Residents of the Florida Panhandle say that hurricanes are the price we pay for living in Paradise. Most of the time we don’t give hurricanes much thought. We buy water and supplies just in case we lose power and water but we forget or ignore what other hurricanes have done. We send money to those affected by the storms but don’t believe it’ll ever happen to us. We’ve seen the effects of Global Warming and heard the dire warnings but we live in denial. Then it hits.
I’d given up watching the news for the weekend because of all of the gut-wrenching testimony in the Kavanagh hearing. My doctor had even suggested that I may have anxiety issues affecting my sleep so when a phone call from my friend woke me up on Monday before Hurricane Michael I was surprised the hear we were in its path. We debated what we would do and decided to go to a town an hour north since she could stay with a relative there. My other friends were smarter and headed west.
The morning of Hurricane Michael when I awoke at 10 am there was a message saying that her kids had made her leave much early. I decided to stay put since it was getting too late to outrun the fast-moving storm that had been upgraded to a possible Category 5 Hurricane when it hit the Panhandle. It hit my hotel as a Category 2, but my town, Panama City, was right in the path. After a night alone with my cat, I discovered there was still no power or cell service. I started out to look for gas. Gas was not to be found but I got cell service farther west and was able to book a room in Montgomery, AL. I decided I had to turn around and not waste any more gas. A gentleman gave me a cooler for my ice and another told me that I could call on him for help. Since Panama City was in turmoil and they weren’t letting anyone back. Tired and frightened I drove toward Alabama with my cat and was thrilled to see the lights on at a gas station so I could fill up. Exhausted from lack of sleep for three nights, I pulled into Montgomery and was thrilled to find the comfortable Drury Inn that allowed my cat to stay and even gave me free dinner, drinks, and breakfast. It was full of refugees from Hurricane Michael.
The next day kitty and I were back on the road on our way to Chattanooga where I was fortunate to find a relative who had room for my cat and me. I spent a week visiting with my family since I couldn’t get back to my condo and then I was lucky enough to have a friend who was going out of town and would let us stay in her home. She was glad to have someone there since there were looters roaming the area. Panama City Beach, where she lived, just got the edge of the storm so her house was unharmed. I’ll never be able to repay her enough for her generosity. Later my owners let me stay in their RV near Dothan, AL. I was thankful to have a place to stay that was much better than most displaced people.
Two months later when I finally was able to go back to my condo on St. Andrew’s Bay. After the hurricane we had a boat in our yard, a filthy pool, windows smashed and trees snapped in half. We didn’t get power for two weeks and then big dehumidifiers sucked out the moisture to avoid black mold and raised the temperature to over 100 degrees. The elevator didn’t work for almost a month but we were still some of the lucky ones.
If you look at the photos of my neighborhood, The Cove, you’ll see the devastation even after several weeks of clean-up. Mexico Beach and Tyndall Air Force Base were virtually blown away. Every time I went back to my condo I took a different route and each time my stomach was queasy by the time I got there. There were houses with trees through their roofs that FEMA considered livable. My FEMA inspector told me of a 90-year-old woman sitting in a destroyed home with her two developmentally delayed adults grandsons. He called a crisis center to help them. New parents went two hours away to deliver their baby and came back to a shelter. They said it was so bad they decided to stay in their truck in a Walmart parking lot. Security found them and got them a room for two weeks where employees were staying. One of those security guards gave me a hug in a DQ when I thanked them for coming from their home states to help us. There was an enormous police presence. State Troopers were everywhere to help. Restaurants served disaster workers and victims food. There were food and supply stations set up in many areas. Youth and other volunteers groups came in from all over North America. The lady who worked at the destroyed lab where I have my blood tests gave me her cell phone number in case I needed a blood test. Power companies sent workers from all over the U.S. I’ve never seen so many people offering services to those in need. FEMA helped many people but people are still waiting for help. Finally, some of the promised trailers arrived. A retired couple without insurance got $3000 for their destroyed mobile home that was worth $30,000+. Tent cities sprung up in parking lots and parks. One was later bulldozed after the CDC was called when a bacterial infection broke out. The victims were taken by bus to shelters in other cities or left to find another place to stay. Three power workers were killed by a car while repairing power lines. In one community it took residents five days to cut their way out to help. Where I live in the Cove a few blocks from Panama City it took four days. Sick people had to be airlifted out. One of our hospitals was so damaged only a quarter of it will reopen so 800 people are laid off. Five hundred people lost their jobs when the mall closed. The schools reported 3,800 students are homeless. Eighty percent of buildings are destroyed or severely damaged. Seventy-five percent of the trees are lost. There were forty-five storm-related deaths. These are just a few of the sad stories I heard.
There are people who will say that those in excavation zones should have left. I’m among them but I still feel their pain and understand they may have had good reasons for staying. Some just waited too long expecting Michael to turn or downgrade like Hurricane Harvey and were told the day of the hurricane it was too late to go. Most of us, like me, didn’t go far enough away because we wanted to get back to clean up after the storm.
Soon the volunteers will be gone and we’ll be on our own like the victims of Hurricanes Maria, Harvey, Florence and others. We’ll be better off than the people in Puerto Rico but we have years of rebuilding ahead of us. Since the beach was spared, tourism will flourish there again but our businesses and marinas just a few miles away are in ruins. Panama City has more residents in lower socio-economic groups who’ll have to wait for help that may not come and so like the victims of Hurricane Katrina will leave. Some can’t come back and businesses that are up and running are closing early and looking for workers. Who will fill those jobs? School didn’t start until November 12th so there’ll be much to make up before the useless but required standardized testing. All of these and many other things are results of Hurricane Michael and there will be more to come.
So remember when you see a natural disaster in the media and then the next news cycle comes up with a new story, the survivors are still suffering and need your help.
Thank you to all of you who have helped us. We appreciate it and will remember how you cared for us. The people of the Florida Panhandle will pay it forward when a disaster hits others. As the saying goes, you can make lemonade out of lemons as I did from lemons I found on a downed tree. I believe we’ve learned a lot that will help us in the future.
Continue the adventure!