PERRY — About 48 hours after Idalia uprooted trees and downed power lines in this Big Bend town of 7,000, Jerry Wells summed up the situation.
“If you don’t have a generator, you are going to be in deep trouble,” said Wells.
Wells had filled a half dozen, five-gallon containers with gasoline at a Citgo station along U.S. 19 and was holding a 14-gallon container steady while his spouse Anne pumped it full.
Except for a six-year stint in the Air Force, Wells has spent all of his 78 years in Taylor County. He said Idalia is the worst hurricane he has ever seen.
“All the way up (U.S.) 19 through Taylor County the forest is just devastated. I don’t know how many people have trees in their homes. It’s turning into a tarp village,” said Wells, who estimates he has spent $1,000 on gas to power a generator.
He expects to be without electricity for a month.
“If we don’t. We lose everything in our freezer, in the refrigerator. And, yeah, the humidity at night, with the windows open? Ain’t no way in hell you sleep,” said Wells about stockpiling gasoline.
Don Everett owns the gas station where Wells was filling up.
He spent part of Friday directing traffic in the parking lot as a long line of cars and trucks waited for fuel.
The gas station, Huddle House restaurant, convenience store complex sits along Perry’s business district where Idalia punched out the signage when it pounded the region with hurricane-force winds.
The gusts ripped from the foundation one of the canopies Everett had over an island of gas pumps – it will cost an estimated $175,000 to replace it, he said.
“It’s just a madhouse down here, just amazing. It’s like a bomb went off. That’s all there is to it,” said Everett.
Everett said he was down on the coast during the Storm of the Century in 1993, when it produced an 11-foot storm surge and spawned tornadoes that claimed three lives.
He finds that Idalia in Perry is 10 times worse than the Storm of the Century was in Steinhatchee.
“We didn’t lose power then. But now you got all these trees down. And all the power lines down. That’s the biggest thing ... no power,” said Everett.
Ninety-three percent (12,863) of the customers with Duke Energy and/or the Tri-County Electric Co-op, in Taylor County were without electrical service at sunset Friday. But by dawn Saturday, 50% of customers were back online
“We will just pick up the pieces, you know, as soon as we get the power on,” said Everett.
'The Tree Capital of the South' becomes the 'Florida Chainsaw Massacre'
Perry’s history, economy, and identity is rooted in forestry and the trees that plunged it into the dark for Labor Day Weekend 2023.
In 1965 then Gov. Haydon Burns cited 525,000 forested acres in Taylor County to proclaim Perry “The Tree Capital of the South.”
Since 1954, the Foley paper mill there, now operated by Georgia Pacific, has harvested fibers (cellulose) from pine trees to produce more than 5,000 paper products.
Today the Foley plant provides 600 jobs, according to media reports, which would be 12% of the jobs in Taylor County, according to the U.S. Census.
Nearly a quarter of the local economy is tied to the plant.
While people lined up at a Salvation Army food truck Friday and compared notes about the previous two days, the town’s biggest employer came up in the discussion.
“All the devastation for as far as you can see to the pine tree farms that feed our Georgia Pacific,” said a Walmart worker who asked not to be named. “They sure lost a lot of money.”
West of the city, the tops of rows of six-foot pines tilt to the northeast, pointing to Idalia’s path.
Within 30 miles of Perry, pine straw, limbs, debris and downed power lines begin to appear along U.S. 98, the Scenic Coast Highway.
Ten miles out, power poles are broken into pieces and uprooted trees litter yards.
Once in the city, the sides of roads and sidewalks are blocked by neat piles of sawed pine and oak trunks.
“We staged the Florida Chainsaw Massacre,” said Father Matthew Busch of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, in Perry with a smile when asked about the debris lining the roadway to his church.
Busch said as soon as Idalia cleared the city Wednesday, volunteers began to clear a path through the driveway that winds from the Byron Butler Parkway and around the Immaculate Conception campus.
Tallahassee descends on Perry to help its neighbors
Thursday morning supplies from Second Harvest of the Big Bend, and other groups began to arrive with volunteers from Tallahassee to unload, bag, and cook.
Busch said groups from the World Center Kitchen, Catholic Student Union at Florida State University, Catholic Charities, and the Knights of Columbus prepared and distributed 700 meals Thursday – and another 1,500 by noon Friday.
“As soon as we put up signs that said free food traffic started rolling in,” said Busch as a line of cars backed up at least a quarter mile on the Parkway to pick up prepared meals.
Across town at a Winn-Dixie parking lot, next to a FEMA staging area for supplies to help homeowners, a Salvation Army food truck was on pace to distribute 3,000 meals of beef and beans on Friday, according to Major Thomas Richmond.
Vickie Gatlin waited in line, hugging a four-pack of paper towels she picked up from FEMA.
Gatlin considers herself a hurricane veteran, having lived in Panama City when Michael struck in 2018.
“I know what to expect,” she said, while lamenting post-Idalia life.
“We can’t get power. We can’t get cell service. People need tarps. And we need help with these trees. It’s hot,” said Gatlin, as the heat index exceeded 100 degrees Friday.
The 53-year-old Gatlin and husband Jimmy evacuated to Marianna when Idalia approached Taylor County.
They returned Thursday to find their home intact but with no electricity.
To beat the heat Friday, they and their five dogs were spending the day in an air-conditioned pickup truck.
"There were tornadoes. You could hear them," said Steve Loschmann, who lives in a neighborhood behind the Winn Dixie on U.S. 19.
A landscaper, Loschmann moved to Perry in 2002 from Colorado.
"All the other hurricanes, they always went off to the left or right. This is the first that actually hit. It was like a cluster of tornadoes, more than a hurricane. I was watching the rain and a gust would come up and turn it into a mist," said Loschmann.
Rep. Neal Dunn: State responders 'covered themselves in glory'
Congressman Neal Dunn, R-Panama City, toured Perry, Steinhatchee, and Keaton Beach, Friday with Taylor County Sheriff Wayne Padgett.
After viewing the devastation, Dunn praised Florida’s preparation and response to the storm.
He said efforts to restore power across the eight most affected counties appear to be running 12 hours ahead of schedule.
At one point Wednesday more than 300,000 households in the Panhandle, Big Bend, and North Florida were without electricity. By 9 a.m. Saturday the number was down to 63,000.
“I don’t think any other state could have responded this quickly," said Dunn.
Dunn supports the emergency declaration President Joe Biden approved for eight counties, and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ call for the Commerce Department to declare a fishery emergency.
He urged local tree farmers to apply to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for block grants created for the timber industry.
“Nobody ever wishes for a storm, but I think the state has covered themselves in glory with their response here and now it's the feds turn to try to do as well,” said Dunn.
How to help
With Tallahassee escaping the brunt of Hurricane Idalia's wrath, this story is part of a continuing series profiling hard-hit communities. James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @CallTallahassee