SANTA ROSA BEACH — A self-described "fearless redneck" is being recognized in the Congressional Record for his hurricane relief efforts.
Christian Oakes also will be honored Monday in Pensacola by Rep. Matt Gaetz, who represents Northwest Florida in Congress. Gaetz will present Oakes with a plaque recognizing his work during last year's Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, and for his ongoing efforts in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
Gaetz also will recognize 80-year-old Air Force Tech. Sgt. John Thomas, a Vietnam veteran now living in Northwest Florida who served from 1955 to 1975. During his career, Thomas earned a number of awards and honors, including the National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon and the Air Force Longevity Service Award Ribbon.
Oakes and his wife, Cass, were introduced to hurricane relief after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in August. When efforts to reach Cass Oakes' family in Texas were unsuccessful, the couple hitched their 12-foot johnboat to their SUV and headed out. The SUV and the boat were loaded with relief supplies ranging from nonperishable food to baby items, much of it donated by area businesses.
"I don't know what we're going to do," Oakes remembers telling his wife, "but we're going to Texas to help some people."
About halfway through Louisiana, Cass Oakes heard from her family and learned they were OK. The couple kept driving to Texas, though, to get their load of relief supplies to people who might need them.
As the couple neared the hard-hit Houston metropolitan area, they began to notice that small towns affected by the hurricane were being overlooked. Eventually, after asking along the way about towns that might need help, they found themselves in Sour Lake, about 20 miles off of Interstate 10 near Beaumont.
They connected with other volunteers through social media and found themselves delivering supplies throughout the area and assisting rescue efforts. At one point, Christian Oakes was able to direct the military resources that had begun to arrive in the area — a helicopter and a personnel carrier — to a 150-home subdivision that had been cut off by floodwaters.
Along with other volunteers, Oakes and his wife soon found themselves truly caught up in relief efforts.
"We were living off beef jerky and gas-station burritos ... and Red Bulls — lots of Red Bulls," Oakes said.
And there was something else fueling their efforts, Oakes added.
"I'm not a big Bible-thumper or anything like that," he said. "But it's like we were chosen for this mission."
That perceived call solidified itself as Hurricane Irma bored down on Florida in September. Like many people in Northwest Florida, the Oakes' initial concern was that the storm would come their way. As it became clear that Irma was only going to hit the edge of the Panhandle, Christian Oakes again sprang into action.
This time, his efforts were focused on getting supplies and other relief to hard-hit Southwest Florida. And because he and thousands of other volunteers had proved their worth during Hurricane Harvey, Oakes found governmental assistance for his efforts to deliver relief supplies through a number of small local airports, including the DeFuniak Springs Municipal Airport.
"We're there basically as back-up to the first responders," he said. "We get in their before FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the Red Cross."
According to Oakes, the networking capabilities of social media have helped volunteer relief workers become more organized. Oakes' own efforts have led to creation of the FLip FLop FLoatilla — the "FL"s are an homage to Florida, he explained — a loosely organized group of relief volunteers.
"Our network has built and built and built," he said.
Oakes estimates he is a few keystrokes away from as many as 15,000 potential volunteer relief workers.
"Whatever role comes your way, you just get busy with it," he said.
That network has been somewhat taxed in the volunteer response to Hurricane Maria, which slammed Puerto Rico in late September. Oakes, who has made two trips to Puerto Rico, says, "It will be a challenge for a while."
Nonetheless, Oakes' efforts have contributed to getting 8 million pounds of relief supplies to the island, including 500 influenza vaccines, according to Gaetz's office.
Oakes says he's skeptical that government organizations will play much of a role to bring the island back from the ravages of Hurricane Maria.
"It's going to take private citizens and businesses to help Puerto Rico," he said.
While Oakes believes his relief work is guided by the hand of God, it has come at some personal cost. He spent $15,000 of his own money responding to Harvey and Irma, and his ongoing work with Puerto Rico takes him away from his business for about 10 days each month, he said.
Still, he's proud to be a part of the ongoing volunteer relief efforts that began with Hurricane Harvey.
"The people came out and showed why America will always be the greatest nation in the world," he said.
At one point in Thomas' career, a senior master sergeant remarked on Thomas' work ethic, noting that his "willingness to work and devotion to duty are but two of his many outstanding qualities."