LIVE OAK, Fla.– Danielle Harmon packed her bags, filled her truck up with gas and evacuated with her four children when she saw how devastating Hurricane Idalia could be.
“I’m a Floridian. I’ve been here since I was 2 years old,” said Harmon. “Category 4, I’m out of here. Especially when I’m in a camper with my kids.”
Harmon and her family are among the many temporary residents at the shelter set up at Suwannee Pineview Elementary School, where President Joe Biden and the First Lady visited Saturday.
Biden’s day began with an aerial tour and continued with visits to the hardest-hit locations in Live Oak. He assessed the damage and also spoke to residents, first responders and local officials.
“As I’ve told your governor, if there’s anything your state needs, I’m ready to mobilize that support,” Biden said. “Your nation has your back, and we’ll be with you until the job is done.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis was notably absent from the president’s visit.
DeSantis, a potential candidate in the next presidential election, was around 50 miles south of Live Oak, surveying other areas on the Gulf Coast ravaged by Hurricane Idalia.
Biden said he was not disappointed that DeSantis did not show up, noting the governor had helped plan the White House visit.
But Republican Sen. Rick Scott accompanied Biden and praised his response.
“These are not rich communities and many of them struggle,” Scott said. “The federal government being a great partner is a big deal.”
Some residents of Suwannee County said they came away unimpressed with the president’s visit.
“At first, they made it seem like he (Biden) was here to help and they actually asked me to talk to him,” Harmon said. “But he seemed like he didn’t want to hear. He was just here for photos.”
Harmon said she hadn’t originally anticipated a long stay at the shelter, but upon returning to her home, she had no other option.
“I went home thinking, everything’s going to be fine. We’re going to go home. I went home and I just screamed and cried. It was that bad.”
Harmon said she wasn’t able to evacuate her animals, who were left without food for a number of days. Three chickens are dead and two of her rabbits are missing. Her four produce gardens are also gone.
Beyond the main room where the briefing took place, the one-time school hallways are now filled with area residents who have nowhere else to go. Red Cross worker Kevin Williams, who came down from Upstate New York, is assisting with the everyday needs of each shelter resident.
“We support food, shelter, blankets, mental health and anything else you can name,” Williams said. “Anything you can name, we’re here to help them.”
One thing that Williams seems preoccupied with is keeping the children’s spirits up.
“In a disaster, everybody is low. We’re trying to lift them up high before we send them back into the community,” he said.
It’s the simple things, like bouncing a balloon in the air with other children and playing video games, that can make the situation feel even a little normal.
Many of these temporary residents are here with large families. Andrea Forsyth and her five children are planning on staying a while as their house has no power or running water.
“We thought it would be best to just be here where there’s consistent electricity, AC and hot meals, even though it’s not the best circumstances,” she said. “As mothers, we do what we have to for our children.”
The family lives in a very rural area, Forsyth said, and there are only five to 10 residences on their subset of power utilities, so they will be some of the last to have their power restored.
Forsyth, who grew up in Live Oak, said she moved back to the area last year to start raising her family. Although she’s been through many hurricanes, this one is the hardest by far.
“I didn’t have children of my own. It’s a completely different ballgame now,” she said.
Today’s presidential visit brought some positive new recovery efforts to light.
Until just a few days ago, some residents didn’t even have cots to sleep on. Now one can see members of the National Guard bringing out water and supplies to waiting residents at the shelter. But it’s far from over for many.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Biden said. “We’re here to help the state as long as it takes.”
For residents of Suwannee County, there’s no way of knowing when things will be back to normal.
“I don’t know. Things happen in life. I’m going to get up and fight and show my kids,” Harmon said. “That’s what this is for. To show my kids that it doesn’t matter what happens to you in life.”
Biden spent some of his press briefing commending what he described as the incredible spirit of the Floridians he encountered on his visit.
While the future remains uncertain for many seeking shelter in Suwannee Pineview’s fluorescent-lit hallways, the residents there still exchanged smiles and laughs.
“People are in real trouble. The most important thing to give them is hope,” Biden said. “There’s no hope like your neighbor walking across the street to see what they could do for you.”