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'Today' show spotlights dentist's efforts to help hurricane victims

December 10, 2018

By David Burger

Photo of Dr. Harrison and his wife, Mara, appearing on the Today show
Rebuilding: Dr. Reese Harrison and wife, Mara, appear on NBC's "Today" show on Nov. 23 to talk about efforts to help victims of Hurricane Michael in their Florida community. Photo by NBC News’ TODAY
Lynn Haven, Fla. — In between segments on current events, cooking and weather reports from Al Roker, the NBC "Today" show, on the day after Thanksgiving, featured something special during the 9 a.m. hour.

A segment called "People Helping People," reported by NBC's Gabe Gutierrez, focused on the good humanitarian deeds of an ADA member dentist, Dr. Reese Harrison, and his wife, Mara.

During the immediate aftermath of October's Hurricane Michael, the couple created a nonprofit called HopePanhandle.org that seeks to help out their beloved community in the Florida Panhandle devastated by the wrath of the historic storm.

"Our goal is to help anyone and everyone that wants to stay in the area," said Dr. Harrison in an interview with the ADA News.

Photo of hurricane destruction
Aftermath: Dr. Harrison's dental office in Lynn Haven, Fla., was damaged during the hurricane, and he and his wife helped set up the nonprofit HopePanhandle.org to help victims of the natural disaster.
Part of the roof of Dr. Harrison's dental practice was ripped off during the storm, but he said reopening his business has become secondary to his new role heading up the volunteers. The team has served tens of thousands of meals and assisted victims who are still living in tent cities as they go through the process of getting relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and insurance companies.

The shelters that the Red Cross had set up for victims closed Nov. 30, said Ms. Harrison, so on top of collecting and distributing donations they are starting the next phase of their plans — finding temporary shelters for victims displaced by the hurricane.

Hurricane Michael was the third-most intense Atlantic hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. mainland in terms of pressure, as well as the strongest storm in terms of maximum sustained wind speed to strike the mainland since Hurricane Andrew in 1992, according to the National Hurricane Center.

It was the strongest storm to ever hit the Florida Panhandle, NBC reported.

According to the Edison Electric Institute, at one point 1.2 million electricity customers were without power in several East Coast and southern states. PBS estimated damage throughout the U.S. as having exceeded $15 billion.

Photo of hurricane destruction
Oasis: A relief site that Dr. Reese Harrison and his wife Mara helped set up in Lynn Haven, Fla., to help victims of October's Hurricane Michael sits in the middle of a devastated landscape.
The hurricane killed 35 people in Florida, according to PBS, at the end of October.

"It was surreal," said Ms. Harrison.

Their usually idyllic area in northwest Florida was battered by the hurricane Oct. 10, with Dr. Harrison recalling that he saw strong trees that were hundreds of years old being snapped in half as if they were toothpicks. Although he said the damage to his house was minimal, there were many others who weren't so fortunate.

Photo of hurricane destruction
Holding hope: Mara Harrison holds a baby while the infant's displaced mother looks on at a relief site that the Harrisons helped set up to assist victims of October's Hurricane Michael.
As the initial wave of reporters and news crews left, people in Lynn Haven and the surrounding areas needed immediate and ongoing support to rebuild their homes and lives.

"People still need help," said Ms. Harrison.

With the Harrisons galvanized into action, they were gratefully surprised at the number of people, many from local schools and churches, who stepped in to help them support the victims, with the couple dismissing the idea that they alone were heroes.

"This all happened because we had volunteers that jumped in," said Dr. Harrison. "So many pieces of the puzzle fit into place."

NBC news crews that had arrived to cover the storm were temporarily stranded in the area themselves in October, with videographers and reporters learning of the relief efforts kick-started by the Harrisons at the time, Dr. Harrison said.

When the network wanted to do stories that reflected the spirit of Thanksgiving, the crews that visited Lynn Haven back in October suggested the area and the Harrisons, Dr. Harrison said.

With Dr. Harrison's dental office looking to open again in mid- to late January, the couple are still focused on HopePanhandle.org, which NBC dubbed as growing "exponentially."

"It will be a long rebuilding process," said Dr. Harrison.

To donate, visit the HopePanhandle website, hopepanhandle.org.

To watch the "Today" segment featuring Dr. Reese Harrison and his wife Mara, visit today.com and search for "Hurricane Michael couple."