like pencils. The majority of people told us they never heard it during the hurricane. They smelled pine, but all they could hear was the wind. 

Whole communities in Panama City were blocked off because of the downed trees, and most of the electrical wires were down. There were probably 3,000 or 4,000 people in shelters there, but they just had no way of communicating — no cellphone service, as well as no gas and no electricity. There was also no trash removal, so you could smell the garbage everywhere baking under the sun.

In Mexico Beach, almost everything near the shore was completely destroyed. One couple in their 60s chose to stay in their home because their neighbor, a woman in her 80s, refused to leave.

You could hear the fear in their voices as they described the foot of water rising inside their house and, outside, the water up to their windows seeping in through the cracks and under the doors.

You see shock in most people and hear that fear in their voices. Many just don’t have a place to come back to. And you stay busy so your thoughts don’t run away from you.

We work with the Southern Baptist Convention here. They cook 15,000 meals a day at their main site in Panama City and distribute them from mobile kitchens.

There’s hope for humanity that people will come together to help each other out. Every day, it gets a little better. But there’s still a long way to go.”

— marie.szaniszlo@bostonherald.com