As much of the nation focused on elections, immigration and a synagogue attack, Will McMahan was in storm-ravaged northwest Florida. A Red Cross volunteer from Everett, he spent long days on a mission to help thousands of people made homeless by Hurricane Michael.
“You just can’t imagine what it would be like,” McMahan, 70, said Wednesday by phone from the Florida Panhandle. “We’ve all lost electricity. But imagine losing it big-time for a long time. There are trees down all over the place. Roads are impassable. You’ve got a cellphone, but how are you going to charge it?”
McMahan, who was scheduled to fly home late Thursday night, spent nearly three weeks in a shelter just outside Panama City.
He was one of 11 people from Snohomish County sent by the agency to Florida and Georgia in response to Hurricane Michael, said Colin Downey, with the American Red Cross Northwest Region. The hurricane slammed Florida’s northwest coast Oct. 10. With 155 mph winds, it made landfall as a Category 4 storm — the strongest to hit the continental United States since Andrew in 1992.
In September, 13 Red Cross volunteers from the county went to North Carolina and South Carolina to help with recovery from Hurricane Florence, Downey said. And four local people served those affected by both hurricanes, said Kelli Thode, the new executive director of the American Red Cross in Snohomish County.
A shelter set up at the Deane Bozeman School complex near Panama City was McMahan’s home away from home. Students in the area have yet to go back to school, he said.
McMahan’s job was procurement. “Say a shelter needs a bunch of things,” he said. Some items were in warehouses, but he spent hours “working my way through the city, initially to find places open.”
“It was buying stuff, getting it delivered, getting paperwork signed,” said McMahan, who often worked 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. He brought people clothes, medicine, diapers and other supplies.
By the time work was done, and with curfews, it was often hard to find a shelter kitchen or restaurant open for dinner. Getting comfortable on a shelter cot was another challenge.
In an article about Panama City housing, The New York Times reported Monday that officials there place the number of people homeless since the hurricane at 10,000 to 20,000, with more than 1,000 still staying in shelters. On Wednesday alone, McMahan said Panama City shelter kitchens served 14,300 meals.
“All this time later, there’s still all this debris and wire and cable on the ground,” said McMahan, a retiree and former owner of a real estate office in Everett. McMahan also served as a Red Cross board member and is a past president of the Rotary Club of Everett.
This was his third Red Cross deployment, but it was a personal trip before his 60th birthday that was truly life-changing. In 2008, he rode his recumbent bicycle nearly 4,000 miles in 86 days, from Everett to North Carolina, where his mother was in a nursing home.
“It changed my whole faith walk,” said McMahan, who attends North Creek Presbyterian Church. “For all the wonderful things that happened on that bike trip, all the adventures, the most spectacular thing was that God built up my faith, showed me he was real, he was there, and he expected more of me.”
McMahan made the cross-country bike trip again in 2016.
When the Red Cross asked him to go to Florida, “I’m thinking, God is calling me to go there,” McMahan said. “He has a purpose for me there.”
Along with physical work, he was there to support people. One lasting memory is of a young mother and her 15-month-old son. Their apartment lost its roof. The mom didn’t know if she had any belongings left. McMahan said he prays for her.
All around Panama City, he saw signs of recovery this week. Utility workers were out stringing wire. Roofers and other builders were busy, and cleanup continued. As attention elsewhere centers on politics, McMahan doesn’t believe hurricane victims feel forgotten.
Hurricane Michael killed at least 45 people in the United States, 35 of them in Florida. What McMahan saw and experienced there changed how he sees life.
“I’m just a little startled about the fragility of our existence, how we take for granted what we have and what we do,” he said. “Really, we’re just a heartbeat away. These people’s lives have been changed — not all of them, but an awful lot of them had their lives significantly changed.”