Officers return from Panhandle changed by the experience

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More than 30 officers from agencies around the Bay Area returned after helping residents in the Panhandle recover from Hurricane Michael.

"You saw a hole, and you filled it, without hesitation," one supervisor told them as they gathered at a rest stop along I-75 to debrief.

They were sent two weeks ago, assigned to patrol streets, gas stations and keep potential looters at bay. 

But they soon learned their real job was to be a shoulder to cry on.

"Their house once was a half mile down the road but it was actually in front of us at that time," said Tampa Police Cpl. Adam Strickland.

Sgt. Kim Hill helped patrol gas stations.

"They tell you about losing everything," she said. "My biggest takeaway was the way the community came together. Especially in Bay County, it was just shocking, people who have lost everything."

The officers who were dispatched from TPD, TIA, USF and Plant City did make several arrests, mostly of people violating curfew. 

The chief says the trip is also a learning experience in case a hurricane happens here.

"We chose people who are going to be with the department, who will be here for quite some time," said Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan. "It was used as an opportunity for them to be better prepared when this happens here in Tampa."

Indeed, officers learned to patrol areas where boundaries of streets no longer existed.

"You see full-size semis turned on their sides and thrown down the road. We saw a train that was derailed," said Strickland. "The amount of power it took to do that was incredible. Cars looked like they were Tonka toys."