ON OCTOBER 11, 2018, HURRICANE MICHAEL, A CATEGORY 5 STORM, MADE LANDFALL ON THE FLORIDA PANHANDLE.
High winds, heavy rain, and extreme surges caused massive destruction along the coast, resulting in billions of dollars in damages — trees uprooted, houses splintered, and shops reduced to bare cement slabs. In Florida alone, dozens of people lost their lives. Thousands more lost their homes and livelihoods. Over a year later, there’s still plenty of recovery work to be done, especially in Panama City, Mexico Beach, and the surrounding areas. Sammy Fitkin, project manager for Hauling Away, a Theodore, Alabama based company that specializes in debris removal, grinding services, trucking, and site management, sees this kind of devastation far too regularly.
“We came here straight from a hurricane-recovery project in North Carolina,” says Fitkin. “At first, all we could see were the trees. We could see how the wind blew them one way and then another way. Acres of trees were either twisted or snapped completely to the ground.”
According to Fitkin, the trees were a telltale sign of the destruction to come. “I looked around at all the damage and figured I might as well try to find somewhere to live because I was going to be here for a while. It’s going to take a long time to clean this place up.”
THE LONG HAUL
Each day, Fitkin sends his team through neighborhoods and business parks in a fleet of specially designed trucks to collect debris — furniture, refrigerators, sheds, cars, and trees — bound for dumpsites and grinding locations throughout the Panhandle.
“When you’re on a pickup and the homeowner is there, it’s tough. You keep telling yourself you’re not going to let it bother you, but you see a 70-year-old person out there and you’re picking up three quarters of their life and putting it in the back of a truck — or you see a lady and her kids hunting in the wreckage for a tent — it’s heartbreaking.”
At the dumpsites and grinding locations, Fitkin and his team deploy a fleet of John Deere machines, including excavators, wheel loaders, and dozers, to manage the debris and prepare it for the landfill. “At this location, we grind all the trees we’ve collected on pickups. The goal is to reduce the wood by a three-to-one ratio, and we transport those woodchips with our John Deere 624K and 724K Wheel Loaders.”
No matter how many trees his company grinds or how much debris it hauls, Fitkin credits the people around him for making the biggest difference. “I’ve met people from all walks of life, from all over the country,” he says. “Half of my guys are from Wisconsin and Missouri. They came in here just to help people.”
A strong dealer relationship also plays a significant role in Hauling Away’s recovery efforts. “Beard Equipment is a real partner,” says Fitkin about the Panama City based dealer. “They live here. They know the devastation. They lost part of their shop — the roof was gone and they were running off generators. But they did, and continue to do, everything in their power to support us. We pick up the phone and get the support we need 10 times out of 10. The next morning, they have our parts. They come in on weekends. It makes you feel good when you look up and see everyone working together.”