East Coast towns battened down the hatches as Hurricane Irene reaped havoc in the summer of 2011, and the community of Cape Hatteras took the brunt of the storm’s torrential winds and rain; Irene was declared the worst natural disaster the area had ever experienced. As the population of 5,000 began counting their losses and figuring out where to begin, Petty Officer 3rd Class Tonya Midgett, a Cape Hatteras native, dove head-first into planning a relief process for the entire community.
“Growing up in this environment we are used to hurricanes and the troubles that tend to come with them. However, this turned out not to be something that anyone could really be prepared for,” said Midgett. “Most homes tend to sit 4 to 5 feet off the ground if not more. Even at this height when you are standing in your living room with water above your knees watching the furniture bob up and down…it’s a bit surreal.”
Her main focus centered on saving homes from almost total destruction. Midgett and a five-man crew from a local construction company had one main mission: gut houses. It is a detailed process that requires multiple hands on deck tearing down walls, floors and setting up necessary drainage. In all, their work after putting in non-stop 15-hour days at gutting homes salvaged a total of eight houses.
“We cleaned, tore down and rebuilt what we could when we could. What is most important is how fortunate we all were that there was no loss of life and all that was lost can be replaced or rebuilt,” said Midgett. “It’s true that time heals all and the bonds formed through this experience will last a lifetime.”
Over two months, Midgett oversaw and led a variety of other projects to aid Cape Hatteras. Because the local ferry was destroyed from the hurricane, Midgett arranged for a new ferry to transport much needed supplies from the American Red Cross. She also anticipated the needs of community members, and organized shelter locations for 20 families while their homes were renovated. Knowing many families were stricken with financial debt during this time, Midgett also set up loan and financial services with local businesses and financial institutions.
Warren Judge, chairman of Dare County Board of Commissioners, worked closely with Midgett throughout the relief process. “Tonya answered the call to service in her community without hesitation and with compassion for her neighbors and friends. Recognizing Tonya already answers the most dedicated call to duty as a member of our Armed Forces, I want to say there is no greater service to your fellow man than to serve them at a time of disaster giving of one’s time without regard to your own personal need or peril. Dare County salutes Tonya Midgett and we are proud to call her our own; not only serving Dare County but the United States of America. God Bless Tonya Midgett,” said Judge.
Having heard of her efforts prior to Midgett arriving to her new duty station in Guam, Petty Officer 1st Class Joshua Grable, Station Apra Harbor executive officer, knew she should be recognized for her actions and reached out to the community she helped rebuild.
“We have talked about her actions during the hurricane a lot. I can honestly say she is very humble in her accounts. Her professionalism and leadership during that time is impressive. I am happy to have her as a member of my station,” said Grable.
There is no taking a break when helping those in peril, whether you are on or off duty. In all, Midgett performed more than 800 hours of community service spanning two months. She epitomizes what service in the Coast Guard is about – putting your community, and those in need, before yourself.
“I strongly feel people in my community looked to me not only because of my solid roots but they know that I am in the Coast Guard. Growing up on an Island with a surf station on either end, people trust and believe in what we do. While I did not know any of them at the time, it meant a lot to the people in my community to see the crew from Coast Guard Station Hatteras Inlet lending helping hands in those first few days. That in and of itself made me even more proud than usual to be a member,” Midgett said.