PORT SAINT JOE, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - As Hurricane Michael gained strength, many in Gulf County feared they wouldn't be safe in their homes.
Remembering Hurricane Michael in the Gulf County Courthouse. (WJHG/WECP)
That's when they looked for the strongest building in town.
Sabrina Burke who lives in Port St. Joe said, "We realized that it would be much worse than any of us expected, so we decided to come to the courthouse."
The Gulf County Courthouse is where reporter Stephanie Byrne and I rode out the storm with dozens of locals who quickly turned from strangers to friends.
Samantha Naylor, who also lives in Port St. Joe and took shelter in the courthouse said, "We all just ate together and came together as one little community inside the courthouse because we didn't have anywhere else to go."
We watched as some of these brave locals left the shelter during the peak of the storm. They heard neighbors were in need, trapped in flood waters, and they knew they had to do something.
Naylor remembers them leaving to go save their neighbor and said, "[They] got out and drove as far as they could, and then the water was too high, so they picked up a kayak from somebody they knew that had a kayak, and floated down to Mrs. Donna's house. It was probably about chest deep, and they had to kick in two different doors to get to her. They come in and just picked her up and put her on that kayak and just floated her back to land, because otherwise she would have been able to push those doors and she probably would have drowned inside of her house."
They brought their neighbor to the safety of the courthouse, then waited for the storm to pass.
We joined them as we first got a look at the aftermath.
Burke said, "It was devastating it was heartbreaking, and it was scary."
"It was really sad, because a lot of people, we know everybody, you either grew up with them or you know their parents, and you're connected to them in some way, and then you see them standing in front of their house, and all their clothes are spread out in their front yard, all their little kids baby toys are spread out everywhere, and it's just a disaster. They have nowhere to go" said Naylor.
As reporters, we also had no where to go, stuck in Port St. Joe for days after the storm, with little communication with our station, and unable to drive across tree-blocked roads.
So we stayed with our courthouse friends and saw just how resilient the Gulf County Community really is.
Burke said, "The guys, they would kind of just go house to house, and they were ripping out carpet, tearing up trees, whatever needed to be done. They were the boots on the ground and they just got out there and got it done."
Being just next door in Port St. Joe, these neighbors were among the first to drive into Mexico Beach. They ended up delivering waters to Mexico Beach, where they stumbled upon a house where Jim and Barbara Muldoon stayed during Hurricane Michael.
Our cameras rolled as we traveled with our friends into Mexico Beach where we met the Muldoons.
A year later, we were shocked to find the Muldoons are still living in Mexico Beach in a rented home just down the street from the house they lost.
Barbara Muldoon who lives in Mexico Beach said, "This is just such a wonderful neighborhood, and everybody is just, even though we don't socialize together, we would do anything for our neighbors."
That neighborly spirit is what carried communities through utter devastation.
Muldoon said, "I think the people pulling together, supporting each other, loving living here, I think that's what's going to make us better than we were before. We've lost a lot but we are going to gain a lot as well."
As for us, we gained new friends at a night that started with shelter at a courthouse with people who embody the very spirit of 850 Strong.
Naylor said, "There is no second thought. If somebody needed something, or somebody needed help, and it was dangerous, it didn't matter, because when disaster like this happens you realize you don't need that, you need your community, and that's about it."
Copyright 2019 WJHG. All rights reserved.