Photo courtesy of Gary Hennen
Category 4 Hurricane Michael struck at Oglesby Plants International in Altha, Florida, in the state’s Panhandle. The nursery is located about 60 miles inland from Mexico Beach, where CNN reported the hurricane made landfall Oct. 10 with 155-mile-per-hour maximum sustained winds. The storm maintained Category 4 strength through the Florida Panhandle and into Georgia, The New York Times reported, citing National Weather Service statistics. The hurricane killed at least 36 people, according to CNN.
Oglesby Plants International president Gary Hennen says the hurricane demolished one small greenhouse, knocked out power and compromised other structures and equipment at the tropical plant business, while decimating homes and downing trees in the surrounding area.
“Some of my employees did lose their homes, and then some lost 30 or 40 or 50 percent of their home and are living in their bedroom until their roofs can get repaired,” Hennen says.
Oglesby Plants still had not accounted for all of its employees as of 6 p.m. on Oct. 25, but every employee that the business had contacted by that point suffered only minor injuries or escaped unscathed. Several employees have returned to water plants and clean up debris, among other tasks. Power was restored to the business on Oct. 24.
Hennen says the eyewall of the hurricane struck the business. “On the eyewall, you get all the wind all the time,” Hennen says. “There's no break, there's no pause. It just blows in various directions — east and then north and then west and then south. It [gives] equal time to all the directions on the compass."
In addition to destroying one small greenhouse, Hurricane Michael ripped all of the greenhouse coverings off at Oglesby Plants’ nursery site. It also blew off sturdier roof material. “It's just totally amazing how much things flying through the air can poke holes in metal roofs,” Hennen says.
Oglesby’s tissue culture laboratory experienced significant water damage, Hennen says. The business’ offices and administrative buildings were also damaged, but they are still usable.
Photo courtesy of Tom Kegley
Receiving and giving help
Members in the horticulture industry, the Florida Nursery, Growers & Landscape Association (FNGLA) and its chapters, and community members and churches made donations of food, water, money and supplies, to Oglesby Plants in the aftermath of the hurricane. (FNGLA awarded Hennen the Wendell E. Butler Award — its most prestigious award — in 2012.) At the same time, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), American Red Cross, churches and others have been working to help the surrounding community rebuild.
Industry members called, texted and emailed Oglesby Plants to see how the business and its employees fared, he says. “Although our communications were limited, we did get contacts from our friends around the country, and around the world in fact,” Hennen says. “I guess the world is small when it comes to things like this.”
He adds: “It was amazing to know you do have friends out there, especially when you need them there.”
Oglesby Plants has been serving a hot lunch every day to its own employees, as well as to palette crews, builders and electricians. While some of the company’s employees have come back to work, others who are still focusing on rebuilding their own lives have come by for the lunches.
Hope on the horizon
Oglesby Plants has a goal for its employees who have returned to work. While they are still dealing with tough production conditions — adjusting for sun and shade needs when covers are missing and planning heating and other equipment reinstallations before winter arrives — they aim to ship out their next delivery soon.
Hennen is striving for Week 44 for this first delivery since the storm. “I'm keeping my fingers crossed we can do it,” he says. “The trucking companies and all that are very busy, but I think we can get at least some of the plants out to some of our customers. We did lose quite a few plants, and we're still evaluating the full extent of the damage, because it's ongoing.”
So far, Oglesby Plants has recovered about an acre of its crops. Hennen says the lack of power has caused frustrations, but he considers the two weeks since the storm to be a short timeframe in which to have production back on track, in light of the damage.
The hurricane wreaked major destruction within a 50-mile by 100-mile area surrounding Altha, Hennen says. “One of the most emotional parts of my day is driving back and forth to work and seeing the devastation in the neighborhoods,” he says.
As far as Oglesby Plants’ business is concerned, Hennen is focused on looking ahead. "We greatly appreciate all of the generosity and the calls and the concern, and we're working hard to come back,” he says. “We enjoy this industry, and we want to continue."
Photo courtesy of Gary Hennen