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Madison County finds neighbors near and far to help recover from Idalia

Neighbors from Cairo, Georgia came to Madison to cook chicken perloo and share it. Gary Jones is on the right.
Margie Menzel
Neighbors from Cairo, Georgia came to Madison to cook chicken perloo and share it. Gary Jones is on the right.

Hurricane Idalia hit Madison County hard. It’s a rural county in North Central Florida, up near the Georgia line. But it’s handy for people from other states and other parts of Florida who want to come help.

“We got here around 11 o’clock and we started doing plates at 2:15. And we’ve done 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 pots. We got 2 left. We get around 225 plates out of a pot.”

Gary Jones and his friends from Cairo, Georgia ended up handing out more than 700 plates of chicken perloo on Labor Day. That’s a chicken-and-rice dish they cook in big pots. The chicken perloo is their specialty, deployed wherever there’s a good deed to do.

“We’ve pretty much got it down to a science,” he said. “It took us about a year to figure everything out and get everything seasoned…We know what we’ve got to do. We get out and we may not say 10 words to each other in an hour-and-a-half, but…the perloo’s ready.”

Terry Gilmore and his mother live in Pinetta, just a few miles from the state line. They got their power back four days after Idalia roared through. Gilmore says the response has been uplifting. Police officers from Jacksonville, line workers and people serving food who came from other places – he’s deeply grateful.

“Everybody that came from other states, other counties, other cities to get the power back on – which is not a response that we saw during Matthew,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s because we weren’t declared as an emergency or a disaster zone – I don’t know. But honestly, it was much better this time than it was for those nine days during Matthew. So, thank you to whoever.”

State Representative Allison Tant has been traveling back and forth between Madison County and her home in Tallahassee, delivering goods and working the phones. She says the biggest problem for Madison County is the debris. There hasn’t ever been a wind event there, she says, so the trees were centuries old and enormous – and when they came down, the upshot was piles of debris everywhere. Tant says FEMA will cover the removal.

“But homeowners do have to get debris to the curb, which is a challenge,” she said. “Because this is an older community and economically depressed community, so it’s a lot.”

But she, too, has been impressed by the community spirit.

“People have really come together to help each other,” Tant said. “We’re all in one boat. It doesn’t matter what your background is, it doesn’t matter what your political persuasion is, it doesn’t matter your skin color – everybody’s stepping up to help each other. And it’s been a monumental effort.”

North Florida College is functioning as a distribution point for the county. Tant says there will be a major food distribution there on Friday, September 15th.

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Margie Menzel