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PANAMA CITY, Fla. — In the dark, John Kincaid could see hints of the devastation in this seaside city.
The downed tree limbs in every direction. The roofs ripped off homes and businesses. The flattened pavilion beside the Jenks Avenue Church of Christ’s family activity center.
But in the pitch-black wee hours — with the power still out in this Florida Panhandle community — the headlights on Kincaid’s tractor-trailer rig flashed only brief, sketchy glimpses of Hurricane Michael’s vast impact.
After a 466-mile trip from Nashville, Tenn., to deliver emergency food boxes and supplies from Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort Inc., the volunteer driver approached the Jenks Avenue church just before 2:45 a.m.
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The engine grunted as Kincaid, 76, tapped the brakes and slowed almost to a complete stop. The retired police officer squinted as he scanned the disaster zone for the church’s driveway.
Finally spotting it, he shifted into reverse and backed up a bit. He twisted the steering wheel, pulled into the parking lot and nudged into a space beside the worship center, where days earlier the Category 4 storm — with sustained winds of 155 mph — had poked a hole in the roof above the baptistery.
Kincaid recorded the semi-truck’s odometer reading at his destination — 201,035 — before cutting the lights. After a quick pit stop under the stars, he left the rig’s air-conditioner running and climbed into the back of the cab.
There, on a twin mattress, he’d catch a few hours of sleep before sunrise and the arrival of church volunteers to unload the 53-foot-long trailer.
For nearly two decades, Kincaid has combined two passions — his love for trucking and his love for Jesus — while making countless cross-country deliveries for Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort, which is supported by Christians nationwide.
His journey to Panama City began in rush-hour traffic in Music City the previous evening. The grandfather of five showed up at the ministry’s 87,000-square-foot warehouse — a former Lowe’s store in south Nashville — about 5 p.m.
Earlier in the day, hundreds of Nashville-area Christians had responded to a phone tree request for volunteers and taken familiar spots beside the warehouse’s conveyor-belt line. The members of Churches of Christ — many of them retired — packed 1,500 emergency food boxes filled with canned goods and other nonperishable items.
A New King James Version of the New Testament is placed in each emergency food box, along with a handwritten note of encouragement from a volunteer.
As the ministry’s executive director, Mike Lewis, explained, that number of boxes is “enough for five trailer loads.” A New King James Version of the New Testament is placed in each box, along with a handwritten note of encouragement from a volunteer.
Besides 300 food boxes, items forklifted onto Kincaid’s truck included 1,000 units of detergent, 400 packs of insect repellent and 252 cases of bottled water. That’s not to mention various quantities of baby supplies, blankets, bleach, brooms and wheelbarrows.
After checking his paperwork and inventory list, Kincaid bit into a Nestle Drumstick vanilla caramel sundae cone — a favorite treat that he found in a warehouse freezer.
On a rainy, 53-degree October evening, he buckled his seatbelt and flicked on the windshield wipers. He took a wide turn — as semi-trucks must do — onto a side street by the disaster relief organization’s headquarters, waving his appreciation at a fellow truck driver who stopped and gave him room to maneuver his rig.
The starting odometer reading: 200,569.
An old, scratched Charley Pride CD played as Kincaid, a member of the Rural Hill Church of Christ in the Nashville suburb of Antioch, steered the truck onto southbound Interstate 65 and into a clogged sea of red brake lights.
“I stay active. I don’t mind driving,” said Kincaid, a former two-term member of the Metropolitan Council of Nashville and Davidson County.
A quiet man who seems most comfortable talking about his passion for renovating old cars, Kincaid briefly explained his secrets of driving. They include “keeping it between the white lines” and “making sure you keep the truck where you can stop if somebody slows down quickly in front of you.”
That second piece of advice proved particularly helpful a few years ago: As he drove to an Oklahoma tornado scene, a car struck by another vehicle weaved sideways in front him on Interstate 44. He was able to avoid a collision.
Before he retired, Kincaid’s varied career pursuits ranged from police work to the Army National Guard to state government service to real estate to, yes, long-range trucking.
“I’ve done a little bit of everything,” he said as traffic thinned out between the Nashville area and the Alabama state line. “But I’ve always paid my bills and fed my family.”
Of all his jobs, Kincaid noted with a chuckle, mowing lawns proved the most profitable.
But besides law enforcement, he enjoyed driving a truck the most. He still does, even if he no longer gets paid for it and insists on covering his own expenses on disaster relief trips.
With calamities such as tornadoes, wildfires and hurricanes happening all too frequently across the U.S., Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort gives him plenty of opportunities to hit the road, he noted.
“I don’t care about a vacation, but I enjoy going places,” Kincaid said, explaining his motivation for driving the disaster relief truck to Panama City — after trips the previous two weeks to Jacksonville, N.C., and Wilmington, N.C., following Hurricane Florence.
“It’s church work, and it helps people,” he added.
Kincaid and his wife, Anita, have been married for 53 years. At the Rural Hill church, they are “bedrock members” who answer the call whenever a need arises, minister Dan Dozier said.
Dozier remembers that when Superstorm Sandy struck the Atlantic Seaboard in 2012, John Kincaid talked about the difficulty of navigating a semi-truck through all the big-city traffic in New Jersey.
“It was a real challenge,” Dozier said. “But he just does it and does it with a great heart.”
The Kincaids raised two sons and have lived in the same house for 51 years on rural property where John spends long hours in his auto-repair shop.
He especially loves working on old cars, from a 1950 Plymouth to a 1970 MG Midget. His current project is a 1973 Chevrolet Corvair (or it might be a 1974 model, he corrected).
Anita Kincaid makes sure her husband is well stocked with food and snacks for his road trips. Finding a place to park the big rig at restaurants can be difficult, and he doesn’t much care for truck stop food. So she buys individual packages of cookies, breakfast cereal and easy-to-open canned goods.
