CROSS CITY, Fla. — Dixie County residents sat in blue chairs outside the FEMA recovery center in blistering heat. They waited for help and a semblance of hope after Hurricane Idalia swept through multiple cities across the Big Bend region.
FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, opened a recovery center in the tiny Dixie County library Tuesday. Some residents will receive help but have to wait. Others will not qualify.
But in the frustrating struggle for scarce resources, the people of Dixie County are not strictly abiding by the timeline of government bureaucracies. The community is coming together and organizing their own recovery efforts. Neighbors are helping neighbors.
“It’s a waiting game,” said 39-year-old Josh Giles, reflecting on the proccess for obtaining government aid. “Everybody’s gonna register for it and [FEMA’s] pretty busy.”
Giles lived here until Hurricane Idalia came thundering through with 125 mile-per-hour winds Aug. 29-30 and leveled his home. Now, Giles and his 17,102 Dixie County neighbors are doing their best to launch a recovery that will take months, if not years.
“The house got condemned because a big old tree went through the middle of it,” said Giles, who is now staying with a friend.
The tree was longer than the house and split the dwelling right down the middle. A side door was blown open sending glass, personal items like clothes and decorations, as well as furniture everywhere.
Giles said he’s receiving food and clothing assistance from FEMA. But he said the process was complicated, and it could be another week before he hears back about next steps.
Giles was one of about 50 people, dressed in leggings, basketball shorts, tank tops and shorts, sitting in plastic chairs outside the library storefront. Despite some shade from the building, people sweated as the temperature pressed towards 90 degrees and they tried to stay hydrated with water from plastic bottles while they waited for a place inside.
Dixie County is wrapped around Florida’s Big Bend region. Many of its residents had never experienced a hurricane.
When he visited the FEMA office, Giles got a taste of the devastation wrought by Idalia.
He went to one office where he witnessed others who had also lost their homes, crying and pleading.
“These are people’s homes,” Giles said. “Some people don’t have ‘nobody to depend on.”
Tangela Williams, a 57-year-old Cross City resident, has lived in Dixie County her entire life and has been organizing community events for 13 years. She hosts a Christmas party on her property and bike drive for kids in her neighborhood every year.
Williams had a second home on her property where she lets underprivileged and disabled people stay.
Despite losing the second home, Williams is still housing some of her neighbors following the hurricane. She said recovery efforts organized by FEMA and the county have not yet affected her situation.
“I live right by city hall,” Williams said. “Ain’t nobody been over here.”
Besides home damage, residents are struggling to find food. Williams is continuing her practice of providing food to people in need.
“She sells these delicious icy drinks,” Giles said. “You can get a big one for a dollar or the medium for 50 cents.”
Stephen Cone, a 54-year-old Okeechobee resident, traveled to Dixie County to try and solve some of these issues.
Cone grew up in Crystal River and heard from friends about the post-storm struggles in the area. When he learned that Horseshoe Beach had been hit the hardest, he decided to drive out to cook meals for people in town.
“We had 400 pounds of chicken donated out of Okeechobee,” Cone said.
Cone and his team arrived in Horseshoe Beach on Tuesday. He said they’ve served about 400 meals so far. He said he’s been surprised with the community’s response to the destruction the storm caused.
“The community are in great spirits, I mean, considering,” Cone said. “You’ve driven around… You see that trash pile? That’s a whole house.”
Cone said since Monday he’s seen one FEMA trailer and two people from the American Red Cross in town.
Jasmine Thomas, a 59-year-old cook, said she serves the community using the values that have been instilled in her from her upbringing and work within the church.
Thomas is currently volunteering with World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit organization that provides food in response to humanitarian, climate and community crises.
This is the first time Thomas has volunteered with World Central Kitchen, but she said she has been helping her community her entire life — she volunteers with her husband and close friends.
“I’m part of a church, you’re trained in a way to be there to help in all sort of situations,” she said.
Thomas has been helping serve the community with dishes from her Caribbean culture — she said the food is authentic, delicious and made with care.
“I’ve served close to 2,000 people,” Thomas said. “A lot of them are people without access to food and shelter anymore.”
Dennis and Marie Bennett, 77-year-old Old Town residents, own a vacation home in Horseshoe Beach. They were in Old Town for the storm but have been at their vacation home since Sept. 1 working on repairs.
They have no access to power or water, but have gotten by thanks to efforts like Cone’s.
“I haven’t been able to cook since last Thursday,” Marie Bennett said. “But we’ve still had hot meals every day.”
While a hot meal goes a long way in Dixie County after the storm, it’s far from the only issue. Many residents still have no power, water or resources to travel and get help.
Gasoline station entrepreneur Rasel Mawla, 33, is looking to solve this issue. He owns gas stations across north-central Florida and recently acquired two locations in Dixie County in January.
Mawla, who lives in Gainesville, has been running promotions for gas priced at $2.99 per gallon at his locations in Dixie, Levy and Suwannee county since Sept. 1 when his locations regained electrical power.
“We wanted to give away free gas, but the problem is we’re on the highway,” Mawla said. “They were just filling up and these people didn’t even belong to the community.”
His solution was to up the prices a little, but maintain a large discount and only promote the sale on a Dixie County Facebook group. He plans on continuing the promotion daily for the coming months.
“People come in and they’re, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’” Mawla said.
Mawla said beyond free gas, his stores have been giving away free food, allowing people to purchase items when the are short of cash to pay the total and helping individuals on the side with other needs.
“The whole intention is purely like, ‘What can we do for this community?’” Mawla said. “Not just today, but for years to come.”
Recovery efforts in Dixie County will not bring results overnight. The damage caused by the storm is significant and will take a long-term effort. But the in the week following the storm, community members are coming together and moving on together.
“So this is just my way of saying thank you community,” Mawla said. “I’m in your community, and I’ll have your back.”