It wasn’t at all how they had pictured their October wedding, the one they had been planning and dreaming about for over a year.
A hurricane had just roared through the sleepy Florida Panhandle town of Mexico Beach. The two-story beach house Bryon Hughes and Cori Clark had rented for their guests was unrecognizable. All that was left behind was a brick stoop used on their wedding day to sit on and pose for their wedding pictures.
The bride, a detective with the Panama City Police Department, was on duty when the storm hit.
The groom, a veteran firefighter who now volunteers with the Mexico Beach Fire Department, was looking after their house in Calloway and assisting in clearing nearby roads.
It would be 9 hours before they would see each other. “It seemed like a million years”, said Hughes.
The basement of the Mexico Beach Fire Department flooded, ruining their gear. The department has since set up a GoFundMe to replace the ruined equipment.
The couple worked around the clock in the days after the storm, only breaking away for half a day to look after their own home, which sustained substantial damage to the roof.
At first, they canceled their wedding. But they changed their minds as the date they had picked out grew closer.
Five years before, Hughes and Clark had been introduced by Michael Laramore, the former Fire Chief in the nearby town of Springfield.
As it turned out, another Michael would cement their future together.
Nearly two weeks after the Category 4 hurricane pummeled the area, Hughes and Clark exchanged vows in Mexico Beach, standing on top of a mountain of rubble by the waterfront.
“This hurricane has taken a lot from us. I refuse to let it take our wedding day,” Clark remembers Hughes saying to her one morning.
“We finally said enough was enough, and we had to get some good out of it,” said the groom.
The ceremony wasn’t how they envisioned it — but it ended up being a testament to their love, their resourcefulness, and the support of their community.
On Sunday, a handful of members from their newly acquired first responder family, from several law enforcement agencies in the area assisting in the ground zero operations, showed up to celebrate the couple.
They exchanged vows surrounded by a few bridesmaids and groomsmen who could make it, alongside first responders who were added to the wedding party on the spur of the moment.
The bride’s mother had evacuated to Texas and was unable to attend her daughter’s wedding. Her dad was able to fly in from Colorado the night before the big day.
On the other side of the aisle, the groom had his brother standing by him.
But it would be the moment the groom saw the bride that would be the most moving.
The bride had originally planned to wear a dress passed down through three generations of her family. The groom rented a tuxedo, complete with a rose-colored bow tie, to match his intended’s accessories.
But after the storm, the shops where their outfits were waiting were now inaccessible. So they had to improvise.
On the day of the ceremony, the groom proudly wore his Mexico Beach firefighter uniform.
Hughes said he expected to see his bride also in uniform.
But he was in for a surprise — before the storm, Clark had ordered a backup dress online, and it arrived just in time for the wedding.
“Turning around and seeing in her in the dress was a little more than I could choke back,” Hughes recalled. “I tried to be the big burly fireman but even I teared up for that.”
The rings they had planned to exchange were stranded at a jewelry store that they couldn’t reach after the storm.
Instead, they exchanged Clark’s grandparents’ wedding rings.
Hughes hopes that in a year’s time, they can celebrate their first anniversary with their loved ones, possibly even reciting their vows again for the family and friends to witness for the first time.