ALFORD, Fla. — Lillian Chance couldn’t leave her street for days until a neighbor chopped away the fallen trees that blocked her pothole-filled path. She was unable to get inside her trailer until an old friend sliced off branches of the cedar that had collapsed on it. And she and her two children subsisted on crackers and peanut butter until another friend spotted a sign outside the Dollar General with the word “hot meals” and arrows pointing down the street.
Chance, 57, was in her Toyota Tundra following the arrows when she thought, “Thank God for the community.”
“You think the government would have come out to help us country folk,” she said. “But we are still struggling.”
In the week after the catastrophic Hurricane Michael, residents have watched supply trucks and federal emergency officials come through the rural town of Alford, population 400. But most of them did not stop here, where the power is still out, few have clean water and people have been sleeping outside.
There are small towns facing similar fates along Michael’s destructive trail. Neighbors and churches are providing food, shelter and supplies, trying to tide them over, hoping that more government help will come.
“We are starting to see some federal help, but it’s mostly church groups and more church groups that are helping,” said Mayor George Gay. “So we are going to need all the help we can get, and we welcome it.”
Alford is in south-central Jackson County, a sprawling rural area more than three-quarters the size of Rhode Island. The county was now nearly 1,000 square miles of blown-over cotton fields and peanut farms, where random scraps of metal littered roads and forests were filled with rows of trees dismembered from their roots.
On those rural roads, power lines slumped down like the bottom of jump ropes. Some houses were reduced to rubble and bricks. Gay estimated three-quarters of homes in Alford were “completely destroyed.” Others were blanketed by blue tarps.
According to Tiffany Garling, executive director of the county chamber of commerce, all of its state roads — the county’s main thoroughfares — had been cleared. But 70 percent of the rural roads and dirt roads were still obstructed by trees.
“People live miles apart, and that makes it much harder in a situation like this” to provide aid and rescue services, Garling said. “This is just a massive, massive area, and the cleanup and removal of huge trees and debris all has to happen in stages.”
By Wednesday night, search-and-rescue teams had completed at least 75 percent of their planned door-to-door searches in Jackson County, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The agency said that it had provided funding for water, diapers and other essentials but that distribution of those goods and services such as road clearing are the responsibility of county governments.
Gay says his community needs more.
“We have a lot of elderly folks,” he said. “They can do two or three days like this. But when you get to four, five, six days, it gets harder.”
It had been eight days. And residents found themselves fearing the worst.
Just down the street from Chance, a man died after getting stuck under a fallen tree. It took police days to find the man, whom Chance simply knew as “Old School.” She wondered how many more lay beneath the debris.
Chance followed the arrows to the Alford Community Center, where she was told residents could receive three hot meals a day from a religious group that travels from disaster to disaster to provide support. It was a stroke of luck that the group, International Gospel Outreach First Responders, was in Alford at all, volunteers said.
They were heading to Marianna, a larger city 15 miles away where FEMA officials are assisting residents with disaster relief claims, when local leaders told them that a smaller town was desperate for help. If the group hadn’t come with hamburgers and spaghetti, residents here wondered whether they would have eventually gone hungry.
Chance and her children — Zoe, 16, and Gabriel, 11 — took the hamburgers and sat down at tables that had been set up under a tent. They squeezed relish on their burgers while the lines grew longer with friends and neighbors.
“You got any damage?” she asked one, although she knew that the answer was inevitably yes.
“Is your mom okay?” she asked another, although she feared that the answer might be no.
“Well, they say what won’t kill you makes you stronger,” Chance said to a third. “I guess in Alford, we are going to be made stronger. Or— ”
She stopped before she finished the sentence.
Gay said the best thing the city had going was its community center, where FEMA-funded water and diapers were dropped off, along with soap and Snickers bars and crackers and Gatorade and coloring books provided by churches — items so popular that they were “going out as soon as they were coming in.”
The operation was being run by a Mary Nell Griffin. She smiled and chatted with residents who came through for help, but the truth was, she too was worried about the storm’s impact. When Michael hit, she and her husband took turns pushing furniture against their French doors to stave off the Category 4 winds. A tree sliced through the other half of her home.
Stories like that buzzed all around Chance and her family as they ate. They sat with friends who lost everything; if not them, their uncle or their brother or their mother did. Schoolchildren with no classrooms to go to were passing time counting the number of downed trees on their properties. Mothers were sharing where the best creeks were to bathe their children in.
Chance drove her Toyota Tundra down a dirt road and headed home. Each time she came back, she said, she felt like crying. Her landscape had changed. Snapped trees cluttered her backyard and a kitten that belonged to Old School ran along a tree. The shed where she kept old furniture and old photos had become a tangle of broken wood and metal. Two small tents were staked in the backyard, where her family tried to sleep. She looked at the disheveled yellow trailer; she looked at the cedar tree.
“My nana and my mother planted this tree when I was about 3 years old,” she said. “It was pride for us.”
Her friend Christy Matthis, 56, stopped by with her 10-year-old granddaughter while Chance stood outside. Matthis said she had no cash left. The closest bank was shut down, so she couldn’t cash her child-support check. The closest grocery store had no electricity, so they couldn’t run the card that holds her food-stamps benefits to get food. She and her granddaughter had been pouring bottled water on themselves to keep clean — they called it the “hobo shower” — but the child couldn’t take it any more. She heard Chance had water.
“Can I take a shower in your house?” she asked.
“The water’s cold now, but it still feels good with what we’ve been going through,” Chance told her, and the girl ran inside.
The girl’s grandmother began complaining. Her husband was on an oxygen tank that hadn’t been able to get refilled, so he had not moved in a week. Chance suggested she might go to CVS for help. She had heard they would refill insulin and wondered whether they would do the same with oxygen.
“But where would we plug in the oxygen?” Matthis asked. “A tree? I have not seen a single person come down my street. Not a person has knocked on my door to move me out or look at my roof. Where is FEMA? When are they coming?”
Chance told her: “I didn’t think it would take so long for things to get back to normal. I’m not sure it will ever get back to normal.”
The inside of their trailers were muggy and warm, and they had little choice but to sleep outside, mosquitoes swirling around them. They talked until the sun set. Matthis turned to head home, where she was sleeping on a couch on her front porch. “The only way I could see is candlelight,” she said.
“At least I got the stars and the moon,” Chance told her. She looked up. So many trees had fallen in her yard that the light from above seemed brighter than it had ever been before..
Emily Wax-Thibodeaux in Washington contributed to this report.