Residents of Chipley and other areas in the Panhandle struggled in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael with the devastation caused by downed trees, flying debris and other damage. Cindy Birge, a local Realtor, saw many needs and joined forces with fellow residents and other Realtors to help community recovery efforts.
CHIPLEY, Fla. – Cindy Birge is no stranger to hurricanes and powerful storms. After all, the broker-owner of Elite Realty in Chipley and member of the Central Panhandle Association of Realtors® has lived her whole life in the Panhandle. Hurricane Michael was different, she says.
“I’ve ridden out many storms, but when the dust settled after Hurricane Michael, there were no phones, no electricity and fallen trees blocked every roadway. I swear every tree and powerline in eight counties was down,” Birge says.
Her first move? “I had to get out and check on family members and those in the community. So, I gathered a group, asked them to bring chainsaws, and they started clearing roads,” she recalls.
Serving the community is part of what Birge feels is her duty as a real estate professional. She began her real estate career in 1999. “My mom and I did it together,” she says.
A year later, she earned her broker license and, in 2001, she opened Elite Realty.
“From day one, I joined local, state and national committees. I also started volunteering locally,” Birge adds. “To me, it’s the difference between a job and profession. I find the more I give; the more I receive. I’m a firm believer in giving because God has blessed me so much.”
She says she was lucky that Hurricane Michael didn’t do more damage to her property. While Birge went without power for 14 days, that was nothing compared to others in the area.
“My neighbor, who bought their house through me, has three small children,” she says. “During the storm a tree went through the house and split the home in two. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but the damage was incredible.”
Realtors coming together
Due to the hurricane, Birge was unable to attend her graduation from Florida Realtors Leadership Academy; however, she was amazed by the love and support her fellow Realtors showed her community in the aftermath.
“Two Realtors, Kevin Hyde and Bob Caldwell, stepped up to help,” she says. “They immediately jumped in and began helping in so many ways. They came with supplies and volunteered their time to help those in need. Since all of the local motels were completely booked, they even slept on the floor of my office after working long days cutting people out of their homes and tarping roofs.”
Then the Realtor response grew even more.
Birge adds, “I worked hand-in-hand with my local association’s CEO, Debbie Ashbrook. Also, I went to everyone I knew and collected the food from their freezers, which would go bad soon, and worked with volunteers to cook and serve the food. We were able to feed about 500 people from that effort. We were also able to get meals delivered to homebound seniors. All I did was orchestrate and organize!”
Florida Realtors 2019 President Eric Sain says this about Cindy: “She is one of the unsung heroes after the hurricane. She is feeding the hungry, helping those less fortunate complete and submit their FEMA applications, and assisting and serving her local board and other Realtors in the region. She’s offering her real estate office as lodging and shelter for volunteers. All this, plus she is still serving her clients and writing contracts. She is an amazing, resilient woman – the epitome of a leader.”
However, Birge says, “The volunteers who came in and cut down trees, delivered supplies, and sacrificed their time to help our small community – they are the real hometown heroes.”
FEMA and crisis hotlines
Volunteers and those who needed help quickly began turning to Birge.
“My daughter, Summer Thomas, who works with me, suggested we get AT&T burner phones because our Verizon service was out,” she says. “We got the word out that if people came to my office, they could take a shower and get fed.”
But the needs didn’t stop there. Because Birge had a working phone, she was able to help over 175 people file FEMA claims. She also estimates that she called the crisis cleanup hotline about 100 times to get trees off houses.
She adds that she is so appreciative of the Florida Realtors Disaster Relief Fund.
“Prior to this storm, I knew the Florida Disaster Relief Fund was very important and tried to contribute when I could,” Birge says. “I never expected that my community would experience such devastation. We have 1,200 Realtors in my local association and most of their houses are devastated. Insurance deductibles are very high, so we’re trying to help our fellow Realtors.”
The Central Panhandle Association of Realtors also set up a fund for the community.
She adds, “People don’t realize that FEMA helps with cleanup but isn’t as helpful with the needs of people struggling with so many things after a disaster. We have 50,000 people who need temporary homes and FEMA only approved 100 trailers. Once the hurricane is out of the news, help is even harder to find. The average person gets just $400 from FEMA. Over 300 people have already been denied. We need to make sure the Realtor party is active in helping our community stay a community.”
Tyndall Air Force Base was obliterated, she notes, saying “They are rebuilding, thankfully, but all the military families have been relocated and it will take three years to rebuild.”
Birge says, “I’m a small-town girl, and I’ve been here my whole life. It’s been a blessing to see neighbors helping the community – and our Realtor community coming together to make a difference. Real estate is about networking, not just for business, but for community support as well.”
Interested in donating or learning more about the Florida Realtors Disaster Relief Fund? Go to https://www.floridarealtors.org/AboutFar/DisasterReliefFund/index.cfm or to find out more how to help the Central Panhandle Association of Realtors’ efforts, go to https://www.centralpanhandlemls.com/ and click on “Hurricane Relief for Members.”