Last week, the panhandle experienced the strongest storm to hit the U.S. in more than 25 years.

In the days leading up to the storm, I saw a mixture of indifference and panic among locals. Some residents boarded up their homes, packed their cars with their most precious belongings and got the heck outta Dodge while others mocked the storm like Lieutenant Dan and decided to ride it out.

The day before the storm felt eerily calm. The Harborwalk area was a ghost town. Only a few stores remained open. I saw a few tourists walking through, complaining that nothing was open while store employees took down awnings and secured boards onto windows. For a few minutes, the only sounds were the music of the Harborwalk and the rising water lapping the docks. It was peaceful and humid but my stomach was in knots.

I rode out the storm with a coworker in north Crestview. We ventured out to see how the city was fairing and ended up surrounded by over 30 Sheriff’s Office deputies at Hub City BBQ. The owner told us they planned to stay open 24 hours to make sure first responders and law enforcement could have a hot meal. Seeing the deputies smiling and laughing as they chowed down on barbecue warmed my heart.

That’s what I love about tragedies. In the midst of devastation and heartbreak, communities and companies band together to support those affected by disasters. Airbnb offered free homes to those evacuating. Uhaul offered free storage for those clearing out their homes. Disney, Apple and Google have all made sizeable donations to relief efforts. The list goes on.

As I drove home Wednesday evening, you could hardly tell anything happened to Fort Walton Beach. There were the occasional puddles and piles of leaves, but nothing that you wouldn’t normally see after a regular thunderstorm. I was grateful we had avoided the storm but my heart broke for Panama City and the other Panhandle communities who endured the worst.

Now, as crews begin to evaluate and clean up the damage, all I see are Facebook posts from people gathering food, clothing and money to help the ones affected the most by the monstrous storm.

It’s a shame that it takes such a disastrous event for humans to put aside their differences and help each other. Right now, it doesn’t matter which political party you affiliate with, what football team you cheer for or what color your skin is. All that matters is helping people who lost everything in a matter of hours.

It’s only a matter of time before the rebuilding process begins and people’s attitudes will go back to how they were. But for now, let’s hold onto our humanity and remember that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Sheri Kotzum is a reporter for The Destin Log. She can be reached at skotzum@thedestinlog.com or 315-4353.