BLOUNTSTOWN — The idea of his hometown going hungry after Hurricane Michael was too much for Kyle Dalton to bear.
So he did what anyone would do — he packed $5,000 in food, drove two smokers from Texas and gave everything away for free to the residents of Blountstown, a city of about 2,500 people that’s 50 miles inland. His menu included more than food: the ham and beans came with a side of hope, and, for the moment, a welcome distraction.
"They came from Texas, they didn’t have to do that," said Rhonda Hunt, 49, who waited in line for food.
Dalton, 35, shrugged off any notion of heroism.
"I’ve got family and friends here from grade school," said Dalton, who grew up in Blountstown before moving to Texas in high school. "Just giving back to my hometown."
On Friday night, the pleasant, familiar smell of barbecue rose from Dalton’s truck — a semitrailer cab pulling a fully-loaded smokehouse kitchen. The scent attracted weary residents who walked toward a hot meal — for many, the first in two days, as power remained out throughout the Panhandle — their damaged homes to their backs, at least for the moment.
"As strong as (the storm) was, God blessed us in a lot of ways," said Allen McClullough, 66, a lifetime Blountstown resident who was lined up in the evening twilight.
From the elevated kitchen, Dalton picked others out from the crowd below, people he knew. A friend from elementary school, someone else’s cousin.
They chowed down on pork, beans, chicken, chicken alfredo and fries under country music with tired smiles on their faces, the food one small indulgence in lives that just got a lot harder.
Hunt, originally from California, rode out the storm at home. She said she didn’t know what to expect from her first hurricane.
"It was scary," she said. "I cried a lot."
People traded storm tales between bites. Before landfall, forecast tracks shifted and the storm rapidly intensified, and many residents stayed. Some still had homes. But all faced substantial recovery.
Payton Smith, 25, weathered the storm at Calhoun Correctional Institute where she works as a colonel’s secretary. When she was allowed to leave, she went to her boyfriend’s parents’ house, where her 4-year-old son Robbie had hunkered in a bathtub. She had to park a mile away and hike through fallen trees.
"I hit my knees," she said, when she finally saw the house, "because it was still there."
"My son’s Legos were still out on the floor where he left them, and that was a really powerful image," she said while holding a plate of ham, salad and beans.
The scene in front of her made her proud to live in Blountstown. She had previously lived in Panama City, where there wasn’t such a sense of community.
"It’s a terrible thing to say, but from such tragedy has come such resilience," she said.
Dalton’s two smokers couldn’t keep up with the demand, so a local guy loaned his. And people donated their own food; without power, it was going to go bad anyway. Pizza Hut, Subway and a Mexican restaurant even threw in the contents of their freezers.
"I told them I’d sit here and cook as long as they keep bringing food," he said.
Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or [email protected] Follow @ByJoshSolomon.