USA TODAY’s drone fleet shows the devastation in Mexico Beach, Florida in the wake of Hurricane Michael.
Maureen Kenyon and Ricardo Rolon, TC PALM
An African tortoise by the name of Brooks — a celebrity of sorts in rural Cottondale, Florida — caused plenty of heartache and worry when he wandered away from home in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael.
Before the storm made landfall Oct. 10, Brooks and his brother Zoe Zoe lived happily at Barfield’s Produce on Main Street, dining on salad twice a day and posing for pictures with customers and tourists alike. They got lots of love from the Barfield family, who own the produce business along with a country store.
The hurricane caused major damage to both businesses, half-demolishing the store in Cottondale. Clint Barfield, who got the tortoises five years ago, decided to move them to his 500-acre farm for safety and keep them in a makeshift pen.
A couple of weeks later, while Barfield and his wife Rhonda were out, Brooks managed to squeeze past a loose board in the pen and get away. After the Barfields discovered him missing, they launched a full-scale effort to find him, scouring their cotton fields on foot and by four-wheeler.
“We hunted for the tortoise like it was a missing child,” said Rhonda Barfield. “Even after we didn’t find him, we would walk the fields for weeks looking for him. We love him a lot. He is just as sweet as he can be.”
Oct. 2018: Hurricane Michael batters Southeast
There was no sign of Brooks. But the search continued —slow and steady.
“A lot of people know them,” Clint Barfield said of his pet reptiles. “Half the town — all the people around where I live — they all knew that Brooks had escaped. And everyone always kept an eye out.”
Winter arrived. The Barfields became convinced their beloved tortoise, who was accustomed to the warmth of a heat lamp, wouldn’t survive the cold. They figured they’d never see him again. Even Zoe Zoe seemed to take it hard, refusing to eat much of anything for a month.
“We had absolutely given up,” Rhonda Barfield said.
But that all changed five months after the hurricane.
A week or so ago, the waist-high cotton plants damaged during Michael were mowed down on the Barfield’s farm. Not long after that, a man who works for the family spotted something in the barren field and stopped to check it out.
It was a mound of excavated dirt and an opening to a burrow. Sitting on top was none other than Brooks himself. The man collected the elusive tortoise and called Clint Barfield to share the news.
“He said, ‘You’re not going to believe this — I’ve got Brooks,’ ” Clint Barfield said. “I about fell out.”
Brooks and Barfield were quickly reunited. The tortoise had lost weight but seemed glad to be home.
“When I picked him up, he just stuck his neck out and he was like, ‘I know you,’ ” he said.
Zoe Zoe was a bit standoffish with his lost sibling at first. But they’re sleeping shell by shell once again at the produce store, which was repaired and reopened.
“I’m on Cloud Nine,” Clint Barfield said. “I can’t believe our tortoise is back. It’s just a nice little miracle after the craziness of this hurricane.”
Follow Jeff Burlew on Twitter: @JeffBurlew.
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