‘Salvage Santa’ redoubles holiday efforts to help storm-ravaged Panama City

Normally the retired cop gathers enough over the year to help 800 to 1,000 kids. But this year, he’s partnering with Bay District Schools to stock enough toys for 14,000.
Published December 17 2018
Updated December 17 2018

PANAMA CITY — Two months after one of the strongest hurricanes on record passed over Mike Jones’ house, half the structure sits mangled and exposed to the cool north Florida temperatures.

Like the rest of the people who live in and around this port town, Jones is trudging toward recovery from Hurricane Michael. The October storm left in its wake blue-tarped roofs and piles of debris lining nearly every city block.

But Jones’ property stands out amid the wreckage. Two workshops housed machinery to repair bikes and tools to fix dolls. A green mailbox next to the front door tied it all together. “North Pole Post,” it read.

Jones, 65, has another name in these parts: “Salvage Santa.”

The identity arose from his decades of fixing up damaged toys and handing them out to children in need at Christmastime. Normally, he gathers enough over the year for 800 to 1,000 children. But this year, he’s partnering with Bay District Schools to stock toys for 14,000 kids. He’ll be handing them out with a crew of elf-like volunteers during a five-day giveaway event starting Monday.

Since the call went out on social media last month, donations have rolled in from near and far, including a bicycle salvage group from the Tampa area called Bikes for Christ. On a crisp December morning, over the span of an hour, half a dozen locals came by Jones’ house bearing dolls, bikes and helmets.

“The ones that are staying here in Panama City — they got big hearts,” Jones said. “It’s coming from everywhere.”

RELATED: Hurricane season is over but Panama City is still digging out

Salvage Santa's origins trace back to 40 years ago when Jones, a retired police officer, worked as a child abuse investigator for the Panama City Police Department.

In his off time, he worked security at Sears. During one shift, he stumbled onto a hydraulic machine in the back of the store that was crushing faulty toys.

He asked the manager for a few damaged Monopoly sets, figuring he could combine the parts to make one whole game. The manager said sure, and Jones became Bay County’s own Santa Claus.

The gig landed him a spot on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show in 1995 and, more recently, a web series hosted by Mike Rowe, the former star of Dirty Jobs on Discovery.

He has earned acclaim for his work in law enforcement, too.

In December 2010, during a School Board meeting Jones was attending, the husband of a former district employee walked into the meeting with a gun and fired at the superintendent and several board members. The shooter, Clay Duke, missed, then he and Jones engaged in a gun battle. They exchanged 18 rounds before Duke turned his gun on himself. No one else was hurt, and Jones was lauded as a hero for intervening.

Jones works as the school district’s safety and security chief, a job that required him to stay in town during Hurricane Michael. He rode it out at his house with his wife and their two granddaughters, 4 and 9. His family knelt in the hallway with bean bags on top of them while Jones stood up with a pillow, awaiting the worst.

He watched as the pull-down stairs to the attic wooshed open from wind pressure. The air rushed down the hallway to the kitchen, where a fallen tree had punctured the roof. It sucked out everything, Jones said, “like a giant vacuum cleaner.”

“I’d rather go through a dozen of them shootings than another hurricane,” he said.

Jones grew emotional talking about the cedar home he bought at 19 and painstakingly made into his own over the years, decorating with vintage signs, gas pumps and barber chairs.

A chunk of his neighbor’s metal roof blew into a small pond Jones had dug for his wife. The storm ripped off walls on a two-story addition Jones built and where his son had been living. Jones used to grow green beans in a garden behind the workshops and can them for later. Now, the garden is just dirt.

The family has been living in the kitchen and two back bedrooms. For weeks, they relied on Jones' daughter-in-law in Alabama to bring them gas for their generator. They snaked well water through their washing machine hookup.

Now, they’ll live in two campers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency while a contractor works on rebuilding the house.

Both workshops, too, sustained roof damage. The metal roof on his bike workshop was replaced quickly as to not damage the machinery inside, but the house of dolls next door is covered only with a blue tarp. Meantime, a warehouse where Jones had been storing refurbished bikes and some toys was looted.

“I hope they’re proud. I would feel guilty,” Jones said, then paused. “Maybe that’s what they have to do. It’s desperate times right now.”

Since the storm and the calls for help on social media, people have delivered toys and bikes to their front porch nearly every day. As of last week, Jones was at 12,000 to 15,000 toys and 800 to 900 bikes. He’s still accepting donations.

“It’s kind of like Christmas every day,” said his wife, Colleen Jones, 54. “We never know what we’re going to come home to.”

Pat Simmons, founder of Dover-based Bikes for Christ, heard about Jones’ story on Facebook and reached out to him.

“Once I got off the phone, I was like, ‘I just talked to Santa Claus,’” said Simmons, 50.

Simmons’ organization donates fixed-up bikes to kids, veterans and people who are homeless in the Tampa Bay area. This year, they’re also driving up to Jones’ house in a truck packed with about 100 bikes.

One Panama City couple, Pat and Russ Goodrow, saw Jones on the news in the weeks after the storm. Pat Goodrow’s lifelong Barbie doll collection had been spared by the hurricane in a shed in the backyard. She decided it was time to let another girl have fun with them.

The Goodrows rolled up to Jones’ house one recent morning, the dolls inside a box in the trunk, as Jones talked with his wife in their front yard.

“We’re going to build a house, baby, you can bet on that,” he said. “We just got to get through Christmas first.”

Contact Kathryn Varn at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.

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