On the Frontline of Faith and Healing

After Hurricane Michael ravaged Panama City Toyota, employees banded together to pick up the pieces, help one another and get back in business
by Alexa Conomos
July/August 2019
On the Frontline of Faith and Healing
Determined to Rebuild
Dealer Principal Greg Finley (center), drew on his experience as a city planner to help employees like Chris Doyle (left) and Christine Horton after Hurricane Michael devastated the community. “He made sure we were taken care of,” Horton says.
The power of compassion and the strength of the human spirit always prevail. Just ask Dealer Principal Greg Finley of Panama City Toyota. He learned that firsthand after Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle on October 10, 2018.
 
“Imagine a nuclear bomb went off but you don’t have the burn marks,” Finley says. “That’s what it looked like.”
 
The Category 5 storm made landfall just 16 days after his dealership reopened its doors, capping a year-long, multi-million dollar renovation. The 60,000-square-foot showstopper boasted a Chick-fil-A, a luxurious customer lounge, a stocked library and an impressive stable of vintage Toyota Land Cruisers. The customer service destination served as a tremendous point of employee pride.
 
“We worked in trailers for months before we finally moved back in,” says Payroll Administrator Christine Horton. “And then it was all gone. Just gone.”
 
“It Was All Just Stuff”
 
The hurricane’s 160 mph winds peeled back the roof like a tin can. Wind and water decimated fixtures, furniture, and offices, and damaged many of the 500 vehicles on the lot and in the showroom.
 
"But then you realize it was all just stuff," says Finley. "You take stock that you haven’t lost any lives, that your people are safe, so you count your blessings. I just went to work with our team…doing the best we could to put things back together."
 
Drawing on his experience as a one-time city planner, Finley conducted a “needs assessment” to pinpoint the level of damage each employee's family sustained. He then created the Panama City Giving Hope Fund to assist with employee and community-wide recovery, distributed gift cards and used funds earmarked for the dealership’s Christmas party to boost employee bonuses. For days, he and his family worked on the frontlines.
 
"He brought food for us at the dealership. And he posted on Facebook that the larger community could come here and eat, too," says Horton. "And at the same time, he paid everybody. He made sure we were taken care of.”

Cleaning Up
 
Employees put up tarps, fired up generators and cut brush from coworkers’ properties. They opened their homes to displaced colleagues. Internal Service Advisor Chris Doyle stayed with both Finley and then Horton for months.
 
“It meant a lot to me. I felt that I actually had a family here with Christine. And Greg has been a hero to me,” says Doyle. “That made me feel proud to work here. It really sets us apart.”
 
The extended family of dealerships from Southeast Toyota sent reinforcements as well. Colleagues trekked to Panama City to move crushed vehicles and deliver supplies so Finley’s management team could regroup quickly.
 
The team met eight days after the hurricane to devise a reopening plan. With the service drive and shop mostly spared, the dealership reopened on October 22 to offer free tire repair. They relied on a generator and wrote repair orders by hand, used cash and credit cards via Square and paid employees with handwritten checks. Within a month, the sales team was selling cars again, though the temporary showroom didn’t open until December 1. As Finley notes, “The entire process of coming together was nothing less than extraordinary.”
 
The Road Ahead
 
That solidarity will be needed in the months to come. While Panama City faces a desperate housing shortage, the dealership struggles with a reduced workforce and a shortage of contractors, not to mention a temporary roof and AC system. Finley hopes to finish reconstruction in September but recognizes the emotional toll of Michael has no timeline.
 
“I wanted to provide space, both figuratively and literally, for people to grieve," Finley says. "Hurricane Michael was a tremendously devastating event. People need an opportunity to internalize this and to process it.”
 
It’s a sentiment Horton and Doyle — both of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress — appreciate. And yet “the human spirit should never be counted out,” says Horton through tears. “I believe we’ve learned that when we have to, we can handle way more than we would have ever expected.”
 
To learn more about the Panama City Giving Hope Fund, check out https://give.idonate.com/the-signatry-foundation/panama-city-hope-fund.
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