As October 11 dawned, the newly risen sun shed light on the total destruction that was now our home. The devastation was widespread and relentless in its presence. Everywhere I looked I encountered nothing but carnage. Michael had forever altered the landscape of the city I was born in and had called home for the majority of my life.
Thursday, October 11, dawned bright and cool after the storm. The sky a brilliant blue canvas against a foreground of utter and complete destruction.
Early that morning, as soon as the curfew was lifted, my husband and brother-in-law departed in John’s Jeep to go check on our homes in The Cove. The kids and I remained in our shelter waiting anxiously for their return.
Aid was already pouring into the area and search and recovery was well underway. Preliminary reports cited the Mexico Beach area as the hardest hit. The expected storm surge, which we in Panama City, were grateful to have escaped, had devastated the small gulf front community.
The once picturesque resort town was simply gone. Homes, businesses, miles of pristine coastline destroyed. The wall of water Michael had brought with him swept homes, restaurants, and other local businesses off their foundations and out to sea. They’d simply vanished in the deluge.
We heard similar reports out of the Tyndall Air Force Base and the Callaway area where the eye of the storm had crossed. In Panama City, I could see the destruction out the window of our safe haven. Juxtapositioned against the beautiful blue sky, the carnage seemed unreal. Trees were blown over at their roots, others snapped in to like twigs, all bare of the leaves that had adorned them just the day before. My site line was extensive as there were no billboards, power poles or trees to block my view.
I could see buildings without roofs. Others with downed limbs and in some cases, entire trees, resting on what remained of their structures. It looked, I imagined, like a bomb had been detonated leaving nothing but destruction in its wake. I prepared myself for John’s return and the news he would bring.
The Cove, located on a peninsula-like stretch of land near downtown Panama City, was home to numerous oak and other indigenous trees, some three to four hundred years old. I knew our home stood a good chance of having been crushed under the weight of one of the many large trees on our property. At the moment though, knowing my family was safe, none of that really mattered.
At midday, after hours of anxious waiting, John and my brother-in-law, Keith, returned. I’ll never forget the look on their faces. Shocked doesn’t even begin to describe the look that greeted us on their return. Solemn, shaken, quiet, they relayed what they had witnessed.
Downed trees had prevented them from entering The Cove any other way but on foot. They’d set out, hiking into the area, climbing over and through trees, power poles with downed lines everywhere, and piles of debris. The humidity rose as the morning progressed, making for an arduous trek.
Both conveyed that at times they didn’t even know where they were. Instead, taking the time to uncover downed street signs in order to get their bearings.
Their first stop, to check on John’s brother, Steve, who had ridden out the storm in his home near ours. We feared the worst.
Gratefully, Steve made it through just as we had, although the first words out of his mouth, “If there’s ever a next time, I’m outta here, Cat 1, 2, even a tropical storm, I’m never doing this again.” We’d hear that a lot over the next days, and felt the same ourselves. Once in my lifetime was more than enough.
Steve’s truck was buried under piles of limbs and debris, but his house was intact with minor damage. Their mom’s house, right next door was also standing. The guys dug their way to the front door to check inside so they could report back to Mom, who was with me at the Surgery Center. A lot of downed trees, damage to her carport, busted glass from a window in her kitchen, and her large storage shed in the back pretty much obliterated. However, she still had a viable roof over her head and a home to return to, so much luckier than many families we would soon discover.
After leaving Mom’s, John and the guys split up so Keith could check his home a block over from ours on the water. John made his way slowly to our street. Watching the video he captured of his trek into our neighborhood brought me to tears. I didn’t know what I was looking at for most of it. Familiar landmarks, gone. If someone asked me, I would have assured them I was looking at a war-ravaged city, the remains stark and grisly. It was heartbreaking.
As John crept up our street, he ran into neighbors wandering the street in shock just as he was. He turned his camera toward our house. I held my breath.
Next Installment: The Aftermath of Michael Hits Close to Home