Broken trees, buildings and hearts.
That was the scene when Hurricane Michael made landfall in Florida’s panhandle as a category 4 storm on the afternoon of Oct. 10.
Officers Hector Torres and Kevin Betancourt of the University Police Department knew they had to do something. So they went to Panama City to aid the hurricane relief effort in the days that followed.
Torres was in Panama City from Oct. 10 to Oct. 17 and Betancourt made the trip from Oct. 20 to Nov. 5.
Betancourt worked in the Panama City Police Department’s communications center and Torres was there mainly to keep order in the community.
With winds that surpassed 155 mph, Hurricane Michael left an immense amount of destruction in its wake. Both Torres and Betancourt said they were not mentally prepared for how much the storm ravaged the area.
“All the trees were down,” Betancourt said. “Either a tree was snapped at a 90-degree angle or every tree was hanging down at a 45-degree angle. Everywhere you look, there was just open skies. Every bit of that city was touched by the hurricane.”
Both said they were shocked to see how many houses were displaced and destroyed. They also said they felt a deep responsibility to help the members of the community in any way they were able.
For Betancourt, this meant doing his part in the communications center of the local police department. In doing so, some of the first responders and dispatchers were given time to evaluate the state of their own families and homes before going back to work to further help the community as a whole.
“I had to speak with the citizens on 911 calls,” Betancourt said. “What this did was allow dispatchers who were sometimes working 24 hours an opportunity to go home and get their lives assessed.”
For Torres, he said his primary concern was being visible to make sure people knew they were not alone in the effort to rebuild their lives. He said he did his best to help clear as many driveways and roadways from the vast amount of debris.
Torres and Betancourt said what may have stood out the most was the first responders who were putting their families, homes and livelihoods aside to better serve and protect their community.
“(The local first responders) were on that same receiving end,” Betancourt said. “They were helping people, but they also needed help. Having myself and Officer Torres there helped take some weight off their shoulders.”
Torres and Betancourt said they were touched by the community’s ability to maintain a positive and appreciative attitude in the midst of the chaos.
“These people lost everything, and they were out there feeding us and making sure we had everything we needed to keep helping the community,” Torres said. “It was very humbling seeing the community come together in that way.”
This gratitude resonated with both of the officers, and they are hopeful that the city will rebuild as soon as possible.
“I don’t know what it takes to rebuild a city,” Betancourt said. “But, there’s a great level of support coming in from the country. I wish them a speedy recovery.”