Friends occasionally tag along with John Kincaid, but he warns them that he takes a break only every few hundred miles and sometimes forgets to eat.
On the Panama City journey, he stopped to use the restroom at an Alabama rest stop at 7:53 p.m. and grabbed a quick bite to eat in a gas station parking lot at 10:46 p.m. — still 160 miles from the Emerald Coast, according to the GPS.
“One of the requirements for riding with me is you’ve got to like Beanie Weenies and Vienna sausages,” quipped Kincaid, sipping an ice-cold Diet Mountain Dew that he pulled from a cooler beside his seat.
By that time, Kincaid had cleared the big cities of Birmingham and Montgomery. He exited Interstate 65 for a series of lesser-known highways.
Eventually, two-lane blacktop took him past cotton fields, pecan orchards and grazing horses on the way to the Florida state line, which he hit at 12:54 a.m.
“We done got out in the country,” joked Kincaid, still wide awake after a two-hour nap that afternoon.
At the Jenks Avenue church, Kincaid snoozed for not quite five hours before awaking at 7:30 a.m.
The morning light revealed trees twisted like toothpicks and limbs covering the battered marquee sign in front of the church building.
Kincaid munched a few handfuls of homemade trail mix — nuts, raisins and chocolate morsels — before calling the contact listed on his inventory sheet: Jenks Avenue minister Daniel Cherry.
After Hurricane Michael, the scene was “post-apocalyptic — just everything you’ve seen in the movies.”
Cherry, his wife, Rachael, and their three children had waited out the storm the previous week in their home in nearby Lynn Haven, Fla.
As they sought God’s protection, the family of five and 12 guests who huddled with them prayed and sang songs such as “Sing and Be Happy,” “God Is So Good” and “Awesome God.” The men blocked the front door with furniture as oak trees lifted off the ground and fences collapsed in the wind.
Afterward, Daniel Cherry said, the scene was “post-apocalyptic — just everything you’ve seen in the movies.”
The church, which averages Sunday attendance between 350 and 400, had prayed for God to open a door to serve the community in an awesome way, Rachael Cherry said.
They just didn’t expect the Lord to do so in the form of a hurricane just 2 mph shy of a Category 5 storm, she said.
But in Michael’s wake, the church transformed its family activity center into a disaster relief hub— despite insulation visible through suddenly gaping holes in the roof.
The first Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort truck arrived just three days after the storm. A second truck — the one driven by Kincaid — came a few days later as the original food and supplies quickly disappeared.
In all, Churches of Christ Disaster Relief — which relies on 18 volunteer drivers — has dispatched about a dozen tractor-trailer rigs to locations devastated by Hurricane Michael.
“We’ve given away a lot, but they keep coming in and supplying us with more.”
Other drop-off sites include the Palo Alto Church of Christ in Panama City; the Franklin County Church of Christ in Eastpoint, Fla.; the Church Street Church of Christ in Blakely, Ga.; the U.S. 19 Church of Christ in Albany, Ga.; the Caverns Road Church of Christ in Marianna, Fla.; and the Goodson Road Church of Christ in Camilla, Ga.
“We’ve given away a lot, but they keep coming in and supplying us with more, so it doesn’t look like we’ve given away anything. It’s a good thing,” said Sandy Holley, a Jenks Avenue church volunteer, voicing gratitude for Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort and other relief ministries and individual Christians.
Jenks Avenue church member Kenneth Jordan, a Vietnam veteran who retired from the Air Force, cried as he surveyed the damage at the church and reflected on fellow Christians who had lost homes and possessions.
“Just seeing my church family like this is rough. It’s truly rough,” Jordan said, wiping tears from his cheeks. “But the good Lord will replace it all. Just as long as nobody got hurt, you know — that’s what counts.”
While nobody in the Jenks Avenue church family was killed, Michael claimed at least 39 lives — including 29 in Florida.
Jordan reluctantly availed himself of some of the food and supplies given to the church, even though his preference was to leave them for other people.
“But they said, ‘If you need something, go ahead and take it,’” he said, exiting the family activity center with MREs — which stands for “meal, ready-to-eat” — like he used to consume in the military.
He and his wife, Frances, keep telling everybody in their clobbered neighborhood, “Hey, if y’all need something, come down to the church.”
After Kincaid’s call, Daniel Cherry and his 14-year-old son, Corbin, arrived quickly at the church.
The preacher guided Kincaid to the best place to position the tractor-trailer rig. Church volunteers — including deacon Austin Boyd, who brought his forklift-equipped tractor — showed up and began unloading the boxes shortly after 8:30 a.m.
Others focused on clearing debris at the church pavilion to make way for a tent to serve as a launching pad for relief volunteers who will be needed during Panama City’s recovery.
“It’s going to be a long journey,” Daniel Cherry said as he thanked Kincaid.
At 10:13 a.m. — his trailer empty and the church volunteers preparing for victims to arrive at the resource center at 11 — Kincaid waved goodbye.
He cranked his engine once again.
“On the road again,” he said, winking. “We ought to make a song about that.”
Just after 8 p.m. that night — roughly 27 hours after his journey started — he arrived back at the ministry’s Nashville headquarters.
The final odometer reading: 201,482. (He took a slightly shorter route on the return.)
Kincaid completed his paperwork, dropped the truck keys in the proper compartment and slipped back into the warehouse to grab one more Nestle Drumstick vanilla caramel sundae cone before heading home.
“I’m tired,” he acknowledged.
However, he planned to read for a couple of hours — a Western novel by Louis L’Amour — before going to sleep.
“It’ll take me a couple of days to recover,” he said of the exhausting road trip.
But after that, he was certain he’d be ready to go again.
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