Lifting Each Other Up in the Eye of the Storm

6 months. 180 days. 4,380 hours.

That’s about how long it’s been since Hurricane Michael ravaged the southeastern United States with catastrophic impacts felt from the Florida panhandle all the way to the Mid-Atlantic region. The Category 4 storm made landfall in the tiny coastal town of Mexico Beach, Fla., destroying nearly everything in its path and leaving even those whose homes were spared without power and access to resources for weeks.

For the residents of Mexico Beach and surrounding areas, these past five months seem like yesterday and years ago, all at the same time. Eventually, the news media left town and front page stories turned from the destruction and despair in this area to other trending topics. Those unaffected switched gears and moved on with their lives, but for those who call Mexico Beach home, the journey down this difficult road had just begun.

At the helm of breathing life back into this beautiful beach town is Mexico Beach Community Development Council President and Phi Mu Foundation Donor Kimberly Pickett Shoaf, Kappa Gamma. She and her husband Andy are lifelong residents of nearby Port St. Joe, raising their two girls in the same hometown where they grew up, met and fell in love.

Staying along the Florida coast was important to them as they began their family, but they never imagined they’d be faced with completely rebuilding their lives. From the loss of their home as well as their family beach house in Mexico Beach, rebuilding brings on a new meaning for their family. The last few months have been trying for Kimberly and her family, but have also reminded them that even when faced with tragedy, they are here to stay.

“One of the many things I learned from my collegiate experience in Phi Mu is to continue to lend to those less fortunate,” said Kimberly. “Although my family has lost so much, thousands of others have lost just as much, if not more, and will need assistance as time goes on. Even before I was allowed back into town, I was already working to ensure that Mexico Beach, its residents and visitors, stay resilient.”

Kimberly credits her neighbors, Phi Mu sisters and many complete strangers for helping residents in the surrounding areas begin to get back on their feet. One of the residents who felt the impact of that generosity was Evan Hall, Gamma Sigma.

About 100 miles north of Mexico Beach in Donalsonville, Ga., Evan and her family watched on the local news as Hurricane Michael approached the Florida coast. They were expecting some residual effects of being in the outer bands of the storm – maybe heavy rain and wind gusts – but with no evacuation orders in place, they hunkered down to ride out the dicey weather. As the eye of the storm made its way over their home, they knew right away they were in for more than they had anticipated.

Evan recalled: “The power went out almost immediately as the storm approached, and my mother, sister and I took refuge inside a small room in our home. We heard the dreadful noise of our roof being crushed as massive trees landed less than 100 feet from where we were positioned. Soon, the house began to take on water and we were left with no choice but to take shelter in our car in the garage. We spent that entire night in the car, too terrified to move.”

When Evan’s family emerged from the garage, they knew the damage to their home was catastrophic. The roof and some exterior walls had caved in from trees toppling over, and there was water damage throughout the house, the worst being in Evan’s bedroom.

“Because of the severe damage in my room, I was left with nothing – no clothes, no mattress to sleep on – it was all gone just like that. My family had to relocate to a hotel in nearby Dothan, Alabama, just to have a safe shelter. It will be at least a year before our home will be back to normal, but because of the generosity of my Phi Mu sisters, my family and I are getting back on our feet,” she added.

With the encouragement of friends and family, Evan reached out to Phi Mu Foundation to apply for member assistance. She was awarded a grant from the Leona Hughes Hughes Heart and Hand Fund and was able to purchase things like clothes and groceries to help her family begin to recover from this devastating experience. Through the Foundation’s Leona Hughes Hughes Heart and Hand Fund and Betty Nell Wilkinson Emergency Scholarship Fund, eligible collegiate and alumnae members who are facing tragic and life-altering situations due to natural disasters, medical emergencies or other unique circumstances may apply for financial assistance. In a case like Evan’s, it was just the peace she needed during a time of great chaos.

“I’m so thankful that Phi Mu was there for me when I needed it the most,” said Evan. “Although I don’t know them personally, I want to show my appreciation to every person who’s ever made a donation to Phi Mu Foundation to help families like mine recover from disasters. Phi Mu continues to be a light in my life and I will always remember the love my sisters showed me during this time.”

Designate Your Foundation Gift to Emergency Assistance Programs

Following the destruction left by Hurricane Michael in the southeastern United States and the wildfires that spread across California, the Foundation has awarded more than $15,000 in member assistance grants this fiscal year. Right now, we need your support in order to continue to fulfill these requests from members. If you are planning to make a gift to Phi Mu Foundation, please consider designating your gift by clicking ‘Give Now’ and select either ‘Heart and Hand’ or ‘Emergency Scholarship’ from the drop-down menu.

Featured photo credit: Jeremy Cowart