Cullman Co. volunteers mount massive response to aid Hurricane Irma evacuees


DODGE CITY – When Hurricane Irma set its sights on Florida, wise Floridians set their sights on points north.  As traffic began to stack up on northbound routes through Georgia, some decided to try their luck to the west.  The really lucky ones, the blessed ones, have found their way to Cullman County this weekend.

On Saturday, the first reports coming from the Gov. Guy Hunt Rest Area near Dodge City didn’t sound lucky or blessed; they sounded downright apocalyptic: hundreds stranded, no food or water, no place to go. But word got out, and the help started coming in: by carloads, truckloads and trailer loads.

Rhonda Hagemore, of the Dodge City Volunteer Fire Department, received notice Saturday afternoon about what was happening at the rest area.  She went straight out and began coordinating response efforts at the site.  On Saturday evening, she told The Tribune, “We have been told as far as Nashville that there’s no hotel rooms available.  People have been traveling 16 hours . . . There’s just a huge need, and we need to meet that need.”

Hagemore shared late Saturday night that the group had fed hundreds and placed 20-30 families in temporary shelters.

On Sunday afternoon, Hagemore was still hard at work, inside a visitors’ center that had been transformed into a remarkable one-stop evacuee resource center.  She offered encouragement to any evacuees who might be on the road. “They can come here to the rest area; we have supplies that they can get for free, warm food, and they can take everything they need, and then we’ll send them out to a place to stay.”

Outside the center, volunteers loaded supplies into a trailer that was headed to Mt. Joy Baptist Church, where 19 families were fed and housed Saturday night, and more were expected Sunday.

Mt. Joy’s Sherell Barnett shared, “We’ve got food, water, cots, blankets.  They had 19 families there last night.  There’s not that many there this morning, but we expect more tonight.  If anybody needs a place, just send them on that way.  If we run out of room at that church, we’ll just move to another one!”

As the truck and trailer pulled away, volunteers continued stacking up cases of bottled water on the sidewalk for the next group to load.

Around the other side of the center, a table overflowed with pet food and supplies, and even more supplies were piled on the ground around the table.  Evacuees with pets on leashes stopped by to get things they needed.

And then there was the inside of the center: an evacuee’s dream, with groceries, toiletries, baby goods (Cullman Regional’s Lindsay Dossey confirmed that the hospital donated baby boxes/cardboard cribs, bottles and pacifiers), toys for children, and hot food provided by local churches and the Olive Garden of Decatur.

Emily Nix, who works at the Decatur Olive Garden, was serving salad and spaghetti.  She told us, “I seen my friend’s Facebook post this morning.  I woke up thinking about these people, and that was the very first post I seen.  So I called my managers and asked for salad, and they gave me pasta, bread and everything else.  An amazing group of managers I work for, for sure.”

Numerous organizations came out to volunteer or drop off supplies, and many came and went so quickly that they could not be identified.  Just during the time The Tribune was there on Sunday, we encountered representatives of:

  • Dodge City Fire and Rescue (coordinators)
  • Cullman Church of Christ
  • Mt. Joy Baptist Church
  • Eastside Baptist Church
  • Daystar Church
  • Johnson’s Road Methodist Church
  • Temple Baptist Church
  • Olive Garden, Decatur
  • Bremen Volunteer Fire Department
  • Bremen Missionary Baptist Church
  • North Highland Baptist Church, Warrior

Brian Bloom traveled all the way from Miami Beach with three other adults and two children, putting over a thousand miles on his car in a couple of days. 

“We’ve been trying to stay ahead of the storm,” he said.  “We heard everybody was going to Atlanta, so we decided to go west into Alabama.  We were going to try and circle back around, but that ain’t happening anymore.  We’re going to go further north, probably to Lexington, to try and get out of the storm path.  It seems like it’s following us!”

Looking around the visitor’s center, Bloom stated, “This is amazing.  Please tell everybody we really appreciate this.  It’s overwhelming.  I almost shed a tear when I came in here, to see all the support and everyone in here helping out.  It’s really nice.  They helped us with a lot of little stupid things that we didn’t think we needed, because we ran out of them: toothpaste, deodorant.

“God bless all the people for helping us out.  Thanks!”

Need help?  Want to help?

If you are a traveler in need of assistance, go to the Gov. Guy Hunt Rest area on I-65 between exits 299 and 302, or text Rhonda Hagemore (She asked for texts, as she could not always answer calls immediately) at 256-736-3220.  Those wanting to find out how they can help should also contact Hagemore, who is keeping lists of all people and groups offering assistance, so she can match them up with those who have needs.

Chelsea Rice of Mt. Joy Baptist Church, 3561 County Road 8, Hanceville (Dodge City) also encouraged people to call there if needed, saying, “Call 256-338-1633 for a place to sleep, a warm meal or if someone just wants a quick shower.  We can help.”

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