MAHTOWA - Even before they left for the Florida Panhandle on New Year's Eve, Gary and Marianne Fitzgerald knew this wouldn't be an ordinary four months in their winter home.
The couple, who spend the rest of the year in the log home they built in a secluded, camp-like property in rural Carlton County, wouldn't be in their winter home, for one thing.
The condominium in Panama City Beach, Fla., hadn't been destroyed by Michael, the Category 5 hurricane that hit the Panhandle on Oct. 10. But it had sustained $5 million worth of damage, and wasn't yet livable. They found an available place inland from the beach ahead of time and went there instead.
They also brought Gary's tools, including a chainsaw. Although retired now at 76, Gary spent 35 years building log homes, and he sensed his skills might be useful in Florida, he said.
But they weren't prepared for the extent of the devastation.
"We saw (the damage from Hurricane) Katrina," Gary said. "And this was far more vast. I mean, hundreds and hundreds of square miles of damage."
Added Marianne: "The appliances and debris (were) piled up along the street, taller than the cars, the whole length of the street. The houses, with trees lying on them, damaged - a lot of them - beyond repair. And yet some of them still had people living in them."
Their eyes weren't deceiving them. Michael was the fourth-strongest hurricane ever to make landfall in the United States, according to the National Hurricane Center. It was blamed for 49 deaths and more than $5.5 billion in damage, the Washington Post reported.
Yet in making landfall in a region with no major metropolitan centers and in a year marked by numerous natural disasters, it received relatively little notice. And federal disaster funding for relief from Michael's effects has been tied up in Congress in a dispute over funding for Puerto Rico.
"Their term is, 'They forgot us,'" Gary related. "'The world forgot us.'"
When the Fitzgeralds arrived they could see the need but weren't sure how best to pitch in, they said. So they turned to the church they sometimes attend, St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Panama City.
There, the couple were referred to Mission 850, a nascent nonprofit founded by local residents Nicholas and Dot Wagner to provide help cleaning up. The title refers to the 850 area code that encompasses the Panhandle.
The Wagners live in Tallahassee, the state capital, which was relatively lightly hit by the hurricane, Dot Wagner said in a telephone interview. That means it was only five days before their power was restored and streets were passable again.
They know pastors who live in Marianna, Fla., and Panama City, Wagner said, and they knew those areas were harder-hit. So as soon as they could, they loaded up their van with food and supplies and headed in that direction.
"All of the stores were destroyed - grocery stores, Walmart, Target," Wagner said. "So people had hurricane supplies, but no one expected to need hurricane supplies for weeks."
Once they started, the Wagners kept making trips back and forth, and other people were drawn to the effort. To better organize the work, they launched a Mission 850 website in November and incorporated as a nonprofit around Christmastime.
When the Fitzgeralds volunteered, Gary's chainsaw was particularly valuable, Wagner said, because many helpers were available but not many with chainsaw proficiency. So Gary would cut fallen trees into manageable pieces, and teams of high school or college-age volunteers would haul them away.
Gary soon found that his body couldn't handle the strenuous work day after day, he said.
"So I said two or three days a week is all I could do," he related. "And toward the end, it was actually more than that again, because I was trying to get a lot done before we left."
Marianne, 75, initially was among those clearing debris, "but my body wouldn't cooperate," she said. So she began acting as a bridge between Dot Wagner and Gary, providing his assignments for the next day.
The Fitzgeralds served three months for Mission 850. But their fourth month in Florida wasn't a vacation. They were given the OK to move into their condominium, but they spent their time on a new job.
"We tore off wallpaper and did things for our (condominium) owner because he's very good to us, and we like him," Gary said. "Tearing wallpaper off is a horrible job. I don't know if I ever want to do it again."
For all of that, the Fitzgeralds came through the winter without too much damage, although Gary's arms often were scratched as he picked his way through limbs and vines and twisted trees.
His chainsaw didn't do as well.
"We were working with people, other volunteers, and there I was cranking away," related Gary, whose wry sense of humor continually emerges in conversation. "And when it got going, it didn't run good. And I thought: This is embarrassing and foolish. So I got a new chainsaw."
Although they've been coming to the area for years, the Fitzgeralds said they didn't realize the extent of poverty in the region until their hurricane cleanup experience occurred. One woman was sleeping on a wet mattress, Marianne said, because a tree had fallen on her house and water had gotten in. She was using a tiny fan to dry it out.
Gary told of helping to clear the property of a widow who had had back surgery and could barely walk. "These guys drove in to pick up wood and they said, 'Somebody living there?'" he related. "That's the shape of the house. It wasn't much, and now it's worse."
Those lacking the wherewithal to help themselves are being neglected by the government, Wagner said.
"I don't know much about politics, honestly," she said. "But I know that on the ground level the people that were suffering the most are still suffering. Nothing has trickled down to the senior citizens, to the lower-income families, to the disabled, to the unemployed."
The Fitzgeralds returned to Minnesota aware that the work was far from done. Schools were open daily for two shifts to accommodate students from schools that were destroyed. A church was having its services in a tent. Some residents had gone three months without electricity. It's likely to take years to repair the damage, Gary said.
In the counties most affected by Michael - Bay, Liberty, Calhoun and Gadsden - 90 percent of the population experienced loss, Wagner said.
"Everyone's home in some way was damaged," she said. "And the question was: Did you have really good insurance and did you have a job that lasted through the storm?"
How to help
Mission 850 is transitioning from debris cleanup to rebuilding, Dot Wagner said. Carpenters, plumbers, electricians, roofers and unskilled laborers are among those who could be especially helpful. Mission 850 doesn't seek cash donations, but it can work with people to help target money to where it's needed, such as purchasing gift cards for supplies.
Learn more at mission850.com or call Wagner at (813) 965-2846.
Gary and Marianne Fitzgerald said people who want to help the church meeting in a tent rebuild can call (850) 619-5294 or visit stdominicpc.com.